By Owen Keehnen
"Now I am 31 and my lover has AIDS. Our Friends have AIDS. And we all take care of each other, the less sick caring for the more sick. At times, an unbelievably harsh fate is transcended by a simple act of love, by caring for another. By most, we are thought of as "dying". But as dying becomes a way of life, the meaning of the word blurs."
Scott McPherson's program note to the Hartford Stage Company's production of 'Marvin's Room'. December 1990.
When Scott McPherson died from complications due to AIDS on November 7, 1992, the theater was robbed of an extremely talented young playwright. Scott's major work, the absurdist, poignant, and brilliant 'Marvin's Room' received numerous accolades including The Outer Critic's Circle Award, The Drama Desk Award, The John Gassner Playwriting Award, and The Dramatist Guild Hall-Warriner Award. Scotty was living every writer's dream, and he was also living with AIDS. Yet despite his illness and despite the death of his lover, activist and political cartoonist Daniel Sotomayor, Scott never became bitter. Instead, he struggled through his illness with a strength and humor reflective of work.
Scott was such a unique and wonderful individual that I feel very privileged to have been his friend and yet I'm simultaneously deeply saddened by the loss of the man and the loss of so much potential. I have some wonderful memories of him - his whimsical humor, his casual sweetness, playing with his boxer Scout, hanging out and watching TV, a silly stoned barbeque on the back porch, his love of a good novel, and his final birthday party in October… Especially poignant was picking Scott up at the airport in a limo with his friend Lori when he arrived home after winning The Outer Critic's Circle Award. It was great. He was so rightfully proud of winning. His energy was high and he was ecstatic and eager to begin a new project. If I remember correctly it was something involving politics within an adoption agency. Sadly, that was never to be. The drive and desire were there, but not the strength or stamina to follow it through.
Scotty leaves behind only a small body of work. Besides the play 'Marvin's Room' and an early treatment of the screenplay, Scott wrote only one other play 'Til The Fat Lady Sings', and a screenplay for Norman Lear's ACT III company called 'Legal Briefs'. He never even saw the film version of his play brought to the screen.
An interview with him was weird. We were friends and changing roles didn't come very naturally. We did the interview the day after he returned from New York after accepting The Outer Critics Circle Award. Scout, his boxer, was there and wanted to play and couldn't understand the businesslike demeanor I was attempting to assume. He kept sniffing the tape recorder throughout the interview, which made transcribing a real chore but somehow it seems apropos given the quirky world of Scott McPherson.
I miss you Scotty and all the great plays that never were.
Congratulations on winning The Outer Critics Circle Award yesterday.
Thanks, yeah WOW!
Has the critical and commercial success of 'Marvin's Room’ come as a surprise to you?
Oh yeah. When I got done writing it I will admit that I liked it and I felt really good about it. At that time I was working at a warehouse in Shaumburg (IL.) and I wrote a lot of it when I was out there which is why I was eventually fired. (Laughing.) I wrote this play on the back of their commission reports. I was hoping maybe Lifeline (Theater Company) would do it since they had done my other play. If I was ambitious at all I was hoping to have an Equity production of it, but that was as far as I was thinking. Then a reading was arranged at Steppenwolf and then all of a sudden there was all this momentum behind it.
What an inspiration to struggling writers everywhere.
Yeah, completely out of the blue.
What did you learn from writing your first play 'Til The Fat Lady Sings' that you were able to apply to 'Marvin’s Room'?
There is a lot of similarity between the plays, but there are also great differences. 'Fat Lady' was big and sprawling. There were scenes with twelve people on stage at the same time and a lot of slapstick which I love -- very broad, bold, and farcical strokes. When I wrote 'Marvin's Room' I wanted it to be more of an etching, distinct fine lines with no excess. But thematically the two are similar and the sense of humor is similar…almost as if the same person wrote both.
As a former actor, did you write 'Marvin's Room' more through an actor's eye or a playwright's eye?
I think more an actor's…but I think I write mainly from an improviser's point of view. When I first got into acting that's what I wanted to do. So, when I write I usually just think, "What happens next?" Like in the first scene of 'Marvin's Room', Bessie is at the doctor's office and I thought, "Now what would happen next" and the answer was she would go home.
So rather than diagramming you write with the momentum of what you have written.
More exploratory than anything.
