Meet the Playwright: Nat Cassidy

Nat Cassidy has three full-length plays on Indie Theater Now, and has two more coming online soon. But Nat is also a fine actor, and in fact I first met him in that capacity, when he was appearing in a FringeNYC production of a play by Sara Farrington, The Rise and Fall of Miles and Milo. Currently, Nat is appearing off-Broadway in Retro Productions’ revival of Milan Stitt’s The Runner Stumbles. He took some time off from his busy schedule to chat with me about that show, and about the challenges and opportunities afforded by being an actor-playwright.

Here’s our cyber-conversation:

ME: Tell us a little about The Runner Stumbles. How does your character figure in the story? What made you want to play this character/do this play in the first place?

NAT: The Runner Stumbles is a two-act drama by Milan Stitt, which ran on Broadway in 1976 and was made into a film starring Dick Van Dyke in 1979 (it was, I believe, director Stanley Kramer’s last picture). It concerns the murder of a nun in a tiny Midwestern town in 1911, but want to see how I turn myself into the central role? Sure, you do.

The Runner Stumbles is part mystery and part memory play, set during a murder trial lead by a handsome young prosecuting attorney (Nat Cassidy). Through probing interrogations and brilliant cross-examinations, Cassidy handsomely delves into the matter until he handsomely exposes the not-at-all handsome truth and teaches the townsfolk an important lesson on the handsomeness of being handsome. Also, a priest wrestles with forbidden desire.

No, but really, it’s an achingly rendered story about the doomed love between a parish priest and a young nun, as well as the literal agony and ecstasy one experiences when trying to remain faithful to dogma. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking piece of work and, though the part of the Prosecutor is a rather peripheral one, I’d been really eager to work with Retro Productions for quite awhile–they do such good work and this production is no exception–so I jumped at the chance to be involved and I’m so glad I did.

ME: You are of course a playwright and director as well as an actor. Which of these disciplines is your favorite?

NAT: Oh, whichever one is bringing in more money. So currently they’re all at an even push.

Truthfully, it’s hard to say because, for me, they’re all very much interrelated. I’ve been acting since I was five years old so that’s pretty much been my identity my entire existence (despite having written stories, comedy sketches, and shitty novel-length monstrosities throughout my life, I didn’t really come to playwriting until I was about 24). To this day, I think the closest I come to contentment is when I’m onstage. It’s cliched as hell, I know, but there’s really just nothing like performing: inhabiting a role, turning something rehearsed into something spontaneous, simultaneously reveling in and staying ahead of a live audience’s response … It’s pretty damn sweet.

But, artistically, I gotta say I find playwriting to be the most fulfilling (and I look at directing as just another extension of the writing process). It’s not as immediately gratifying as acting can be (I’ve yet to find a good way to get applause after finishing writing a scene–my girlfriend just kinda smiles politely when I ask), it can be lonely and frustrating as hell … but, man, the possibilities alone are endless, the challenges even moreso, and the highs of really getting into the mechanics of a story and making it work just can’t be beat.

Like, just as a ferinstance, right now I’m working on scripts about a Kurosawa-esque ghost story about assassins in Sudan, a marital drama set on a space station, and an evening of horrifying monologues about a haunted house–and that’s just the stories I’m actively writing. I got loads of wacky ideas I’m just waiting to bite into. As an actor, I’d have to wait for one of those scripts to come along, but as a writer I can just say, “Fuck it, let’s make this happen.” It might not always work, but it keeps me engaged in a way that is far more sustainable than any acting job–the very nature of which is always temporary at best.

Plus, let’s be honest, the life of a writer can suck, but the life of an actor REALLY sucks. After having lived that life for literally decades, I’m enjoying the freedom.

The horrible, horrible freedom.

Oh, God, please, someone cast me in something.

(By the way, this doesn’t even address the fact that another big passion of mine–one I retreat to whenever the theatre world gets too annoying–er, difficult–is songwriting. But you can catch a pretty healthy and damned enjoyable sampling of some of those songs at the upcoming FringeNYC production of my newest script, SONGS OF LOVE: A THEATRICAL MIXTAPE, an evening of dark, twisted short plays and live music. Plug, plug, plug.)

ME: As a playwright, how does it feel to take on a role written by someone else? Does the playwright in you ever want to make edits to the role you’ve been given?

