|Playwrite David MacGregor on the set|
Playwright and screenwriter David MacGregor will talk about “So You Want to Write a Sherlock Holmes Play” at the Holmes, Doyle, & Friends conference in Dayton, OH, on March 25. David wanted to and he did it—several times. His “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Ghost Machine” won an ACD Society award for excellence in the “Performing and Visual Arts” category. That prompts some questions:
How and when did you first meet Sherlock Holmes?
You know, I'm not really sure. Possibly seeing one of Basil Rathbone's films on late-night TV, or perhaps picking up The Complete Sherlock Holmes at bag-day at a book sale (where a grocery bag could be purchased for $1 and then filled with as many books as you wished). My brother and I used to go to these sales, cram 50-60 books into a bag, then go home and read the first paragraph out loud to one another. Upon this highly rigorous scientific basis, we decided that H.G. Wells was definitely worth reading. John Updike? Not so much. The Sherlock Holmes stories were immediately put in the “to be read” stack.
How and when did you become a Sherlockian?
Hmm…well, it was a gradual process. After graduating from college, I thought it would be fun to try and write a short mystery or two and see if I could get them published. To my surprise, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine published my Sherlockian pastiche, “The Adventure of the Mysterious Benefactor.” Upon seeing Jeremy Brett's version of Holmes in the Granada series, I wrote to him to express my admiration for his portrayal, and he was kind of enough to send back an autographed photo. For some reason, I then decided to get a master’s degree in English, and when the university insisted that I had to write a thesis, I chose Sherlock Holmes as my topic.
Fast forward a few years and I thought it would be interesting to write a Sherlock Holmes play, and in 2018, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear premiered at The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, MI. As I was wrapped up in researching and writing the play, I decided to attend a meeting of the Amateur Mendicant Society of Detroit. Quickly determining that they were a rather strange and troubled group of individuals, I immediately joined their ranks, then subsequently became a member of the Ribston-Pippins as well. I like people who are passionate about things they like and the Sherlockian community is home to any number of fascinating and talented people.
What’s your background of writing plays and movies?
When I was a student at Michigan State University, I took a screenwriting class with Jim Cash (of Top Gun and Turner & Hooch fame), and a filmmaking class with Mohammad Ali Issari, former official filmmaker to the Shah of Iran. Jim Cash was an absolutely lovely fellow who took the whole class to his house. Mohammad Ali Issari was just a wee bit paranoid, chain-smoking and answering any question with “Why do you want to know that?”
Once I got out of college, I had an assortment of fascinating jobs—for example, watching TV to log in when Thunderbird Wine commercials aired, jackhammering holes into the sides of catch basins, and doing various computer-related jobs for companies at three in the morning.
Somewhere in there, I sent in a short play to a one-act festival, which was accepted, and then they asked me if I would like to direct my play. After learning that there was time to run across the street to drink White Russians with the cast between plays, I was hooked.
I gradually began writing full-length plays and screenplays, and had various scripts produced, optioned, etc. I sent in a screenplay to the Nicholl Fellowship, sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and was subsequently invited out to Los Angeles to schmooze, network, and interface. On the play front, I sent a play to The Purple Rose Theatre (which was founded by the actor Jeff Daniels in 1991), and on the basis of that play, Mr. Daniels was kind enough to tell me he wanted to produce my next five plays.
I have now had plays produced everywhere from New York to Tasmania, with one of my full-length plays, Vino Veritas, being adapted into a feature film.
I am currently working on a new play, and my screenplay In the Land of Fire and Ice has been optioned, with Emmy-winner and Oscar-nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo attached as the lead.
And how and when did your interest in Holmes and the theater come together?
I love the character of Sherlock Holmes and the fact that Holmes is a hero not interested in money, power, or bloodshed, but in making the world a better place, and being willing to help anyone, regardless of their status or wealth. For reasons that elude me now, the idea of Vincent van Gogh visiting Holmes with the hope of recovering his recently severed ear struck my fancy, and I embarked on a play that included mystery, romance, action, and comedy. I also wanted a Sherlock Holmes story with stronger roles for female characters, so I included Irene Adler as Holmes’s love interest, and the daughter of Professor Moriarty as the pathologically evil (yet incredibly charming) antagonist.
And that was supposed to be that. But Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear proved so popular that the Purple Rose asked me to write a second play, which resulted in Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Fallen Soufflé premiering in 2019. That proved to be the second-highest grossing play in the history of the theatre, so I was asked to write a third play, which was Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Ghost Machine, which premiered in 2022.
Again, I thought I was finished, but on Opening Night of the show, the set designer informed me that “we're saving the set.” Why, exactly? I'm not sure. Maybe they plan on doing a revival down the road, or maybe they’re hoping I write a fourth Sherlock play.
All three plays have been published by Theatrical Rights Worldwide (TRW), and during the Covid-19 interregnum, which shut theatres down, I adapted all the Holmes plays into novels, which were published in 2021. (Two of the novels are currently being translated into Italian for publication later this year). As it turned out, I am highly adept at social isolation (kind of a savant, really), and during Covid I also completed a two-volume nonfiction book, Sherlock Holmes: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which was also published in 2021.
What recent Sherlockian events and conferences have you taken part in?
In 2022, I gave a talk on “Three and a Half Definitive Sherlock Holmeses: The Evolution of Popular Culture’s Greatest Hero” as part of DePaul University's Pop Culture Conference; made a day trip down to the Lilly Library at Indiana University to listen to Glen Miranker’s presentation at “Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects;” and gave a presentation on “Sherlock Holmes: The Hero with a Thousand Faces” at Schoolcraft College (Livonia, MI). In 2023, the Arthur Conan Doyle Society very kindly invited me to accept an award for Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Ghost Machine at The Mysterious Bookshop in New York. Since this was during the week of Baker Street Irregular festivities, the very thoughtful and Red Bull-fueled Monica Schmidt suggested a number of BSI functions, which I was happy to attend.
What has it meant to you to be part of the far-flung Sherlockian community?
Extremely interesting and also extremely inspiring. Highlights?
- Having the esteemed Roger Johnson graciously write the foreword to Sherlock Holmes: The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
- Corresponding with the legendary Peter Blau for years, and then finally meeting him in person last month.
- Meeting David Stuart Davies at Gillette to Brett V.
- Autographing a copy of one of my plays for Leslie Klinger at The Mysterious Bookshop.
- Being a guest on the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere podcast not once, but twice.
- Happily sending autographed play programs around the country to various Sherlockians who requested them.
I should note that as a result of all of the above, I will be the guest host on the long-running The Projection Booth podcast for the month of April, with a different Sherlock Holmes film from the 1970s being discussed each week: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother, The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution, and Murder by Decree. As with my appearances on the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere podcast, I will make every effort to be well-rested and well-caffeinated, in the hope of sounding reasonably coherent.
You can still register here to hear David and seven other speakers at Holmes, Doyle, & Friends.