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Columbia College Chicago
Rose Martula
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Rose Martula

Edited by Susan Babyk

Rose Martula received her BFA in fiction writing from Columbia College Chicago, and her MFA in playwriting from UCLA. Rose was recently named "1 of 50 playwrights to watch" in Dramatists Guild Magazine (July/Aug 07). Her plays have been well-received in many prestigious theatres, including the Goodman and the Royal Court; and her one-act play, Drink up, Baby, made the PlayLabs' semi-finals at the Minneapolis Playwrights Center. Her play, Salsa Saved The Girls (described as "darkly comic with sparky dialogue" by the Royal Court) will open on October 19th at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London.

In her interview with the Publishing Lab, Rose spoke at length about her writing process, and offers candid advice for aspiring playwrights. For further information about Rose, visit her website: www.rosemartula.com. We wish her a long, successful career.

Publishing Lab: I know you attended Fiction writing classes at Columbia. How has that training served your playwriting?

Rose Martula: Ask anyone there who knew my writing at Columbia, and they'll be the first ones to tell ya, I basically wrote about nothing. Yeah. Nothing. Go figure. What was brilliant about Columbia is that they gave me the freedom to write this way. By being assigned so many different writing exercises that focused on shifting and playing with structure, I was able to find my creative voice as a writer. My plays, like my stories, usually tackle static situations whose reality and whose horror is progressively revealed to us-writing that unfolds with a sequence of progressive revelations. Even though nothing new is happening in the lives of the characters, we get to know more and more about them until that final moment, when the BIG NEWS hits. It can have a deadly dramatic effect (if I execute it right that is, ha!), and the revelations have to be sequenced so carefully that audience interest never flags (very important). I very quickly realized upon moving to LA-as I found myself battling a city full of a million other hopeful, starry-eyed, struggling writers; a place where, (sad but true), everyone around you has a screenplay to shop-that voice was the one defining thing that was going to allow me to rise up from the rest of the flock.

This spills over into something else I took away from my training at Columbia: the idea of action. And by action, I don't mean just things happening; I mean action as in a protagonist making a choice, the choice resulting in a set of circumstances that demand another choice and so on. Someone making a choice will expose the moral core of the play to the audience, and allow them to begin to align themselves with or against the characters. At the pivotal climactic choice, when a character realizes clearly that he/she MUST make a choice, hopefully, this will help to make that character a tragic character. It elevates them out of mere pathos. By forcing them to make a really tough moral choice-by clarifying that moment, removing the grays and making it as black and white as possible-we elevate them from reactionary animal to thinking, reasoning, moral sentient human being with a Tragic Flaw. The story of their demise becomes a true tragedy that will hopefully touch something deeper in the audience--inspiring more than pity. Regardless of what that character chooses, if the audience sees and can understand the morality of the choice, they will be both profoundly saddened and will also feel uplifted and hopeful.

Also, when I was asked to examine my own writing process at Columbia, it ended up giving me greater clarity as far as how I work and operate as a writer, and by figuring all that junk out, I came away with a much stronger work ethic, and a greater self-discipline. (I am always weary of any writer that simply jaws about their work but who seems to produce very little. I think sometimes people forget that it is ALL about the work.) I can't force creativity. It comes in binges and purges, droughts and downpours. And since most struggling artists, in the beginning of a career at least, have to work day jobs that they probably have little-to-no interest in, it can be a real struggle in finding that balance between real life and the writing life. In grad school, there is far less structure than in undergrad, and learning how to structure my writing time at Columbia and understanding what worked for me, and what didn't, was vital-crucial, really.

PL: What's the one piece of advice you wish someone would have shared with you when you were starting out?

: Mmmn. That's a toughie. It's hard to pick just one, so I'll throw out a couple of tidbits that I feel are all equally important for a career, both artistically and addressing the marketing side of it.

• The theatre (and film) world is actually quite a small one, and you never know where the people around you are going to end up. So look to them. And be good to them. It's a small world and nobody really wants to help an asshole, after all. Your peers are the ones you should be turning to, they are the people you will most likely be working with in the future, not so much the already-famous, established folk. So be good and kind to everyone. Most of the successful writers I know are also really good people, so I do believe success does tie in with being good to people.

