I recently had a fascinating conversation with local actor and playwright, Fredric DeJaco, who closes as Scrooge this weekend at the Footlight Theatre, to find out why a veteran actor has decided to start writing plays in his early sixties. Fredric has completed five full length plays within the last year.
So Frederick how do you go about writing a play? I find places and interesting things that happen in these places which are filling my mind. The place is like a blank canvas. That’s where it starts, a place waiting for the arrival of brand new people; and, the color and values building within them.
You speak in terms of canvas and paint. Do you have a background in the visual arts? Only in the sense that I have an ancestry of parents and grandparents who were all visual artists, and when you look at it you begin to realize how you started, how we all started. Play writing is very much akin to sculpting, in that it involves taking away rather then adding.
So do you think that the process of writing a play is subtractive or additive? Perhaps it’s more like Pottery, in that you just throw something down and then you start into it, turn it into something which can be subtracted from, and at the same time, enlarged.
Do you ever work with outlines before you begin? I have an idea of where I’m going in my head but I get my direction from the characters.
When do characters start getting involved in your process? After I find a place I begin to slap people together and I see what they have to say to each other, even if it’s as simple as the potential of “hello.”
Do you use a lot of characters from your own personal experiences? Not identifiably, but certainly words that came from certain people, their traits. And I seem to have photographic memories of people and I can hear them talking back to me.
(Whispering) You hear dead people? Funny.
A lot of playwrights and other creatives think of themselves as channeling characters and people as if they’re speaking through them. How do you feel when a character starts speaking to you from their point of view and it’s not like yours? I have to step back and let them tell me where they’re going; what they want. I really enjoy improvising in my head with the various characters. To improv is to improve. From personal experience, I actually am more influenced by the strengths and talents of performers that I have seen who could readily give life to the character’s ideas that are evolving.
So do you find asking questions of your characters elicits an answer? Sure. Every conversation in someway elicits a question about what to do next. If I say something in a conversation its in order to answer the question, “did you understand what I just said?” It’s as if the characters are fighting to be heard. A fresh or original conversation is a cycle of deeper and deeper questions, leading to new ideas. Inquiry, and listening for the answer, is the process of discovery.
You mentioned your ancestry. How important is your ancestry, and the things your ancestors did, to what you are doing today? More important than it used to be, in the sense that I didn’t realize how many interesting people there are among my ancestors. We all would do well to know more about our ancestors because I really do think there is a gene that is passed on from generation to generation which influences what we’re best at; they help us understanding who we are. It’s all about improving upon the past, making things better.
If that’s true, you mentioned to me earlier that many of your ancestors were priests. How come you didn’t become a priest? Sex.
You began writing plays only in the last year. Why? I met the most inspiring and admirable playwright, Arlene Hutton/aka Beth Lincks. She describes herself as the “accidental playwright”- as she began writing in mid life to provide acting work for herself; and found that everything she’d ever done in theater had primed her for an almost seamless entry into her writing career. She speaks of her lack of formal training and how it came almost through osmosis but mostly through determination.
She had gone to New York early where she became a performer, director, producer, and even a member of the Wardrobe Union with ten years at SNL. After meeting with this dynamic woman, I left with the words “It’s never too late” tugging at the loose ends of a once desired writing career I had left behind in my twenties.
I found ideas rising up and soon decided that it was well worth the effort. Despite the rust and need to adjust my discipline, it was like embracing an old friend with lots of stories to tell. I thank God for that meeting; and, she remains an inspiration (her writing echoes within me).
So do you consider yourself an emerging playwright? Yes, I am emerging and it’s sad to think that because of my age I am not considered emerging. In our society, when you are in your later years you’re just considered old, not emerging. The shame of it is that we are throwing away all that life experience. Talent, whether your young or old, is our ability to communicate our connections to one another. To play. This ability improves with age. I hate that age, or race or other “differences” impede our ability to recognize that we are actually the same. One hopes, we live long enough, we begin to appreciate this connection.
What do you think those of us who are anticipating our later years can do about society tendency to pass over emerging, yet older artists? Well actually I believe we’re seeing some reactions where older people are organizing for collective action. Certain lobby groups such as AARP are getting into the arts and advocating for older artists. The Kentucky Arts council sponsored a grant for emerging senior playwrights. But there are certainly not enough opportunities for seniors to be taken seriously as artists. We can only hope this will change as our population ages.
Fredric DeJaco was brought up in the golden age of television, where many gifted stage writers of the time were produced- little screens but big stories. He used these quality stories; and, the time and isolation of a small Kentucky farm to develop a gift of imagination for use in the theater. He has attended, and graduated from Eastern Kentucky Univ. (BA); and, the University of Cincinnati (MA). He has also held early careers in arts management, technical theater, and an ongoing acting/singing career as an itinerant performer with many miles on the road.
In recent years he was based in the Wilmington, NC, due to its strong film and theater activity. But he has recently moved to Charleston, because of his love of the city, and to pursue his newly emerging desire to write for the stage.