RIP Mark Medoff (1940-2019)

Playwright and screenwriter Mark Medoff was giving a presentation in 2017 when someone asked him, “How do you write a screenplay?” Mark replied: “Hands up if you’ve ever watched a film.” Everyone put their hands up. “Then you know how to write a screenplay.”

If, in reality, it wasn’t quite that easy, Mark, with his extraordinary gifts as a storyteller and as a listener, often made it seem so. He was prolific. Besides his teaching, acting, directing, and founding of theatre groups, he wrote thirty plays and over a dozen screenplays.

Mark was born in Illinois and raised in Florida. He graduated from The University of Miami and then Stanford. His early play “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder” brought him immediate attention when it won the 1974 Drama Desk and Obie Awards for Outstanding New Playwright. Later Mark would co-found the American Southwest Theatre Company as well as NMSU’s Creative Media Institute for Film & Digital Arts. He taught at NMSU for decades, including a nine-year stint as head of the Department of Theatre Arts.

In a 2004 interview, he said, “Everything I do starts from a social-issue impulse. I went to a psychologist when I was 18 or 19 and he said I was the first kid he’d ever met who was rebelling against a happy childhood.”

Mark looked for flaws in society and by writing about them he wrote his way into the world. One day he met a deaf American actress, Phyllis Frelich. She told him there were no parts for deaf actors, and he said, “OK, I’ll write a play for you.” The result was “Children of a Lesser God.” The play won the 1980 Tony Award and the Olivier Award, and the adapted screenplay was nominated for an Oscar. Mark fought the film studio, insisting that the role be played by a deaf actor. Marlee Matlin took home an Oscar for her performance.

Mark had incredible energy. At the age of seventy-four, he played Vladimir in Beckett’s two-hour masterpiece “Waiting for Godot,” pulling out the full range of Beckettian vaudeville, dashing here, there and nowhere. As a teacher and director, he was a perfectionist, but never a stickler. He had the courage and the kindness to let his students work with him and he was a lifelong nurturer of talent. At a meeting with NMSU’s newly-formed Creative Media Institute, he told the faculty, “Look, we can sit around and talk about how to teach people to make movies, or we can just go make movies.” And off they went.

Mark’s greatest masterpiece, co-created with his beloved Stephanie, was his family. There were three daughters and eight grandchildren. On his website, Mark highlighted a line from “Children of a Lesser God” that has endured for four decades: “It seems, finally, to be about family.” Indeed, Mark was well-known for having kids, grandkids, students, even dogs on set.

With such a legendary figure close by, I contacted Mark gingerly in 2013 on behalf of the Southwest Festival of the Written Word, wondering if he would have time to speak at our very first festival. He was an internationally known writer/director and constantly on the go. But he not only came; he was brilliant and generous, taking time to talk to fledgling playwrights and students. He attended again in 2017 and delivered a superb session full of anecdotes and advice to a rapt audience. Just last year Mark agreed to be an honorary adviser to the festival.

He will be much missed, and mourned by several generations of grateful students – writers, directors, and actors. Our sincerest condolences to Stephanie and to the family.

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