• Nobody can take your voice, even if someone else is biting your style, so don't worry. No backstabbing needed. Your ever-changing life experience helps what makes up your voice. I may have imitated Hubert Selby, Jr.'s writing style along the way in my time studying fiction writing at Columbia, but that's how I learned; through imitation. So take it as a compliment.

• Each success I've had as a writer has almost always led me straight into the next success.

• Rewriting is where the real writing begins. The first draft is more like a purging of the soul, a vomiting of the goods so the speak, and it's in the rewrites that the real play starts taking shape, an exhausting but necessary process. (I have a quote on my wall that reads, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down and open a vein." Ah, so true.)

• Get yourself out there. Although doing shameless self-promotion may not be in a writer's genetic make-up, (half of us are near-hermits, loners, manic-depressives with some sort of addictive facet to their personality, extreme introverts or just downright socially-clumsy) you must take the marketing side of it into your own hands once the play is done. Schmoozing somebody at an event with that glass of wine, and doing mass mailings of your work to theatres throughout the year is just as important as doing the actual writing. The industry most likely isn't going to come to you (unless you're Natalie-Portman-lucky is what I like to call it, hence being discovered-in-a-pizza-shop lucky). The thrill of success can be incredibly distractive to the work, so I do feel success comes when you, the person, are ready for it.

• Give yourself credit when credit is due. We are not machines. At the same time, never feel totally satisfied as an artist, either. Push yourself to try something different with each play-try something impossible even, try to incorporate one seemingly impossible element in a play and see if you can pull it off-take risks on the page, stay hungry. Sam Shepherd said something like, that he never finishes a play; he simply "abandons" it. This coming from a man who went back to his play Buried Child (read it!) a decade after it won the Pulitzer, and rewrote parts that he felt he could do better. Talk about an insatiable thirst. (While I'm at it, read Curse of the Starving Class, too! I learned tons from these two plays!)

• The phrase "tension of opposites" comes to my mind when writing a play. This tension gives the writer more room to maneuver the characters' choices, their arcs, their justifications, their contradictions, etc. When a character's responses, and his interior reasons for them, are in contradiction, not unity with the other characters, this creates considerable tension in a scene and opens up the world of the play.

• Alas, there is no direct, crystal-clear path to being a writer. The lucky folk like my brother for instance, who is a chemical engineer, basically follow one standard path for a career; college, graduate school, and a PHD basically guaranteed him a job. Playwriting isn't like that. Half the battle in getting a theatre to even read your script is the presentation of the darned thing, just like with fiction. Always research theatres, so you can see what kind of work they do, and so you can see if your style fits into what that particular theatre is doing at the moment.

• When writing a cover letter, mention briefly any awards or achievements or even positive feedback you've gotten from places that have been interested in your work.

• Always send thank you notes to theatres, there's a chance that way they might remember you more.

• Rejection letters! Okay! I never knew this until I started sending my work out; but even if a theatre writes back saying no to your script, if they happen to mention one positive thing about your writing like, "You write colorful characters," that is HUGE. That means they are interested in you. Again, it is not common, so celebrate and take advantage! It actually then becomes not so much a rejection letter at all, but rather a connection. (I keep all these "rejection" letters I have gotten tacked up on a bulletin board to remember names of people and where I've sent stuff out. An excel spreadsheet to organize all this doesn't hurt, either.) And the next time you send a play to that theatre, in your cover letter, you can remind them of your last submission, to help them connect the dots a bit.

• Know what your next play will be before the play you are currently writing is done. When I'm usually about half way through writing one play, I always try to start my next play or at least the idea. It not only gives me some sense of order amidst all the chaos, but also helps keep my mind on some sort of goal-oriented track.

