We had the good fortune of connecting with Daniel Guyton and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Daniel, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
When I was a child, I had a noticeable speech impediment. I was deaf in one ear, and I mumbled when I talked. It was so bad, that many of my teachers and fellow classmates could not understand me, and I often could not understand them. I was prescribed hearing aids, but those were the old giant hearing aids which made loud screeching noises whenever I touched them or even turned my head. Other children were often cruel, and I felt ashamed to wear them. I also felt ashamed to not be able to hear or speak to them, and so I became fairly reclusive for much of my childhood. If I didn’t talk to others, then they wouldn’t know I mumbled. If I didn’t try to listen, they wouldn’t know I couldn’t hear. I felt it best to just pretend that I didn’t like them, to save us all a lot of grief. My saving grace, however, was that I developed a tremendous love for the written word. I found out early on that I could express myself in writing in a way that I struggled desperately to do by speaking. I also found that I could feel a strong connection with others (even fictional others) by reading. I read thousands upon thousands of books in my young life. Every character was a new friend, every author a hero. My decision to be a writer was solidified, however, in the second grade, when my teacher praised me in front of the entire class for a short story I had written. Before then, I felt invisible. Having my artwork acknowledged publicly, however, made me feel seen for the first time in my young life. As I reached adolescence, I became more and more interested in making friends beyond the fictional characters in my books. I grew more and more interested in the “real world” and less and less fond of my own reclusiveness. Sure, I still mumbled and sure, I still had hearing loss, but I had grown fairly adept at reading lips by this point, and I was slightly better at communicating with my classmates. I still felt withdrawn from others, but I wasn’t a total stranger anymore either. In eighth grade, my English teacher encouraged me to submit some of my poems to the school’s literary magazine. One of the poems won first place for the entire grade, and another poem was runner up. My prize was being asked to read both poems aloud in front of a large audience of my peers. I had never done anything like this before – well… no… I take that back. I think maybe once I had to read a passage from the Bible out loud in church. But… that was church, and most people there knew my parents, and besides, Jesus loved the lame, and these were church people, so of course they were going to be nice. But… these were my poems. Not an Ancient Bible text. And these were my peers. And we were all 12 and 13, and I was starting to notice girls, and I still kinda thought they all secretly hated me, so I was petrified. Writing was one thing, but speaking out loud in public? I was still barely able to speak to my friends in the lunchroom. And yet… the teacher coached me on how to make proper eye contact with the crowd, taught me how to project so they could hear me, and he taught me one of the greatest lessons of my life: Both of my poems had a comedic flair to them, but the teacher was very clear that I needed to read them both very seriously in order to make the audience laugh. If I laughed or even smiled while reading them, the audience would not find the poems nearly as funny. So… I put on my most serious, “angry principal” face, and I read those poems out loud in front of an audience of what seemed like hundreds of people (It was probably 40). They ROARED with laughter. They roared so loudly that I could even hear their laughter in my bad ear, sans hearing aid. I didn’t need to read their lips – I felt their reaction in my feet, my hands, my ears and my heart. I did not break character while reading; I did not crack a smile. I maintained the serious composure that my teacher coached me to do, and I remember watching my peers in utter amazement. Here were students who barely knew I existed before this moment. Some students had even picked on me for my reclusiveness, made fun of my hearing loss, made fun of lord-knows-what… but… in this moment, they were laughing WITH me, not at me. It was nearly beyond comprehension for my petrified 13-year old brain. It is not an exaggeration to say that that moment changed me forever. It was like a shot of heroin straight into my arm. Or… so I imagine. I have never once desired an actual drug more than I desired (and continue to desire) that roar of approval from my peers. I have spent decades now chasing that high; sometimes achieving it, sometimes not, but always, ALWAYS in the back of my mind, there is a need for me to look at a crowd – any crowd – and hear them roar their approval back to me. The question asks why did I pursue an artistic or a creative career? And the answer is that nothing else would suffice. After that performance in eighth grade, I sought out acting classes, I improved my speech impediment, I learned how to project my voice and speak with confidence, I performed in plays, student films, poetry slams, I earned a Masters degree in performance and dramatic writing. I even began to get comfortable with my hearing aids as I got older (and the fact that they are so much smaller and less noisy now is definitely a plus). For most of my young life, I was unable to find connection with other humans until I figured out how to connect to them through art. Once I learned to connect through art, though, I soon began learning how to connect in other ways. That performance in eighth grade taught me that not only do I have something to offer the world, but that the world has something to offer me in return. I cannot live apart from the world. I need the world. And I truly believe the world needs me. Even when I am afraid – and I often am – it is my duty to let the world know that it is not alone. Creating art, and sharing it with others, allows me to feel that connection that I so desperately craved as a child.