An Interview with Playwright Dan McCabe

Playwright Dan McCabe’s work as an actor has been seen on stage, film, and television. Now, he makes his Huntington debut as a playwright. Before rehearsals began, McCabe spoke with Director of New Work Charles Haugland about his writing process and why this play has been a perfect collaboration.

Playwright Dan McCabe

Charles Haugland: You appeared at the Huntington as an actor in Sons of the Prophet. Were you always writing as well? How did you decide to make playwriting a major part of your artistic work?

Dan McCabe: I was always writing, and I wanted to be a writer since I was young.When I was in high school, I wrote one act plays and then I went to undergrad for dramatic writing. But I also fell into acting young. So I felt like I was writing in this bubble, while I was getting work as an actor. Then I started writing for Serials at the Flea Theater in New York. Serials is this late night program where they would have five short plays each weekend, and the audience votes for their favorites, and the three writers with the most votes come back the next week with a new play. It’s like episodic theatre. That was the first time where I would write something, and it would get put on right away. One of my short plays took off, so I got a lot of confidence there and started really focusing on writing. Then I applied to Juilliard’s graduate playwriting program, and got in. So that was the real game shifter for me.

CH: Do you feel like your career as an actor influenced your playwriting?

DM: In terms of dialogue, my acting career helped my work as a writer, because I knew what would come easily out of an actor’s mouth. They never overlapped — I never wrote for myself, and I always kept the two separate. But they’ve helped each other just in terms of knowing how an actor interprets something, what comes out naturally and what doesn’t.

CH: What was the spark of this play? When did you start writing it?

DM: I started writing this around the summer of 2015. It started with two characters: Gerry and Lamont. I saw them as interesting people to be together on stage — very different, but also similar in their ideals and what they believed in. Then once I discovered the setting it all came together. I’ve always been a huge hip-hop person, but I also like theatre and musical theatre. So I thought it was interesting to have these people on stage that are super passionate about different things and hate the other thing.

CH: Why was that duality interesting to you?

DM: In a lot of the plays that I write, a common theme is two very different people coming together — which has a lot to do with the way I was raised. I grew up in the city, but I went to this private high school in Jersey where my dad is a teacher. That was a very affluent school, whereas I grew up in these middle-class buildings in Manhattan. And down the block from me were lower income projects. I felt I had a lot of different types of people around me growing up in terms of class and race and things like that. A lot of plays I write have that sort of combination. I especially like writing characters who are different than me on the outside, and then as I write, I try to connect the people that might seem different from myself while finding the similarities between them.

CH: You’ve been developing this play with Billy Porter for some time. Why are you a good match as collaborators, and what has the process of developing the play been like with him?

DM: Billy is amazing. I sent him the play, and I didn’t really know him until we met to talk about this play. The truth is when we first met, he said what he thought the play was about, and I was like “Oh yeah you’re right.” I didn’t realize it. For me, going into writing this play, the impetus was not to say something big, but to explore these characters honestly. But then listening to Billy’s understanding of the themes, I immediately recognized that he was right. Billy and I are opposites in a way. He knows exactly what he wants to say all the time, and in a way, he thinks ‘bigger’ than I do. I prefer to start from the characters because I feel like it’s more dramatically interesting, and I discover the play more unconsciously as I’m writing it. It’s been serendipitous that we came together.

Dan McCabe and Joanna Gleason in SONS OF THE PROPHET (2011)

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