How much of your personal life overlaps into your writing?
In surface ways, a lot. My grandfather was named Marvin and I had an Aunt Ruth and an Aunt Bessie. When I sat down to write it helped to focus on these real people so I could get started, but as I wrote they changed so much and the situations were fictional so they didn't resemble the real people at all anymore. I always intended to change the names but I never ever did.
So of course your family thinks it's about them.
Aside from this, how do you build a dramatic character?
I think first I try to find some sort of comic tic and work backwards from there to make the tic grounded and part of a full fledged character rather than just a gag.
So on the surface your characters may read as jokey, but…
Thank God for the actors because they bury it all in a complex character.
Scott, that is overly humble.
The complexity of your characters is evident in just reading 'Marvin Room'. Your dialogue is fantastic; did you get it from a family of storytellers or something.
No. I don’t know. I never really thought of having a knack it. Again, maybe it's all flowing from the 'what happens next' momentum? The important thing about doing it is finding the voice of each character.
What was your main consideration in adapting the 'Marvin's Room' screenplay?
I tried to take the characters and the story and remove the theatrical conventions. I tried to come into each scene visually rather than through dialogue. In movies you can say so much with the right image.
Who's doing the film?
Robert DeNiro’s production company Tribeca, and, as of now, Miramax is the distributor -- but it's changed before. It's attracting the attention of a lot of actresses because the play has two very strong female leads in their 40s…and there aren't many film roles like that.
Who's after the film?
Names fly around. The latest is Meryl Streep. Debra Winger was very interested for a while.
Who would you like to see in the film version?
My first choice would be the stage cast, especially Laura Esterman because she is so great in the role. She's taken the character so many places I never dreamed of and seems totally inherent to the part.
Who would you want if you had to choose the film actress?
Dianne Weist would be my first choice. She's somewhat like Laura. Laura has a certain goofiness about her that belies the tragedy so she sort of bubbles along the top though all these things are happening to her underneath. Yet, despite the goofiness there is a great strength and I think Dianne Weist has that quality too.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a screenplay for Norman Lear's company called 'Legal Briefs'. It's a screwball farce that can only happen in the movies.
What writers do you admire?
Raymond Carver, David Mamet, Joe Orton, Beth Henley. And I admire Arthur Miller, partially just because of who he is. I read his autobiography Timebends, and he said a lot of really good stuff. One thing he said, and I'm probably horrible misquoting, was that, "You know you've written something good if it makes you feel embarrassed -- because you've really revealed something about yourself from someplace deep."
Do you view your life as a black comedy?
I view it as black. I don't know if I have a worldview as much as I just try to survive. I always felt that if I just wrote seriously without the humor that everyone would say it was bad. If you can be funny and entertain you can get away with so much more.
You wrote'‘Marvin's Room' when you were first diagnosed?
If you were to write the play now after living with AIDS, what if anything would you change about it?
I wrote the play even before I met Danny (Sotomayor). And then we met and…as he became sicker a lot of my energy went into trying to help him and I would sometimes be sick. It was so weird. It was like my life was catching up to the play in the same ways.
That is weird.
Yeah, but it was good. It felt right. I felt good when I saw 'Marvin's Room' in New York and I realized that what I'd written about, that experience, was true.
So odd to think of the play as the precursor?
Oh I know. A lot of articles say I wrote the play while taking care of Danny or I wrote the play between bouts of illness while being sick with AIDS, which is not true at all. I was still totally healthy. I was HIV infected, but I hadn't experienced a single symptom. I hadn't yet met Danny when I finished it.
Your life is so divided. On one side you're experiencing every writer's dream and on the other side dealing with the loss of Danny and living with AIDS. How does that all come together?
Well, it makes the awards and attention and stuff sort of meaningless what with Danny dead and even before then with just being sick. It kind of takes the wind out of your sails. Having audiences still laugh and be moved by the play brings me enjoyment and that has not faded because of personal things, but all the other stuff I don't find very exciting. Maybe if I were healthier and Danny were still here.
When someone leaves the theater after seeing 'Marvin's Room' what is the overall impression or impact you would want the play to have?
It might sound stupid, but I just hope they had a good time at the theater. I hate to be bored at the theater that a lot of times makes me go for the humor. And I guess I want to make people see the value of caring for other people and that caring in and of itself offers a reward. It's a valuable thing.