This Is Aurin Squire: From Side Jobs to “This Is Us”
The life of a playwright has many upsides: the high that comes from immersing yourself in your characters, the joy of being part of a creative community, the thrill of getting your work published or produced, to name a few. But then, of course, there are the downsides: the constant rejections, the isolation, the ongoing sense of FOMO because you’re always too busy writing — did I mention the constant rejections?
Given the unpredictability and occasional masochism that come with the territory, I always do a happy dance when a fellow scribe achieves a notable level of success.
I first met Aurin Squire back in 2007 when we were both members of a playwriting group in NYC and produced in a festival together. Now, ten years later, Aurin is a story editor on the Emmy-nominated TV series, This Is Us. But he wasn’t always a scriptwriter — he started as a journalist — and his journey has not always been easy. So, how does a journalist-cum-playwright go from side jobs to the staff of NBC’s biggest hit in years? I got the chance to catch up with Aurin to find out.
Robin Rothstein: When did you transition from journalism to playwriting?
Aurin Squire: I worked for a lot of publications. Most that gave me my early start are gone. While working these side jobs in journalism, I discovered script writing at Northwestern [where] I was a radio/TV/film major. I wrote a lot of scripts for class. For one assignment, I scribbled some words out for a radio production, spoke the words with another actor and then edited it together. I handed in that project and my professor said I should apply for the writing program. I did — and got in. So, for my last two years of undergrad, my focus was on writing for TV, film and stage, which is when I got introduced to playwriting. Susan Booth taught the class — she was working as an associate artistic director at The Goodman Theatre — and encouraged me to continue writing after completing my first messy play.
After Northwestern I was a managing editor for In Focus Interactive (defunct business magazine) and editor for GlobeStreet (real estate daily) while getting my first commissioned theater assignment to write a play about AIDS in the black community. I decided I wanted to go to grad school to learn about playwriting, so I continued working as an independent journalist for ESPN2, Bond Buyer, Talking Points Memo, Fusion and The New Republic throughout my stint at both The New School and Juilliard.
“Intimate stories from our lives.”
RR: Now you’re working on a hit TV show. What experiences and/or milestones in your career stand out the most, and why?
AS: 2017 has been surreal. I attended the Writers Guild of America West (WGAW) Awards as part of a nominated show: you get this invitation in the mail, they pick you up in a fancy black SUV and I invited my friend and she wore a fancy dress. A few months prior to that I won the Helen Merrill Award for Emerging Playwrights, and then I won the Emerald Prize for Seattle Public Theater. The fact that I was driving to the Paramount lot that morning to go work on This Is Us when I got the news about the Helen Merrill Prize made me cry a little bit after all the years and years and years of toil. You get so caught up in the work that you don’t have time to reflect. When you get a phone call telling you, “Hey, here is $25,000 for emerging” or, “Here is $10,000 to write a play for Seattle Public Theater,” it starts to get to another sphere of reality. A year prior to that, I was on my first show as a staff writer. I was just trying to not get fired. After work, I would run over to the Brooklyn Arts Exchange to rehearse my weird experimental play The Gospel According to F#ggots. I had people quitting on me left and right, actors flaking out. I was running around to dollar stores for supplies while serving as the producer/writer/part-time casting person and assistant to the choreographer and director. You just become like a thousand-arm Shiva of Hustle. There were no weekends or nights off. That was in 2016. Then a year later you’re sitting at a fancy table and getting calls from different parts of the country to inform you that you are on people’s radar.
RR: Were there challenging times where you weren’t certain about your career?
AS: When my Dad started having strokes I quit writing for a few years. My mom was also getting sick, so I was back in Miami a lot. The writing faded, and I was fine with that. I also had personal demons that I hadn’t dealt with because I was busy with work. But when the work stops and the phone stops ringing, it is always a great opportunity to change. So the writing stopped for a few years, and I was just paying bills, helping out my family and going to therapy from 2006 to 2011. Occasionally a job would pop up for a small theater project or multimedia gig, but I stopped pursuing writing. I was focused on helping others and healing. I converted to Buddhism, took vows, went on meditation retreats, meditated and found the minimal amount of work to sustain myself.
RR: How did the transition into writing for TV happen, and how did you get on This Is Us?
AS: I finished working on BrainDead and I had a job lined up for another show that was having a slight hiccup in its pre-production schedule. My agents asked if I would be interested in reading some other pilots, so I read This Is Us when it was called 36 and then The Dan Fogelman Project. I interviewed over Skype with one of the executives and I felt at ease with the situation. A week later I was scheduled to have a Skype call with Dan Fogelman and the two other main executives. I got really sick that day and I went to the Dramatists Guild Fund because I was looking for a quiet space. They let me use their conference room and I was able to clear my head for a minute. Doing an interview on cold medication is like having a cocktail before going out on a first date with someone: it’s either going to turn out really bad or really well. I guess it turned out well.
RR: This Is Us is a drama that follows a specific family unit. Why do these characters and their struggles resonate so much with people?
AS: The show is based on intimate stories from our lives. The writers would sit around and talk about their childhood and their family, and that’s the show. It’s not about an asteroid heading toward earth; a serial killer isn’t threatening Gotham; no one is a cop, or DA, or superhero, and it’s not a comedy with a laugh track. The characters have these emotion-based monologues that don’t necessarily advance a plot point, but reveal someone’s inner turmoil and dreams. You don’t see that many shows that are character-based on network TV.
RR: Which character or storyline do you like writing the most? And which is most challenging and why?
AS: All of them are great and I relate to all of the main characters because I feel like I’ve been put in situations that are like the siblings (Kevin, Kate, Randall) as well as Jack and Rebecca.
“2017 has been surreal.
RR: But there’s a process and challenge to writing a non-linear show.
AS: This Is Us is a six-act structure, which is one more act than most shows. You need five really strong act-outs before the commercial break, as opposed to four, and then you need a really strong closer that teases one or two storylines for the next episode. You do all this while juggling an A and B story in the future and an A and B story in the past. Sometimes there are three storylines in the present and two in the past. This requires very short, punchy scenes that convey a lot of subtext and context. TV writing is usually compact, but This Is Us has to be even quicker in its juggling of past and present.
RR: The first season took place prior to the presidential election. With Season 2 on the horizon, do you see the characters and storylines more overtly reflecting the climate we’re living in?
AS: I don’t think so, but I’m not in charge. This Is Us isn’t ripped from the headlines. The story is supposed to reflect the characters’ lives and the cultural dynamics between them.
RR: Are you still writing for theater or are you sticking with TV from now on?
AS: I’m finishing up a play for Seattle Public Theater and have a few commissions in the works, so still plugging away.
RR: As an artist who worked for years to build a writing career, what skills or habits helped you stay the course and succeed?
AS: The skill of a reporter is to just keep cranking out material, even when I feel uninspired. In fact, when I think I’m bone dry and out of ideas is often when I can push through the other side and discover an entire sphere of untapped stories and voices. I think that requires a certain mental endurance to keep going when most people stop. My first drafts are just this outpouring of energy, and then I am in the rewrite and revise mode for a long time. But when I pour out onto a page, I move past my pretension of how I think I should be and I move into the sphere of the soul. When I’m exhausted and writing, I get a deeper glimpse into who I am as an artist and person. Some of what I discover isn’t pretty or very flattering, but it is as clean and direct as sunlight.