• Pick one or two people to listen to when you're getting notes. It is very easy for a playwright, when bombarded with critiques, to get lost and muddled in all the feedback. Everyone has an opinion, but you're the one writing the play, and you're not a secretary. For instance, I have one former teacher who I go to. He's someone who speaks my same artistic language and who obviously champions the work. I might also turn to my director for notes and that's it! Two people you trust. The directors often-times have excellent, very specific feedback because they have more objectivity on the play. They are able to see things more clearly than you, and they see theatre in a wonderfully visual, theatrical sense. To add to that, I highly suggest (at least when starting out) not directing your own work.

• Playwriting is like peeling off the layers of an onion. Less is more, and even if the language is packed full of oozing monologues or 20 million characters, it still must be perfectly controlled chaos on the page and stage.

• The best trick I ever learned when writing a play is to enter late, leave early. That is, when starting a play, forget set-up, just jump in, right into the middle of a conversation so that the audience has to work to catch up. (And they will, they're smart, underestimating the audience's intelligence is something I see all-too-often, and it's an immediate put-off.) And at the same time, leave early. Endings are difficult for me, but often jumping out, leaving the audience craving more, wanting more, has given me some of my most dramatic endings to my plays.

• In film, the director is God. In playwriting, the playwright is God.

• Never let your ego or your opinion find its way into your play.

• Break the rules, but not simply for the sake of breaking them.

• When writing a character who is, how shall I put it, difficult? Ugly? Aggressive? A jerk? An ass? Although they can be quite fun to write, we must be able to empathize with them. For me, my characters who are jerks are usually functioning from a place of great pain.

• When submitting plays, start at the top and work your way down. That is: submit to the bigger, more well known regional theatres first (The Atlantic Theatre, The Labyrinth, The Goodman, Manhattan Theatre Club to name a few), 'cause you have nothing to loose. Then work your way down through the smaller theatres.

• There comes a time when you must trust and give your play over to the director and to the actors. An incredible bond can be formed. And when the audience is really there and really listening, when it becomes a true communal experience, it's as if the audience forgets it's a play. One time, in the pub downstairs after a play of mine went up in London, I saw a woman crying into the shoulder of her husband who was comforting her by saying, "It's just a play, it's just a play."

• Don't be alarmed if your dress rehearsal stinks and looks like a disaster. It's often the time when the actors and the rest of the crew are getting out the kinks and getting comfortable in the space.

• This Harold Pinter quote from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech I think sums it up pretty beautifully: "The author's position is an odd one. The characters resist him; they are not easy to live with; they are impossible to define. You certainly can't dictate to them. To a certain extent, you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind-man's bluff, hide-and-seek."

PL: What playwrights have influenced you most? And why?

Martula: Sam Shepard: I gravitated to his writing almost immediately, especially to his later plays examining family dysfunction. He's also a pro with structure, which tends to be my weakness, plus he takes total risks on the page, changing his style from play to play. There is something so simple about his plays and I tend to overcomplicate.

* Tina Howe: She wrote a play called Birth and After Birth at a time when I was trying to do something new with my writing, get out of my realistic-dark comedy comfort zone and incorporate more absurdist, over-the-top characters, yet who are still functioning in realistic, human emotions. That play (Birth and After Birth) literally taught me how to seamlessly mix the darker moments in life with the light, and also how humor can be an incredibly powerful tool.

* Eugene O'Neill and Christopher Durang I've always admired for their unnerving precision about what keeps families together and what breaks families apart in two very different styles.

* Harold Pinter for his use of subtext, and allowing each beat to be there for a reason. Only in theatre can you experiment so richly with beats and pauses and what's between the lines. I think this ties into the fact that in the theatre, each night is different, magical, and alive, "in the moment" as they say. Anything (and I mean, anything) can happen, terrifying, but totally, totally exhilarating.

PL: Where do you find the ideas for your plays? Briefly describe your writing process/research. How many drafts before you're satisfied and begin showing a new work around?

