Welcome. This week I’ll introduce you to one of the best, most prolific writer-producers in the town, Gary Lennon.
Gary also develops like a madman. He just developed a miniseries about Studio 54 for Starz and a Showtime series with Penn Jillette. Beyond TV, Gary has mounted numerous plays, including one of my favorite plays of 2011, “The Interlopers.” Oh yeah, Gary wrote and directed the 2006 feature “.45” starring Milla Jovovich. I told you, he’s prolific.
Recently, I attended a staged reading of Gary’s new play, “A Family Thing,” at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles. A full production of this play will be mounted in March 2013 at the Bootleg Theater, also in LA. The play explores the tumultuous relationships of three brothers. The eldest – an angry thug with a criminal past – and the youngest – a recovering alcoholic screenwriter – fear for their lives as their middle sibling – a charming-yet-violent convict – is released from prison.
“People have low expectations of the Burns brothers,” the eldest brother says to the screenwriter. “Who’d have thought you’d make a living with words.”
Gary himself doesn’t just make a living with words; he has worked continuously in Hollywood for 10 years. His family and his difficult relationships with his brothers provide frequent fodder for his muscular, multi-layered work. “A Family Thing” includes echoes from Gary’s own life. The indie film “.45” – a story about an illegal gun dealer who savages his girlfriend, then suffers her revenge – stems from events he witnessed.
Gary describes his positively Dickensian youth with the same mix of pain and humor that pervades his work. He was orphaned by age 11. Grew up a New York street kid. Endured the kind of life and desperate circumstances that typically leads to criminal activity or an early grave. So what saved Gary from such a terrible trajectory? He credits his unstoppable desire to be a writer. And while that desire would be his saving grace, his brutal past also became his most powerful muse.
So how did he do it? One of Gary’s frequent admonitions is: “Find your tribe.” He believes it’s one of the most important survival tips for artists. Find your tribe. Find the people who get you.
Gary said during a recent lunch he didn’t fit in with his brothers or the other kids raising themselves on the street. “We’re so informed by the way we’re raised,” he said. “I was definitely born into the wrong tribe. I felt very early on I was not wanted. When I was young, I started searching for like-minded people to gather into my tribe. We all do. I think that’s an innate quality in us – wanting to be seen and heard.”
Despite a limited education at the time, Gary found an outlet through acting, then writing. When Gary was starting out, he wanted to join the Circle Repertory Lab, a critically acclaimed, award-winning theater company in New York City. It has been home to many amazing playwrights and actors including Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams, John Hurt, Kathy Bates, Jeff Daniels, and David Morse, among many others.
“I saw Circle Rep Lab’s work when I was a teenager, and I knew that somehow I belonged to that tribe,” Gary said. He had identified kindred spirits, but they didn’t recognize him at first.
“Actually, it wasn’t easy for me being a playwright in New York because I did not belong,” he said. “I didn’t go to Julliard. I didn’t go to Yale. I didn’t go to Brown. I didn’t go to North Carolina School of the Arts. All of those wonderfully talented people came to New York to create, which I think is an amazing thing, but I came from a Hell’s Kitchen tenement. I had no real access to that world.”
He tried knocking on the front door, an experience that may sound familiar to those trying to break into the industry. “I was young, fearless, and ignorant, which I think was a blessing,” Gary said. “I wrote a letter to the head of Circle Rep literary asking him to read my plays.”
Gary got a rejection letter. “It said, ‘No, thank you, we only take submissions from agents and managers.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not very tribe-like,’” Gary said with a laugh. “Then I thought, ‘How am I going to get to these people?’”
In what became a Gary Lennon-hallmark, he shifted his perception and found another door. “I put my play, ‘Dates and Nuts,’ into a manila envelope,” he said. “I left it backstage at the Lucille Lortel Theater on Christopher Street addressed to Marshall Mason. He was directing a play there. Attached to my play was just a handwritten note on a page of legal pad paper. It said, ‘I’m Gary Lennon. I’m a playwright. I wrote this play. I’d love you to read it. I love your work.’”
Gary had been a huge fan of Mr. Mason and still speaks of him with reverence. “Marshall Mason was one of the founders of Circle Rep. He directed all Lanford Wilson’s plays, including ‘Talley’s Folly,’ which won the Pulitzer prize in 1990. He’s a brilliant director.”
A week after young Gary left his play backstage for Marshall Mason, he came home to a phone message from him! He recounted it: “And he was like, ‘Hi, this is Marshall Mason, Gary Lennon. I received your play. I thought it was wonderful. I’d like to have coffee and talk about it.’ And I was like ‘What?!’ I was f*cking beyond over the moon. I called him back. He met me at a tiny little diner on Hudson Street.
“He told me I was a good writer,” Gary said. The memory still chokes him up.
“He told me I was a good writer, and it was so big for me because he was a big deal,” Gary said. “He was so generous. And he said, ‘Well, you know about Circle Rep.’ I said, ‘I do.’ He said, ‘You should become a member.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I would love to.’ Of course, I didn’t tell him the front office had already sent me a rejection letter. And he said, ‘Contact so-and-so and start coming to the meetings. We’ll put you in the lab.’”
Just like that, Gary was in the tribe. He was accepted. His work was validated. Isn’t that what all artists want? The experience reinforced that important distinction – find the people who get you.
“My work isn’t easy to take,” Gary said. “And I’m proud of that, by the way. Some people DO NOT like it. And some people do. You have to gravitate to your tribe. Early on, I remember getting a rejection letter from Playwrights Horizons. And it said, ‘Dear Mr. Lennon, your material is too revved up for our tastes.’ That was the letter, seriously. And so I didn’t send them any more material. I shifted my focus, my perception. And Circle Rep got me.”
The anecdote illustrates his “shift your perception, find another door” model. “I don’t believe in creating suffering in my life,” Gary said. “If I’m getting resistance in an area, I just stop pushing on the same door. Literally, it’s about a shift in perception. Just an inch to the left or an inch to the right – there’s another door.”
Gary’s sheer force of will plays a role in his success, then and now. “Any time I had someone tell me ‘no,’ it didn’t create a sense of inertia,” he said. “I wasn’t decapitated. I didn’t have to lie down so you could roll over me. I had a different response when someone said ‘no’ to me. And I still have it. I get more determined.
“I don’t want to defy anybody. I just want to do it, whatever it is. When someone shows me an obstacle, I will find a way to get around it.”
Gary believes there always is another door. It may not be for that particular project, but there is another door. In a way, Gary has always been finding those doors. A street kid without a formal education deciding to be a playwright took courage; it took being able to see there was another choice, another life out there instead of the seemingly inevitable one set before him.
Since then, Gary has found tribe members in the feature and TV worlds. “They’re producers and executives,” he said. “When I have a new piece of material, I think, ‘Oh they’ll get this or they’ll support this.’ It’s important to do that with writers, directors, and actors.”
I’ll have more with Gary here on “Glass half-full in Hollywood” in the coming weeks because he inspires me every time we talk.
In the meantime, take his advice to heart. If you feel like you’re banging your head against a door that just isn’t opening, shift your perception; you’ll likely find another door that will open for you. The door could be an agency, management company, production company, studio, network, a fellowship program, a production, an idea, or even a specific person. Trying a different door may be just the trick you need to move ahead.
While you’re at it, identify the folks who will help you stay motivated – and help you see when some door is sturdier than your head. They’ll also remind you that you’re pretty tough, too.
Have you found your tribe? Who inspires you?
Please feel free to leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you.