An Interview with Mike Cimino

Madeleine: Before you started working at SAAS, what were you doing in the theater/acting community?

Mike: Before I started working here, I was working at Starbucks, where I worked with English teacher Alison Ray. Starbucks was a great job because I was able to work in the morning and do shows at night. I mostly worked between the Fifth Avenue Theatre and the Village Theatre doing musicals. And you know, I played the funny guy and I would do middle to big roles, sometimes a middle role, sometimes a big role, but I worked in the theater a lot as an actor.

Madeleine: Name some of the plays you were in while you were an actor.

Mike: Well, I was in Singin’ in the Rain, and Wizard of Oz, and Evita; I played Fagin in Oliver--that was one of my bigger roles. I was in Anything Goes. I did hundreds of shows as an actor, but it was difficult.

The actor’s life is one that you really commit to, and once I had my daughter and my son, I found out that hanging out with them was more important than being an actor all the time. I started teaching, because I wanted to have more time with my children. I wasn’t home when I was acting. I was working in the day and working at night, and trying find time to sleep, and I never saw my children. It bummed me out. The actor’s way of life stopped making me happy because I couldn’t see who I really loved. So, I tried to find a different way to be a part of the theater; that’s why I started teaching.

Madeleine: So I’ve heard about your TV writing career. Can you tell me about that?

Mike: Well, I had written mostly for the theater, but I had also written pilots, but nothing ever got picked up. But I finally made friends with a guy who was working on Everybody loves Raymond. He was the assistant director, which means he was there all the time. He became my friend, and I told him I wanted to write for TV. He said, “Well, why don’t you write for Raymond?” I replied, “Well I don’t have anything produced,” and he said, “Well, why don’t you just try?” So I wrote a show, and he took it to them, and they sent it back saying, “Why don’t you do some rewrites.” So I re-wrote it, and they liked it a lot, and they bought it. But they ended up never shooting it. They had all these different scripts and they’d have to choose a few, so you know…

Madeleine: What was the episode called? What was the plot synopsis?

Mike:  I forget what it was called, but the synopsis was that because Ray and Deborah moved into the house next to his mom and dad, I had the person who used to live in the house when Ray was a little kid come say, “You know, this is the house I grew up in, and I know you don’t know me. I just want to look around and try to remember the house.” I had this old guy come and look around the house, and Ray remembers him saying, “Oh yeah, you’re Mr. Hamilton who used to live here.” They ask him to have dinner with the family, and it comes out that maybe there was an affair between Ray’s mom and the next door neighbor. He and the father get into a big fight about this whole thing. Ray’s mom and the neighbor both deny anything happen, but Ray’s dad thinks that something happened.

Madeleine: That sounds really hilarious. I wish that could have happened on TV. I would have watched it.

Mike: I know, they bought it, and they actually chopped it up for parts. The next season came, and I would go, “Oh my god, that’s a joke from my script.” They would take a joke from my script and put it in something else.

Madeleine: So tell me about the play writing, script writing process.

Mike: Well, it’s different for everything; TV writing has a different format you have to fit it in. In my Writing for TV class I teach a half-hour format where there’s commercials. Every single type of writing, whether it’s a two-act play, a one-act play, a musical, a television program, or a film, everything has a different format, a different set of rules about where climaxes come, and how many characters, and what style. So it’s a pretty big question.

The thing that I do write the most of is musicals, and I’ve produced three original musicals at SAAS. One was called, Crossing Over, which we did on the main stage with the upper school. The other was called Viva Bombolini. I wrote the music with KC Helmeid. The other was a middle school musical that we wrote about King Tut. The process is wonderful, probably my favorite thing to do. Right now KC and I are finishing a musical about Patty Hearst.

Madeleine: Why do you pick topics like Patty Hearst or King Tut to write the musicals?

Mike: I’ll just discuss Patty Hearst, since that’s the one we’re working on right now. I was reading PBS documentaries with an acting class, trying to figure out whether they could be transferred to the stage. I copied a bunch of transcripts from documentaries, and we read, trying to figure out if any of them could be transferred to the stage. We read one about Patty Hearst. It starred a woman, which is great, because most of the time, I’m looking for properties that star women, because 75% of our cast are women, generally, and most of the stories out there are about men. Historically, men have been the protagonists in most of these shows that I have to choose from, and just now we’ve been trying to build up stories about women.

So, the story came along, and we read it in the advanced acting class. The kids said, “Wow! We’ve never read a story like this before. It’s about this woman losing her mind and potentially being brainwashed and struggling with her identity.” And I realized that this is an interesting story, and I don’t know if anything like it has been done for the stage.

So I’ve read every single book written about Patty Hearst. At a certain point I wanted to make my own stage version of her story, and I convinced KC to make a rock opera out of it. We worked on it for three years, and the lovely thing about it is how many strong women parts there are in it. They are true-to-life women’s parts, that have nothing to do with love. I mean, they have their own loves, but it’s love for a revolution that they’re all about. It’s a type of woman’s roles that I’ve never seen before. I feel like I’m not writing in a cliché manner. I feel like I’m breaking new ground when I’m writing something important that has never really been done before. That’s what excited me about that play.

Madeleine: Nice! What was the biggest struggle you have faced during your career, as an actor and as a teacher?

Mike: As an actor, my biggest struggle was always making money. Yes, big actors in Hollywood films make a lot of money, but the truth of the matter is everybody wants to be an actor, everyone thinks that they can be an actor, and theaters can usually get away with paying actors nothing. So figuring out a way to make a living and do your art is the most difficult thing there is.

As a teacher, the hardest thing is continuing to figure out how to inspire kids, and learn about what you’re teaching, and not fall into a rut. You must keep what you teach malleable and keep it growing and interesting, and not let yourself fall into the rut of, “I’m teaching this and this to the kids. If they don’t get it, they don’t get it. It’s their fault, not mine.”

Madeleine: Lastly, do you have any advice to future playwrights?

Mike: Do I have any advice? No, except that play writing is very important work, and I always judge my life based on what people say during my funeral. Are they going to talk about what car I drove? No. Are they going to talk about how nice my house was? Probably not. Are they going to talk about what kind of dad I was? Maybe. Are they going to talk about all the plays I wrote? Probably. Are they going to talk about how I was generous and helped people and was friendly? Probably. Are they going to talk about my material possessions? Probably not. So, I know that the work I do as a playwright is going to be remembered, whether it becomes the next musical or play or not. It’s the stuff that my grandchildren can hold in their hands and see that I existed in this time and space, and that I was creative. And for anybody who writes a play, whether it gets produced or not, it is a great message that you are here, and that if you work at it, and you love it, maybe you’ll stumble on a great idea that nobody’s ever thought of before, and that is a way of writing to move the human race forward.