Q&A with Steven Gallagher
Playwright and actor Steven Gallagher recently won the 2013 Harold Award. PGC catches up with him and talks to him about why he began to write plays after a career in acting and what drives him.
1. You were “Harolded” recently, winning the 2013 Harold award for outstanding and under-recognized dedications on or off the stage. Could you tell us the story behind your win? What about your work do you think stood out to the award committee? And how does it feel to be recognized by this “subversive” award?
The Harold Awards are unique because there is actually no committee involved. Shawn Wright, who was Harolded in 2012, chose me as this year’s recipient. It’s all done in secrecy; Shawn invited me out for the night, we ended up at the Monarch Tavern and suddenly he was at the microphone announcing me as the newest member of the House of Don McKellar. I think Shawn chose me as this year’s recipient because although I’ll be fifty next year, I’ve entered a new phase of my career, specifically that of playwright, and he wanted to acknowledge that independent spirit in someone who is not “just starting out”. It’s a real honour to be recognized for doing something I love.
2. You’re also an actor. That’s quite a dichotomy, being the person behind the scenes when writing a play, and being an actor and the most visible person of a production. Could you talk a bit about that? What aspects of your personality do the two different sides draw on, and what do you enjoy and find challenging about each role?
Being on either side of the script requires a certain amount of diplomacy. Since becoming a writer, I understand how difficult it is to actually put something down on paper that you want other people to say out loud. When I’m acting in something, especially a new play, I try to really respect what’s on the page, and honour the writer’s intentions. Writing is hard work, and sometimes as actors we forget that we wouldn’t have a job without a script.
That being said, I love the collaborative process of being in a room with a good director and good actors who will ask questions about the script, and push me on things that they don’t understand about the play. I actually enjoy making changes when I hear something in my writing that sounds false. I’m not precious about cutting scenes that just don’t work. But I’m no pushover. If I feel strongly about something, I will explain to an actor why I wrote that particular scene the way I did. It’s really the most exciting time for me, working through a script and hearing it out loud for the first time.
3. How did you get into playwriting?
I think I’ve always been a writer. I was just too afraid to actually put what I wrote out into the world. When I finally decided I had a story I wanted to tell, the most natural way for me to tell it was as a play. I’ve been a stage actor for so long, I understand the constructs of playmaking. The first full-length play I wrote, Craplicker, dealt with my own struggle with cancer and coming out as gay rather late in life. It’s not completely autobiographical, but I had a lot of research done already! The success of that play, and the challenges I faced as a first time writer, really made me love the process, and I keep writing every chance I get.
4. Memorial started its life as a 10-minute play for Driftwood Theatre’s Trafalgar 24 Creation Festival. What was it like writing the play in a mere 8 hours? Is that typical of your writing process?
Trafalgar 24 is an incredible experience in guerilla playwriting. You have no choice but to produce something…anything, because it will be performed the next night. I was locked in a chapel in a private girls school for eight hours with three head shots and no idea where to begin. I wrote Memorial as a short play about a dying man who is attending the dress rehearsal of his own funeral. That version won the jury prize, which was a commission to expand the play to full length. When I started in on the expanded version, a very dear friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months to live, and he asked me to make the play about him. The finished play is about a dying man on his wedding day, who is also planning his funeral. Again, my personal experience informed the re writes, and made the play better.
I enjoy writing when I have a deadline, but eight hours is very stressful. I preferred the workshop portion of the process. I can’t say enough good things about my experience working on Memorial with Jeremy Smith and Toby Malone at Driftwood Theatre. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and gave me the confidence to keep writing.
5. What are you working on now and what’s in the future for you?
I will be performing at the Toronto Fringe this summer in Stealing Sam, a solo show that I wrote. I’ve never performed in something I’ve written and I’m terrified. Luckily, I have a wonderful director, Darcy Evans, whose guidance on the project has been invaluable. I have a couple of other plays in the works, the trick, as always, is to get them produced.
6. Many authors have a favorite inspirational quote above their desk or something inscribed in a cherished notebook to keep their muse flowing and to drive their positive energies forward. What fuels your creativity? Please also share one of the quotes that has kept you going as a writer.
I love working in theatre, and I am constantly inspired by artists in the Toronto community. I realized after I turned forty that I wasn’t always satisfied only being the vessel for someone else’s words. The challenge to be part of something and to tell stories that people might want to see, that’s what fuels me.
The quote I have on my desk is something I try to live every day, in all areas of my life. It’s a quote from Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never give up”.
As a writer Steven's play, Craplicker, was performed at the 2010 Toronto Fringe where it received Best Of Fringe and was remounted at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. His play, Memorial, was the winner of the Trafalgar 24 Play Creation Festival Jury Prize and had its Toronto premiere at the Next Stage Festival in 2013. Memorial was also seen as part of the Queer Arts Festival in Vancouver and has had subsequent readings at Half Moon Theatre in New York.
As an actor, he was most recently seen as Fagin in Oliver! at King's Wharf Theatre, Albin in La Cage aux Folles at Neptune Theatre (Merritt Award Nominee). Two season in High Park as Quince in a Midsummer Night's Dream, and original cast Top Gun! The Musical! at the 2002 Toronto Fringe. Steven in the recipient of a 2013 Harold Award.