Stephen Metcalfe Words

Stephen Metcalfe is a playwright, screenwriter, and novelist. His plays have been produced Off-Broadway, regionally and internationally and he has worked for most major production companies in Hollywood.  He is the author of three novels.  THE TRAGIC AGE, was published by St. Martin’s Press in March of 2015. and THE PRACTICAL NAVIGATOR was released by St. Martin’s in August 2016.   His novel, ATTACHMENT PATTERNS, will be released by Austin-Macauley Publishers in late 2022.  He is an Associate Artist at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and has taught playwriting and screenwriting at University of California San Diego, San Diego State University and The University of San Diego. — About Stephen Metcalfe



    I should have known there was something off when I fell asleep at the beginning of the second act.   Granted I’d been up at six getting kids to school and walking dogs and yes, one of my problems with the theatre these days is it’s pretty much past my bedtime and yes, I’d had a second Stone IPA with dinner.  Still.  Falling asleep on a couch, in the light booth, during the second act of a play is bad form.   Especially when it’s only the third preview.  Especially when your snoring disturbs the stage manager.  Especially when it’s your play.

    Yes.  I’ve written a new play.

    Theatre  has always been more fun to make than it is to attend.   For someone with ADD anyway.  When I go to a play, I’m forced to sit still for two hours and I’m usually fidgeting at the ten-minute mark, squirming at twenty and praying for the intermission at thirty so I can leave.  Usually.

    But when you make theatre, it’s like one of the old Andy Hardy movies where Andy (Mickey Rooney), at the penultimate moment, when the shit is hitting the fan and there’s no way out of the mess he’s gotten them into, suddenly exclaims to Judy Garland – “I know!  We’ll put on a show!”.  The next thing you know they’ve transformed the family barn into a Broadway theatre and they’re singing and tap dancing like whirling dervishes to a full orchestra. 

    Mickey Rooney?  Judy Garland?   Granted, I was just a little kid at the time but boy, am I’m dating myself.

    My experience wasn’t quite Andy Hardy’s.  It was more like – “okay, we’re out of college, we’re misfits, we haven’t found anything we especially like to do except this.  We’re in New York, no one will hire us, so you, when you’re not waiting tables, will write something and someone will find a basement or storefront to do it in and Jim, when he’s not tending bar, will direct it and Dave and Doug and Dan, when they’re not moving furniture, will act in it and Larry, you hold the flashlight and there’ll be no props and we’ll wear our own clothes for costumes and we’ll live on the free mini-cocktail franks they put out at the Ascot Hotel’s lounge on 39th street between 4:30 and 5 and maybe if we’re lucky, our friends will come and we’ll charge them, I don’t know, five bucks maybe and after we pay the guy who owns the basement, we’ll take what’s left over and we’ll all go out and drink beer and talk about what we’ve done and what we’ll do when someone is smart enough to give us the chance to “really work at this”.  Oh, and by the way, next time write something with women in it – not a musical! – so we have someone to try and sleep with after the show.

    I’ve made a living as a “dramatic” writer – emphasize the quote marks – for the last forty-odd (yes – odd) years now and much to my surprise, I wonder if that time and those experiences weren’t the highlight of my – again, put it in quotes – “career”.  And perhaps that’s what I’m trying to recreate by writing a play again.   An innocent time.  A time when we didn’t know any better.  A time of enthusiasm and idealism and no fear of failure.   A time of fun.

    Yes, at the end of the day it’s supposed to be about fun.   Rocket club for show-offs, misfits, egomaniacs and emotional nerdlings. There is a country called theatre and once you’ve lived there, your citizenship can’t be revoked. 

    Even if you fall asleep during your own play.


    Let’s not talk about writing.   Let’s talk about the fact that making a living as an actor can really take it out of you.  The highs, the lows, the uncertainty, the rejections.  I’m thinking of two friends. 

