An Interview with Dramatist Paul Elliott By Janis Butler Holm
Guest author Janis Butler Holm interviews theatrical talent Paul Elliott as a pillar of the L.A. theater scene adapting to Covid-19 and more.
PAUL ELLIOTT is an actor, director, and respected television and screenwriter who has written, produced, and/or directed over sixty television shows. In addition, he has written, produced, and/or directed more than fifty theatrical plays, including live entertainment spectaculars for theme parks around the world. Writing for the stage is his first love.
JANIS BUTLER HOLM has served as Associate Editor for Wide Angle, the film journal, and currently works as a writer and editor in sunny Los Angeles. Her prose, poems, and performance pieces have appeared in small-press, national, and international magazines. Her plays have been produced in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.
Janis Butler Holm: One of the interesting things I find in interviewing writers is the timing of their passion for what they do—when they become committed to a particular way of being in the world.
For example, I began my academic career in literary history but turned to creative writing after my scholarly edition of a sixteenth-century English maidenhood manual was published—not a move that my educational training could have predicted!
When did you know that theater was going to be central to your life?
Paul Elliott: From the time I was in first grade and cast in a Tom Thumb wedding as the groom, I was interested in acting. (In Tom Thumb weddings, children acted out the marriage ceremony in miniature wedding pageants. When I was a child, these were quite popular in the South.) It took a few more years of doing school plays before I was asked to appear on an adult stage—in the opening and closing numbers for the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—at the Nashville Community Theatre, which had a great reputation and its very own theater, an old vaudeville house with over five hundred seats. From this point, I was completely hooked—and spent every evening, from seventh grade through high school, either acting or rehearsing—doing at least four shows a year. Luckily, I was small for my age and could play much younger, so if any play called for children or preteens, I could offer singing, dancing, and acting. Working in the theater in Nashville also introduced me to early television, and I was one of the first calls made when New York variety shows came to town and needed kids.
JBH: Did your subsequent schooling give you opportunities for acting? Were your parents supportive? Your fellow students?
PE: My father was a pediatrician who had a great reputation and his own clinic. Of the four boys in our family, I was the one who he decided was to follow in his footsteps and take over his practice when he retired. Nobody ever contradicted my father—except me. We had a mutual hatred of each other from early on. "Hatred" is a strong word, but in my young teenager's mind, it was pretty accurate. If he said something was black, I’d say it was white—and then prove it. This contrarian attitude really ticked him off. If he said I was to be a doctor, I was determined not to be, so he was not impressed by my wanting to be an actor.
In fact, my father did whatever he could to discourage it. He couldn't stand my working in “drammer,” as he called it, and being around all those theater people. And to make his point abundantly clear, he never saw a single performance of anything I appeared in—which, looking back, was sad because I was lucky enough to have the lead in a number of very good productions. From seventh grade until I had my own car, my poor mother was the Trojan through all this, quietly driving me to rehearsals and picking me up at 10:30 in the evenings to bring me home. There she always had a treat for me, usually diced oranges sprinkled in sugar or cookies likewise sprinkled. (We were Southern through and through.)
I finally had a growing spurt my junior year—went from my 78-pound, 4'11" frame to a whopping 98-pound 5'7"—so in most photos from that period, I still look years younger than everybody else. As a means of self-preservation in a jock-focused school, I became the class clown, everybody’s friend but nobody’s first choice for anything.
In high school, students were divided into three groups: the in-crowd, the out-crowd, and the “nobodies.” The in-crowd were the most popular: football players, cheerleaders, student body leaders, and the best looking. The out-crowd were that group who met in the alley behind the school to smoke and to talk about who they had felt up the night before. (I always believed that they not only talked about sex but had actually had sex.) The “nobodies” were just that—losers even in their own eyes. They should have been called the “joiners,” as they would join anything in order to feel as if they were really a part of the student body. They made up the library staff, the band, the drill team, the drama club, and any other organization through which they could feel they belonged and get their picture in the annual. We wouldn’t necessarily get to lead the club, but we could belong. Hell, we’d even make up names for new clubs just so we could belong to them, such as The Royal Order of Caspric Castle, which was really a self-made club for nerds who ran the slide projectors in the classroom. I was definitely in the last of the three groups. I was definitely a joiner.
