Each month Brian James Polak (he/him) talks to playwrights about the things usually left unsaid. In conversations that dive into life’s muck, we learn what irks, agitates, motivates, inspires and—ultimately—what makes writers tick.
This month’s subject is Oscar, Pulitzer, and Tony winner John Patrick Shanley. Though he may currently reside in Brooklyn, he is Bronx born and raised, and here he talks about a rough-and-tumble childhood growing up in the borough, where he often found himself caught up in a fist fight, and where a knife fight was a common occurrence.
He talks about how he has spent a lot of his life “scheming.” The scheme apparently has gone quite well for him, having written some of the defining works of American film and theatre.
An avid reader and writer as a child, he never imagined a future in the theatre. Indeed, he never imagined a specific future at all growing up. After high school he attended NYU for a year, but it didn’t go well and he ended up enlisting in the Marines. Fortunate to avoid being sent to Vietnam, he served stateside and afterwards re-enrolled at NYU with the help of the G.I. Bill. During his second stint at the university, he took a playwriting class and immediately knew it was wanted he wanted to do for his life.
So he started writing plays and having small productions here and there, receiving some positive feedback on his work. Years passed without a big break, but finally something clicked during a workshop for his play Welcome to the Moon. He realized what he needed to do with his writing was to tell the truth. The play that followed, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, changed the trajectory of his life and career.
He never considered himself a thinking person in his younger years, but he describes the work of his life as being “to become a fully rounded person.” Shanley talks about Carl Jung’s archetypes and how he looks back at his adolescence in relation to them. He says he’s found happiness in life, or, as he puts it, “The bastards can’t get at me” any more. “Most of my life I had a fantasy of meeting a wise old man who would tell me everything. And I more recently come to think I’ve been looking for myself.”
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