Spotlight on Matt Cox: Playwright Edition
In Theatre Trip’s “Spotlight On” series, we’re chatting with some of the most inspiring people in the theatre industry. And today we’re doing a special feature on Matt Cox – a playwright, actor, improviser, and sound designer based in New York City.
Matt Cox is a man of many talents, but you might best know him from his hit off-Broadway comedy, Puffs or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years At A Certain School Of Magic & Magic. He is also the writer of Kapow-I GoGo (among others), and a director/actor for Story Pirates.
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What initially inspired you to step into the theatre world?
“I was quite shy growing up, which for a very long time kept me from venturing into the world of theatre, despite having an interest in it for a long time. But I have always enjoyed making people laugh, and that part of me eventually won. I went in to audition for an improv team at my high school, and at the same time they were having auditions for “You Can’t Take It With You” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. I ended up in both, and have since stayed on that path in life. So, it was definitely my love of comedy in all its form which brought me here.”
When did you first realize that you could write plays and work in theatre for a living?
“I was a sketch writer in college, and hoped to one day translate that into play writing. For a long time, I didn’t- certain anxieties and doubts would come out, and for the most part, my interests were only in genre or pop culture inspired stories. At the time, I didn’t think there was much of a market for that in theatre.
Fast forward many years and I was acting in a late night play competition downtown in New York. Our group needed a writer last minute and so I ended up writing a multiple episode long fantasy tale called “Kings of Crowns.” People seemed to like it, which was nice. I followed that up with “Kapow-I Gogo,” which ended up becoming my first full-length play. It was a 4 & 1/2 hour long Saturday morning cartoon/sci-fi/anime/video game inspired epic, and ran at the Peoples Improv Theatre for 8 months. That was the first time I thought there could be a living here- and then “Puffs” soon followed.”
Would you say that your background in improv comes in handy when it comes to writing plays?
“I would say that! Especially in the later stages of development when actors are rehearsing. It’s the ideas that rush in my mind in those moments, how best to capitalize on what that particular actor is doing with the line that tend to be the better bits or jokes in my plays. I owe the ability to assess scenes from what I learned in improv. It also helps very much with writing comedy, and understanding how to use comedy to tell a story.”
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face in your career so far?
“A big challenge at first, which I’m still working on overcoming, is that a lot of my work tends to not read well just on the page. Because it’s so designed for performance, and comes from discoveries in development with actors, without the specific timing or choices sometimes it isn’t always clear that it works. Add in that they tend to be genre plays, and not always everyone’s cup of tea, it can be challenging to get people on board.”
And what has been one of your happiest career-related moments?
“I have been lucky enough to meet a lot of wonderful people who are fans of the things I write. I always set out to make things that people will actually care about and whenever that manifests, it’s certainly very joy inducing. There’s two moments which stand out:
To send off a bunch of the original “Puffs” cast, we did a reading of a script called “Puf3s: Eventfulness Maximus.” It was a love letter to the characters, and a celebration of this thing we made together. We had a packed house, and the noises the audience made throughout were the makings of something truly special. It was wonderful to share and celebrate something with a room full of people who all love it.
A similar memory was for “Kapow-I GoGo,” about a year after we had closed the show, I wrote a Holiday Special for it. It was a brand new script with a lot of dumb jokes and songs throughout. We put it up in a few days, and even though so much time had gone by since the show had stopped, we had a sold out crowd who erupted into applause with every character’s entrance. It was a really amazing night, and it only happened once.”
“The only way to make a living making things is to make things in the first place.”
Can you share a bit about your writing process with us?
“If I have an idea I like, I’ll generally sit on it for a little while, thinking through what could happen and mostly coming up with bits or jokes that will excite me about the story. When I’ve got enough of those that feel right, I’ll start writing. I write best at night, not sure why. I like to have a few of the plot points lain out, but otherwise work with a blank canvas- and see where the story and the characters naturally takes me. Sometimes I’ll find my way to the initial ideas I had, and sometimes where the story goes will surprise me.
It’s like a ride, where you don’t know the twists and turns ahead of time. After that first draft is done, so much needs to be re-written and brought together. As I go I tend to keep a long list of things I realize I’m contradicting or need to be set up better in the first part- so I add all of that back in. But really, as mentioned above, my favorite part is writing with actors in the room- as I get to actually be sure something is working, and can match what that performer is doing or thinks is fun, making things much more specific, and adapting the play to the energy being created in the room.”
Would you identify as a Hufflepuff yourself?
“I am a Puff! The internet agrees.”
Why would you say that people should go see “Puffs”?
“Alongside being a loving send up of a certain boy wizard’s tenure at wizard school, (if that’s your sort of thing) “Puffs” is also a story with a lot of heart and laughs that are completely unrelated to magic. It’s about growing up and maybe being the not-so-cool kid at school, something I think a whole lot of us can relate to. It’s a story celebrating normal lives- a play for everyone never destined to save the world. And- there’s a lot of fun wizard jokes too. (If that’s your thing.)”
Is there any advice that you have for those who are just starting out with playwriting?
“Find yourself a good group of people to make stuff with- creators/directors/designers with similar and different sensibilities than you so that you’re always growing and improving. And if you have a group of actors you trust, and who like working with you, there’s always opportunity to hear what you’ve written, or even put it up somewhere. The only way to make a living making things is to make things in the first place- and setting yourself up to have plenty of opportunities to make things people can actually see is the first step of that.”
What’s next for you?
“There are lots of things up in the air! I have a play about the Salem witch trials called “Witches?! In Salem!?” that I’m hoping to do something with soon. (It’s about two real witches in Salem in 1692. Hilarity and atrocities ensue.) And possibly looking at bring back a revamped version of “Kapow-I GoGo” one day. I’m also working on an urban fantasy novel about an orc who just wants to be an actor. It’s very poorly titled New Orc City.”
What did you think of this interview with Matt Cox?
Are any of you working as or aspiring to be a playwright? We’d love to hear all about what you’re up to in the comments below! And in the meantime, you can check out even more of our exciting theatre interviews with other inspiring people in the industry!
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Author: Stacy Karyn
Stacy Karyn is the founder of Theatre Trip, author of The Thespian’s Bucket List, and creator of The Cast Album List. She has a TESOL drama certificate, a BA in theatre, and has worked and interned with Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters.