Claire Rice interviews Dave Lankford, author of the (now) infamous “Dear Actor” article.
Writing on the Internet can feel like sending paper airplanes off into the night sky: it’s romantic, lonesome and often unrewarding. That paper airplane will always exist out there somewhere, but you’ll never know who has stumbled across it or if they even cared. Of course, every now and again, you’ll write something that will fly out of your hands and into the darkness where it will hit a nerve. Hard. Such was the case with Dave Lankford’s acting advice posting “Dear Actor (Sincerely Playwright)”. The piece sets its sights on being inspirational and easily swallowed so it is a short list of obvious acting truths that are often taken for granted.
It is important to note that at the moment Dave hit “publish” a butterfly flapped its wings in Brazil, a drop of water danced down the back of Jeff Goldblum’s hand, the planets aligned and a character in a Dan Brown novel solved a puzzle before the reader did. Magical chaos. It is that moment social media marketing people get all excited about: it went viral. Picked up by theatre artists of all types it was passed around, shared, commented on, and debated. Just as Dave had intended, there were actors, teachers, directors and playwrights who were honestly inspired and generally pleased.
But not everyone was inspired.
I posted the piece on my Facebook page with this elegant and enlightening little bit of literary criticism comment: “Can I just say…ugh!!!!!! I’m sorry. I don’t like this. It’s so condescending.” (I know, I’m a charmer). I’ve said a great number of stupid and unkind things on the internet that I just can’t stand behind any more, but I’ll stand behind “condescending.” While I recognize it is a criticism that stings, it is how I honestly feel and I think I can back it up rationally without being unnecessarily catty. Other commenters on my Facebook page, on other pages, on Twitter, directly to Dave’s email and on the post itself vented their displeasure aggressively.
In response to this sudden internet fame (he had defenders in Scotland and Australia as well as deriders like Mike Daisey and Colin Mitchell) Dave posted a PostFace where he defended himself and spoke to his surprise at the sudden and entirely unexpected attention. I’ve seen other bloggers take similar steps after garnering a great deal of reaction. Stuart Bousel followed “Please Continue Your Conversation A Home” with “You’re Never Going To Work In This Town Again” . Melissa Hillman followed “A Common Problem I See With Female Playwrights (it’s not what you think)” with “Women Playwrights 2: Electric Boogaloo”.
What happens when a writer becomes not themselves, but only the five hundred or more words they created? As artists, we are all compelled to create. Our art must inevitably contain our opinions on the world, but we are able to sit safety in the back row. We are in our words, but we are cloaked in fictions and poetry. What happens when we put ourselves out there without the safety net of art? What happens behind the scenes when our work is suddenly and unexpectedly tossed around the internet like a beach ball? Who is Dave Lankford and why did he want to write a letter to actors at all?
So I interviewed Dave to find out more about his art, how he came to write “Dear Actor” and what this sudden spotlight on his existence has been like for him.
When did you found The Shelter and what was the initial impetus for its founding?
Dave Lankford: The Shelter was formed in 2009. And there was actually a short-lived company before The Shelter. The founders were all training at T. Schreiber Studio with a women named Sally Dunn. Sally decided to retire from teaching. Some of us stayed at the studio, others opted to leave. But a few of us desperately wanted to keep working together. We formed a company called Fallout, which was named after an exercise in the class. Our goal was to perform published works. In parallel, Michael Kingsbaker, one of the founders of Fallout had the idea for a workshop. He had trained in LA and was a member of The Actor’s Gym. He wanted to start something similar as part of Fallout. So we decided to call it The Fallout Shelter. The goal of The Fallout Shelter was to give people a place to experiment, hone their craft and form a community. Long story short, Fallout fell out. But in January of 2009, we had our first Shelter Sunday. And we’ve been going strong ever since. Ultimately, it was about working together with people we admired. People who we felt brought out the best in us and our work. Now, we produce original material. And while the founders all started out as “just actors”, we’ve all expanded into other disciplines. There are very few people at The Shelter that are just one thing. And we are always encouraging our members to experiment which different theatrical crafts.
