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John Grissmer: Renaissance Man

John Grissmer Interview by Jen Bush

            John Grissmer may not think of himself as an artist, but his body of work speaks otherwise.  He’s as steeped in the arts as a person can be.  He’s a novelist.  In his book The Ghosts of Antietam, he reimagines an event in political history.  He’s so musically inclined (thanks in part to Steven Sondheim) that he’s written several musicals, one about the invention of basketball.  He’s a filmmaker having written, produced and directed multiple films of the horror kind.  Let’s add respected theatre professor at major universities to his list of artistic endeavors.  He speaks the language of music fluently and he can explain to you how notes speak to each other.  It was a pleasure to get to know the man and his work better.

“I don’t think of myself as an artist. What would be the point? I ‘m a guy who loves to play with words in the service of telling a story. The story may be from my imagination, or from documentary history. The most fun I have is in playing around with the conjunction of words and music. I like to start with lyrics that express the content, and let them lead me into a melody idea, and that melody leads me into a blend of chords. I love all the tried and true standard chords, majors and minors. How B flat speaks to F Major. Richard Rogers talks about the pull that B has on C. I understand that.”

Mr. Grissmer’s work has elements of fantasy but it’s all very diverse and stems from real things.  “Fantasy? I’m not even sure what that is. Certainly, it’s not on my target list. Basketball is real.  So is the Civil War, and so are Irish Plays.”

Mr. Grissmer’s creative process is really an intense thought process.  “Creative process? For all forms? That’s easy. I think the hell outta anything I do. Finally I reach a point where there’s nothing left  but to start to laying it down on paper, or on a screen, like this.”

With all his given talents, writing music is what Mr. Grissmer likes to do best.  “Favorite medium? Song writing. I could spend all day at the keyboard if I let myself. Love the interplay between words and notes”.

Mr. Grissmer has some heroes that we might not have heard of, but he has also been inspired by some of the greatest musical geniuses ever known.  He once was given some words of wisdom by a pretty iconic Broadway composer and lyricist.  “Heroes: Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, and hundreds more unknown. Once I had a pep talk from Stephen Sondheim. It was at the old bar in Lincoln Center. He sat down next to me and started working on a cross word.  “Mr. Sondheim, I really liked your presentation at the Dramatist Guild Gala.”  “Oh, well thank you for your support.”  “I’m a member.”  ” Are you a playwright?”  “I am, but what I’m focused on now is music. I’m learning all I can about music.”   “That’s great! It’s never too late to learn music. Actually, it’s easier to learn music than to learn French. “So now I brag that Stephen Sondheim encouraged my study of music.”

There have been numerous changes in the theatre and film industry over the years.  Mr. Grissmer weighs in on the positives and the negatives.  “Everything in the traditional modes is crazy expensive now. But there are cheaper short cuts.  Such as streaming, and digital cameras that don’t require much light or film.”

Mr. Grissmer has more interesting projects in the works.  One of them sounds like a hell of a lot of fun!  “Just finished a re-write of a novel, HORROR MOVIE, based of course on my experience directing BLOOD RAGE. Then there’s another musical play coming up. HAIL MARY. It takes place in Judeo-Christian Heaven. The Leading Lady is The Holy Spirit. She has some trouble when she closes down Hell.  It’s a comedy.”

John Grissmer behind the camera circa 1980s

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