BWW Interview: Playwright Tom Dudzick
Tom Dudzick: "The Most Successful Playwright that Broadway's Never Heard Of"
For 20 years Tom Dudzick has achieved the nearly-impossible: makes a living writing plays.
In his native home of Buffalo, New York there is a memorial plaque that has been imbedded in front of his boyhood home , commemorating his father's tavern and the play it inspired.
Tom even had the unique pleasure of being a question on Jeopardy.
Nary a month goes by that a Tom Dudzick play isn't running somewhere in the U.S.
Mr. Dudzick took the time to answer a few questions from BroadwayWorld.
MCL Let's start back when you were born. Buffalo, New York. What area in Buffalo was that?
TD: I was born in the old Hydraulics section, birthplace of Buffalo industry. In the shadow of the Larkin Building. Over a tavern that my father owned, Big Joe Dudzick's. Where Larkinville is doing so well now.
MCL: What was it like to grow up there? Interesting stories you want to share?
TD: I had a great childhood there. Adventures every day, so much fun playing in the railyards, climbing on boxcars, climbing up grain elevators, just enjoying the neighborhood. Digging treasures out of the dumpsters behind the Larkin Building. And even though it was inner city, we had trees in my backyard. I had a great treehouse in one of them, which is why I put a treehouse in King o' the Moon (Over the Tavern, Part 2). And of course for conflict there were the Catholic nuns and their strict religious teachings, giving us plenty to ponder and worry about. Nuns with rulers aren't just an urban legend; we had them. But for some reason I had this compulsion to make them laugh. If I did that, I figured, then they'd like me. Like me and maybe ease up with the ruler. Which is part of the reason I was always class clown.
MCL: What was the book you enjoyed most in school? What book have you read over and never tire of!
TD: My favorite book in grade school was Tom Sawyer. Read it over and over. Just loved the adventures he got in. Imagine being trapped in a cave with the girl you love, and a renegade "Injun Joe" starts chasing you?! And you outwit him and rescue the girl? Does it get any better than that? Makes me want to read it again!
MCL: What was school like for you? Good student? Shy? Outgoing?
TD: I hated school! So dull! The only pleasure was making the other kids laugh. I'd bring novelty items to school that my father used in the bar - fake teeth, whoopee cushion, dribble glass, you name it. Only with girls was I shy. With everyone else I was noisy and boisterous.
MCL: What was the first live play you attended?
TD: I guess my first live play was one that I was actually in. Our 7th Grade Nun, Sister Eleanor Marie, wrote a little adaptation of the poem, "The Courtship of Miles Standish." We had no theatre, she just had some of the kids act it out in front of the class. It was so dull (kids were doing their homework during it!) and I was so outraged that I wasn't chosen to be in it that I wrote a parody of it and asked permission to put it on. She let me do it and I got big laughs.
MCL Please tell us about your playwriting beginnings.
TD: Writing didn't appear in my life until my twenties, after college (SUNY Fredonia). Before then I was determined to be a cartoonist. But after graduation I was approached by a college friend whose brother had just purchased the Showboat Restaurant in Buffalo and wanted him to produce dinner theatre. Because I could play piano and was kinda funny my friend asked if I'd go in with him on the venture. It sounded like a better deal than my job at the ketchup factory, so I said yes. Together we wrote a musical comedy called Make Your Moves With Confidence which I got to star in. It ran for a year. After that I've never looked back at cartooning. It was theatre all the way.
We continued and expanded the dinner theatre venture long after the Showboat closed. My partner, John Cimasi (now retired in Buffalo) was the businessman; I was just along for the fun. He expanded our operation to several restaurants in Buffalo and East Aurora and Rochester. We even took our original musical comedies to restaurants in Pittsburgh, Detroit and St. Louis.
But by 1979 I'd been doing the local dinner theatre thing for 6 years and I knew it was time to strike out on my own and try the big time in New York City. I had a new writing partner and within a year we attracted Sam French, the big play publisher, with a little one-act comedy we managed to get into a black box theatre in Hell's Kitchen. They published the play and that became my calling card to get into agencies and networks, trying to somehow break into the big time. That went on for about ten years.
