William Missouri Downs is an author, playwright, actor, director and screenwriter. Some of his previous credits include being a staff writer for My Two Dads as well as writing for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Amen. Mr. Downs has had plays produced all over the world including work featured at Salt Lake Acting Company. SLAC produced The Exit Interview last year and recently staged a reading of How to Steal a Picasso. The upcoming Mr. Perfect, according to SLAC, “tells the story of a quirky flight attendant and a romance novel junkie who thinks she’s met Mr. Perfect” and opens April 8th. In this interview, Downs shares some insights on playwriting, comedy, and the Utah theatre scene.
What brought you to playwriting? What is it about theatre that keeps you writing plays?
DOWNS: There is an old rule in the theatre: If you can go into any other field and be happy, do it. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, there’s nothing else I can do.
I write with the hope that my philosophical comedies will change the world a bit.
I’ve written for television and movies but I’ve always been drawn to the theatre. I enjoy the immediate audience response, I love how no two performances are ever the same. Novelists and short story writers seldom get to hear their reader’s live reactions. It must be a lonely life.
You write comedy. Why?
DOWNS: I never set out to write a comedy, it just comes out that way. It’s often said that comedy comes from pain, but it has to be the right type of pain. It must be the type of pain that comes from the incongruity of life, pain that makes you question human nature, a pain that causes existential angst. I think my sense of comedy came from my broken, psychologically abusive childhood. At a young age I discovered that humor was my only defense. As Freud said, as we get older we don’t forget our childhood, we become it.
Do your characters and situations come from life or more from your imagination? What is your process for creating a play?
DOWNS: My characters and situations come from both my imagination and life.
I start writing every morning between 3am and 4am – I wake up at that hour naturally, I’ve never set an alarm. I guess I’m what you’d call an extreme morning person. I’ve been that way all my life. I start by listening to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s The Writer’s Almanac Podcast and then I start on page one of whatever I’m writing and write or rewrite until I hit a blank page, then try to leap that firewall. After about four to six hours, I get tired and so I take my dog for a walk or take a shower. Some of my best ideas come to me in the shower. If I can’t write, then I read. But I don’t read plays, short stories or novels. I find I get more ideas from reading philosophy, non-fiction, biographies and autobiographies. I love Voltaire, Sylvia Plath, Carl Sagan, Susan Jacoby, Thomas Paine, Descartes, and Sam Harris. Currently I’m reading The Moral Arc by Michael Shermer and Aping Mankind by Raymond Tallis.
You co-authored “Naked Playwriting: The Art, the Craft, and the Life Laid Bare” with Robin U. Russin, a book about writing and what it takes to be a playwright. What question about life as a playwright do you answer most? Which question do you wish you’d get asked?
DOWNS: The question I get most is, “Where do you get your ideas?” The question I wish I’d get asked more is, “Can I produce your play?”
What one piece of information that you didn’t have before you were a playwright, but do have now, do you wish you had known before?
DOWNS: It’s not a piece of information but early in my life I wish I hadn’t been so afraid. It took me years to overcome the fear that was implanted in me during childhood.
How would you describe the current state of the theatre? What would you like to see changed?
DOWNS: Theatre’s been dying for a hundred years. It still is. Today too much of your theatre is audience-friendly. In other words it has been written (from the beginning) to reaffirm the audience’s values and make them feel good about who they are and what they believe. If the audience is the consumer and the consumer is always right, there can be no art.
Who is your favorite character that you’ve written?
I prefer to write about women. I find female characters more interesting – I think because women have to play more roles in life and consider more variables. Masculine black and white thinking bores me. In this way I think a lot of plays and movies do us a disservice for they present men who set out against a sea of troubles with a single-mindedness that doesn’t exist in real life.
Mr. Perfect is your second play to be produced by SLAC. They also staged a reading of How to Steal a Picasso. What is that relationship like?
SLAC is interested in good plays. There is no other standard. Write a good play, they are interested. Write a bad play and they are not. So I know I’ve got a good play if they read or produce it. It’s an honor.
Have you seen other Utah theatre? Is there something that is different about the theatre scene here than other places you’ve worked?
I think SLAC is the only Utah theatre that has done my plays so my knowledge is pretty limited. What I love about SLAC is that they, being located in Salt Lake, have a strong mission to say what other theatres can’t say and do what other theaters won’t do.
How would you describe Mr. Perfect?
Mr. Perfect is a comedy about four people who are trying to find their story. Through religion, romance novels, self help books, plagiarism and chance events they struggle down the conveyor-belt of life, desperate to make sense of it all. Dostoyevsky said we humans crave “miracles, mystery, and authority.” To this I add we also want an itinerary – something to tell us where we are, where we have been, what to do next, and what it all means.