Damon DiMarco has authored or co-authored nine non-fiction books with boutique, mid-sized, and Big Five publishers. He’s also written four plays, plus several screenplays and television pilots. Damon’s books have been endorsed by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights David Mamet and Stephen Adly Guirgis; Chairman of the 9/11 Commission Thomas H. Kean; comedian Amy Schumer; Academy Award winning actors Olympia Dukakis and Mary Steenburgen; and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. After graduating from Drew with a double major in English Literature and Theatre Arts, Damon studied acting at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts Professional Actor’s Training Program and earned his MFA under William Esper. Damon’s acting credits include performances in regional theater, recurring roles on soaps, prime time television, commercials, live hosting, and live industrial shows. He is a member of Actors Equity Association & SAG-AFTRA. He’s appeared as a guest on national television and radio programs for CNN, The National Geographic Channel, FOX News, Odyssey Networks, Premiere Radio Networks, and other venues. In 2012, he initiated the Writing for Public Intellectuals workshop for PhD students in the History and Culture program at Drew University’s Caspersen Graduate School. As a performance consultant, he’s worked with actors and people from all walks of life to hone their audition or scene skills or to sharpen their presentations, speeches, keynote addresses, and story pitches. As a writing consultant, he’s helped private clients produce non-fiction book proposals, novels, screenplays, stage plays, and television pilots working through virtually every stage of development from inception to finished product. Damon lives in New York City. For more details, visit his website, www.createX3.com.
THE VALUE OF DREW
Damon was born and raised in New Jersey. When he first visited Drew and saw its beautiful campus, the facilities, faculty and students, going about their business, he said it felt like home. “I fell in love with Drew,” he says. He had always been a writer and began doing plays in high school. “At first, I had all these doubts about acting, wondering if I could make a living at it and wondering if I should do the responsible thing and get a degree in accounting or computer science or whatever. But you can’t tell a duck not to swim. It turns out my degrees in English and Theatre Arts were exactly what I needed.” What Damon loved about the Theatre Department at Drew is that everyone has an opportunity to be both in front of and behind the scenes. “I specialized in acting but I was told I had to swing a hammer, build a set, direct a play, hang lights, and be a stage manager. I mention this to everyone when I talk about Drew because it’s the perfect way to approach theatre education. You learn that theatre is a collaborative art form. For a show to work, everyone needs to pitch in. The same is true in publishing where there are editors, proofreaders, attorneys, and so on. In other words, it’s not just about writers, it’s about sustaining a whole collaborative ecosystem. You understand very quickly that no one functions in a vacuum.” Damon’s first performance at Drew was Zagrowsky Tells, a one-man show adapted from a short story by Grace Paley. He was a first-year student playing a bigoted 79-year-old Jewish man whose only daughter has a son with a black man. In his waning years, Zagrowsky finds himself alone with his biracial grandchild whom he loves, but who represents everything he despises. “It was a wonderful story about an incredibly complex character,” Damon says. “And timely, especially now. It was also a technical challenge on a level I’d never confronted before. The play was 90 minutes of me on stage, talking to an imaginary 3-year old. I spoke with an accent. I walked stooped over. They aged me with make-up … it was just an incredible experience, overwhelming for a freshman, but incredibly validating. I can’t think of another college or university theater department that would have given me that chance.”
Some of Damon’s best memories of Drew are those he associates with teaching. After earning his MFA, he returned to Drew as an adjunct teaching undergrad students in the Theatre Department for 7 years. Later, he returned again, this time to teach a writing course he developed for PhD students in the History & Culture program at the Caspersen School. “It was great to be back on the campus I fell in love with as an undergrad. And to realize I had knowledge to share now.” Damon points out that Drew’s motto, inscribed on the university’s front gate, is “Freely have you received, freely give.” “That sums it up for me,” he says. “Teaching is about giving back what you’ve learned, and learning more in the process. That’s the best part about the job, and it’s especially true when you’re working with artists: you’re constantly exposed to new ideas and fresh inspirations.”
After graduating Drew you went on to get your MFA at the Professional Actor’s Training Program at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts. You’ve also done some acting in soap operas, television and film. What attracted you to acting? Are you still acting today?
