From the Hartland: Purple Rose Resident Artist David MacGregor pens plays in Michigan


David MacGregor

Playwright David MacGregor on the set of Gravity, staged by the Purple Rose Theatre in 2010.

“What the hell?” David MacGregor says from across a Formica table in Leo’s Coney Island in Hartland, Michigan.

This "what the hell?" is not coming from frustration or outrage, but from a sense of “what are the odds?” 

MacGregor says his story is entirely unlikely. After all, he is a successful playwright living and working in Hartland, Michigan, who has received international acclaim for his works Gravity, The Late Great Henry Boyle, and Vino Veritas, all of which have been performed by Jeff Daniels' Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, where MacGregor is a Resident Artist.

“I don’t live in New York,” MacGregor says, “I don’t have an agent or an MFA. ... Who would do this?” 

It's for one reason, MacGregor says: “When it works, there’s nothing like it. It’s transcendent.” 

For MacGregor, who also pens screenplays and teaches English part-time at Wayne State University, writing is a compulsion.

"If I don’t do it, I don’t feel right," he says. "I am relentlessly skeptical and analytical, a bitter cynic, and a hopeless romantic. Through my writing, I’m interrogating myself and the world as well. When I’m completely immersed, I’m like a spider at the center of a web. I’ve fed the dogs, taken my daughter to school, had breakfast and coffee, and am alone, hyperaware, and in my basement -- completely immersed. It’s like time travel. Time just disappears."

MacGregor’s Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear is his latest work to be performed by The Purple Rose Theatre Company. "It’s an action-adventure, comedy, romance, mystery," MacGregor says, "featuring copious amounts of absinthe and fabulous women sword-fighting on stage." (Read Hugh Gallagher's review for Pulp: "The Purple Rose Theatre delivers a hilarious a send-up of Sherlock Holmes.")

The son of Scottish immigrants, MacGregor and his brother had each other and their parents in their immediate family: no grandparents nearby, no extended family. There were what MacGregor calls the “funny” accents at home -- and freckles, which MacGregor tried to sand off his face when he was young. “I was different,” he says, “and it’s always fun to hassle the different kids.” 

So MacGregor took to reading every title in a series of compact biographies for kids that he found in his elementary school library: Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Queen Elizabeth I, and Descartes, among others. “I had way more in common with Rene Descartes than the kid next door to me, so I just kept reading them," he says. "I was drawn to people who were different and iconoclastic.”

MacGregor's playwriting journey began when he saw an ad for a one-act-play festival and submitted a piece. His play was chosen and he was asked if he wanted to direct it. MacGregor was hooked. The sense of community, of bringing people together in a common experience was something he couldn’t find in any other literary pursuit. 

The desire to explore meaningful relationships extends to MacGregor's written works, too.

"To me, the most important thing is creating believable relationships between the characters," he says. "Through that, I’m opening a door for the audience to compare their own life experiences with what they’re seeing on stage. It has to be genuine enough. True enough."

Such care about relationships extends to MacGregor's entire approach to the theatrical experience.

"Being in a theater, about to see a play, forces you to share an experience with strangers," he says. "It’s like a silent compact to go on this journey together -- versus staring into our little rectangles of glass and metal. That sense of community in the live experience of theater affects people at an atomic level. There’s so much divisiveness out there, but good theater kind of knocks all that on its ass."

Peg Bessette Knight is an Ann Arbor-based writer, editor, and information industry professional. Along with being a theater nerd, wife, and mother of twin 10-year-olds, Stuart and Graham, she is particularly interested in innovation and creativity, and understanding how and why people seek information.

“Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear” continues at the Purple Rose Theatre, 137 Park Street, Chelsea, 8 pm Wednesdays through Saturdays and 3 pm Saturdays and Sundays through May 26. For tickets, call 734-433-7673 or go to Read Hugh Gallagher's review for Pulp: "The Purple Rose Theatre delivers a hilarious a send-up of Sherlock Holmes.")