JBH: Did you have theatrical opportunities in college? Did you do postgraduate study?
PE: When it came to looking for a college, and in spite of my father’s disdain, I pretty much had my choice, financially, but I realize now that I had become more and more insecure and depressed during my final high school years. There were a lot of factors, including my father’s constant put-downs and my small size.
To make matters worse, I had also begun to secretly question my sexuality, though I didn’t really know what the question was. I just knew I was not like anyone around me in high school and was afraid college would prove even worse.
By the time of graduation from high school, I was in bad shape. Thank goodness drugs were not popular at that time, or I would have probably taken a fatal overdose. The only time I felt halfway normal was when I was on the stage or working on some theatrical production—I could literally lose myself in the roles I played.
I chose to become a theater major in a small Presbyterian college in Maryville, Tennessee, because, in 1959, it had just built a state-of-the-art theater center and I thought being a big fish in a small pond might be better than being a nonexistent fish in a big pond. And that proved to be true. The program was run by a Ms. Kathleen Craven with technical direction under E. Parker Dupler, both real taskmasters. I could literally spend eighteen hours a day in the theater with its four major productions a year plus a musical and dozens of student productions. This meant total immersion in the theater program, which is exactly what I wanted. When not performing, I was helping to design and build sets, or directing other student productions. And those activities were on top of the other college classes I was required to take. It was at Maryville that I was first encouraged to start writing, so I literally threw together my first full-length original musical comedy with a couple of friends, and we got to produce it with full set and costumes. It was a heady experience, and I didn’t have time to think of anything else. I loved being in that theater program and doing summer stock theater at Flatrock Playhouse, the state theater of North Carolina, during the summers. I was working nonstop, always on, always wanting to be the best—and probably driving everyone else crazy in the process!
Flash forward to a few years later. My world came crashing down. I walked off the stage one night and woke up five days afterward in the hospital. There is only so fast a person can run to avoid facing himself before he hits a wall. And I was running terribly fast. By the time I graduated, I had somehow accumulated two degrees, one in theater and the other in special education from George Peabody College, with an extra year thrown in at the State University of Iowa.
I did learn, though, that you can’t run away from being gay. The medical choices offered me at that time were electroshock treatment; a lobotomy; institutionalization for the criminally insane; moving to New York or San Francisco, where that sort of thing was sort of accepted; or faking it.
I chose the last option, and, within six months, I was married and teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing children in public school during the day. Theater was only a sideline.
A friend from summer stock realized I was giving up theater and told me about a new M.F.A. acting and directing program in development. My wife and I discussed it, and she thought it was a good idea. So I applied and was accepted into the first M.F.A. program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG). There were eight of us in that initial program, and, overachiever that I was, I was first to finish my thesis production and graduate. I directed the first production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as soon as it closed on Broadway. It was a major success and got great reviews.
JBH: Were you encouraged to follow a specific career path, or did your interests naturally lead you to particular areas of employment?
PE: After my M.F.A., I had offers from the Pasadena Playhouse and several theater companies in New York but didn’t want to put myself and my wife in a situation I couldn’t handle, so I chose the safe option. I became Chair of the Performing Arts Department at Stratford College in Danville, Virginia.
JBH: What prompted you to come to Los Angeles?
PE: It wasn't exactly planned. A series of events led me across the country to Los Angeles. After several years of college teaching and growing a family, I realized that I was sending my students out into a world I really didn’t know. So I decided to take a sabbatical and spend a year seeing what that world was like. Though I wanted to be an actor or a director, I didn’t think pursuing such for just a year was realistic, so I decided to become a playwright.
I began by writing three one-act comedies based on the title Ledge, Ledger, and the Legend. I didn’t have a clue what to do next, so I sent the first act, The Ledge, to Dramatic Publishing and Samuel French. A week later, I got a call from Dramatic. They said they wanted to publish The Ledge but under the full title. So I said okay. They said they’d be glad to look at the other two plays but definitely wanted this one. Wow, I thought. That was easy. Two days later, Samuel French called and said they also wanted The Ledge. When I told them it was no longer available, they said they wanted the other two one-acts, sight unseen, but I had to come up with new titles. So they published them as Perspective and Legacy. That same week I learned that Stratford College was closing. I had no college, no employment, to return to.
