Off Script: Talking with Jim Dalglish

By Kay Keough

Just days before sitting down for a phone chat about his life and career, area playwright Jim Dalglish was returning home from a whirlwind two weeks abroad. His fantastical-sounding journey was reminiscent of something a writer might dream up.

From Dublin to Wales to London, the various paths Dalglish traveled were figuratively — and literally — thrilling and winding. First, there was capturing awards for his captivating drama “Lines in the Sand” at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival (the play’s two lone actors, Nick Bucchianeri and Tony Travostino, won the Michael MacLiammoir Award for Outstanding Male Performance). The play had its world premiere at Cotuit Center for the Arts’ Black Box Theater earlier this year.

Then, there was driving on the “wrong” side of narrow roads with partner Rob Phelps through the British Isles. And finally, attending a concert and meeting Prince Charles — through the invite of a very well-connected aunt — at Buckingham Palace.

Not a bad way to experience the world and bring to it a great storytelling gift, one which the North Dakota native began developing as a youth in the rural but artistically rich city of Grand Forks.

Dalglish offered some thoughts and insights about his work on the Cape theater scene, as one who has directed both his own and others’ plays locally, including “Bark Park,” “Unsafe” and “Lines in the Sand” in recent years at Cotuit Center for the Arts; served as managing director for Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater; and directed marketing for both WHAT and the Provincetown Theater.

On his first inspirations: Both sides of Dalglish’s family were “blessed with great storytellers,” he said, often using dinnertime to share stories that were real or made up. It was here that he first learned about story structure and having a distinct narrative voice.

“In my family, if you’re a big character that’s a fantastic thing to be,” he said.

His first play: Written in sixth grade, the budding playwright’s first effort was a monster-mystery comedy, following two lovers who wander into a castle. Dracula, Frankenstein and Igor appeared in the show, which was performed in front of third-graders.

Why he chose theater: Though he dabbled in journalism, poetry, fiction and nonfiction, “I think it was the limitations of writing for the stage that I found thrilling,” Dalglish said. “Theater is a very ‘hot’ art form. It has an engagement between the performer, artist and audience. You’re doing it on a stage in a communal (way). You’re creating a reality out of thin air with actors — plus lights and sound — and (the audience is) providing as much of the meaning as the actors are.”


Taking a break: After exploring many styles of playwriting at the University of North Dakota and earning a master’s degree in creative writing at Brown University, Dalglish took 10 years off from writing, because at 22 he lacked the life experience to “have something to say,” he explained. He credits meeting Rob 25 years ago, and experiencing the ups and downs of their relationship, with helping him grow. (Short play “The Brave” and one-act “Consequences and Their Side Effects” were both derived from dealing with Rob’s serious health struggles during the early days of the AIDS crisis.)

His introduction to the Cape theater scene: Dalglish lived for around three years on the Cape, and after attending events at a playwrights’ festival in Provincetown, he and five or six peers formed a group that helped get him writing again. The group met weekly, working in a supportive and collaborative environment, and Dalglish had 15 of his plays produced in the following five years.

The writing process: “I consider it writing when I’m just sitting and thinking about things,” he said. He likes to formulate much of a new play before getting started, he adds, and the play can start from many germination points. “Lines in the Sand,” for example, had roots in a real person whose story is reflected in the show, with some of it focused on the subject of the inherent aggressiveness of masculinity.

When characters get “real”: There is a lot of himself in his characters, Dalglish acknowledges, and his friends sometimes get taken aback when they see a play and think (rightly or not) that it’s about them. But, he says, “I can’t write about something I don’t feel emotionally attached to. When I write about something I think will be popular, that’s when I don’t write well.” (His collaboration with Lynda Sturner on “A Talented Woman” is taken from her life, with a character who reflects him.)

What’s easier to write, comedy or drama?: “They’re both really impossible to write,” he said, though “in production and performance, comedy might be a little tougher to pull off, because it’s easier to get people involved in something if [the emotional impact of a drama] is genuine. But with comedy it’s hard to give people permission to laugh.” For this reason, Dalglish — who likes to include comedy even in his more challenging dramas — will make sure the first couple of laughs in a script have a “reflector,” or someone on stage who laughs, allowing the audience to do the same.

“Method” directing: In order to get his actors in character before rehearsals, Dalglish likes to give them specific assignments that reflect the character’s emotional state. For his role in “Lines,” for example, Bucchianeri wore a sign that said “I’m gay” for a few hours while shopping, to get a sense of the vulnerability his character feels every day.

What’s next: Dalglish hopes to do a run somewhere of “A Talented Woman,” which was workshopped at Cotuit and in New York, and bring “Lines” to New York for a week. He has two or three plays he’s conceptualizing now, and will likely bring one to the front burner soon.

Advice for aspiring playwrights: “Learn everything you can about theater,” he said, so you can be an active participant in your work. And find an organization that supports you.