Written By: Nathan Magyar
This month, former Michigan football player and Grosse Pointe native Brian Letscher will present his second world premiere play at The Purple Rose with “Smart Love,” the darkly comedic story of a brilliant young man struggling with his father’s sudden death and the revelation that his parents’ marriage wasn’t everything he was led to believe. The play also explores the implications and possible ramifications of artificial intelligence with humor, heartache and potentially devastating consequences. It probes the age-old question: just because we can do a thing, should we?
I recently sat down with Brian to learn more about him and his writing process.
Q: What inspired you to write “Smart Love”?
A: About 3 to 4 years ago I started seeing lots of articles and documentaries about artificial intelligence (AI). It got me curious about the possibilities. It turns out there are a lot of diverging thoughts on the subject. Some scientists believe that in 30-50 years we’ll be half man, half machine. We already know how to use DNA to replicate organs and skin. The challenge right now is figuring out the brain science, how to map the brain. Not all scientists think that kind of technology is so close, though. That debate was fascinating. It made me ask myself, ‘What is that? Is that evolution? They’re just machines, but they happen to be in our bodies. Is that a good thing? How do religion and souls mix into that? Is there an answer?’ Those questions blew my mind and led me to writing “Smart Love.”
Q: What was your process for creating the initial drafts of “Smart Love”?
A: The first draft I wrote was a completely different play. There’s hardly a single thing that’s the same; different characters, different dialogue. It wasn’t what I wanted it to be. It was an exploratory draft that allowed me to experiment with the concept of AI, but I hadn’t quite captured the kind of people and relationships that make a play compelling. Pretty much the only thing I kept from the first draft was the title. In the next draft, I found characters that embodied the contradictions that fascinated me most about AI: how technology can be a blessing and a curse.
Later that year I was back in Michigan doing research for another play. I had dinner with Guy Sanville and I shared my idea for “Smart Love.” He told me the same thing he did for my play “When the Lights Come On.” “Write 100 pages and we’ll read it.” I did. Then we held a concert reading at the Chelsea Library, greenhoused it, and many drafts later here we are.
Q: Can you tell us more about the experience of greenhousing “Smart Love” at The Rose?
A: The process at The Rose is great. Theatre is about the writing, the script, honoring the playwright’s intentions. It’s very tempting for many theatres, though, to morph a play into what they think it should be. Then you wind up with 10 different versions. But at The Purple Rose, they ask the playwright, “How can we work with you to bring what’s important to the stage and realize what you want the play to be?” They ask questions and make suggestions to expand the play. My job is to be open to those ideas, take their suggestions, and make the play better.
At the workshop in last October, Gary (the set designer) and Dana (the lighting designer) offered ideas that completely changed the play, while still fitting what I wanted to do. I wanted to make the play scarier; funny, yes, but also scary. Their suggestions pointed towards that. They were great ideas.
Q: Has your acting background influenced the way you write plays, and vice versa? If so, how?
A: As an actor, I’ve read many scripts and had to work through many scenes. Just reading good scripts and identifying what makes it good as an actor, why it works, what’s the “in” to the character, has helped me as a writer.
As a playwright, I don’t want to randomly fabricate a character; I want to craft unique, full people. There’s nothing worse for an actor than getting a two-dimensional character and trying to make it three dimensional. My acting experience has taught me that.
Q: What do you enjoy most about playwriting?
A: I like writing dialogue, which I also think comes from being an actor. It’s fun to figure out how to keep the world of the characters consistent, and keep them saying things that make sense within that environment.
Q: What was most challenging about writing “Smart Love”?
A: With this play, I didn’t want any blackouts. I wanted it to stand on its own; just a first and second act with unity of time and space. That was difficult, to have to work within the Greek rules of writing. It’s totally different from writing a screenplay where you can cut and be somewhere 10,000 miles away in an instant. That’s a luxury.
I also had to think about scene changes and movement. For example, in one of the early drafts, the same two people were on stage for 40 pages. That didn’t work. I had to rework that section to make it more dynamic.
Q: What advice do you have for anyone interested in pursuing acting or playwriting?
A: Jump in and start doing it. If you’re interested in writing, start journaling today. Explore who you are and what you think. Find your voice. Then, when you’re ready, show your work to someone. I personally don’t believe in writer’s block. If you’re taking more than 10-15 minutes to make a decision or get started, that’s too long. Make a temporary decision, move on, and come back to it later.
For future actors, get in a class, a small play, anything. It doesn’t matter if you’re good. Get on stage and learn. To anyone who wants to do both, write your own stuff and shoot it. With the technology we have today, making your own movies is easier than ever.
Also, make sure you’re living your life. LA people get so wrapped up in the business that they forget to have a life. Have friends who aren’t in the industry. Learn to be a good person. That’s why we’re all here.
More about the playwright: Letscher’s PRTC credits include roles in William Inge’s “Bus Stop” and “When the Lights Come On.” Letscher wrote the latter play. Now a Los Angeles resident, Letscher has appeared in more than a dozen television shows including “Law & Order,” “Grimm” and “Castle.” He is currently featured in the recurring role of Tom Larsen on ABC’s “Scandal.”