ART: Trying to make it big without selling out

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by Eric Ginsburg

Connor McLean
Connor McLean

Connor McLean derives no great pleasure from living on the political and social fringe, but he doesn’t exactly have a choice. The generally accepted adage that there’s no money in the arts is a truism for plenty of creative types, even in the relatively affordable Triad. It’s only amplified for someone like McLean who is instinctively and ideologically drawn to unpopular material for his plays and films.

As an observer it’s almost comedic to imagine his experiences — a raccoon living in the attic, working full-time on the third shift and sleeping in the kitchen because that’s where A/C and heat in his apartment originate.

McLean gleans a cursory knowledge of screenwriting from search-engine results and screams at his friend’s computer while editing a feature-length film. It’s maddening to imagine, but his output is nothing short of incredible.

Initially the High Point native felt unwelcome in the area’s theater scene, unsure of how to gain access or acceptance. Eventually he started putting out his own plays with the support of a few people, and at times it’s been a grueling process. After two popular local shows, Balvollous and Die Capital, he shifted to writing films.

“You have to be willing to get rejected for a month straight,” he said. “It’s almost like dying 100 times and at the last second somebody revitalizes it.”

384412_209183529161407_1197509352_nHigh Point Community Theatre and Steve Spraggs of Studio 4 in Greensboro breathed unexpected life into his current feature film, Remember 7, a parody about the experience of writing a film. Filmed in the three Triad cities, Remember 7 employs an experimental narrative arc and with an almost entirely Greensboro-based cast and music.

Listening to McLean recount the reaction to the radical nature and messages of his work it’s easy to tell that people thought his writing heavy-handed.

“Yeah, we get it, she’s a commie,” someone said, reacting to an anarchist train-hopper in one of his screenplays.

McLean’s heard the sentiment before, which isn’t surprising considering his body of work. It includes a short skit about the historic Haymarket Affair performed at a Greensboro May Day celebration, a comedic anti-capitalist play called Die Capital, an idea for a futurist quasi-utopian screenplay and another possible piece called Black Rose, providing an unromanticized view of what revolution might look like in the United States.

McLean isn’t one of those take-it-or-leave-it types who are unconcerned with the reception their creations receive. He isn’t interested in selling out or holding back, but he said he needs a radar system like a bat so he doesn’t collide with rock walls. Still, McLean oscillates between being psyched about project to questioning his existence.

“The insecurity of this s*** is crazy,” he said. “I’m scared a lot of the time.”

Not that he is without success; his screenplay All The Way Nowhere placed in a half-dozen festivals. While a later piece, White Horse, was largely rejected, the esteemed Nicholls Fellows screenwriting competition placed it in the top 15 percent, falling just short of the 10 percent bar that is considered a real stamp of legitimacy, McLean said.

As a small kid, McLean saw the world as beautiful but grew increasingly aware of its ugliness. He said now he just wants confirmation that he isn’t crazy for envisioning a world where a small group doesn’t control all the resources, to reach people who say they’re suffocated by society, too. The goal isn’t to only reach the already converted, but find some level of broader societal appeal while remaining authentic.

McLean compared it to finding the balance struck by Rage Against the Machine rather than the purity and relative obscurity of a punk band like Crass.

A still from Remember 7
A still from Remember 7

Art should unsettle people, he said — that’s part of the responsibility that someone with a platform bears.

McLean isn’t “chronically serious,” he said, pointing out that fart jokes and bathroom humor have found their way into all of the screenplays and scripts he’s written. His absurd and comedic approach is part of what attracts people who enjoy McLean’s work.

When Remember 7 is finished, hopefully this summer, McLean plans to submit it to an array of festivals before fulfilling his longtime intention of moving to Los Angeles. With the right combination of persistence, luck and attentiveness, McLean hopes to kick in the door to a broader film world with the revolutionary content of a few work-in-progress ideas in tow.