Local poet and playwright Mark Guttman spreads the positive beyond Chico
In conversation, Mark Guttman conveys a singular combination of aloofness and laser-beam intensity. When asked a question, Guttman often looks off dreamily into the distance, mouth slightly agape, as if searching the environment (or his own mind) for the answer. Moments later, he turns quickly, fixing the listener with an intense, eye-to-eye look, before firing off a succinct response seemingly snatched in its entirety from the ether.
Although it’s easy to become accustomed to Guttman’s particular rhythm, the poet and playwright never fails to surprise. It’s similar to his take on turning trauma into art: “You have to channel your own freak-out.”
The 39-year-old Chicoan runs his own Web site called “Uplifting Thoughts” (www.upliftingthoughts.org), which features an unabashedly positive collection of daily quotes, song lyrics, photographs, health tips and Guttman’s own poetry, written under the nom de plume Morgan Green.
His poem “Breaking Free” reads: “When you feel down on your luck / And unlucky in love / And there’s heartache all around / Don’t sink too deep / Don’t go down / Don’t weep / The world needs you / Your gifts are unique / Someone will see / You’ll see / Just what a fine future / The future will bring.”
And his relentlessly optimistic stance toward life is bringing him recognition to an even wider audience than he reaches with his Web site and regular appearances at weekly open-mic nights at Has Beans, where Guttman reads his original poetry and jokes.
His one-act play Sonny Wakes Up debuted earlier this year at off-off-Broadway theater company Rebel Verses‘ seventh-annual New Works Festival in New York City. Most impressive is the fact that Guttman had never written a play before, and said he finished it in two hours.
The impetus for Sonny Wakes Up came to Guttman after visiting the Crux Artist Collective in the summer of 2006. He asked local artist Christine Fulton, who was co-director at the time, what he could do to help out. Fulton simply told him to write a play, and they’d show it at The Crux.
Fulton’s advice came after Guttman watched a play she had written at the collective.
“He really paid attention. I think he pays attention to everything,” Fulton said. “And he talked to me afterwards and said he wanted to write a play. I told him, of course, do it. I don’t doubt Mark at all. I think he’s really clever. He’s smart.”
And that’s what Guttman did. He wrote it one afternoon at the bar at the Hotel Diamond.
“I found that the tables there, being round, helped me a lot,” explained the bespectacled, brown-haired Guttman, who looks much younger than his 39 years. “Square, to me, means ‘in the box'—a conventional, noncreative space. That environment—plus the stimulant of the Coca-Cola I was drinking, plus the inspiration of Christine, who is a nice, beautiful woman—all helped me.”
Sonny Wakes Up is a short piece about a depressed man named Sonny whose girlfriend Laura manages to coax him out of his rut and show him that life is beautiful and worthwhile. Guttman mentioned his play to his brother, Ben Snyder, a playwright and artistic director at Rebel Verses. Snyder asked to see it.
“I thought he wanted to see it because he’s a playwright,” Guttman said. “I didn’t think it would get produced.”
Snyder liked what he saw. After showing it to his colleagues, including the other three members of Rebel Verses’ board of directors, they gave Guttman’s play the thumbs-up to be a part of its 2007 New Works Festival, which ran from Feb. 28 to March 10 of this year.
Guttman had to do some rewrites of his script before it could be performed. After talking to the actors, Snyder advised his brother to add more dialogue, conflict and drama.
“Ben had so much confidence in my ability to do all the rewriting,” Guttman said. “He thought that because I’d been writing poetry for a long time, I could rewrite it easily. He figured since Shakespeare was a poet-playwright, it would be easy. It was actually harder than my brother thought.”
Guttman went to New York for a week in March to see his play in its final rehearsal stage and to watch its two-night run. He described the joy he felt at seeing the characters he had conceived in his mind come to life: “The words I wrote actually translated to these characters, performing!”
“The first night I thought that the actors were a little nervous, trying so hard to be perfect,” recalled Guttman. “The second night they were more relaxed, but then the lights blew out and the emergency lights came on. My brother was really upset, but I thought it was a pleasant surprise. It [the emergency lighting] actually had a better effect for that part of the play.”
For his part, Snyder said it was great to work with his brother.
“When I first read the play, I could see a lot of Mark in it,” Snyder recalled. “It was good, powerful. It fit right into the definition of what the festival was looking for: New plays by new playwrights. Most popular playwrights in American theater are dead, so it was exciting to have him there. The actors had a new confidence after performing [in rehearsal] for him.”
Guttman, who says he writes two to four poems each day, is working on a second play, motivated by some negative responses to his “Uplifting Thoughts” Web site. He hopes to have both his as-yet-untitled new play and Sonny Wakes Up performed in Chico at some point, including at The Crux. As it turned out, Sonny made it to off-off-Broadway before it ever hit a local stage.
When asked whether his devotion to focusing on the positive comes after a negative period in his life, Guttman answers in the affirmative.
“I felt that life was more precious in the aftermath of a potentially life-threatening experience,” he said, cautious not to reveal anything more. “When I wake up in the morning, I feel like I have to make my day every single day.”