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“What Do You Do With a BA in English?”
Just Ask Jeff Whitty

by Gillian Granoff

When Jeff Whitty, the wildly successful writer of Avenue Q, sat down to talk about his path as a writer, it became abundantly clear that the trajectory of his career read more like a Jack Kerouac novel than the libretto for a Broadway musical. As he approaches, I am immediately struck by his earnestness. Despite his enormous success, he is refreshingly humble. He does not carry himself with the airs of someone who is commissioned to write screenplays for A-list celebrities, and who is courted by Broadway royalty like Tony Kushner, but resembles in many ways, the mid-western sincerity of an upbringing in Coos Bay, Oregon. The self-described “subversive” is one of six children. His father, an attorney, imparted an attention to detail while his mother was the creative force. Creativity clearly permeated his childhood home: one brother is a jazz musician in New York and a sister is creative in public relations. His early mentors are a high school teacher, “a wildly liberal feminist” and a history teacher who was a “ruthless critic and thinker” and instilled in him the importance of revisions. Whitty evinced irony early when he wrote and performed a play in 6th grade entitled The Cow That Smiled, A Murder Mystery, a play about a cow that did not exist. In 1993, after receiving his bachelors in English from the University of Oregon, Whitty came to New York to pursue acting. He traveled via the Green Tortoise a “sixties throw-back” which enabled him to see the United States along with other young students in an empty school bus with beds in the back. In New York he continued to find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. He waited tables at Joe Allen’s, where he networked with many big wigs in the theatre industry.  He recalls nostalgically the scripts of bombed shows that wallpapered the restaurant.

In 1994–97, Whitty received an MFA in acting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he credits the skills he learned in acting school with making him a better writer. For example, his intuitive grasp of dialogue is something he cultivated from his training as an actor, not a writer. After graduating and writing a series of plays he describes as “sentimental and sincere,” he took a big artistic risk and wrote something “just to amuse myself.” Over lunch with a friend he came up with the idea to write a parody of the Laramie project, concocting a tragedy set in a small town in Washington  called
The Plank Project. It deals with an 1100-pound person who falls through a plank, into a well, and dies during liposuction surgery. His irreverent sense of humor and artistic risk taking paid off  when it attracted the attention of now agent, Peter Franklin of the William Morris Agency.  “The day Peter took me on as a client was the day that changed my life.” Five months later, Franklin presented him with the opportunity to work with the producers of Rent in writing a musical starring puppets. The play was Avenue Q and Whitty wrote the libretto (book). “People always say to me that it must have been such a fun show to write, but it was hard,” Whitty states candidly.   Despite the conflicts and artistic differences they faced, Whitty and his collaborators, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marks, won a Tony award.
The success of
Avenue Q has opened many doors for Whitty.  His upcoming projects include a pilot for a new Fox series, which involves a car chase loosely based on the Dukes of Hazard, and a film project starring Jennifer Anniston, This American Life, based on  the  life of a 33-year-old international private investigator and adventurer in Los Angeles, who has almost finished her Ph.D. Other projects in the works for the prolific writer is a parody of Hedda Gabler and a dark children’s musical.   Whitty gets inspiration as a writer by acting in the plays of his contemporaries and the work of those he “envies.” Among the writers he admires are his friend Amy Freed, and his “idol” Craig Lucas, the writer of Reckless. He credits Tony Kushner, the writer of Angels in America, and Steven Sondheim for teaching him to use comedy and laughter to engage the audience in the deeper emotional complexity of the work. He vociferously objects to work that tries to “broadcast how an audience should respond.” It should come as no surprise that his preference is for writing devices like satire and parody. He deplores sentimentality in his own work and the works of others and is candid in his opinion that Show Girls is a better movie than Mystic River.

His advice for aspiring writers is simple.  “Read, read, read and expose yourself to everything and anything in the field.” He recommends keeping a journal, and not being afraid to put yourself out there. Whitty is  unwilling to give a recipe for success and is reluctant to comment on his own. “The day I gave up on my notion of success was the day I really began to work well as a writer,” he declares. He does recommend a well-rounded diet, which combines reading the classics with trashy literature, and  finding mentors in a range of fields. “Writers who only know writers will miss something ineffable.” He warns that talent will only go so far. You have to take risks. Most important, Whitty says, is hard work, commitment and “putting yourself out there.” Emotional honesty in characters, he believes, only comes from living, and exposing oneself to everything. It is the bumps in the road, not the paved paths that yield true creativity. “I didn’t mature as a writer until I had gone through a lot of hard knocks, because at a certain point, your sense of humor and irony about yourself is only useful after you’ve been through a certain amount of anguish and you come to terms with what your expectations are versus the reality.” So what do you do with a BA in English?”  This telling question from the lyrics  of Avenue Q’s central song, are, in Whitty’s opinion  “the essence of Avenue Q.” At the end of the interview with Jeff Whitty, I still am still left without a simple answer, but assuaged by the notion that perhaps, it is the question not the answer that counts.#



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