2000. THE ARIZONA PROJECT. ACTORS THEATRE.
1990. More Fun Than Bowling. Actors Theatre. 1995. Lonely Planet. Actors Theatre.
This article on Michael by Kyle Lawson appeared in the Arizona Republic on March 16, 2003, during a time when he and his wife, actress Linda DeArmond, had left the Valley for a sojourn in LA. Thankfully, they are now permanent residents of the Valley.
Michael Grady was never a hometown boy. He just felt like one.
The Valley embraced the young actor and playwright when he moved here from the Midwest in the early ’90s. Both he and his plays proved popular additions to the schedules of Actors Theatre, Arizona State University Theatre, Black Theatre Troupe and other companies. In the late ’90s, he married Linda DeArmond, one of the pre-eminent local actresses.
Keeping Grady in the Valley proved impossible. When his interest turned to writing screenplays, he felt it would be best to base in Los Angeles. In spring 2001, he and DeArmond moved west.
This past week, Grady returned to the Valley, but in name only. On Thursday, Nearly Naked Theatre Company opened its production of his 1989 comedy, Baylin’s Monster, at the Little Theatre at Phoenix Theatre, 100 E. McDowell Road. The play is vintage Grady, mixing social comment, satire and just plain fun.
The plot is wild. A swamp creature is feeding on the residents of Baylin, a small Mississippi town. When the media descend enmasse, the town fathers worry that the tourism trade will suffer. They turn from damage control to spin control. How can this be made to work for them? We checked with the playwright.
QUESTION: A bizarre story, for sure. What kind of mood were you in when you wrote Baylin’s Monster?
ANSWER: (Laughing) Mood? Do I have to be drug-tested or something? I wrote Baylin’s Monster because I had a whole lot of downtime. I had been cast in a production of A Christmas Carol at a regional theater. I expected to play the part of Bob Cratchit but ended up as the Fifth Londoner. Basically, I was paid to move furniture around. That was at night. I had all day to knock around in an unfamiliar city, so I started writing.
Q: What inspired you?
A: I wrote the play in 1989. That was just around the time serious cracks began to appear in the whole facade of corporate responsibility. You were hearing stories of large corporations moving their manufacturing operations south of the border to take advantage of cheap labor. The small communities that had built themselves around these factories were left holding the bag.
At the same time, there was something new in the papers about the Loch Ness monster. New photographs or a new way of looking at old photographs that found the body covered with sequins, I don’t know. In any case, these ideas converged in my brain. I thought it would be interesting to explore a situation where a community makes an industry out of its own curse of Egypt by redeeming it for cash.
Q: What possessed you to make it a musical?
A: I had never done a musical and, as an actor, no one in their right mind would cast me in a musical. But I still love them. A musical is like being in overdrive; there’s an extra gear to engage the emotions. So, I decided to make Baylin’s Monster a musical for people like me who couldn’t sing very well.
Q: But there’s no musical score, just lyrics.
A: I have a small musical background, just enough to know I shouldn’t compose melodies. At most theaters, there are actors and directors who play the piano or the guitar and have a grass-roots sense of music. So, I go to them and say, “Let’s come up with something.” They take it and mess around with it and create music that usually serves the lyrics pretty well. Better yet, they feel a sense of ownership because they composed it.
Q: How’s life in Los Angeles?
A: It’s fine, it’s fine — only there’s a lot more traffic. When you’re starting over, which is basically what Linda and I did, you ask yourself a lot of questions about what you want to do. In my case, the question was, “What kind of stories do I want to write?” Los Angeles is a very competitive town. You can’t afford to get behind something you don’t really believe in. It’s making me a better writer.
Q: Are you concentrating on screenplays?
A: It’s been a while since Baylin’s Monster was done … it has such a large cast and a lot of theaters can’t afford that. When Nearly Naked contacted me about doing the play, I did some retooling of the script and wrote a new song. That was fun. It was like going back in my old diaries.
