Nearly six years ago, an anonymous donor created the Todd McNerney Playwriting Competition for College of Charleston drama students. It was expanded to a national, full-length playwriting contest three years ago. James Still won this year’s honor, and a staged reading of his work, “The House That Jack Built,” will be presented at 3 p.m. today and Thursday in Theatre 220 as part of the Stelle Di Domani series at Piccolo Spoleto.
“It’s always exciting to see a script go from words on a page to real interactions between actors,” McNerney said about his experience of the festival’s playwriting contest. “I’m pleased that this play won because it’s an affirming story about life and moving forward, not looking back.”
Still’s extensive oeuvre includes television shows on Nickelodeon and Discovery Kids, and nearly 20 plays, two of which received nominations for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Post & Courier spoke with Still before he caught the red-eye from Los Angeles to Charleston about where he finds inspiration.
Q: How did you hear about the Todd McNerney award?
A: I think I read about it online with a list of other awards, and I thought I’d take a chance and submit “The House That Jack Built.”
Q You have written a lot of plays. Where do you find ideas?
A: To be honest, I don’t look for ideas, nor do I even think about plays in terms of ideas. Like a lot of writers, I have notebooks full of scribbles and filing cabinets full of folders with notes written on napkins and receipts and scraps of paper. It’s a kind of inventive soup that I live with all the time. ... Some of that stuff becomes plays. I’m talking about images, snippets of overheard dialogue, a word that might suddenly strike me in a particular way ... feelings, memories, quotes, music, a walk through a museum, going to a college basketball game — ah! I just remembered a dinner I had with friends two years ago.
Q: And that was your inspiration for “Jack”?
A: It was the summer, and one of my friends was leaving to take a big new job. We ate outside, and the conversations were overlapping, and there was lots of laughing and lots of crying and toasting our friendships. It was a dinner that was celebrating time — time spent together. I remember that night watching everything happening around me thinking that this was going to be in a play I was writing. That play became “The House That Jack Built.”
Q: What was different about writing this play?
A: I wrote this play completely in secret. I didn’t tell people what I was writing or what is was about. If pressed, I have always referred to “The House That Jack Built” as “my Chekhov play.” To me, that means it’s a play where you think nothing is happening and that it isn’t about anything in particular, but by the end you realize that everything is happening and it’s about everything. I don’t mean that glibly — I mean that it’s a play that doesn’t announce its intentions in all the obvious ways but still very much has something on its mind.
Q: What are some themes in “Jack”?
A: Like most of my plays, there are several strands at play in “The House That Jack Built.” There is a strand about loss and grief and how it lingers and works on people in different ways and times. Another thing I was interested in writing about was how even the most happy people can seem threatened by other people’s happiness. I think I also wanted to look at how long, loving relationships can be both a comfort and a liability and how hard it is to make changes in your life when people are depending on you to stay exactly the way they want you to be.
Q: Do have a vision of how it should be produced?
A: I always want my plays to be produced beautifully, deeply, passionately. I want the play to connect with audiences, knowing that different people will find access to the play through different characters or stories. I hope that “Jack” surprises the audiences who see it, that it challenges the artists who do it, and that somewhere between those dynamics something wonderful might happen.
Q: Do you find it difficult to write different voices for different characters?
A: If the characters all sound the same, I haven’t done my job. Some characters are more reluctant than others to reveal themselves to me, so in that way some characters can be more challenging to write, trickier to get at their real stuff. Sometimes I will beg a character to be more forthcoming, But eventually, somehow characters and their voices emerge. I’ve also learned over the years that some characters simply have less to say, which is different from them not being willing to step forward in my play.
Q: Are there differences between writing for TV and theater?
A: Yes and no. Both are about telling stories. But in my experience, TV usually happens faster and there’s more short-term pressure on the writer. TV can feel more like a sprint, theater more like a marathon (in terms of the writer’s process). Often there are also more cooks in the kitchen when it comes to TV, and that can be a particular challenge. But theater is a collaborative art as well, though somehow in the theater that writer retains his/her voice. I’ve loved working in both mediums.
Q Have you spent time in Charleston? If so, what’s your favorite part of the city?
A: I have never been to Charleston! So if any of your readers want to make suggestions or give me a tour, let me know. I’m really looking forward to being in Charleston for three days. I will be there for both of the readings, and then hope to see more of Charleston on Friday before flying out that night. My guess is that I will leave hoping to come back.
Lauren Smart is a Newhouse School graduate student.