Miami graduate who wrote ‘Draft Day’ shares experiences as playwright

Rajiv Joseph talks about joys, challenges of his craft and his biggest influences

It should no longer surprise us that a lot of talented playwrights are being fostered in our region — at the Dayton Playhouse FutureFest, the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville and The Human Race Theatre Company, just to name a few.

Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park made news recently when its world premiere production of “Seven Spots on the Sun” by Martín Zimmerman received a Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award citation.

At the moment, the spotlight is on Miami University graduate Rajiv Joseph a Pulitzer-Prize finalist in 2010 and the winner of the 6th Annual Steinberg Playwright Award.

The Cleveland native is the screenwriter of “Draft Day” — the new football movie filmed in Cleveland starring Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner and Ellen Burstyn. He’s also the playwright behind “The North Pool,” a two-person psychological drama now on stage at the Playhouse in the Park.

The tense drama, which runs through June 1, tells the story of a Middle Eastern transfer student who is summoned into the office of his high-school vice principal but has no idea why he is there.

Joseph’s play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” starred Robin Williams when it premiered on Broadway in 2011 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. The plot centers around the lives of two American Marines and an Iraqi translator who encountered a tiger on the streets of war-torn Baghdad.

“The most striking thing about the emergence of this gifted playwright is his unfussy self-confidence,” director Timothy Douglas said in a recent interview about “The North Pool ” for a Playhouse publication. “And yet, within his unshakable sense of assurance, he is also completely malleable during the creative process.”

Douglas, who directed the world premiere of Joseph’s “The Lake Effect” in Chicago, said it’s rare to work with writers who are so solidly sure about what they’ve written. He also says Joseph’s plays seem to bear little resemblance to one another.

“His range of subject matter is as diverse as his style of writing,” Douglas said. “What is consistent is his gift for lean, yet muscular, writing that always places its heart at the center of the conflict — a rare and wonderful talent.”

We asked Joseph about his work as both a playwright and screenwriter and his ties to our region:

Q. What are the challenges of writing a two-person play?

A. Writing a two-person play is both challenging and fun. On the one hand, you don’t have to worry about anyone else coming on and interrupting them. On the other hand, nobody’s gonna come on and interrupt them, so the action of the play has to be entirely in their hands. “The North Pool” was additionally challenging to write once I decided that it would take place in real time — there is no break in the action. Keeping that moving is difficult, but also cool to watch.

Q. What are some of the differences between writing a screenplay and a stage drama?

A. Movies are more of a visual medium. You can tell a story visually in ways you can’t on the stage because you have complete control over what the audience sees and doesn’t see — closeups, camera-work, etc. — these things dictate the viewer’s experience. That’s harder to do when an audience is staring at the entire stage (and why it’s so difficult to write a horror play — horror relies on what an audience doesn’t see).

Q. How involved were you with the filming of “Draft Day” once the script was complete?

A. My screenwriting partner, Scott Rothman, and I were extremely involved with the production of the movie, which is rare for screenwriters. We were on set every day of shooting, and oftentimes doing rewrites during the shoot. We were also present in the editing room, where we viewed the film, and offered our thoughts to the director and editors.

Q. How does it feel to have superstars portraying your characters?

A. It’s great fun to work with actors who I have always admired and loved. I’ve been lucky to work with people like Robin Williams, Kevin Costner and Edie Falco because they are famous for good reason: They are amazing performers and deeply professional. I learned a lot from each of them.


Q. How did you first become interested in writing?

A. I think I had enjoyed writing since I was in the second grade. But I became more interested in it when I was in college at Miami University, and majored in creative writing there.

Eric Goodman was my first writing professor at Miami, and he helped me and inspired me a great deal. Steven Bauer was another teacher there who really pushed me into thinking and writing in the political sphere.

Q. How did your Peace Corps experiences influence your writing?

A. I think it’s instrumental for anyone interested in creative arts to get out of the country, or at least out of their hometown, and experience new things. Living in Senegal for three years made me think differently about myself and about the world, and that definitely changed the way I wrote.

Q. What advice would you give to parents with creative kids?

A. I would say encourage them. You need to exercise your creativity the same way you exercise physically. If your son or daughter has a gift for throwing a baseball, you try to get them signed up for teams and have them coached so they can improve their skills. Natural talent can only take anyone so far… same goes for creative skills.

Q. What’s fun about being a playwright?

A. Many things: Seeing your work on stage, working with directors, actors and designers. My favorite thing may be meeting and hanging out with other writers, sharing work, learning from them.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?

A. I’m a binge writer. I don’t have a specific daily routine. I may take several days off. But then when I get back into it, I write for long periods of time, late nights, early mornings, etc. I like to immerse myself, and then give myself a break.

Q. What was it like to experience your play in Spanish and Romanian, did those audiences have different reactions than an American audience?

A. It was fascinating… like being in a dream where you don’t understand what people are saying, except you do, because you wrote the words.

Q. When will your new musical, “Fly,” based on Peter Pan, open on Broadway?

A. We are not sure when “Fly”will open in New York. We had a wonderful production in Dallas. But the NYC production is in the hands of the producers, so I’m just waiting to see.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I have two new plays that I have recently finished, that I am hoping find homes soon. And I am working on the libretto for an opera based on the Salman Rushdie novel “Shalimar the Clown.”

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