What attracts an accountant to numbers or a scientist to epidemiology? Acting has always made sense to me. Sanford Meisner said that acting is, “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Bill Esper and I later sharpened that line a bit by specifying that “living is doing.” If you think about it, from the moment we’re born to the moment we die, we’re all of us, always doing things. Every action we commit, no matter how apparently small – breathing, sitting, thinking, brushing our teeth – it’s all a part of the fabric of living. As an actor on stage, film, or TV, you’re living the same as you would in real life, except the world you’re living in is imaginary. Meaning that you, the actor, are clipping your toenails. But the imaginary circumstances dictate that you’re the mayor of a small town who just found out you’re being indicted for embezzlement. Or whatever the script is about. Ultimately, acting for me is a practice of empathy. You inhabit somebody else’s life as if it were your own. Not all the people you play will be people you want to spend time with. If you play a misogynist or a racist, for instance, you can’t judge that person. We all have flaws. So you try to find the good parts of that person and lay it all out there, the good and the bad, in a banquet of truth-telling.
All art forms celebrate our humanity in their own way. A painter tries to capture their sense of truth in a bowl of fruit or a person or a landscape. A musician tells his or her truth through song. But the actor is unique in that someone else gives you the lines you’ll say, the costume you wear, the lights you’ll stand under so people can see you. With all that taken care of, one might ask, Well, what is the actor’s job? The actor’s job is to live in a way that most of us would never dare to do. Your job is to bring everything you are – your understanding of life, your emotions, your humanity, your imagination – to bear on serving the story. It’s a very selfless act at its height, and there’s no other work like it on the planet. Except maybe writing. Which I guess we can also talk about.
As far as acting today, I’ve lately gotten into the audio book world. It’s incredible fun and it’s a booming segment of the publishing industry. These days a lot of people would rather listen to books than read them in the traditional manner. It’s basically acting into a microphone. You have to invest the material with everything you have. When you hear a book read well, you become transported. You enter that world because the actor was able to take you there.
Did you ever want to direct or produce?
Probably both at some point. Lately, on my website, I’ve been experimenting with short films about various topics related to creativity. But I’m very happy in front of my typewriters. I have 14 or 15 vintage manual typewriters. Every morning, I sit down in front of one and bang out my work. Typewriters help me lock into what I’m doing without distractions. The oldest one I have was made in 1929. It works as well as the day it rolled off the factory floor. So I sit in front of these old machines. My fingers work the keys and there’s that lovely sound which, to me, is as pleasant as meditating by a river. A lot of people ask me, “how do you get anything done on a vintage typewriter?” Honestly my output has tripled since I started using them. I can get more work raw work done than ever before. Eventually I move everything I write to a computer for editing and shipping. But my publishers and producers don’t care how I do my work. They just want it done, and this is what works the best for me. Typewriters keep me inspired. I also learned to restore them so I do that a lot these days when I’m not writing.
You came back to Drew a few times. First to teach theater to undergrads, then writing to grad students. Can you talk a little about the experience of teaching these different subjects?
First off, I didn’t teach anyone anything. I always saw my students as colleagues. It’s less teaching, more like artist management. It’s sort of like being a director. Great directors don’t tell you what to do, they just ask you a lot of questions. They want you to come up with your own answers because they know that’s where the gold is. You guide them and try to get them to see possibilities they haven’t noticed yet. And you try to keep it fun.
Working with actors and writers is different. With actors, instead of pulling words, essays, and story arcs out of people, you help them access parts of themselves they might never have realized are there. It can be revelatory stuff. When an actor allows him or herself to be surprised by their reaction to something, the audience gets surprised. They can’t help it. It’s a natural reaction. A lot of younger, inexperienced actors walk on stage and try to be bulletproof. It’s not interesting. They’re not doing their job, which is to experience something the audience is afraid to experience on its own.
The word “theater” in Ancient Greek means the “place of seeing.” This gives us a clue as to what the purpose of theater is. We go to see something we know is part of life, but are too afraid to experience ourselves. Most people want to run away from emotional experiences because these experiences frighten them. But in a film or a play, it’s the actor’s job to experience all those emotions for their audience, so they can live them through the performance.
