Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Featured Alumnus: Mark Olshaker (’72) Part Three

To mark the beginning of June and as a nod to our 2009 graduates, this week GW English News will feature a five part interview with alumnus Mark Olshaker. A 1972 graduate of the English Department, Olshaker has put his B.A. in English to good use as a writer, filmmaker, and self-proclaimed dilettante who has collaborated with notables including John Douglas, Paula Apsell, and Kenneth Branagh. Before reading about Olshaker’s successes in theatre, film, and television, read about his experiences as and undergraduate in Part One and his career as a professional writer in Part Two.

Part Three: Success in Film & Theatre
Mark Olshaker’s career as a writer has often overlapped with his interests in film and theatre. First nominated for an Emmy Award in 1992 for the Nova episode “Mind of a Serial Killer,” he won the award for Outstanding Animated Program in 1994 as writer on “The Roman City.” Based on a book by David Macaulay, the program was hosted by Macaulay and featured the voices of Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen.

That same year, Olshaker published a foray into crime fiction, The Edge, set in Washington, D.C. It was later bought by New Line Cinema and Olshaker was hired to write the screenplay. “It hasn’t been filmed, as most screenplays are not, but it was a very good experience for me both financially and as an experience. I do have plans to try to write more screenplays… It’s a form that definitely interests me: it’s essentially trying to figure out what are the hundred best minutes of a story, and trying to render them thus.”

Olshaker is a man not only interested in creating, but also in the creative process. Having studied the creative process at GW under the guidance of Professor Claeyssens, Olshaker decided to investigate the rehearsal process of the most famous play in the English language: Hamlet. In 1990, prior to his writing of crime fiction, he directed the hour-long special “Discovering Hamlet” which followed acclaimed thespians Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh.

“I thought taking a play that everybody knew, like Hamlet, and a director who had played Hamlet very successfully, Derek Jacobi, and a new young actor playing it for the first time, Kenneth Branagh, that this would be a very interesting rendition of the creative process. We started the film at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England, on the first morning of rehearsal, and ended it when Ken steps on stage on opening night. So we semi-facetiously say that our film ends where all the others begin.”

With his experience in both theatre and crime fiction, Olshaker has observed surprising connections between the two fields. While filming “Discovering Hamlet,” Olshaker spent about five weeks living with these very fine actors; shortly thereafter he worked with the FBI’s behavioral science unit on the Nova show. “What was very interesting to me was, that the actors and the detectives… were doing a lot of the same things. An actor comes to a scene in a script and he or she has to figure out what is actually happening in the scene, what is the actual transaction between the characters.” This subtext forms the basis of any good play. In comparison, “detectives will come to a crime scene––so it’s not a scene in a book it’s a physical scene––and instead of subtext what they call it is evidence. What does the evidence show us was the transaction between the participants in the scene, the offender and the victim? In both cases, before the practitioner––be it actor or detective––can tell us what happened, they have to understand the subtext of the scene.”

Three years ago, Olshaker was nominated to be a judge for the Helen Hayes awards, recognizing outstanding theatre in the Washington, D.C. area. He is grateful for the opportunity to be exposed to new theatre, but the position has its drawbacks. According to Olshaker, “A lot of what you see if very good, and a lot of it s real crap; you certainly learn to distinguish it, and it gives you an appreciation for the range of theatre in this town… I’m convinced that certain theatres are open merely because the people who run them like to put on plays, whether they have an audience or not… but you have to give people credit for wanting to try.”

He finds some theatre more audience-friendly than others. As a Helen Hayes judge, he sometimes reviews Spanish theatre that is presented with surtitles. “Just having to struggle for the meaning, I miss a lot of the nuance of what’s going on onstage.” Different cultural conventions can also be surprising. He recalls, “At the Kennedy Center years ago I saw a production of kabuki. I was told that it was very good, but I found it boring because I just didn’t get the convention… things that were deeply emotional and meaningful to people who understood it just passed over me.” Olshaker is generally suspicious of productions that alter Shakespeare’s original words or intention. “I think when you tamper with Shakespeare, you better have a pretty good reason for it.”

In more recent years, Olshaker has continued to write and produce films. He was consulting producer for the 2003 series “Avoiding Armageddon” and in 1995 wrote the “Stormchasers” IMAX film. In 2000, he wrote “Bridges,” the opening program of the Peabody Award-winning PBS “Building Big” series. Says Olshaker, “The more I do, the more similarities I find between the things that interest me.” For example, “an architect has a plot of land to work with, the client tells him what he wants, and the mystery is figuring out what kind of building to build on that site.” Although he has no academic background in architecture, he has explored it via the fields in which he does have professional expertise. By working on films and television programs, “I’ve been able to pursue and encounter some of the great architects of our time… same with acting, same with history.”

Although Olshaker might claim that his specialties are true crime and public health, he has enjoyed considerable success in the realms of the theatre and film. To read Olshaker’s thoughts on the liberal arts, writing adaptations, and the future of media, visit the blog Thursday afternoon for Part Four of Featured Alumnus: Mark Olshaker.

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