My family moved back to Nashville, where my parents lived, and I was out of work. Fortunately, my father and I had come to terms with each other and had actually learned to love and respect each other. (I think my kids had a lot to do with that. He absolutely adored them.) One day a friend in Nashville convinced me to start writing screenplays. Neither of us knew how to write one, but, having a lot of time on our hands, it sounded like a good idea. So we went to the library and got a book on screenplay formatting. We made a pact: he would write a screenplay, and so would I.
I finished mine in a week. It was a horror story about a rural resort town overrun by snakes. (It took place in Tennessee, as Tennessee has snakes.) I titled it Fangs. But, once I’d finished, I didn’t have a clue what to do with it. I had written the script with a specific TV actor in mind—Monte Markham—who was really big in those days. But I didn’t know how to get it to him. Going back to the library and combing through old magazines, I learned that he lived in Malibu, California. So I stupidly printed up a script and sent it to his home in Malibu. Really dumb. But, two weeks later, I got a call from someone saying he was Monte Markham and, while the script had the worst formatting he had ever seen, he loved the story and wanted to option it. At first I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t.
Monte was touring in a play at that time and was coming to Nashville as part of that tour. Everyone in the press was there at the airport when he arrived. He said he was glad to be in Nashville for two reasons: to act in the play and to meet with Nashville writer Paul Elliott. That made the front page of the Tennessean and the Banner, and two weeks after that, I was called by a producer who needed a writer for a new TV musical variety series scheduled to tape in Nashville. Now, I had never written for television, but I was out of work with a family to support, so I lied and said I had. (I just needed to see the format they used.) Only then did I ask who the star of the show was—and learned it was a newcomer, Dolly Parton.
The Dolly Parton collaboration was one of the best of my life. She was thoroughly wonderful, and since I am a take-charge sort of guy, I eventually ended up basically producing the shows. It was a real growing experience and led to my future career in television. Thirty-four fun productions later in Nashville, I got a call from the Donny and Marie Show and took my family to Utah—and it was with that show that I eventually moved to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, once I arrived in Los Angeles, two things happened simultaneously: musical variety as an art form died, and I reached the age of forty-five, which is known as the kiss of death for a writer who isn't an established name. While I had over fifty shows to my name, none of them had been done in Hollywood, so I was going to have to start over again. The struggle resumed.
JBH: I know you have substantial experience working in film and television, as well as producing press launches and major corporate events. Could you talk a bit about your creative work in those fields? Who were some of your clients?
PE: I was fortunate in that, once in Hollywood, even though I was an “old” guy, I was able to get great agents (William Morris, Eisenbach-Green, etc.) and everyone liked my writing. Every single screenplay I wrote was optioned by good people, for good money, but, for various reasons, none of them ever got produced. We lived on options, but my agents couldn’t manage to get me a TV series—and finally admitted it was because I was over forty-five. (I thought that was absurd then and think it's absurd now.) You can imagine how tiring it became to have meetings where producers loved my scripts, loved my writing, but always ended with “Now, who can we get to rewrite it?” One agent even suggested that I let my now teenage daughter go in and pretend she had written the screenplays.
So, once again, I had to find a new career. I parlayed my theater background into employment creating live entertainment shows for theme parks: Sanrio Puroland in Japan, Disneyland, AstroWorld, Boblo Island, Six Flags, Opryland, and EuroDisney.
Along the way, as artistic director for a boutique event-planning company, CMS, I was asked to produce multimillion-dollar conventions, stadium shows, and press launches for Shaklee, Hewlett Packard, Merle Norman, Toshiba, Disney, AMD, RadioShack, Neutrogena, FreeLife, Cookie Lee, United Airlines, Countrywide, and MONY. During my 50s and the early part of my 60s, I was working seven days a week for months on end. Financially we were doing well. My daughters were both finishing university life and progressing to their own careers, but my marriage didn’t survive.