Martula: For me, it does come from personal experience. Not personal in the sense that these very events have happened to me, but the emotional underbelly of the play is usually something I have experienced or struggled with. For instance, my play Salsa Saved The Girls deals with a Long Island, dysfunctional family and specifically focuses on a promiscuous, tough-talking, Wall-Street type father, who has abandoned his wife and two teenage daughters, and has gone on to start a new life with a new wife and a new set of children. It's a play that examines what happens when a father's defection wreaks a specifically sexual brand of havoc on the three women he leaves behind. My own parents are still together and very much in love, I have never lived in Long Island, and my father is the exact opposite of tough talking and macho. But I am familiar with the experience of having an alcoholic father; hence an emotionally absent one which is a truth very much addressed in the play, and I do feel if you have lived the emotional experience (and not necessarily the actual), the words will ring true. Some people do write outside of their experience and for that I bow down to them in great awe, but for myself, I have found if I haven't fully lived the emotional experience, then the writing becomes full of holes and plays false. As far as number of drafts, it's usually several before I start sending the work out. There's the first draft, which I've mentioned is more sort of the first spewing, and then it's all about the rewrites from there. I'd probably say on average, I rewrite the whole play three times, but then may rework, reread, tweak certain sections, oh I couldn't even count, a hundred times? before sending out.

Sometimes I'll just hear a voice, usually of a male character, the men always come first for me, and then I might write a monologue and from there a scene will unfold. Sometimes a simple writing exercise has jumpstarted a whole play, like two people are sitting in a room and a stranger enters, now go, write. Or I might pick a setting, like a bar, and come up with characters from that environment. Each play sort of writes itself, though, I never sit down and outline like you might with a screenplay. I never know endings. I never know titles until the very last moment. I never know where I'm going really with the story lines. I may see a certain image sometimes, but more commonly I have an idea in mind about where I want certain characters to start and where I want them to end. Joe-Schmo may start off happy and blissful, but by the end of the play, he is bitter, angry, defeated. Now how the heck do I get Joe from a to b? The characters' transformations almost guide everything else to fall into place. But ultimately with every play, it's a story that I must tell, get out of my system, that if I don't express, I'm useless. I've known many writers who come more from an intellectual school of thought, but I admit, I write solely from the gut.

PL: When emerging playwrights are considering contests, what advice do you have for them? Contests that pay? Etc. What kind of plays did you enter (i.e., one-act, full-length, drama, comedy, etc.)?

Martula: The bible book that every playwright should buy is The Dramatists Sourcebook. It has listing of theatres and what kind of genres they're into, agents, publishing opportunities, grants and residencies. I only submit to a few contests that yes, either pay or have a very good reputation, like the Princess Grace Awards, the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference, the Disney Fellowship, the Chesterfield Film Project (which takes plays), the PONY fellowship at LARK, the Humana Festival or the Jerome Award at the Playwrights Center are just a few of the heavyweights. Go for the biggies. And I tend to avoid contests as much as I can that charge reading fees. But I honestly have gotten more success as a playwright simply sending out query letters with a sample of my play in mass mailings to theatres than anything else. I've entered mostly full lengths, a couple of one acts and 10 minute plays along the way, but The Dramatists Sourcebook has breakdowns for all the contests and all the theatres as far as lengths and what kind of plays they're into. Most theatres, though, are looking for full lengths.

PL: What do you feel was the single most important lesson you've learned regarding revision of your work?

Martula: I mentioned before in my advice to remember that you're not a secretary and to pick two people you trust when getting notes, who speak your same language and who aren't trying to change the vision of your play in any way. I learned this the very hard way after writing a perfectly good play, reading it aloud in a workshop class at UCLA, then proceeded to take almost every single piece of feedback that was given to me from my classmates, incorporating all of it into my play. It ended up not only being terrible and boring, but it was not the play I had set out to write. I was so concerned about being open to other peoples' feedback and not being defensive about my work that, yes, I became a secretary. I got called out in class for it, my teacher railed, no, tore into me rather, in tears he was so angry, his face turning tomato-red, slamming his fists down on to the table (and the man was 84 years old, mind you) until my own face was wet with tears. It was like I had sold my artistic soul for the sake of accommodating other peoples' opinions of what THEY wanted to see happen in my play. Be open, but trust yourself (and your words) at the same time, and always go back to what inspired you to write this play in the first place.