A Berkshires screenwriter/playwright's career takes a bold leap

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DALTON — In Michael's Dowling's screenplay, "Brave New Jersey," a businessman peddling a Rotolactor in Lullaby, N.J., says that the small town needs the cow-milking device because "change only comes when you take bold leaps forward."

Though comically hyperbolic in that particular context, the statement is a fitting mantra for Dowling's career thus far. The Hinsdale native had never taken a screenwriting or playwriting class when he decided to start authoring plays and films during his undergraduate years at New York University. And even as his latest work, "Brave New Jersey," has captured the attention of major Hollywood actors — the film stars Tony Hale ("Arrested Development," "Veep") and Anna Camp ("Pitch Perfect," "True Blood") — Dowling still has no formal training in either area. Instead, he creates stories culled from his experiences as a longtime Berkshire County resident, relying on realistic, small-town dialogue to resonate with audiences.

"Everything I've created, I've written from here, with people around me influencing me," Dowling said during a recent interview at Dottie's Coffee Lounge in Pittsfield.

According to Dowling, Hinsdale is similar to Lullaby in "Brave New Jersey," a comedy/romantic drama hybrid that can be viewed at the Berkshire Museum's Little Cinema beginning Friday and running through Monday, following a release on Aug. 4 in select cities. The movie explores how residents of a small rustic town react to Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast in 1938. Welles' fictional story about Martians invading New Jersey famously fooled some listeners, and Dowling, who co-wrote the movie with director Jody Lambert, makes nearly all of his characters gullible.

While "Brave New Jersey" is an independent film with a modest budget, working with prominent Hollywood figures is a major step forward for Dowling. He spent his childhood summers in Hinsdale, watching VHS tapes and reading scripts, before moving on to NYU and the Atlantic Theater Company. He lived in New York City for 12 years, during which time he met renowned playwright David Mamet. In addition to teaching him the Atlantic Theater Company's "practical aesthetics" acting technique — a tactic Dowling advocates for today as an adjunct professor at colleges in and around the Berkshires — Mamet encouraged him and others to write independently.

"He had a real influence," Dowling said.

Dowling spent time developing one-act plays at the company. With just a week to prepare the productions before they were performed in front of audiences, Dowling learned "a ton" from watching the crowds' reactions to his work.

"That was my grad school," he said.

Dowling eventually moved back to the Berkshires to be closer to his family, working closely with Barrington Stage Company and Berkshire Theatre Group. The latter organization is sponsoring a reading of "Harvest," Dowling's play about some old high school classmates' lives as they plan to attend their 15-year reunion in a small New England town, at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Stationery Factory, 63 Flansburg Ave. in Dalton.

Dowling, his wife, Sara, and their two daughters, six-year-old Eve and 10-year-old Willa, recently returned to the Berkshires after spending a year in Los Angeles. "And that was plenty," Dowling said. While it was easier for him to collaborate with "Brave New Jersey" cast and crew members there, he didn't feel it was beneficial for his writing. "In LA, you just go to meetings all the time. You don't write much," he said.

Eve tagged along for her father's interview at Dottie's. He would be taking her to summer camp later. Finding flat, clean surfaces to work on at home is often a losing battle for Dowling, but he said he's grateful to have such a balanced life. When HBO rejected a pilot he pitched, he quickly moved on, focusing on his parental duties.

"It sucks, but I have to get [Eve] to ballet class now," Dowling recalled thinking.

Whether "Brave New Jersey" will lead to more leaps forward in Dowling's career is yet to be determined. The film's initial reviews have been mixed, with critics generally lamenting the film's underdeveloped characters and proponents typically celebrating its relevance in an era when "fake news" is part of the national lexicon. No matter how the movie affects Dowling's reputation, don't expect him to stop using the Berkshires for inspiration.

"The stuff I really respond to most," he said, "is sitting in front of a window with three feet of snow outside typing."


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