She cooks, She cleans, She writes
From all appearances, Susan McQuilkin is an average Moorestown wife and mother. Any weekday finds her dropping 9-year-old Kevin at school, picking 15-year-old Maureen up after track practice, and keeping long-distance tabs on 21-year-old twins, Sean and Tim. She drives a minivan, walks her dog, and cooks a well-balanced meal, at least six out of seven nights a week. But Susan Cain McQuilkin is far from average. The average person doesn’t write a screenplay that wins first prize at the Austin Film Festival. The average person doesn’t go on to write a stage play that is chosen for production by the historic Hedgerow Theatre. And that’s just what Susan has done.
From June 1 st to the 19th, her comedy, “According to Plan” will be staged at the Hedgerow in Media, PA as part of their Festival of New Plays. “According to Plan” is the story of Barb, a 40-something teacher, recently divorced after a long marriage. Barb uses her settlement to buy a dilapidated bungalow at the Jersey shore. She has big plans for her summer break. Fix up the house, mend a broken heart, and sell her screenplay to Hollywood. Complicating matters is Megan, Barb’s 16-year-old niece, who comes to visit with some big plans of her own. Megan, the finale to a summer love story at this same shore, aims to find the father she’s never met. She also has some serious partying in mind. Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for theatregoers, nothing goes according to plan.
The plot is not autobiographical. Susan has spent 30-some summers in Long Beach Island but has been married to husband John for 24 years. She is not a teacher and never was. Her life BC (before children) was, as she admits, “a life of crime.” Graduating from Villanova with a degree in Criminal Justice, Susan became a juvenile probation officer in Philadelphia and stayed for 14 years.
The play’s teenage character, Megan, does, however, draw heavily on a real person, Susan’s now twenty-three-year-old niece, Megan Pagliuca. Megan, the character, gets the biggest laugh in an evening full of laughs with one line taken verbatim from Miss Pagliuca, now a graduate student studying Internet Commerce. We hear that her real-life mother did not find it as amusing as the audience does.
That’s it for plagiarism. Susan’s witty dialogue and comical characters are conjured from a fertile, and very funny, imagination.
So how did this quintessential soccer mom go from suspects to Similac to scene setting? “I guess I always wanted to be a writer,” Susan says, “but just never realized it. When I was a girl all I ever did was make up ‘shows’ with my sisters and friends. We’d write the dialogue, make elaborate costumes out of contraband from our mothers’ closets, and sell tickets in the neighborhood. Not just any old tickets. We took strips of paper and ran them through an unthreaded sewing machine to make perforations. We’d ‘tear’ the tickets before each performance. I don’t want to brag, but I am quite sure that many of the neighbors saved those ticket stubs and still have them today.” If “According to Plan” makes it big I’m sure we’ll be seeing them on EBay.
Susan didn’t begin writing in earnest until the birth of her third child fifteen years ago. Before that she continued to work in the Philadelphia court system, even after the birth of her twin sons. “I went back to work when they were one-year-old, after they set our sofa on fire. I thought that I might be safer working with convicted felons.” But with three children to care for Susan decided it was time to retire from the mean streets. It was around this time that she started “dabbling” in writing, as she says humbly. “I took some courses in humor writing, screenwriting, and play writing. I combined the three and began writing comedic scripts. I joined a writers’ group at the University of Pennsylvania where we each presented our work-in-progress scripts to be critiqued. I still go there every two weeks.”
At age 44, Susan had one more child. “Just to keep me young,” she deadpans. Apparently it worked. To date, Susan has written six screenplays and one stage play. Her script, “Senior Discount,” won the award for best comedy at 1999’s Austin Film Festival’s screenplay contest. “Senior Discount,” the comic story of a couple of mismatched senior women who team up to win a trip around the world by proving that age is not a barrier to accomplishment or adventure, was “optioned” for two years by a production company. The script has not yet found funding but Susan continues to shop it, as they say in the business of moviemaking.
Once again we ask how Susan went from a small town to the big lights of Austin, Texas. “I’ve entered many screenplay contests over the years. Austin is one of the more prestigious. Entering contests is a way for new writers with no Hollywood connections to get their work noticed. It is very difficult to even get one of your scripts read by agents or managers or production companies. Winning or being a finalist in one of the bigger competitions is a great help in getting your work read. The festival itself is also a good networking opportunity.”
Susan’s determination and perseverance are never more evident then in her success at the Hedgerow Theatre. The Hedgerow, housed in a rustic, charming gristmill built in 1840 was converted, in 1923, into what is now America’s oldest repertory theatre. It was founded by artists so passionate that one proclaimed,” We will perform theater if we have to do it in the hedgerows.” The Hedgerow also supports a resident company of apprentice actors. These young hopefuls, when not performing, act as lighting technicians, publicists and even ushers.
The Hedgerow is dedicated to showcasing new talent, in its choice of actors and playwrights. Susan submitted “Plan” to a considerable number of local playhouses before finding a home there. Rejection is a big part of an artist’s life and the writer is no exception. But Susan never gave up, continuing to polish her work in between follow-up phone calls to artistic directors and research on other venues.
Finally she came upon Walt Vail, an accomplished playwright and actor in the Philadelphia area for 45 years. Besides productions in New York, Connecticut and Florida his plays have been produced locally at the Society Hill Playhouse, Philadelphia Festival Theatre, and Theatre Catalyst. Phillyfiction is currently publishing his short story, The Red Truck, and Eldridge Play Publishers have published two of his plays. The veteran playwright, Hedgerow’s chief “scout,” and South Jersey resident, was the first to read Susan’s play. “I was immediately struck by the wonderful characters, excellent organization and writing, and sense of comedy,” said Vail. “I recommended it to Penelope Reed, our Artistic Director, who definitely wanted to work on it.” Susan and “Plan” took the next step: a workshop and staged reading. “It was given an excellent reading with a fine cast (as usual at Hedgerow), and it attracted a large audience, ” Vail said. “But the reason it was chosen for further work is the same basic reason that most theatres choose a play: we fell in love with it.” The final step in the process, a in repertory with a main stage production, is scheduled for debut on June 1.
Quite a feat for a first-time playwright. “Theater is a tough, competitive business these days. Only a very few make it to repertory production,” attested Vail.
So what’s next for this talented writer? Considering the strides she’s already made it’s probable that we’ll be hearing the name “Susan Cain McQuilkin” again. She is currently working on another screenplay and has the outline for her next stage play. The Hedgerow always welcomes her.
“Our interest at Hedgerow is in developing the playwright as well as the play, and at this point we have a few playwrights like Susan whose work we will always consider seriously,” says Vail.
So, if you’re lucky enough to be a holder of one of those old, homemade tickets I suggest you hold on just a little longer. It may be worth more than your IRA in the very near future.