Oh, and we changed our name to The Shelter (dropped Fallout). Obviously.
So you started out as an actor yourself before you became a playwright / producer / director?
Dave Lankford: Yes. When I came to New York, I had already worked in the DC area a performer. I had acted as a kid, but had to give it up due to sports (I swam through most of college). I got back into it somewhat sideways — I got really involved with the Slam Poetry scene and competed with the DC National Poetry Slam Team. From there, I developed a one-man show that I toured both regionally and nationally, and eventually started to broaden my pursuits into improv, theatre, TV and film. When I moved here, I was only focused on acting. My slam pieces were self-authored, but I never thought about writing for the stage until I started working with The Shelter.
The same goes for directing. Our very first staged production at The Shelter was titled 3:56AM. It was composed of 9 short plays, all taking place between 3 and 4 in the morning in a Lower East Side apartment building. I acted in one piece, wrote a second, and directed a third.
I bet. What where the kind of challenges you faced moving from a performer who wrote for yourself to writing and directing for other actors?
Dave Lankford: It was a process. But I took baby steps. My first piece was a one-hander, a monologue featuring a woman up late, caring for her newborn. I was a first time father, so I wrote from the heart. I wrote what I knew. Not that different from how I would write a slam piece. But after I wrote the first draft, I forced myself to rewrite it from the perspective of a woman. And that was how I started to experiment with different voices. I think the biggest challenge at first was finding voices that were not my own, I would say. And I think that’s a challenge for most writers: developing characters that do not sound like you. Characters that see the world differently that you do, at least by default.
Have you felt any of the pieces you’ve produced with The Shelter were break through pieces? Pieces that you felt successfully pushed you to a new level as a writer?
Dave Lankford: Each piece has been a breakthrough of sorts, as I always try to push myself to do something new. However, a few stand out. In a piece titled NIGHT OF THE LIVING, a two-hander, the characters rarely shared the stage. For portions, they were only able to communicate by two-way radio. One actor was backstage, the other on stage. As the writer, that meant my dialogue had to be strong. I had to understand how two people could communicate without certain visible cues. The interesting thing about that piece is: it was the only one of my pieces in which I have also acted. And that was a game changer for me. The director and I had an arrangement that when I was rehearsing, I was an actor. I was NOT the writer. And so I had to approach my own work as if it was someone else’s. It gave me the freedom to make new choices, ones I had not foreseen as the writer. But the director also forced me to respect the intentions of the writer. She would often point out things like, “Well, the writer put a pause there.” And I would say, “He did?! Why would he do that?!”Ironic. I have literally been fed my own medicine.
What inspired you to write “Dear Actor”?
Dave Lankford: The funny thing is, it wasn’t what I was going to write that day. I wanted to work on a Noir script I’m writing for a project The Shelter is currently developing. But I wasn’t feeling it that day. And I also work in product design and development, so I considered blogging some thoughts about that side of my life. But I wasn’t feeling that, either. So I decided to write a post about acting. Not because I wanted to tell the world something. Merely because I knew I should write something, even if it never saw the light of day. The post started as a collection of thoughts based on things I had seen repeatedly with actors, including myself. And I think the Noir prompt gave me a context in which to frame it. The influences I mentioned in the postface crept in, especially my memories of Meryl Streep describing the process of being a detective, of hunting for clues in the script. I don’t remember when she said it, but it stuck with me. The playwright became the obvious person to present the mystery.
Do you have a blog that you write on normally? Is this your first time using “Medium”?