    The first graduated from Julliard, one of the most prestigious programs in the country, when he was in his early twenties.  His very first job out of Julliard was on Broadway.  He played Tony in West Side Story.  Tony?  The lead?   Maria, Maria, Maria?    I saw him, he was ridiculously good.  Handsome, a fine actor, a voice like a bell.  While still doing West Side Story, he was cast by Italian producers as the lead in a monumental mini-series about Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer.  It took over a year and a half to film and he traveled to exotic locations all over the world.  It was a leading man’s dream –  a costume epic – incredible sets, battles with cast of thousands, runaway stallions, sword fights, love affairs with gorgeous maidens.   He worked with any number of international stars.  He had regular dinners with Burt Lancaster, Marcelo Mastrioni and Sophia Loren.  He met Frederico Fellini.  From there he went to features.  He played princes and lovers.  He was called back to Italy, where he was a sort of movie guest star, on a regular basis.  At the age of thirty he began to lose his hair.  The films released domestically didn’t do all that well.   He went back to the stage.  He did two of my plays.  He sang at my wedding.  He began to do a lot of television roles but for some reason, never seemed to latch onto a regular on-going role.  Shortly after birth, his son was diagnosed with a disability.  The boy would need constant and expensive care for the rest of his life.  The jobs were drying up.  He was still lean and striking looking but somehow no longer a leading man and not quite a character actor.  A man of  honor and great responsibility – and yes, deep faith – and in need of money to support his family, he joined the real world.  He got a job.  It left him little time to audition as an actor.  He finally stopped doing it altogether.  Today he manages a business, is a devoted husband and father and on Sundays sings in the church choir.  He’s often asked to do solos. 

    He still has a voice like a bell.

    I met the second friend about a month after I arrived in New York.  Fall, 1976.  We worked at a squash club.  I strung rackets, he washed towels.   We were the same age.  He was an actor, I was a writer.   He had a voice like a box of rocks and was already starting to lose his hair.  He did my plays for no money.   He was terrific.   But he was replaced in a play of mine when it transferred to an Off-Broadway theatre, because he wasn’t a “name”.  He did stage work all around in New York, usually in small venues.  He was on Broadway in a play where he sat on stage for two hours and got to say one line.  He made most of his living out of town playing leads in regional theatres.  He came to Michigan and replaced an actor in a play I’d written.  He played a singing cowboy.  He had a voice like a box of rocks but could carry a mean tune.  I directed him in Cincinnati.  We laughed ourselves sick for two months.  No one laughs like theatre people.  It helps you deal with the uncertainty about the future.  In his late thirties he moved to Los Angeles.  He auditioned for a TV pilot I’d written.  He was – yes; as usual – terrific.  He didn’t get the job.  A couple of weeks later, he called to tell me he’d gotten a role in another pilot.  My show never made it out of the gate, his went on the air and ran for three years.  It would have gone much longer but the lead had a drug habit and was prone to nervous breakdowns.  But the money allowed him to buy a house.  He became what’s known in LA as a “working actor”.   He’d get a TV part here, he’d get a film part there, a commercial here, a voice over there.   It paid enough for him to live a comfortable middle-class existence, an accomplishment unto itself in show biz.   He always continued to do theatre, usually in small places around LA, usually for free.  He was in constant demand for readings.  He began to direct.  He is a terrific stage director.  He directed a play of mine just this last year.  For no money.  He is bald now and bearded and still has a voice like a box of crushed rocks.  This last year, he did a commercial that aired during the Superbowl.  It’s generated over one hundred thousand hits on You Tube.  He was subsequently offered three weeks on a film.  He played a cowboy.  The heck with the money, he said the highlight of the job was wearing a duster and cowboy hat and having a building blown sky-high behind him as he walked away from it.  He’s that kind of guy.  I have this feeling that after forty years, he has suddenly crossed some sort of invisible bridge.  That the phone is going to start ringing now, that as he approaches age sixty, the  jobs are going to start coming fast and furious.

    I’m not sure what’s more difficult.  To have had great success early in a career, only to see it go away or to have worked and struggled and held on your whole life only to suddenly become a success.  I think the former.


    My friend, the Julliard grad, has begun auditioning again.

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