I finally got lucky with a Christmas play I wrote during my lunch hours at Bankers Trust Company on Park Avenue where I was a secretary. A producer from a big professional theatre in New Jersey came to a sit-down reading of the play (where the actors sit with scripts and just read it) and took a liking to it. It was called Greetings! They produced it. It was my first major production and I was ecstatic. The event coincided with meeting the girl I eventually married, so it was great having her there right from the beginning. Greetings! made it to off-Broadway and starred the late Darren McGavin. It was published
and is still done all over the country at Xmas-time. Sometimes it's done during the summer, too, just because producers like it, I guess.
The reviews were good. Remember Clive Barnes? He called it "a comic jewel of a play." It was produced by Arthur Cantor, one of the last of the one-man-producers. I silently questioned the wisdom of putting on a commercial production of a Christmas play and expecting it to run past the holidays, but I wasn't about to complain. As it turned out, it only ran eleven weeks. But it was a great start for me. I had become "established."
MCL: In the last twenty years you've been doing what many have found to be difficult to impossible ... you've been able to make a living as a playwright. When did you know that was possible?
How have you been able to do that?
TD: I'm blissfully aware that I have achieved the near impossible, writing plays for a living. I don't know how to explain the achievement except to say that I just kept writing plays that audiences like and I kept getting them out to theatres. I was very lucky in the beginning to have a director who not only directed well but had an awful lot of connections with regional theatres. Terry Lamude. He directed my first really big "hit," Over the Tavern. And when that broke all records in Buffalo he went to his contacts in other cities and spread the news around that there was this play that would do very well for them. They took a chance on it and were delighted with the results. Broke several box office records. The Artistic Director for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Steve Woolf, said putting on Over the Tavern was like printing money in the basement! So later, when I approached these same theatres with my other plays, they listened. And word spread.
MCL: The Buffalo audiences have a great deal of respect for you.
Do you feel Broadway feels the same way?
TD: Ask me when I get there! (Laugh.) It's every playwright's dream, right? Seems like every hungry playwright in the world goes to NYC and dumps their work on the producers' desks. You have to have an awfully loud horn to get attention amidst all that. I recently had a very small off-Broadway production done of my comedy, Miracle on South Division Street. Produced by a lovely company called Penguin Repertory Theatre based in Stony Point, NY. The audiences that did show up - some nights a full house of 108 people, some nights as few as 25 - adored it. I know 'cause I was there. They'd be screaming with laughter, telling me in the lobby how they were so moved. But the play simply got lost in the crowd. Luckily the NY Times gave it a very favorable review so I've been able to use that in my marketing, and I've had over 50 productions since the off-B'way venture. But if you asked any New Yorker about it now they'd never know the play even existed.
MCL: You've had commendable success ... Please talk about how Buffalo has influenced you and how Buffalo has shown its appreciation?
TD: There's not enough paper or words to express my appreciation for Buffalo. If you look at my plays, every one of them has something to do with the city. It either takes place there or the characters are from there. It's not just my way of saying thanks, it's my way of saying, "I can't help it! This is who I am, a Buffalo Boy!"
In the current play I'm working on I thought I'd break from tradition and set in here in my small town in the Hudson Valley and people it with characters I've come to know here. But at one point in its development I thought - "Y'know what? This play would be much more effective if it took place in Buffalo." I had to laugh out loud. You can take the boy out of Buffalo, but...
MCL: What should Broadway know about Tom Dudzick?
TD: That my plays are crowd pleasers. Sure, they're homey and folksy but they're also moving and funny and audiences love them. I've been in the big houses, 400 seats, and I've heard the screams of laughter. I would tell Broadway go ahead and cast film stars to lure the tourists in, if that's what you need to do. But don't worry that you've never heard of the playwright. I won't let you down. ...My mouth to God's ear, right?
MCL: What haven't you accomplished yet that you plan to?
TD: A film adaptation of Over the Tavern. It would also make a wonderful TV series.
I have scripts for both!
More information on Tom Dudzick:
Tom Dudzick lives in Nyack, NY with his wife and two children.
Visit his website at www.tomdudzick.com.