My brother, Daniel, is a fine purveyor of both talent and goodness. I had heard him singing the praises of this guy named Michael Mitnick on each of these fronts for quite a while, and a few years ago I finally found an excuse to get to know Michael for myself. I read what was then his latest play. It blew me away. So much so that I insisted on directing a staged reading of it.
Looking back, that collaboration with Michael and four terrific and fearless actors (Bonita Friedericy, Norm Johnson, Terry Rhoads and Amy Weaver) created the roadmap for why I wanted to continue directing, and why I love it. I am forever grateful.
I am also really happy that Michael and his writing have continued to enjoy wonderful and deserved opportunities and successes. If you’re in New York City these next couple of weeks, you’d be crazy not to check out his play “Sex Lives Of Our Parents” at the Second Stage Theatre Uptown Series.
In the meantime, check out his writing space with me…
Me: I think I have a good guess of the answer to this, given the nature of the way your photos were being emailed, but let’s see if I’m right: The initial question I’m asking of everyone is, on a scale 1 to 10, how much did you prep or clean up your space before taking these photographs?
Michael: I used to write on a weird low table I found at a sale back when I lived in D.C. It was purloined from the House of Representatives. I recently stumbled on this old drafting table at a flea market and I like it a bit more, especially the fact that I can now fit my knees under it.
Me: Yes, being able to sit at your desk is a very good thing.
Michael: The pencil cup is a converted canister from an Edison wax cylinder recording.
Me: I was wondering what that “originally” was! That’s awesome.
Michael: I picked it up along with an Edison Wax Cylinder Home Phonograph for research and for messing around with. The sound from the horn is like ghost music.
Me: And please tell me more about that light on the desk, because it’s kinda the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!
Michael: Thanks. I’m glad you like it. To get my mind off writing, I started making lamps from hardware store parts and stuff I find from suppliers online.
Me: Wait, you made this lamp? You make lamps?!?
Michael: I do. The one on my desk is the first I built. It gives off an eerie glow that is just dim enough to be completely impractical.
Me: Why, to get your mind off writing, did you choose lamp building?
Michael: I’ve been working on a few projects over the last few years about electricity. After learning enough about the physics not to embarrass myself, I suppose I wanted to put it to practical use—this is, of course, implying that the writing projects were impractical. It’s exceedingly simple—more assembling than building, but I found some pleasure in designing the thing.
Me: Can I commission you to build me a lamp in your “free time?” I’m not remotely kidding.
Michael: Sure, I’ll make you one.
Me: Sweet! Okay, we can talk more about that once this interview is over. In the meantime, is that a can of Diet Coke next to your computer, or a Bud Light?
Michael: I think it’s a can of beer.
Me: Lord, the high brow with the low brow—building your own lamp art pieces while drinking beer out of a can. Okay, so when you took the second, close-up photo of your desk for me, your computer was gone. Where did it run off to?
Michael: I think the floor next to my bed? I respond to emails when I wake up and I generally fall in and out of sleep, which causes me to send mostly nonsensical messages.
Me: That’s actually really interesting to me, because I purposefully don’t read emails, listen to phone messages, etc., until after I have a chunk of writing under my belt each day. Those correspondences too often leave a residual effect of distraction, clogging my brain. That doesn’t happen to you?
Michael: Absolutely it does. But it’s entirely useful for making me feel like I’ve achieved before my feet hit the floor, and then I can go many hours riding that feeling of artificial accomplishment until it’s suddenly 1:00 AM and I need to actually sit down and write.
Me: Ah, I get it. That’s rather clever of you, in a procrastinating sort of way. So when your computer was by the bed for email purposes, a script was in its place on your desk. Tell us about that script that’s sitting there.
Michael: Oh, it’s a draft of a new play I’m writing as a commission from the Denver Center Theater Company. Sam Buntrock is directing. It’s half movie, half play.
Me: Oh wow!
Michael: Luckily, the Denver Center Theater Company is incredibly supportive of this risky and expensive endeavor, and we hope we’ll end up with something that blends the two modes in a way most audiences haven’t seen.
Me: Speaking of combining two modes: I also see a guitar pick. And then, resting against your chair in the next photo, a guitar. I didn’t know you played the guitar! Though I certainly already knew that you’re a wonderful songwriter—lyricist and composer—in addition to your playwriting.
Me: When you’re writing a non-musical play, does music—whether listening to it, playing it, or composing it—inform your writing?