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I am always fascinated by the stories rarely told. I’ve read enough books and seen enough movies about killers and spies and politicians and plucky fish-out-of-water romantic lead characters to last a lifetime. Yes, these characters may create intrigue, and yes, I’ll probably still pay to see the next James Bond movie or read the next Stephen King novel, but… when I tell a story, I want to know about the character that appeared in one scene, perhaps in the background, of that Stephen King novel. While the rest of the audience is watching the main character, I want to know about the barely seen characters in the exist on the periphery. Perhaps this is because of my own feelings of being in the background as a child, but those are the characters and stories that I am most often drawn to. In my play “Attic”, a teenage boy is struggling with mental illness. Literally, he is locked away in his parent’s attic, but metaphorically he is locked away in his mind (ie, the attic of the body). It’s a dark metaphysical exploration of what it means to be lonely and what it means to have no control in this world. In my play “Where’s Julie?”, a young teenage girl gets pregnant and contemplates abortion, while the rest of her family continues to be so wrapped up in their own lives and tribulations that no one bothers to check in on her. Her loneliness and fear are what propel the action forward in that play. Sometimes I write about well-known characters, such as Santa Claus or the Virgin Mary, but always with an unexpected twist. For instance, what would Santa do if Mrs. Claus threatened to divorce him – on Christmas Eve of all times? What would the Virgin Mary do if she thought God were being a little too harsh to the souls he banished to hell? What would a Victorian Era noblewoman do if her husband died without leaving her any money, and then a wealthy madman with a thirst for blood shows up at her door? These stories may have similar connections to stories that we’ve heard before, but the minute the audience accurately guesses what is about to happen next, I feel that I’ve failed as a storyteller. I love to take audiences on a journey – one in which no one really knows where the journey will end up until we arrive. My own journey to become a professional artist has taken a number of twists and turns, similar to the stories I write. From writing plays in college, then grad school, and then attempting to become a full-time playwright out in the real world, it soon became obvious that playwriting alone would not really pay the bills. There is some money in playwriting – especially if you get to Broadway, but also if you write for high schools and middle schools. However, even in a very successful year for me, playwriting only covers a portion of the bills. I have supplemented my income by teaching, by leading workshops, by helping other writers craft their work, and by doing countless odd jobs. I love the odd jobs because they provide income while not nailing me down to a specific commitment – thus, allowing me time to write. I would never tell someone that playwriting is an easy career. It is not. The market is, quite frankly, flooded with other playwrights, and most theatres are under-funded as it is. That means that a great deal of playwrights are competing with each other for what often feels like table scraps. That said, playwriting can also be a highly rewarding career. The thrill of seeing your work on stage, the excitement of having an extremely talented actor or director tell you how much they enjoy the work, the joy of getting even a tiny royalty check, and of course, the roar of approval from the audience. These elements keep me going, even when the journey seems fraught with despair. I also write screenplays and occasional magazine articles to stay afloat, but the playwriting is where my real passion lies, and despite the hardships, it will always be my favorite career.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
This question is such a difficult one to answer right now because of the coronavirus. We are unable to do so many things that I love to do. Before the pandemic, my favorite places in Atlanta to take visitors were the Center for Puppetry Arts, the Fox Theatre, the Alliance Theatre, the Civil Rights Museum, the Martin Luther King, Jr Center, the World of Coca-Cola and the Atlanta Aquarium. I’m actually tearing up right now thinking of all these wonderful places that I haven’t been to in months, and I worry if I’ll ever be able to visit them again. Atlanta has so many wonderful restaurants, from Beirut in Peachtree City to Melton’s App and Tap in Decatur, to the Marietta Diner in… well, Marietta, to Farm Burger in Dunwoody, to Mellow Mushroom in pretty much everywhere, and (if I’m over that way) the Grit in Athens. In the past, we’ve also taken guests to Six Flags, Calloway Gardens, and Warm Springs. There really is a glut of riches here in Atlanta, which makes the current situation all the more heartbreaking. I cannot wait until things can get back to normal so that we can see and do all the things we love once again. I also fear for many of these places that may no longer be operational once things come back to normal. This city has been through bad times before, though, and I am certain that we will bounce back, stronger than ever.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I want to thank Joanie McElroy and Merely Players Presents for always encouraging artists, always craving to hear new stories, always providing opportunities for diversity within the storytelling world, and for always demanding excellence from their storytellers. By providing opportunities for these artists, and by sharing these artists’ stories with their audiences, Merely Players Presents has consistently made the world a better place – at least here in Atlanta – and for that, they deserve applause.