Metzler fuels playwriting addiction with ‘The May Queen’

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Carolyn Fong | Provided photo
MOLLY SMITH METZLER

Molly Smith Metzler is a self-identified addict.

She began writing plays at 22, and her latest piece, the Chautauqua Theater Company- and Writers’ Center-commissioned The May Queen, runs through Sunday in Bratton Theater. She said writing for the theater is a high that lasts from story and character development through a play’s production.

“That moment you feel in an audience when the lights go out and everyone sits forward and gets ready — like, ‘What is this thing we’re all going to experience together, what is this electricity?’ ” Metzler said. “You don’t get that anywhere but the theater. It’s just addictive. The opportunity to create a live piece of artwork that we’re all going to share together … that’s the rush, that’s the stuff I love.”

When Metzler received one of her first big breaks as a playwright, she was working a double shift at her survival waitress job at Union Square Cafe. She couldn’t return the call offering to premiere her play Elemeno Pea at the Humana Festival of New American Plays until the next day. But, according to Metzler, “That’s playwriting in a nutshell.” Though she now works as a professional playwright, her career has had its ups and downs.

“Playwriting never was my bread and butter, and now it is,” Metzler said. “I don’t take it for granted. You have to work very hard for that.”

Initially inspired by a college professor, Terry Browne, Metzler credits much of her success to “wonderful people” who encouraged her at the right times. Metzler was an English major at SUNY Geneseo and planned to attend graduate school for comparative literature. After a playwriting class with Browne her senior year, Metzler instead moved to New York, became a waitress and dove into playwriting.

“It took me many years to even call myself a playwright,” Metzler said.

But success came early, with a full production of her first play, Training Wisteria, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts when the playwright was 24 and attending graduate school at Boston University. The play about her parents’ “savage divorce” won a multitude of awards, including the Mark Twain Comedy Prize.

“It was a pretty incredible introduction to professional playwriting,” Metzler said. “Then I had to move to New York, find out I really sucked, get rejected from everything, waitress for years without having any encouragement. But then … things picked up.”

Her addiction persisted through the years, despite jarring alternation between dejection and positive feedback. Metzler attributes much of her perseverance to her husband, playwright Colin McKenna.

“When you’re an artist you need a great support network who can say to you, ‘It’s coming, it’s coming,’ ” Metzler said. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep that perspective — especially living in New York City where you need three jobs to afford your twin bed in someone’s basement apartment.”

Now holding an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts and an artist’s diploma from The Juilliard School — in addition to her MA from BU — Metzler said goodbye to survival jobs a few years ago.

The May Queen is her first commission, but she will head to the Kennedy Center after Chautauqua to workshop her next from the Actors Theatre of Louisville, with the working title Mom Friends.

CTC Associate Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch said she was thrilled to commission Metzler after the playwright workshopped her plays Carve and Close Up Space at Chautauqua in past years. Benesch directs The May Queen.

“We knew that she would benefit from, appreciate and thrive writing for this community,” Benesch said. “The combination of comedy and empathy that is Molly Metzler’s writing sets her apart from many writers.”

Writing works that contain humor and truth, Metzler receives accolades from her colleagues for her detailed grasp of language and her witty touch.

“She is a smart, funny woman,” Benesch said. “When you find an exceptional female comedian, we — the company — really wanted to support her work and her voice.”

Metzler, Benesch said, has “such an astute ear,” and she’s comfortable changing phrasing or the order of dialogue, “whether it’s to make a joke work or whether it’s to clarify story or character.

“To be in the room witnessing that has been really exciting,” Benesch said. “She writes with a lot of that specificity inherent in her work.”

Metzler said she loves playwriting in part because other artists are in the room, collaborating on the work and helping bring it to life. CTC conservatory actors starring in The May Queen said this sense of collaboration and flexibility in the rehearsal space sets her apart as a playwright.

“She really listens to the play like a piece of music,” said Kate Eastman, who plays character Nicole Chee. “If there’s a phrase that doesn’t need to be there, she just cuts it. If you find yourself jumping from one thing to another, she writes a little bit more so it’s more of a natural progression.”

Though Greg Fallick, who plays David Lund, said it can be intimidating for an actor to challenge a playwright’s work, he said Metzler readily accepts changes.

“She is an incredibly generous playwright,” Fallick said. “You’re kind of coming in on the end, so to say something like ‘This line doesn’t work for me,’ is a hard thing to say to a playwright. But she’s just been great about it. She says,  ‘Great, let’s make it work for you.’ ”

According to Metzler, the flexibility of a script as actors join the process is a strength that came with practice.

“When I started writing plays I was a lot more precious. I think that’s, in part, [from] being a younger writer, too,” Metzler said. “I took every line seriously. Now that I’m a more experienced playwright, you get a little better at letting go. If you’re lucky, a great actor will come in and you’ll hear the line a new way. You start to feel like a script is a little more malleable.”

And that’s what happens at the Institution, Metzler said.

“I do huge rewriting when I’m in Chautauqua,” she said. “I get off the plane and I’m like, ‘Time to work.’ It’s a rigorous place to work on a play, and safe and nurturing as well.”

The “metronome inside” gives Metzler a knack for dialogue, which she said is the part of playwriting that comes most naturally to her.

When starting to write a play, her process begins with an idea, which grows from a practiced silence. She then waits for characters to speak and tell their own stories.

“I really like to think first thing in the morning, while the coffee’s brewing, while the house is really quiet,” Metzler said. “When you create that silence then the characters start to talk to you, which feels a little like you’re losing your mind, but in my experience I wait for them to start talking to me and then, one day, they will.”

Gail Gillespie was the first of The May Queen’s characters to speak her story to Metzler. Ricocheting through the script with Zumba-driven energy, it’s not entirely surprising Gillespie spoke first. Last came lead character Jen Nash, who Metzler had to coax carefully from her mind.

“I had to really push and prod to find out what her story was,” Metzler said. “I love hanging out with imaginary people.”

Metzler said this production is her most personal, and her favorite. She’s been writing plays for almost 15 years. In the next 15, she said she aims to write one play a year to fuel her addiction to the rush of producing plays.

“I found out at just the right time that, boy, did I have something to say,” Metzler said. “Once you see thousands of people love your work, you just want to come back and do it again and do it better. I got a taste of how wonderful it could be at a very young age, so I always wanted it. I always want more.”