Michael: I used to listen to music when I write, but I’ve begun to find it distracting if there are lyrics. So now I listen to a lot of early jazz and blues. Songs of World War II. And some new bands that have such repetitive and nonsensical lyrics I can tune them out, though I like their sound.
Me: What a double-edged “compliment” for those bands. I won’t make you name names. The last thing I have to mention is your mighty fine bookcase. There are some serious looking books going on there! Do any of them relate to projects you’re currently working on?
Michael: Actually, many do. Looking again I see books related to several things in development. At the top of the heap is Moss Hart’s wonderful autobiography “Act One” and below that is a biography of Moss Hart that contradicts most of his autobiography. I like having them touching.
Me: I like the notion of those books touching too. Moss Hart is unequivocally one of my favorite theater people. There’s so much I love about him. But my favorite thing of all is that he is responsible for this quote: “There is something maddening about mediocrity that calls forth the worst in those who are forced to deal with it.”
Michael: I’ve never read that quotation. I like that.
Me: Yeah, pretty great, right? Let’s continue the love-fest by ending this interview with your favorite thing about Moss.
Michael: How about a cut section from my play, “Spacebar.” It used to have a slightly altered story about Moss Hart.
Me: I adore your play “Spacebar.” Let’s do it!
Michael: The only set-up needed is that KYLE is 15 and convinced he’s written the best play in history. He has a crush on an older and cooler girl from his school, JESSICA.
JESSICA. What are you reading?
KYLE. A book.
JESSICA. (Imitating him.) A book. What book?
KYLE. It’s called Act One. It’s the autobiography of a playwriter named Moss Hart who wrote some really funny plays back a million years ago that I’m sure you’ve never seen.
JESSICA. Are they about teenage vampires?
KYLE. Moss Hart came from total poverty in the Bronx. And he dreamed of having a Broadway play but he hadn’t even BEEN to Broadway even though he lived like two-hundred blocks away.
JESSICA. That’s sad.
KYLE. Right. So Moss Hart one day can’t take it anymore and he quits his crappy job hanging up fur coats and he rides the subway to the heart of Times Square and marches right into a theatrical producer’s office and yells, “Gimme a job!”
JESSICA. He had balls.
KYLE. Yeah. Moss Hart had huge balls. So the producer realizes how big his balls are and sees how desperate Moss Hart is and hires Moss Hart to be his assistant.
JESSICA. This book is about an internship? Sounds fucking boring.
KYLE. No, listen! The producer was a road producer which means he put together shows that toured around the United States. But this producer just couldn’t find the next play to produce on tour.
The producer and Moss Hart read script after script after script and they all suck ass. They’re total shit. And Moss Hart thinks to himself, “Even I could write better than this,” even though he’s never written a play before and is like only sixteen years old.
So guess what!
KYLE gets up and starts pacing.
KYLE. So that night Moss Hart goes home and drinks a whole pot of coffee and stays up the whole night and he writes a play.
And on the cover, instead of his own name, he makes up a name and writes, “Robert Arnold Conrad.”
KYLE climbs onto the bed, kneeling.
The next morning Moss Hart stumbles into the office, not having slept at all, clutching his play, and Moss Hart drops the script down on his boss’s desk and takes a deep breath and points to it and yells, “This is the best script I have ever read.”
JESSICA. Whoa!! What happened next!?
KYLE. The boss says, “Well OK. I’ll read it over lunch.” And when the boss left for lunch, Moss starts freaking out and losing his shit. He starts regretting having ever taken a chance.
JESSICA. Did he get fired?!?
KYLE. SO! His boss finally comes back from lunch. And his boss has this serious look on his face. And Moss Hart KNOWS that he’s been found out. Moss Hart knows he’s been caught lying to his boss and he’ll have to quit and go back to hanging up dumb fur coats in the Bronx.
Well…The boss walks up to Moss Hart. And he looks all serious. And lifts the script up into the air and starts to shake it at Moss Hart. Like it’s a hammer. And do you know what he says?
KYLE stands on the bed.
“This is the best play I’ve read in years. I’m not even taking this on the road. I’m taking this straight to Broadway.”
JESSICA. Wow!! Holy shit!!
KYLE. And that was the start of Mr. Moss Hart, one of the most famous playwriters of the 20th century.
JESSICA. I’ve never heard of him.
KYLE. Yeah well…
Sara Israel is a writer and director living in Los Angeles.