Backstage Blog

Meet Stephen Metcalfe

In January 2011, Cygnet Theatre will have the honor of producing its very first World Premiere – The Tragedy of the Commons, by celebrity playwright Stephen Metcalfe.

Stephen Metcalfe, a nationally renowned stage writer, is possibly most recognized for such Hollywood blockbusters as Pretty Woman (with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere) and Mr. Holland’s Opus (with Richard Dreyfuss).

CT: Did you start out writing for film?

SM: I started out as a playwright. Between 1978 and 1985 I wrote five full length plays and perhaps half a dozen one act plays. Even though all the work was produced, I was in no way, shape or form making a living from it. At one point I thought it might be a relief to go into advertising.

CT: What are some of the differences between writing for film versus the stage?

SM: I discovered early on how difficult plot can be. In the theatre, plot is an excuse for people to talk. In a movie, it’s a reason for them to blow things up. Here’s another difference. If a play is a house, others can decorate, but they can’t tear down the walls. It’s yours, you own it.  If a screenplay is a house, people can tear it down to the foundation, dig a deep hole and throw away the key. They own it. (This doesn’t mean that sometimes you don’t get the credit – or blame – for what they did.)

In the theatre no one is asking you to be a playwright – in fact, if pressed, they’d probably tell you to go into advertising – but if you write a play, they’ll read it.  In film, no one reads anything. But if they hear you’ve done something that’s pretty good, they’ll pay you to do something else.

CT: What impact did your success with Pretty Woman have on your career as a writer?

SM: For better or for worse, in 1991 I wrote the production draft of the screenplay for Pretty Woman. And so for the next ten years the phone rang pretty much on a weekly basis with someone – who, as mentioned, had usually never read my work – asking me to re-write a romantic comedy. The problem was I didn’t consider myself a writer of romantic comedies. But as I was trying to do silly things like pay a mortgage and raise a family, as often as not I’d take the job. But in between re-writing romantic comedies I continued to write my own screenplays on spec. This, to some extent, took the place of my writing for the theatre. It felt the same. My own screenplays I hoped/felt were character and dialogue driven and were emotionally grounded; they felt to me as if they were about real things. Of course, they didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting made.

CT: What prompted you to begin writing for the stage again?

SM: In 2005 I had a growing realization that though I’ve made a living as writer, the best work I’ve done is probably sitting on shelves in LA somewhere. Did I mention that a dramatist writes for actors and an audience? The writing is not the end unto itself, seeing it done is. And so, with this in mind, the desire to see work done, I find myself writing plays again. I have no fantasies I’ll make a living doing it but that’s okay. I’m also going into advertising.