It wasn’t her fault. It was mine. I had repressed my own sexuality for almost thirty years and woke up one morning realizing that, unless I came out, I would probably end up suicidal. I know that sounds melodramatic, but I had been pretending to be straight for what seemed like forever and was deathly tired of it.
But coming out presented a world of new problems. I loved my wife. She hadn’t asked for any of this. Fortunately, we both still had jobs, but it took three years to settle everything so that she was taken care of and my children were settled into their careers. Two years after becoming single, she married again, and I was introduced to the man I was to marry.
JBH: You've said elsewhere that writing for the stage was your first love—and remains so. When did you resume life as a dedicated dramatist?
PE: When I retired from event planning, at the encouragement of my new husband, Ed, I began writing again for the stage—and it was an amazing ride. My first play, Finding the Burnett Heart, a look at my own relationship with my father, was produced by Detroit Repertory Theatre and won best play of the season. From there it moved to Los Angeles and ran for twelve weeks in two different theaters, where it was very well received. With that kind of encouragement, I never looked back.
JBH: Have you found in Los Angeles a supportive community for playwrights?
PE: A writer can write anywhere, but Los Angeles is an especially fantastic city—with its diversity, creativity, and supportive writing community. Film and television writers abound, but the city also has over a hundred small non-Equity houses supporting new and vibrant theatrical writing. The Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights (ALAP) was the first group I joined, and it introduced me to a wide range of playwrights: from those who were just starting out to those who actually made a living writing for the stage. The support and contacts were massively helpful.
Through some actor friends, I was introduced to, and became a member of, Fierce Backbone, a writers' workshop, where I eventually became Head of the Writers’ Unit. I was also asked to be the artistic director for the Neo Theatre Ensemble. Both groups are filled with professional actors and writers who work on improving their acting and writing skills for the stage, usually while working in film and television.
JBH: Which publishers have published your plays? Which plays have won awards? What is the subject of your favorite play to date?
PE: Aside from the two early one-acts published by Samuel French, everything else has been published by Dramatic Publishing Company. My first comedy, Ledge, Ledger, and the Legend, was recently listed as one of the twenty-five most-produced one-acts in the last thirty years. Exit Laughing and Making Sweet Tea and Other Secrets were both AACT (American Alliance of Community Theaters) award-winners. Gentle Passage was chosen to open the first Hollywood Fringe Festival before going on to win Chicago Pride Films and Plays' Best Gay Play of 2014. My musical, Dula (The Real Legend of Tom Dooley), won the Texas TNT festival and then workshopped in Atlantic City. My latest play, Cries in the Night, a ghost story for the stage, was set to have its second major production this fall in Venice, Florida.
Covid-19 has, of course, shut everything down for the time being.
Every play I’ve ever written has been my favorite play as I was writing it, and Exit Laughing has certainly turned out to be the audience favorite. But if I’m being absolutely truthful, a play I wrote called TBD, To Be Determined (later published as Making Sweet Tea and Other Secrets) is probably the play I’m most proud of.
The play features two elderly sisters who have always kept their lives in order, living each day in isolated contentment. All of that changes when the local sheriff drops a battered teenage girl on their doorstep and asks them to keep her safe.
Neither sister is prepared for the role of savior, and the two are even less inclined when they discover that the girl is really a boy and that the person who has almost killed her is her father, one of the most respected members of their small community. The question is whether these two fundamentalist women will step out of their well-defined world to save this young adult they don't even understand.
JBH: How do the dominant themes of your work relate to your life experiences?
PE: I tend to write about things that move me, but I try to keep humor alive even in the most dire circumstances. I’ve written about my own family issues (Finding the Burnett Heart) (The Bracelet), transgender issues (Making Sweet Tea and Other Secrets) (Stolen Moments), how to survive the death of a friend (Exit Laughing), losing a child (Cries in the Night), historical injustice (Dula) (Last Call at Bali’s), childhood abuse (Gentle Passage), a comic attempt at suicide (Ledge, Ledger, and the Legend), mental instability (Perspective), unemployment and red-lining (Right on Target), and what the world would be like if our worst predictions came true (Legacy). My screenplays ranged from horror (Fangs) (Thursday's Child) (The Warp) to comedy (Maximillian) (Sherlock) to psychological thrillers (Dial Tone) (The Captive) (‘Til Death Do Us Part) (Singapore Plus and Tinsel). I’ve also managed to publish two novels, The Riverton Project and Reflections on Broken Glass. Again, both stories were optioned for television, but neither finished production.