I mostly teach acting by asking questions. A very important question is, What are you doing? Many actors don’t like this question because they think acting is about the lines. It’s not. The lines don’t matter so much as intent. Without an intention, an actor is nothing. There’s a famous story about the playwright, Edward Albee. He held auditions for one of his plays. When one of the actors was finished presenting a monologue, Albee said, “That’s very interesting. You said the words precisely as I wrote them.” The actor thought this was a compliment. But Albee said, “I know what the words are because I wrote them. What I was hoping you could supply is why I wrote them.” In other words, Albee was asking, What’s the reason you’re saying these words? Why do they have to be said right now? What are you hoping to get out of another person by speaking them? When you come up with answers to questions like these, you’re an actor. And it can be tricky. For instance, you’ll never catch a great actor acting. They personalize everything they do to such an extent that there’s really no difference between them and the role they play. The ego part of them is gone. It’s one of the most selfless acts you can ever witness. Very compelling on screen or in person.
You have also worked as a technical writer and Senior Marketing Analyst. How do you feel your education and training in theatre arts helped you do well in those positions?
Theatre taught me to improvise. There are many times in an artist’s life when you have to take a job to secure good health benefits, pay the rent, pay bills, make sure that baby has shoes. My training at Drew essentially gave me two things. First, it gave me many skills which I could apply in different arenas to secure gainful employment. Second, and more importantly, it instilled in me the passion to say, I don’t care if I hate this job, it’s only temporary. I’ll plow through it to get to the other side where I’m busy pursuing the work that I love. At the end of the day, artists are inspiration junkies. We live to take something from our insides and contribute it to our outside, meaning the world. At it’s best, this is a selfless dynamic. Everyone wants to be of service to something. It could be your children, the community, your art form, or all these things combined. If your values are important to you, it may prompt you to march in protest over a wrong doing, or reach in your wallet to make a donation. Acts like these get us outside of ourselves. Paradoxically, when we get outside of ourselves, we discover who we are inside. It’s when we ask how we can give or help, that we end up receiving the most.
You’ve written plays, screenplays, and few pilots, and authored and co-authored many books. Can you tell me about your writing process? Do you have a schedule where you write at the same time every day?
I’ll steal this line from Somerset Maugham, who said, “I only write when I’m inspired. Fortunately, inspiration strikes every morning at 9 a.m.” I always have something to work on. That’s good news and bad news. Sometimes you get paid for the work. A deal has been struck so there’s an advance or a fee or whatever. But if a subject really catches you, you have to write it regardless. You won’t be able not to write it. Hopefully, as has happened to me, three, maybe four years after you finish something, you’re having lunch with an agent, producer, or director. And they say, “Gee, I really wish I had a book or a play or a short film that dealt with this topic.” You say, “I’ll send it to you when I get back to the office.” I’ve sold a lot of projects like that. My process is always a little different because I’ve done plays, screenplays, fiction, and non-fiction. Rather than deal in the differences, let’s discuss the commonalities. What’s common is that you sit in your chair. You listen to what inspiration is telling you. Then you try to put it on paper. I always set an alarm so I can get lost, then found in the process. After two or three hours, your work is done for the day. You get up and do laundry, be a parent, eat a late breakfast, have a regular day. In many ways, my real job is to do everything necessary to enjoy life so I can get back to that other place where I’m writing. That’s where I’m comfortable. That’s the process.
You co-authored two books on acting with Bill Esper called, The Actor’s Art and Craft, William Esper Teaches the Meisner Technique. and The Actors Guide to Creating a Character. Can you talk a little bit about the Meisner acting technique you worked on with Bill and why you prefer it to other techniques like Method or Stanislavski’s technique?
Bill Esper trained and worked with Sanford Meisner for 17 years. There’s a lineage there from Meisner to Bill to me — and tens of thousands of other people who are part of this very large, very diverse, extended family. I think most people who like the Meisner technique find it very accommodating. The tool it makes the most use of is our imagination. In the 21st century, we talk a lot about renewable resources. The human imagination is utterly inexhaustible. Everyone has an imagination, and everything in life began in someone’s imagination. They pushed the idea outward into manifestation and it became real. When you can harness that power, there’s nothing in the world you can’t do. But I want to clarify something. This doesn’t mean that if you studied, say, Method Acting and it’s working for you that you shouldn’t use it. Bill was my mentor, teacher, and dear friend. He was most closely associated with Meisner technique because that was his heritage. But he encouraged us all to explore other avenues and come up with a technique that, ultimately, was ours and ours alone. At Rutgers, for instance, he had us study with Lenard Petit, a master of the Michael Chekov school of acting. And Joe Hart, whose ensemble techniques were drawn from the work of Joseph Campbell. No, Bill wasn’t clannish at all. He believed that your development as an actor is entirely up to you. You are there to learn everything that activates you in front of an audience and allows you to do your job.
