The Writing Life: An Interview with Mark Perry
By Paul Newell
An interview column on NCPA (North Carolina Playwrights Alliance) members. (Taken from the NCPA Newsletter, April 2006 edition)
At age 35, Mark Perry has worked professionally as an actor, a playwright, a director, a teacher, and a producer. His play A Dress for Mona and his one man show On the Rooftop have toured to or been produced in roughly 40 cities, combined. In 2005, he was awarded an NC Arts Council Playwriting Fellowship, and for the last few years has been a playwright in residence for the NCTAE Playworks Program in Wake County schools, as well as a visiting lecturer teaching playwriting at UNC, Chapel Hill. Anyone who knows Mark or his work is aware that he approaches theater from a decidedly spiritual perspective. And in talking with him, one thing becomes clear: When it comes to the potential of playwriting to affect lives in positive ways, especially young lives, the man is a believer.
PN: Mark, I know from seeing On the Roof Top and reading about A Dress for Mona that your work is heavily informed by your beliefs as a Baha’i. What would you say are the main things about the faith that attracted you to it?
MP: Well, I’d have to say it’s the belief that all religions are valid, that no one faith is above or better than any other one. For me, it raises the question, what about all the other people out there? I mean, if there is a God, would he send his messengers through just one faith or one people and one time, or all faiths and all peoples, and many times?
PN: You know there are some who would call that blasphemy.
MP: Sure, but I think as the human story shows pretty clearly, it’s when we think our way is right, our answers are right, or our needs come first, and everything else comes second that we get into trouble. So it isn’t a matter of thinking Baha’i is better. That would be going against.
PN: What would you say it shares in common with other faiths?
MP: Baha’is believe that we are fundamentally spiritual beings going through a human, material experience, and how we deal with that experience has consequences for us in the next life, which makes it a lot alike other world religions, in that sense.
PN: You’ve said that you were first exposed to Baha’i at an early age through your stepfather. Was it an easy transition for you?
MP: Not at all. Any religion means there’s going to be boundaries and borders on you. And as a teenager you certainly don’t want that! (laughs). But then when I went to Africa for six months on a youth service project. It really opened my eyes to the idea that where I’d come from, America, was not the end all and be all of thought. My time in the Kalahari Desert, encountering African Baha’is in the villages there—it was amazing.
PN: How would you say your faith informs your writing?
MP: Well, I can’t remove it from me, but I’m certainly interested in stories that are not explicitly Baha’i. No, I’m not interested in taking kitchen sink drama to its natural conclusion, but I am interested in probing how different cultures view each other, how people negotiate this material world we’re in, how and why people have conflicted spiritual understandings or purposes, this kind of thing.
PN: In On the Rooftop you have the main character, Bill Sears, a performer from the 1950s. Just as television is just taking off and he’s looking at a very successful future with his children’s show, he has this faith calling, and it’s turning everything upside down in terms of his life priorities. It’s seems like a prime example.
MP: Yes, it’s all based on a real person. It’s about someone dealing with that crossroads moment—is he going to go with the path of least resistance and do the financially secure, socially acceptable thing, or is he going act on a higher need he’s being confronted by. For me, it’s the kind of real dilemma I think we all face at some point in our lives, in one way or another. It’s what I want to get on stage, but I’m not a master at doing it yet, Paul. I’m really not.
PN: Why do you say that?
MP: Well, it’s a moral dilemma and that’s very uncomfortable territory for a lot of playwrights. Moral plays can all too easily be boring plays. But I know there’s drama there. It’s just a matter of finding a form to tell it in.
PN: What are some examples of plays with strong moral themes that you think are successful?
MP: I’d say Arthur Miller’s plays. Death of a Salesman—this idea of a man at the end of his life who has to deal with the fact that he’s lied his way through his life. We don’t want to be like Willy Loman, just like in a somewhat similar way, we don’t want to be Scrooge. And there are examples from Chekhov and Shakespeare, certainly. Any play that’s sincere with its subject can have moral overtones.
PN: And what about spiritual overtones?
MP: Well, that’s the thing I often found missing. What about the people that are dealing with spiritual issues? What about people like me? I think there are more people in the world who are like me in this sense with than who are not. But it wasn’t a viewpoint I was seeing in plays and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a playwright.
PN: Let me ask you about your experience as a playwriting teacher. Among other things, for the last few years you’ve been involved in Playworks. What’s that all about?
MP: Well it’s a program that NCPA and NCTAE (North Carolina Theater Arts Educators) have put together with support from the NC Arts Council. It puts playwrights in high schools or middle schools for three-week periods. The idea is to work with kids as they develop their own plays. Pieces are selected for a school-wide showing, then a county-wide showing. And finally, nine plays from around the state are chosen for a festival that UNC Greensboro produces.
PN: You’ve been in the Wake County schools. How has that been?
MP: It’s been pretty amazing. You come in as the outsider, as this “playwright,” and you ask the kids to do these simple exercises and because you’re this new guy coming in, they go along with it. And some wonderful things come out of it. Sometimes they’re spitting out the latest TV garbage, but more often it’s very personal, funny, dramatic stuff. You know how powerful playwriting can be, Paul, I don’t mean as therapy, but in the sense of getting these kids heard, as opposed to telling them where to go and what to do all the time.
PN: I know you think that this is one of the more important areas for NCPA to be focusing on. Why?
MP: We should be looking towards the future in playwriting. Folks are getting older. No matter how hard we try to affect our usual audiences, they’re already grown. But kids are trying to find out who they are. This is why a program like Playworks is so crucial. Transformation happens with these kids, Paul. I’ve seen it happen. It’s like they’re awakened to their underlying nature, which is a creative nature, which is an intelligent, expressive nature. It’s wonderful! Our work when we’re not writing should really be about raising up these kids up to express themselves through theater. Theater is unique that way. You don’t need a lot of money to do it. There should be a Playworks program in every school.
PN: Is there anything you’d like to say to the NCPA members?
MP: Well, I think NCPA is great, just in the fact that it exists. The thing about playwrights is that we long for that alone time to do our writing. And for those of you who are committing and keeping NCPA going, I’d say you’re either avoiding your writing or your sacrificing some of it for the benefit of all, and if that’s the case, because nothing goes forward without some sacrifice, you’re all going to be blessed in all the worlds of God for doing it. (laughs)