A love for the written word

Lawrence native's play gets the nod from publisher

Lawrence High School alumni John Ott has become a published playwright. Ott, 20, is a student at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts.

Lawrence High School alumnus John Ott’s words are making a difference.

His 10-minute play, “Waiting,” is being published by Brooklyn Publishers in Odessa, Tex., a company that specializes in plays for high school students.

Ott will be a junior at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, this fall.

“Although I came in thinking to concentrate on screenwriting, playwriting seems to be giving me a run for my money,” he said.

Ott, 20, was interviewed via the Internet about his training and writing career. Here is some of what he had to say:

What’s the play about?

(It’s) about the bond that forms between two women while they wait for news of loved ones outside a hospital on 9/11/01.

What were you doing when the World Trade Center was attacked?

I saw the smoke from the first attack but not the actual building. The wind was blowing it almost horizontal across the strip of sky visible between the buildings on Third Avenue. At that point I did not believe it (people on the street make a lot of incredible statements in New York), so I continued to class.

Class is where I first got a breath that it might be terrorist-related. There were also rumors that the second tower had been hit. The teacher showed up late as usual, said nothing about it and taught the class like any other day.

Then, when class dismissed, we stepped out into a whole new reality. By that time, both towers had fallen and I had no idea. It was a long day. I walked to a lot of hospitals trying to give blood and got turned away everywhere. My roommates and I put up some other students who had been displaced from their dorm.

We were not that close to the site but we were still close enough to be in the part of the city sealed by police and National Guard.

When did you write the play was it for a class or something you did in your leisure time?

Most of my other plays I’ve had produced have been ones that originated in or were workshopped in class. This one, however, I wrote as a personal attempt to capture the feeling of what it was like to be in this city on that day.

We have, in New York and as a nation, moved beyond the tragedy and begun to heal. But on that day all there was was ambiguity, a sort of not knowing and an eerie sense of calm. You tried to find your friends and loved ones and make sure they were all right. There was no politics or patriotism. That came later.

Did you workshop the play, or has it been performed or received a reading?

The play was performed at the Atlantic Theater Company Acting School in April of this year. I enclosed a promotional postcard and program when I sent it to Brooklyn Publishers.

It was almost a total disaster because the two main actresses blanked on their lines in the final dress rehearsal, throwing off the lights and other actors. But, by the miracle that is theater, it all came together in the performances.

Who inspires you as a writer or artist?

Shakespeare. Also fellow Kansan William Inge, Tennessee Williams, (Sam) Shepard, (David) Mamet, Tony Kushner and Peter Schaffer.

I owe, and continue to owe, a great debt of gratitude to the fantastic professors at NYU, all of whom are working writers. D.B. Gilles especially has supported and encouraged me.

Also, there are some other students who I meet with in a writer’s group outside the department. It was there I first read an early draft of the play before I even submitted it to Atlantic.

What other plays or projects are you working on?

For class, I’m working on a screenplay called “Lincoln Now” about what would happen if Abraham Lincoln was transported to the present day… and ran for president. I like to call it a Capra-esque political fable.

On my own I’ve been translating a Spanish play called “La vida es sueand I’ve also been learning the IPA alphabet in hopes of doing that Professor Higgins thing from “My Fair Lady,” where he transcribes public conversations in dialect. Eavesdropping is fun.

What do you like best about playwriting? What do you hate most about playwriting?

The thing they teach at NYU about writing for the stage, as opposed to writing for the screen, is the amount of respect you get or at least your words get. In playwrighting contracts, the words always belong to you. In screenwriting, you sell them off and then anyone can muck about with them.

A live audience, and one that is into your play, is an electric thing. The problem is, even in New York, the audience is limited. Theatergoers are the same people who go again and again. I would like to see more casual theatergoers try more daring fare than the Disney musicals.

This might be a great point to plug Lawrence’s fantastic theater community (and community theater). Lawrence was a great place to get a theater education. Summer Youth Theater, Seem-To-Be Players, productions at KU.

What is the writing process like for you? Do you get an idea and then have to write it out no matter how long it takes, or are you able to work for a short period of time and then come back to your manuscript? How much rewriting do you do?

With short plays I like to write it all in one sitting. I usually get a basic concept, which is very hazy, and I’ll roll it around in my head until I “crack” it, which is basically where I figure out the structure of the piece. Structure is everything, whether it’s long or short. I rewrite all the time, up until and through performances. Playwriting is just as collaborative as other jobs in theater.

I love writing or, more accurately, having written. If then, I can see the words performed I feel very satisfied.

I hear you might be doing an internship with Spike Lee’s company this fall?

I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I have an interview with head of the development department at 40 Acres and a Mule