Frank Ceruzzi: “Listen to feedback”

Hone your voice, but don’t be afraid to experiment with genre or try a new style. My first show was a satirical musical comedy; my next was a more somber straight play. I found myself returning to similar motifs and themes in both pieces (truth, time, technology), but by switching things up I grew so […]

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Hone your voice, but don’t be afraid to experiment with genre or try a new style. My first show was a satirical musical comedy; my next was a more somber straight play. I found myself returning to similar motifs and themes in both pieces (truth, time, technology), but by switching things up I grew so much as a writer — and learned a lot about myself in the process.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Frank Ceruzzi.

Frank Ceruzzi is a New York based playwright whose work investigates how our obsession with the virtual world has impacted our ability to live in the real one. His new dystopian play, Round Went the Wheel, premiered at Theatre Row in NYC as part of the 2019 Broadway Bound Theatre Festival. Frank co-wrote the book & lyrics to WikiMusical, an Official Selection of the 2014 New York Musical Festival. He currently teaches high school English in Scarsdale, NY, where he specializes in creative writing and American drama.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

As a kid I spent more time inside my room telling stories with my action-figures than I did hanging out with friends. I don’t think I surprised anyone when I became a high school English teacher — now I could make my living studying stories and helping students to tell their own. About ten years ago, one of my former students, who’d become an established writer, reached out and wanted to reconnect. Over lunch, he casually mentioned that we should write something together, and those words unlocked a door inside of me; suddenly I had permission to tell my own stories again. I started writing that summer and I haven’t stopped since.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

When I was working on WikiMusical at the New York Musical Theatre Festival with Blake J. Harris and Trent Jeffords, we were rehearsing the show during the day and writing new material at night. Scenes we’d invented the night before were being blocked the next day, and then went up in front of an audience the next week — it was both frightening and exhilarating! The villain for the show, the Spam King, was originally conceived of as terrifying “Darth Vader meets Scar” sort-of figure. It was hard to find the right person for the role. But then our brilliant director, Richard J. Hinds, suggested we think about the role differently — and we were incredibly lucky to cast Tony nominated Brenda Braxton, who channeled her experience in Chicago and Dreamgirls into a seductively sinister prime minister of evil. She was a joy to work with, and the cast learned so much from her — as did all of us.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

Lots of rejection! Festivals, theater companies, and publishing houses receive hundreds or thousands (or hundreds of thousands!) submissions for everything that you’re applying for, so it helps to keep it all in perspective and to not take every “no” personally. It’s about the right script with the right people at the right time. Having said that, fifty rejections in a row might also signal that you could try changing something — rewrite the opening, play around with the structure, reconsider the tone. Then send out the script again and again and again.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

For me, writing is an act of discovery, an exploration of the subconscious. I don’t like to plot out every scene in advance, and sometimes that can get a writer into trouble — you can paint yourself into a corner that you can’t get out of so easily. When I reached the end of my first draft of Round Went the Wheel, I realized that I’d done just that, and it required weeks and weeks of rewrites of earlier scenes to make the ending work. But I do think that was ultimately good for the show — not knowing took me to places I never would have gone had I planned out the ending too far in advance.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m writing a piece called West about a father and son on a road trip and when they get to the California state line, the road just ends — California is gone. That all happens on the first page! It’s a surreal beginning — and opening a piece with a climactic moment like that is a fun place to start. It’s similar to The Metamorphosis — in the first sentence Kafka has Gregor transform into the insect. Where do you go from there?!

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I think David’s character is the most compelling in Round Went the Wheel because he’s meant to be a stand-in for the reader or viewer — someone struggling to find his place in a world that’s been turned upside down. In the opening to her novel Ordinary People, Judith Guest writes “To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A bumper sticker, if you will.” That’s what David is looking for — his bumper sticker, his sense of purpose in this brave new world. I think we can all relate to that right now.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

“The world only spins forward.” That’s one of my favorite lines of all time, written by the great Tony Kushner. That’s what I want readers to take away from my play. It’s not the end of the world — it’s the end of one world and the beginning of another. We have new tales to tell, new stories to write.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

1) Dorothy Parker famously quipped, “I hate writing. I love having written.” And she’s not alone. Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, Franz Kafka — they all expressed intense agony about the writing process. There are days when you sit at the computer and the words come pouring out of you and five hours goes by in the blink of an eye. And then there are the other days, which are incredibly agonizing and, unfortunately, much more common. To become a great author, you have to sit and write. Every. Single. Day.

2) “Kill your darlings.” There’s some debate about who actually coined this phrase. Regardless, it’s great advice — and incredibly hard to do. We all have those sentences or scenes or symbols that we fall madly in love with when, in reality, the piece as a whole would be better without them. There were jokes in WikiMusical that I thought would bring down the house — and many of them were pretty funny on their own — but what they really did was get in the way of the storytelling.

3) Listen to feedback — but not too much of it. Ask a few people whose opinions you value to read your work and have them give you actionable feedback. Then take the best advice from each of them and leave the rest behind. If two or three people are having the same negative reaction to something your script, you probably need to change it. When I was working on Round Went the Wheel, there were aspects of the “world-building” that were confusing to a couple of my friends, so I knew I needed to give the reader more information. But you don’t want to “fix” everything — otherwise your piece will start to sound as if it’s written by committee.

4) Hone your voice, but don’t be afraid to experiment with genre or try a new style. My first show was a satirical musical comedy; my next was a more somber straight play. I found myself returning to similar motifs and themes in both pieces (truth, time, technology), but by switching things up I grew so much as a writer — and learned a lot about myself in the process.

5) Submit, submit, submit. As one of my sports-obsessed students likes to remind his peers, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

You have to do your homework. In this case, that’s a lot more fun than it sounds. I always say to my students that the best writers are readers. Devouring hundreds of plays and musicals has taught me more about dialogue, craft and structure than some of the best books on writing. Part of the reason I think I’ve been in a bit of a creative rut this past year is because I’m not reading enough new work and I’m not able to go see anything live! I can’t wait for the theaters to reopen.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I love science-fiction and dystopian literature & film: 1984, Blade Runner, Interstellar, Ready Player One. They’re all high concept pieces, but at the heart of these texts is the same essential question that I’m exploring in all of my work: what’s the human part of the human being? And I think we can get at the answer to that question in really interesting ways when we enter into a world that operates differently from our own — the fictional reality helps to hold up a mirror to our world.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It may sound trite or cliché, but people need kindness and empathy now more than ever. All that really matters in life — in relationships, with family, at work — is how you make people feel. Life is hard. Each of us has a story to tell, and most stories are about struggle. And that struggle is a little easier when people see us and hear us. Maybe everything isn’t going to be okay. It’s not about fixing things for the person. It’s about offering a comforting word of acknowledgment or that proverbial shoulder to cry on.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@macrony and @roundwentthewheel on Instagram

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

Thank you for having me!

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