‘Desperate Writers’: Actor and playwright in conversation
It takes courage to write about your own life for a play; it takes even more courage to play a character in it. That is what Catherine Schreiber is doing in Desperate Writers, a play she co-wrote with Joshua Grenrock, about the writing duo’s adventures of getting a script produced in Hollywood. The comedy begins previews May 16 at the Union Square Theater and will open June 6. Schreiber is a producer of The Scottsboro Boys, as well as the upcoming Broadway production of The King’s Speech, based on the Oscar-winning film. Maddie Corman (previously seen on Broadway in Next Fall) plays the role of Ashley, modeled after Schreiber. The actress and playwright sat down with Stage Rush to discuss the rehearsal process, the struggles of making it in the entertainment industry, and their other high-profile projects: Smash—a pilot for NBC, and King’s Speech.
How did the basis for this play come to you?
Catherine Schreiber: Joshua Grenrock and I met as actors years ago and then we started writing together. We had always wanted to write a script about our struggles. Everyone said don’t do it, but it was one of those scripts that we had to write. Everything in it is based on truth.
How much of the play is you?
CS: A lot of the play is me. Josh and I, we really wrote it for ourselves as Ashley and David. We couldn’t play those parts because by the time we did it, we would have been too old and it wouldn’t have been a comedy anymore, it would have been more of a tragedy. We played the producers instead. But a lot of my friends who hear the lines will recognize me.
Maddie, you play…
Maddie Corman: Catherine. [Laughs] I play Ashley.
What’s your character up to?
MC: When the play opens, it’s the day of the big [script] meeting and it’s finally supposed to happen. The company loves it; they can make this couple’s dream come true. I think the one thing that may not be autobiographical for Catherine—just because I want to save your marriage—in the play, the cowriters are also in love. Ashley is ready to get married and have a baby. Herboyfriend won’t take that next step until he gets his ducks in a row. I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling of, ‘Come on, it’s my time. I’m not asking for a favor. I’m ready to work hard and do what I was born to you.’ I can’t tell you how much I relate to the script. In rehearsal, I have shared my horror stories about jobs I have done where they’ve said, ‘OK, this pilot is going to series and you’re going to be in this.’
CS: I’ve had so many contracts. I’ve had so many deals. I was told by Showtime, ‘This is happening. Call your mother. Have champagne. Celebrate.’ And then it doesn’t happen. In this business, it isn’t about how talented you are; it’s luck. There are so many other elements.
MC: Catherine has been really great about allowing us in rehearsal to find ourselves. Catherine’s there, because she’s the writer and she’s also in the show. She has allowed me to find my Ashley. I give her a lot of credit because she wrote it and lived it.
CS: I was a producer on Next Fall, which Maddie was in; she played Holly. The first time I saw it, I wrote notes on the show and I wrote, “I want to be friends with Holly.” She’s my perfect Ashley. It’s amazing how things just happen the way they’re supposed to happen.
Video: Catherine Schreiber on writing lines that play to her humor and rewriting lines in rehearsal.
Maddie, did you bring the harriedness you once felt as a struggling actor to this role as a harried writer?
MC: In a word—yes. Being an actress and being told, ‘No, no, no,’ or being told, ‘Yes,’ and then having it not be what I thought it was going to be—it’s a constant struggle. I still struggle with it, not as someone who is worried about breaking in, but it’s still a struggle every day to figure out how to keep faith in yourself when you’re being told, ‘No,’ over and over. And then to not let it go the other way when you’re being told how wonderful you are, to not believe that either. Somewhere in the middle.
CS: You are wonderful.
MC: Well, thank you. I believe her. In this show, we kidnap three of Hollywood’s top producers, and we don’t make them give us a job; we just make them listen to our script. Every actor has had that audition where you go in, you sing three bars, and they say, ‘Thank you very much,’ or you’ve prepared 10 scenes and you read two pages and they say, ‘That was terrific. Thank you.’ You just want someone to know what you’re capable of.
Maddie, I read that you were involved in the Smash pilot for NBC. What’s going on with that? [Editor’s note: At the time of the interview, Smash had not yet been picked up by NBC. Tuesday, it was reported that the pilot was picked up by the network.]
MC: I’m so excited that I got to be a part of it. It’s a show I can’t wait to watch on TV. You’re going to love it.
CS: I don’t know Smash. Tell me about Smash!
MC: It’s a pilot that I got to work on. I told them I’d do anything for them—I’d even go get groceries—but they were nice enough to give me an actual role. It takes place behind the scenes of a Broadway musical. I had the most amazing time being at the table read. I felt like I should then pay $150, because it was like watching a Broadway musical. There’s a writing team of Debra Messing and Christian Borle. They are starting to write a Marilyn Monroe musical. Megan Hilty and Katherine McPhee play the two girls up for the role of Marilyn. The pilot is directed by Michael Mayer, who is amazing. I love that Hollywood was smart enough to hire a brilliant theater director to direct this television show. Debra Messing’s character is married to Brian d’Arcy James in the show. They’re trying to adopt a baby, and I play their social worker. So, fingers crossed—both as an audience and an actress—that the show gets picked up and we get to do lots of episodes.
Catherine, what’s going on with The King’s Speech?
CS: The plan is for it to open outside of London this summer and then come to Broadway. I think there are offers out. I’m thrilled to be a part of that.
Obviously, there’s that name recognition now with the movie. Some people will feel that the movie has been done already, it was superb, and that’s that. What do you say to that?
CS: It was a play first. The story really is about the relationship of these two men, King George VI and Lionel Logue, and that comes out so much stronger on stage. The film was amazing, of course. The play is even better, I think. You see the relationship develop much more than you do in the movie. You see that dance [of their ranks] develop in the play. There’s so much more focus on that. It’s an important story and I think more people should see it.
How do you begin to look for someone to replace those roles, played by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush?
That is the biggest challenge, because a lot of people don’t want to be compared to those people. They are amazing roles and I think when time settles a little bit, people will want to play it. There are great plays done and then there are revivals. This is just a little bit sooner than usual. We will find the actors out there who are not intimidated who think they can bring something new to that part.
Who have you looked at?
I am not at liberty to say.
Well Rushers, I tried! Who would you like to see play the lead roles in a Broadway production of The King’s Speech? Do you think it would be difficult or strange to act in a play about your life, like Catherine Schreiber is? How about acting in a play that you wrote? Are you excited to see Maddie Corman in Smash? Leave your comments below, and tune into this week’s episode of Stage Rush TV to see Catherine talk about The Scottsboro Boys’ 12 Tony Award nominations, and which categories she thinks the show can win!