NAT: My background, and the bulk of my passion growing up, was classical theatre. I’ve been obsessed with Shakespeare since I was about 6 years old, so playing someone else’s role is nothing new. I always look at playing someone else’s role as participating in a grand tradition, actually. One I to which hope I get to see my own scripts contribute one day, as well.

In fact, I would say this predisposition gave me a habit opposite to the one in your question, and it’s a predisposition I’ve been trying to cure myself of for years now. As a classical actor, instead of performing a role and wanting to make dramaturgical edits, you’re much more inclined to try to figure out how to make everything work as is. The reason I’m trying to rid myself of this habit is, as a writer/director, this leads me sometimes to encounter a moment in a script I’m producing and instead of thinking, “Well, shit, this isn’t working; what needs to be operated on?” I find myself going, “No, no, this is an idiosyncrasy that must be embraced! We’ll fucking make it work!”

Thankfully, as a director, I think I’m actually pretty good at making things work, but if we’re ever going to get a Nat Cassidy script with a commercial run-time … well, like I said, I’m workin’ on it.

ME: How does being an actor inform how you write plays? Does the actor in you ever make suggestions to the playwright when you are writing?

NAT: Hugely. In fact, I’d say I rarely trust a playwright who’s not at least at one point been an actor him/herself. Everything I learned about writing plays came from performing in them and I often tend to create characters by envisioning the scenario and thinking, “What would I want to happen if I were onstage here?”

You can see it in my scripts pretty clearly, I think. I mean, I write plays as an actor-who-directs, so there are a lot of performance notes throughout. I try to limit them so as to not be annoying, and I’m always very, very keen to have the given actor try new things, but I also have a kind of particular style and many times the way a line is said is just as important to me as the words themselves for how it contributes to the internal logic of the dialogue I’m trying to establish.

That was just a very highfalutin way of saying I’m a pain in the ass, I think.

ME: When you write plays, do you write parts specifically for yourself? What’s your favorite role as an actor in one of your plays? What’s your favorite role as an actor, period?

NAT: I actually don’t anymore, and I count that as one of the significant moments of growth in my development as a writer. ‘Cause, believe me, that wasn’t always the case …

When I was a kid and first started trying my hand at writing fiction (i.e., aping Stephen King for reams at a time), it was with the hilariously level-headed intention of boosting my fledgling acting career by starring in the inevitable film adaptations. That obviously panned out exactly as expected.

Then, the first playscript I wrote, in 2006, was an adaptation of John Fowles’ novel The Collector, which I did specifically to give myself a role at a time when I was really dissatisfied with the things I was/wasn’t getting cast in. This was followed by the first original full-length script I wrote, The Reckoning of Kit and Little Boots, which had TWO roles I wanted to play. Thankfully, I was talked out of playing both at the same time and just stuck with playing Christopher Marlowe.

However, by that point, I had really fallen in love with the process of writing and found that the show I wrote directly after that, Any Day Now, had not a single role for me whatsoever. It was simply a story that I wanted to tell — I remember being quite surprised by that realization, and then feeling somehow freed. I also knew that it was kind of a point of no return. Kinda like when you date a wealthy dowager with the intention of just getting into her will and then bumping her off, but then you find yourself suddenly falling in love with her irascibly old fashioned ways.

So, since Any Day Now, there have been roles that I could conceivably play (less and less as I try to move far away from youngwhitemales), but I’m so intent on directing my premieres that I don’t even consider it an option, even in developmental readings. I am really not of the opinion that one should direct oneself in a theatrical production if it can be at all avoided.

The obvious exception, of course, would be my one-man show, but for that I made sure to get a damn fine director whose work I trusted (DeLisa M. White, hire her, hire her)–and, by default, either that role or Marlowe would have to be my favorite role I’ve written and played. Luckily, they’re both damn good roles, so I can stick by that pretty confidently.

As an actor in general, though, I hate to sound so frigging trite, but my favorite roles I’ve played are the oldies. Hamlet, Henry VI, Iago, Puck, Bottom, Jaques, et cetera, et cetera. You can take the boy out of the Shakespeare, but you can’t take the Shakespeare out of the boy.

That’s true, you know. He wrote several sonnets on that very subject.

(January 22, 2013)