I watched the Compass Needle Interview on YouTube and I was struck by your comment, “everything is here so God can show itself” and other references to being in the moment, and going within. Do you approach acting from a “spiritual” perspective? Also, you mentioned Joseph Campbell. Have you read him? Your references to everyone having a gift and being on a journey recalled to me his ideas on mythology.
I’ve read a lot of Campbell and other thinkers like Alan Watts, Erich Fromm, Richard Rohr, and Dr. Viktor Frankl. The simplest answer I can give to your question is this: what most people call a spiritual experience is, I suggest, the experience of being alive. I think the experience you’re having on earth is entirely up to you. Certainly, we have little power over what transpires outside us. But we always have control over how we respond to what’s outside us. This all goes right back to listening to the blank page. You can only do that when you stay right here, right now, in this moment. Mediation teaches you this. Don’t focus on the past, that’s either regret or reminiscing. Don’t focus on the future, that’s either anxiety or anticipation. The truth is, there is no past, no future. Every act of creativity – life itself — takes place in the here and now. That’s not being spiritual. I see it as being practical. The trick to staying creative is to get outside of our egos as much as possible. Inspiration only happens when we let go. When artists accomplish this, they suddenly find themselves connecting with powerful stuff with which to make their work.
Your book Tower Stories: An Oral History of 9/11 was endorsed by former Governor of New Jersey and Drew University President Tom Kean. Can you talk about how this book came to be and what readers can learn from it?
On the morning of 9/11, I woke up in my first New York apartment on West 82nd Street. I got coffee, went into the living room, and stared at the TV with my roommates. We were stunned. Everything you and I now remember about that event took place just 4 miles south of us. When the second plane hit, we knew it was no accident. The world as we knew it had come to an end. We had already entered what we now call the post 9/11 world. One of my roommates was down there under the towers that day when they fell. He came back to our apartment covered in ash. He sat down and told us what he’d experienced. While he was speaking, I thought someone should be writing it down. I had this suspicion the event was going to change everything, and I thought it might be helpful if someone documented firsthand accounts from the people who were there. So that’s what I did for the next 18 months. In all, I interviewed about 100 people. I spoke with them, transcribed their stories, and edited them for the sake of cohesion. When I thought I had a book, I shopped the collection around for a while but no one was interested. Still, it got me my first agent. Then one day I was speaking with a publisher who said he was looking for something about 9/11. It was one of those instances I mentioned where I said, “I’ll send it to you this afternoon.” It was gratifying to have the work published. The book’s gone through many editions. I’m working now with the publisher on an updated 20-year memorial edition. I also adapted the book as a play. It was set to debut in New York this past spring but then we got hit with COVID.
Recently, I realized that the book is all about service. What I found most interesting is how so-called “ordinary” people gave so much to complete strangers. No prompting. All of their own volition. When tragedies happen, it can bring out the best parts of us. For a while, Americans – the whole world, really – displayed an incredible capacity to nurture, to protect one another in that moment. If that doesn’t teach you something about humanity, I don’t know what will. Of course, we all went back to our old ways. We went to war. We fought with each other. Still do. But I see the same dynamic now as the world confronts COVID-19. There are always people willing to help, to look out for and safeguard their fellow man. It’s a little-known fact that Charles Darwin never believed in “survival of the fittest.” That was a construction drummed up by his students, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Henry Huxley. No, Darwin came to believe that kindness and cooperation are the key factors in helping a species excel. It’s all over his later work, The Descent of Man. And it’s certainly a subject worth pondering.
So many people say such kind words about Tom Kean. What are your memories of him being at Drew?
