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August 17, 2015
Playwright/Actor Jim Shankman Brings His Metafictional Comedy “The Screenwriter Dies of His Own Free Will” to the New York Fringe


Screenwriter-wall-poster-4The world of playwright Jim Shankman's The Screenwriter Dies of His Own Free Will, which exposes the backstabbing deals of corporate Hollywood, seems about as far from the experimental, do-it-yourself attitude of the New York Fringe Festival as can be.  A two-hander about a dying Hollywood screenwriter who is trying to sell his last idea to an old friend, the satirical play joins the rich tradition of works by playwrights like David Mamet and John Patrick Shanley that explore the movie business on stage.

For Shankman, who returns to the festival for his third consecutive year, the many joys of the New York Fringe include the control he has over his own work, and the chance to produce challenging, provocative, and offbeat plays. Last year's Kiss Your Brutal Hands, he says, was a play he thought might "never see the light of day" because of its difficult themes of psychological, sexual, and spiritual crisis.  He's glad it did: "It's a great shot in the arm when you get a play up and it moves people," he says. "It was really important to me, it changed me; it made me fearless when it comes to writing and acting." The Fringe has also been a launching pad for Shankman: Suicide Math, a play about Princeton students in the '70s who are dealing with death and loss for the first time, got its start at the festival in 2013, and will be produced by the Arc Stages in January.

Screenwriter, directed by Craig George, is not so dark as his previous Fringe plays -- in Shankman's words, it's actually "a lot of fun" -- but it does push the envelope in different ways.  Shankman, whose influences come from expressionistic theatre, and playwrights like Beckett, Pinter, and Ionesco, isn't particularly interested in writing naturalism, and his work incorporates elements of magic realism, expressionism, and metaphorical realism.  The play was inspired by reality -- a writing teacher told Shankman back in 2004 about a dying Hollywood screenwriter who was teaching at Sundance, and the indignities of carrying on in the face of illness. But Shankman approaches the story with a metafictional bent, something that he and his fellow actor Steve Friedman, with whom he has collaborated for years, have had fun exploring together.

More than getting a "message" through to the audience, it's the telling of resonant stories that is important to Shankman, and he is thrilled that Fringe will offer him this opportunity once again. And what makes a good story? "It's just something about life that people will recognize.  If the story has an oblique angle and tells about something beyond itself that interests me, that's when I get down to work."

"The Screenwriter Dies of His Own Free Will" runs August 20-29 at the New York International Fringe Festival.

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