Hugo House instructor Danielle Mohlman is a nationally produced playwright whose works have been performed at Arena Stage, the Kennedy Center, the Cherry Lane Theatre, and more. In April 2020, during the early months of quarantine, she also orchestrated a 15-show virtual run of her play Nexus, performed by real-life actor couples.
This summer, Danielle will be teaching two classes on playwriting at Hugo House: Diving into Dialogue and Creating Big, Beautiful Worlds. We recently caught up with her to learn more about her path as a writer, her upcoming classes, and her recent experience presenting plays in the digital space.
Can you tell us a little bit about your path as a writer and what drew you to playwriting in particular?
Of course! I’ve been writing for almost as long as I can remember. I remember writing little stories—both for fun and for school—and working on a definitely unfinished novel when I was in 4th and 5th grade. But even then, I craved collaboration. When my uncles came to visit, I’d have them read parts of my writing out loud, giving me notes and unfiltered reactions as they read. I ended up studying journalism in college, but something was missing. I first encountered my school’s theatre department as a reviewer, and then as an acting student, and eventually as a playwright, director, and producer of my own work. I’ve been writing plays for the last twelve years and I’m still surprising myself with the stories I’m telling and the discoveries I make.
Your upcoming class on playwriting focuses on techniques for creating compelling dialogue. What do you see as some common challenges beginning playwrights have when it comes to crafting dialogue?
I think a common challenge that all writers face is how to write dialogue that is lived in, that feels like the world that they’re creating, and where the characters don’t sound like different versions of the writer talking to themselves. Because plays are meant to be performed, I put on a mini performance of my plays as I write them, reading them out loud as I write. And all the while, I ask myself Why are they saying this? Is this how they would talk to each other? I very rarely write monologues because we’re always interrupting each other when we speak. When one of my characters does have a monologue, it’s because they hold all the power in the room—as terrifying as that is.
Last year, you organized a 15-show virtual run of your play, Nexus, performed by real-life actor couples at home during quarantine. Can you tell us a little bit about the experience of pulling the series of performances together and what inspired you to do this?
One of my favorite things about being a playwright is that I’ve become friends with a bunch of smart and talented actors. And at the beginning of the pandemic, I was watching my friends grieve the shows that were cancelled and the work that they’d lost. And I have this two-character play about a couple who can’t stop seeing each other—who keep getting pulled into each other’s orbit, who are almost addicted to each other—and I thought Well, what would happen if they literally can’t stop seeing each other? I reached out to a few folks and put a call out on Instagram, hoping people would spread the word. I thought we’d maybe have enough interest for a weekend of shows, but we ran for three weeks and then extended for an additional week! People were craving live performance, that much was clear. We had folks from across the country and around the world tuning in to watch. It was one of the most rewarding and exhausting experiences of my career—and I’m so proud that I was able to be a job creator in such a volatile time.
What were some of the challenging or exciting parts of adapting your play for the digital space?
Other than asking the actors to perform Nexus in their own home, I didn’t adapt the play at all. That production was more about bridging the gap between Zoom readings and live performance in the theatre. This was in April 2020, so my reaction to the pandemic was pretty immediate. In the months since, I’ve created several shows that are specific to these digital and socially distant forms, including a show that was performed one-on-one over the phone and the Twitch-streamed play Secret Admirer, which was set during a virtual Bachelorette party and included an original board game that was played live every night. Dacha Theatre had an app randomizing the outcome of the game and everything. There were sixteen possible endings!
Each virtual presentation of Nexus was performed by a different couple who put their own spin on it. How, if at all, did seeing the different interpretations of your work change your own perspective on the play?
It was wild to see what each pair of actors brought to this script. Some actors leaned into the comedy, others locked into the more somber moments, and there were some performances that were so grounded in realism that I felt like I was eavesdropping on their lives. When I originally wrote Nexus, I intentionally left a lot of space there. Some lines of dialogue are simply a set of ellipses. And this goes back to my love of actors. I wanted to give them room to make those choices. I know I’ll be thinking about this production for years to come.
You’re also teaching a class on worldbuilding in playwriting this July. What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned (so far) about worldbuilding for stage or virtual productions?
Worldbuilding is just as important for contemporary writers as it is for writers of speculative fiction, fantasy, or historical pieces. There’s so much story in the specificity of place, and in the characters who choose (or don’t choose) to live there.
How would you describe your approach to teaching?
My classes are lively, imaginative, and playful. I always open each class with a game or warmup, and I strive to create community in our classroom—especially when I’m teaching online. I know it’s not cool to admit this, but I love writing. I have fun doing it, even when I’m tackling a difficult theme or subject matter. And when I teach playwriting, I bring that joy and enthusiasm with me.