JBH: There seem to be as many ways of generating written material as there are writers. What do you feel is the secret of your success?
PE: I keep busy and try to keep abreast of the world I live in. Aside from working with the new writers' groups like Neo Theatre Ensemble and the Fierce Backbone writers’ workshop, I’ve also spent years teaching commercial improv to seniors.
The truth is that I write about what interests me, but, first and foremost, I focus the work on the audience I anticipate pitching it to. And that brings up a very important lesson I’ve learned in all my years of writing. Always determine who your audience is going to be. Write for them. Ask yourself who is going to want to see your play.
Upon retirement, I decided that, if I were going to write plays for the theater, I had to treat that work as a business. That meant I had to look further than New York and Broadway. The statistics of winners versus losers on Broadway and Off Broadway are extremely discouraging. So I did some research and discovered an amazing organization, AACT. While there are less than fifty legitimate theaters in New York City, there are literally thousands of community theaters across this country. Many dramatists turn up their noses at the mere mention of amateur theater, but the reality is that community theaters are not all the same. There are those barely able to stay afloat, but also there are those with yearly budgets of several million dollars. And every one of these theaters, regardless of budget, is looking for that new play, that new musical, that new comedy for their audiences. Exit Laughing alone pulled in over $70,000 in the year-and-a-half before the pandemic closed everything down. And it had multiple productions already scheduled around the world for future shows.
That’s just one of my plays. It happens to be the one that is doing really well, but the point is that I didn’t have to censor myself in writing it. I just realized whom I was writing for. I don’t think I've sold out just because my plays are successful—covering a wide range of topical subjects, touring foreign countries, and being translated into different languages. People everywhere are basically the same and have the same requirements for engaging material, whether they are paying two hundred dollars a seat or thirty.
My husband and I have attended probably thirty productions of Exit Laughing all across the country, in both huge theaters and small hundred-seat houses, and every audience laughs at the same lines, the same situations. Having a good script makes any theater look good. I've taken to heart that making a good script is my job, the dramatist's job.
JBH: Some writers outline, some start with a blank page, some use a combination of strategies. How would you describe your writing process? Do you revise a lot? Do you ever grapple with writer's block?
PE: To begin with, I don’t write until I have something I want to write about. I can mull over several ideas for months before I finally sit down in front of my computer. But when I do sit down, I just start writing. There is nothing more daunting than an empty screen or sheet of paper. I may not keep a word of what I start out writing, but I’m writing. It takes about forty pages into a script before the characters take over and I know where they want to go. Then I start over and, hopefully, can salvage a few pages. If I’m in the middle of a script when the block occurs, it 's usually a problem with the story's flow—or I need to get myself out of the corner my characters have painted me into. Yes, I blame the characters every time I get stuck! But they usually eventually save me from myself.
JBH: How has Covid-19 affected your work patterns (if at all)? How are theaters responding to the pandemic? What do you predict for the future?
PE: Theaters throughout the world have been shut down due to Covid-19.
Since theater is my business, I tune in to every Zoom meeting I can with producers from around the world, including New York’s Broadway and the bigger community theater complexes. Everyone is trying to figure out a safe way through this dangerous pandemic. Nobody wants their actors, crew, or patrons to become infected. Protection is a huge responsibility—and in this overly litigious environment we’ve created for ourselves, many producers question whether theater, as we have known it, will ever be the same. We may all end up watching plays on outdoor rolling stages so that audiences can social-distance themselves. That might present an interesting rebirth. If we move our stages outdoors, our audiences will get to experience how theater started centuries ago in Europe with the medieval miracle plays.
JBH: Thank you, Paul, for spending precious time and energy answering these questions.
PE: Thank you, Janis. It's been a real pleasure.