Dave Lankford: It’s my first time on Medium. I chose it as I think it’s a beautifully designed product. There’s craftsmanship in the code. And that speaks to me as a product designer. But, I have blogged before. Back when blogging was a new thing, along with surfing the Internet, I started a blog chronicling my journey as a struggling actor. The blog eventually got the attention of Microsoft, who hired me to write the blog on their (at the time) new platform called MSN Spaces (which no longer exists). I eventually became an ambassador for MSN Spaces, and represented my blog at the Sundance Film Festival. There’s another ironic story there. When I was first writing, before the deal with MSN Spaces came through, I had been hired as an extra for an indie film being shot in DC. I worked for maybe a day or two, and I had opinions about how the director was handling the shoot. So, I blogged about the experience. And let’s just say that I was not kind to the director. Well, he happened to Google the name of his project and found my post. He was, of course, less than pleased. I’m sure he was hurt. And that ended up costing me for some time. I’m positive it cost me a number of jobs as an actor. When I contacted you, I also contacted the other people on the thread. Mind you, I didn’t contact everyone that disagreed with me, or who called me names. That would have been insane. But there was something about that thread. And the thing I wanted to tell everyone the most is “Be careful what you say on the Internet. Our industry is smaller than we realize, and some people hold grudges.” I certainly do not hold grudges, but I’ve also learned my lesson.
Is this experience causing you to have flash backs to that one?
Dave Lankford: It is. I think it’s given me pause as I see reactions to my piece — that’s part of it. But it’s also affected how I view the comments about “Dear Actor.” And not just the negative posts. Some of the positive posts come packed with just as much vitriol.
Right now, in American Theatre, the hot topics seem to be gender equality and colorblind casting. Why do you think your post got such a big reaction? I ask because it seems sort of innocuous, if you don’t mind me saying so.
Dave Lankford: I agree. I mean, first and foremost, there are much more important things in the world that deserve our energy. And in the world of theatre, I think you are absolutely correct. Equality and color blind casting should be championed. So much so, that I’ve taken personal inventory of my own ways. As for “Dear Actor”, most of the reactions that I’ve seen or been made aware of have been positive. And I feel that maybe it’s because theatre writing can become academic and dry. Some of the greatest books I’ve read as an actor were difficult reads. And “Dear Actor” gave a different spin, even if the things being said were not necessarily new. In some people’s eyes, I was covering acting 101. I also think that as “Dear Actor” gained stream and went “viral”, it gave people the opportunity to have an opinion on the subject. I think of it this way: no one I knew was screaming to the rafters about healthcare reform until healthcare reform was being debated in Washington. Obviously, healthcare reform is a subject worthy of people’s passions. But in general, I didn’t feel that many people were passionate about it until it was all over the news and a top subject of the media. Or, on a more superficial level, who cared about Paris Hilton until they saw Paris Hilton everywhere. The sure fact that she had mass visibility made her a lightning rod for people’s opinions. “Dear Actor” is no longer mine, though my experience is very personal and unique.
How have you weathered being a “lightning rod”?
Dave Lankford: I never expected anyone, save for maybe 200-300 people at most, to read “Dear Actor.” When I saw 1000 and then 10000 and then 50000 visits to the page, it was exciting. Thrilling. But, surprisingly, it also filled me with anxiety. The first reactions were all positive, and that was both wonderful and humbling. But as I began to read the critical and negative responses, I was put in my place. It forced me to question my writing. It forced me to understand how the piece was being interpreted. I saw a few people calling me names, mainly things like “tool”. And that stung, mainly because they didn’t know me and I didn’t feel were in a position to judge my character. But when I read the word “shitbag”, I realized that words can hurt. I knew when I read it that the comment was snarky, and it was not intended for my eyes (I was not mentioned in the tweet). But I did read it. I tried to put it past me. And that proved unusually hard. The second part of the “shitbag” story is that Mike Daisey, a well-known monologist, was also on the thread. He’s a success story in my eyes. And that somehow, no matter how illogical, lent credibility to her comment. I’ve had to come to terms with craziness of the Internet. And the fact that people do say hurtful things about people they have never and will never meet. And it’s taught me to look past it all. More importantly, it’s taught me to focus on the positive. I stopped reaching out to people who were being hurtful and started engaging people who were either giving critical or positive response. Mainly by thanking them. I started reaching out to people who found Dear Actor, even though they lived in England, Scotland, Australia, Canada, Italy or Japan. To know that something I wrote travelled that far is amazing. I received one tweet from an actress who has appeared in HBO’s Game of Thrones. She’s opening a play in London today. She tweeted to thank me, and she said she wished she has read it earlier in the rehearsal process. And that’s an incredible thing. To inspire a person, to receive their gratitude, is an extremely special gift. And I don’t take it for granted. I don’t know that I’m worthy of it, but I know you have to take in moments like this.