First, I should admit that I’m a huge Tom Kean fan. He was a conservative who cared about education and the arts, a leader respected on both sides of the aisle. I’m sure that’s why they tapped him to chair the independent 9/11 Commission. It’s rare to find a principled man in an age that’s become so polarized. Did you know that when he was President of Drew, Tom came to see every play we put on in the Theatre Department. Every play. That’s how much he cared about the arts – and the spirit behind the arts, which is to explore the frontier of what’s happening in society right now, and give it expression. I remember he ran a senior seminar for political science students. Some of my closest friends took it and said it was the best class they took at Drew. Tom apparently sat at the table with them and listened like a colleague. I can imagine him doing that. As a student, he majored in a history and he’s always been an astute scholar. What better place to be than at Drew? For years, he rode around campus on a bike that had this little bell on it. He would pop in on classes and sit in the back and just listen, smiling and learning. He was always approachable. Anyone could walk right up and talk to him about anything. One time, I walked into Mead Hall and went right to his office on some matter I needed help on. It wasn’t a usual thing but he never gave the impression of being put off by it. His attitude was that he was there to serve. In that way, I think he catalyzed a lot of us to be the best we could be. I wish we had more leaders like him now.
Tell me about writing plays vs. screenplays. Which do you prefer?
Plays are about bodies on stage while screenplays are entirely about what you see. In film, a lot of the storytelling gets done in the editing room. The editor dictates focus whereas in a play, you can’t tell audience members specifically where to look. Screenplay writing and play writing are similar in that, as the author, you have to break down the story and know what’s happening at all times. Often you don’t let the audience know what’s going on until the end. If you set it up properly, the climax is the payoff of your hard work setting things up. This demands that you be in control of the process. A revelatory moment at the end of a play or screenplay is never haphazard. It has to be earned.
Are you writing anything presently?
I am. Eleven years ago I drew a map marked in a foreign language I’d never seen before and didn’t understand. Between other assignments, I started building a history of this place, figuring out the language, crafting religions, histories, star charts, calendars, all that. I can’t seem to get it out of my system. Lately, I noticed I’ve returned to this place more often. I ended up writing books to serve as backstory to the book I first set out to write. So I think I’ll start shopping this material soon.
What do you feel is the key to your success?
Probably that I’m too stupid to quit. Also, on my better days, I have the capacity to be disciplined and playful at the same time.
What do you think is the most important characteristic in a successful person?
Tenacity. In any career, you’ll experience obstacles and disappointments. Some of these will be earth shattering and you can’t control that. The only thing we can control is how we respond to it. Take your lumps, cry if you need to, and go to work the next day. Be thankful for the lessons you learn. When you lose, don’t lose the lesson. Put differently, don’t focus on the physical thing but on the metaphysical thing. Ask yourself how is this making me into a better person, more open and empathetic, more humble in life? A better artist? Therein lies the key to any resilience in any capacity for anyone. Resilience is not taught very much in our society, but it’s so important. Without resilience we crumble.
What advice would you give a student who is interested in a career as an actor?
Act. Remember that there is no job which is beneath you. If someone asks you to be in something, do it. Or write your own piece and produce it. Get friends involved. Make relationships. Collaborate. You will find that you lift each other up in ways you can’t possibly imagine right now. Continue, continue, continue at all times. Don’t let anyone stop you. If you feel you need training, get training. Remember that everything’s part of your journey. When you have that mindset, good things happen. Remember, too, what your personal definition of success is. Satisfying that is the only thing that matters. Is it necessary to become a big star? Or is your goal to simply make a great living while having fun and doing what you love? Would you rather be paid $20 million to be miserable or a good wage to love what you do each day and to work with people who inspire you? These are questions worth asking, I think.
What advice would you give a student who is interested in a career as a writer?
Write. And be aware of the industry. I personally feel that being a good actor can make you into a good writer and vice versa. Find your path. Stick to it. Honor the people you meet along the way, the ones who inspire you. You’ll know who they are. That first editor who says, “I want to see your first 50 pages.” Or the first agent who says, “You know? I think I can sell this.” Meet people who are invested in what you do and what you like. And remember it’s always about what you produce. Meaning it’s about the material: your book, your play, or your screenplay. Write your ass off. Edit. Repeat. And make sure to take vacations.
If you could try any career other than your own, what would it be?
Musician. I play the guitar and sing. It’s about letting something move through you. In any creative act, the artist disappears. Sometimes I find that happens to me with a guitar and an old blues song.
If you could travel anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?
It’s not a geographic location that anyone would know. It’s a house by a lake on top of a mountain. There’s bright light coming in off the water, great coffee in the kitchen, lot of space for guests, and a room full of typewriters where I clatter away every morning. My family and friends are there, doing their own things. For lunch, I make everyone eggs and, in the afternoon, I play my guitar, we barbecue, and go swimming.
Could you share a fun fact about yourself?
As a hobby, I repair and restore old vintage manual typewriters.