For now, though, I’m working on screenplays. I’ve written a couple and put them out there. I’m just waiting to see if they hit.
This interview with Michael appeared in the May 7, 2000 Arizona Republic, before he made the decision to move to California.
By Kyle Lawson
Don’t get me wrong. I like Michael Grady. The man behind The Arizona Project at Actors Theatre of Phoenix just grates on my vanity.
He’s one of those guys who, the older he gets, the more boyish he looks. Bad enough that I knew him when we were boyish. Now the waitress at Sam’s Cafe clearly thinks it’s Dad’s night out with the kid.
He’s knows he’s got it, and he uses it. All the tricks are in play. The grin, the eyes – I swear to God, they twinkle! He asks for help with his menu.
I sulk behind mine as the staff rushes to oblige.
It’s hard to begrudge the playwright his Mr. Desirable act. Things are going well – and it’s taken them their own sweet time. When we first met, Grady was fleeing a non-career in Chicago. Phoenix was no theater mecca, but at least his butt didn’t freeze.
You might say things warmed up for him. He picked up a wife, a decent day job and a life. Some of his plays even got produced. Not that many. Not enough to add up to a living. But about a half-dozen actually made it to the point where people were asked to buy tickets.
A couple of years ago, opportunity did its rap act. Jeff Daniels, the movie actor, read one of Grady’s scripts and produced it at his Purple Rose Theatre in Michigan. Word got around. Better, scripts got passed around.
Today, Grady is looking at a New York production of his Past History. Sharon Gless is seeking backers for The Harmony Codes, which was workshopped at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. Daniels has commissioned Lights, a Christmas play.
Grady and his wife, actress-playwright Linda DeArmond, are collaborating with Phoenix Theatre’s Michael Barnard and songwriter Alan Gordon (Happy Together, My Heart Belongs to Me) on a revue of ’60s music that they’re calling Rocking the American Way. (“This week, anyway,” he says.)
Meanwhile, back among the saguaros, the world premiere of The Arizona Project, a seriocomic take on land developers from out of state, previews Friday at the Herberger Theater Center.
“It’s one of the great ironies,” Grady sighs. “You work for years on plays no one wants to touch, and, suddenly, you don’t have time for a beer with your buds.”
Q: Are you complaining?
A: Are you nuts? The only thing worse than being wanted is being unwanted. I’m 38. I was beginning to think I wasn’t ever going to be able to do the thing I love. Anyway, the older you get, the less sleep you need. I read that some place.
Q: The theater community looks to you and Linda as role models when it comes to marriage. You’ve survived acting together, now you’re collaborating as writers. Is this a death wish, or are you just obsessed with togetherness?
A: You don’t know the worst of it. Linda edits all my stuff. She swings a hell of an ax, and she’s totally honest. She’s been working a lot as an actress. I was glad when the last show closed. I had all of these Arizona Project pages that needed her desperately.
Q: You still love her, even after she’s axed your dialogue?
A: Passionately. We’re competitive but not in that sense. We come at the work from different directions. She’s very good at conveying a character’s emotional geography. I’m very good at storytelling. Together, we create a hell of a play. My problem is, I end all of my plays seven or eight times. Linda usually gets me down to one ending in time for opening.
Q: You’ve written plays about cavalry officers, housewives and homeless men. Is there a theme that connects them?
A: I like to have people encounter elements of the extraordinary and then explore how that changes them. In Harmony Codes, that housewife meets up with aliens. In Past History, the cavalry officer is able to talk to the modern historian who’s writing about him. In The Arizona Project, an Eastern couple find more than they bargain for when they try to develop some land here.
Q: You’ve wanted to do a play about urban growth for a long time, haven’t you?
A: Yeah. I feel a need to speak out. We’ve still got some stuff we can save, but we’re getting close to the line. I’m also interested in the real Arizona as opposed to the strip-mall version. When I came out here, I thought every building looked like a converted Taco Bell. I didn’t see any history, any architecture, any personality. I was looking in the wrong places. I was looking at the White people’s Phoenix.