Today, Mark O’Donnell is best known as the co-author of the musical Hairspray, for which he won a Tony Award in 2003. But in 1972, as a senior at John Marshall High School in Cleveland, Ohio, O’Donnell was the winner of Dramatics’ first Student Playwriting Competition. His one-act play Bricks was “judged the most outstanding” among the 150 scripts submitted, seven of them by O’Donnell, and was published in the May 1972 issue.

O’Donnell died in 2012, but his legacy now supports other young theatre artists. His twin brother donated royalties from Hairspray in perpetuity to The Actors Fund, which coordinates an annual prize for emerging theatre writers, composers, directors, and designers in O’Donnell’s name.

In 1972, Dramatics asked O’Donnell, by then a student at Harvard University, to share his thoughts about writing.

Mark O'Donnell

Mark O’Donnell

EVERY LITTLE BOY needs toy trains to play with, in one form or another. Here, in the outskirts of my childhood, I would say that writing, for me, is a lot like playing with toy trains.

With both, an individual is given the power to produce his own reality, then sit back to watch it run. Instead of papier-mâché hillsides and plastic prairies, of course, the playwright’s creations are characters, and instead of a table in the rec room, he sets them on a stage. After all, what are dramatic characters but toys — intricate, carefully programmed toys that must move and react like life? And the better the playwright, the more fluid and unobtrusive the programming will be.

I don’t suppose Eugene O’Neill ever wrote a play using purple Crayolas, but that was my method when I was in elementary school. It had gotten to the point where I was tired of drawing horses and birds and elephants, so I started grinding out stories. These crayon-on-manila paper jobs were printed out in arthritic rows of fat, dilapidated letters, usually with pictures to go with them.

I didn’t really think about why I made them, instead of anything else. I just kept turning them out like a factory making irregular shirts. When I got crayon blisters or when the pile got too big, I threw them out. It was something to do.

Since there was no way to get out of it, I entered adolescence. Maladjustment time, right? I became preoccupied with teenage hang-ups like popularity, pimples, and the meaning of existence. Like most, I was proud to be aware of my unhappiness, so I wrote about it, since that had become my outlet for frustration.

The 2019 Aiken New Tech High School JumpStart Theatre program performance of Hairspray
The 2019 Aiken High School JumpStart Theatre program performance of Hairspray. Photo by Susan Doremus.

I don’t want to sound pretentious (I know it’s a little late) but it seems you have to go through three stages in growing up. First, the pretty sleep of childhood. Second adolescence, when the teenager, startled awake, reacts with depression, despair, even anger, to what’s around him. Then, finally, when we’re used to the light, we can realize that everything is worth doing, and you might as well be happy, because “that’s life.”

See, I want to clear something up (besides my complexion). I’ve been criticized for making people look cheap or stupid in my plays. I don’t know; I always thought I was reflecting myself. Really, I love the characters in my plays. When they try to trick each other into saying “I love you,” or when they worry about things that don’t exist, that’s when I feel for them most. I’d like it if people saw my train-table dolls and then looked at each other with a little more love, because I love us people, not in spite of our weakness, but because of it, too. We have such good intentions.

So that’s why I write.

This story appeared in the October 1972 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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