If one of the plays you had written received this polarizing of a response, do you think you would feel differently or the same?
Dave Lankford: I don’t know. Similar, but different. A lot of the negative comments were directed specifically at me. I think because it’s easy to assume that I am “the playwright”. People began to question if I was a good playwright, if I was lying about also being an actor. In others other words, people were making assumptions about my character. I guess people might do the same when it comes to a play. But at least the work has a better chance of standing on its own. At least people’s judgments of me as a playwright would come based on having seen my play. Then again, look at Neil LaBute. People have certainly made judgments about him as a person based solely on his plays.
As you continue to move forward in your career in theatre I assume you’ll have more public moments like this. Do you think that this has prepared you for the next time?
Dave Lankford: I do. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a moment like this again, writing online or for the stage. But I’ve learned an incredible amount about myself, about other people, and about how to deal with sudden visibility. This was really small potatoes when you compare it to bigger viral sensations, fame or politics. I don’t know how celebrities and politicians survive. But I’ve learned enough to know what’s important. To know who to listen to. And I’ve learned, much like the playwright says to the actor, to trust my instincts. I’ve also learned that there are some people out there who are trolls. They thrive on negativity. It brings them attention. And I’ve learned that giving them attention is like giving oxygen to fire.
So, what’s the next project for you?
My next project is for The Shelter. We have a quarterly series called The Shelter Peep Show. Each installment has a different theme or focus. This installment revolves around Noir. I’m submitting a piece that finds a man, the office nobody, stuck in a closet with the office femme fatale as the result of a game of Truth or Dare. And in true Noir style, he’s in deeper than he could ever imagine. I’ve been work shopping the piece at Shelter Sundays. Contrary to some opinions of me, I believe strongly in collaboration. It’s an amazing experience to have actors read the play early in the development process, and then to get notes from actors, writers and directors. All of my pieces, every play I have ever written, has been shaped by a community of artists. I’ve been tempted to write a letter, from actor to playwright, that touches upon this relationship. But I also have some other things I want to write about, so we’ll see what comes first.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Dave Lankford: Let it happen. I’ve spent an unusual amount of time reading everything that people have written about the piece. And I wish I would have used more of that time to create. I still would have given time to reading reactions. And I’ve loved chatting with people who enjoyed the piece, especially folks in other countries. But I’ve missed out on time — something that is rare for me, in that I have a demanding job, plus I’m a husband and a father — and I could have used that time more productively. Then again, the experience itself is unique. And as an artist — be it actor, writer, etc — I see part of my job as collecting experiences. They are the building blocks of my imagination. The anxiety I felt is an insight, and I’m sure that will come in handy one day.
And advice for artists who want to take up blogging?
Dave Lankford: I highly encourage it — even if you make the post private so that no one can ever read it. I think part of the learning process is writing what you know. It solidifies the tacit knowledge swimming in your subconscious, making it something you can actually understand. It also makes you examine your own process, and I think taking personal inventory every once in a while is a positive thing. Plus: we should be sharing what we know. I feel that artists are generally protective of their ideas, as if sharing would give someone else the competitive advantage. But the fact is, when you share, other people share. And we all advance as artists. I also think artists are afraid of critique. But, so long as it is constructive, critique is incredibly valuable.
Great. I guess what came to mind, to keep it short is: write what you know and write what excites you. But above all: write.
Here we ended the interview, but he did go on to say these two things which I thought were worth putting in as well.
When we talked about my reaction to the tone:
Dave Lankford: As for the tone, I think it’s a matter of the voice we hear in our head. It’s why a character in a novel can be the favorite of one person, the least of another. We project our own imagination. In my mind, the playwright was the man or woman that presents a mystery to the person who’s just stumbled upon it. I think the juxtaposition forces as assumption of authority, but that was not my intent.
And lastly Dave said of the experience:
Dave Lankford: “Dear Actor” is no longer mine, though my experience is very personal and unique.