To ask Jeffrey Hatcher about Professor Elliott Stout, his mentor and the founder of Denison’s cinema program, feels a bit like cheating. Hatcher is a master storyteller; Stout was the sort of figure whose personality inspires memories full of color and detail. “He was a kind of Peter Sellers character; he almost looked like a caricature of himself,” Hatcher says of Stout, who died in 2010. “He was a brilliant man, a funny man, and tough. He had precise features, a very precise way of speaking—he was very aware of the character he played.”
Certainly, Hatcher knows his characters. He calls himself “primarily a playwright,” with a sense of loyalty to the stage rooted in more than two decades of making a living in the theater. He has scripted more than two dozen original and adapted plays, and he recently was commissioned to adapt John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces for a long-awaited stage play, expected to open in Boston sometime this year. But Hollywood also appreciates Hatcher’s touch, as evidenced by his screenwriter credit on a number of upcoming projects, including Mr. Holmes, an updated take on Sherlock Holmes with Ian McKellen in the lead, and Emperor, an adventure set in the time of the Holy Roman Empire. Hatcher, who lives in Minneapolis, where he is a core writer at the renowned Playwrights’ Center, also signed on to write the script for Megiddo, a supernatural adventure story set during World War I. He’s long been digging into a historical vein: His first screenplay, Stage Beauty, was an adaptation of his own play by the same name, set in 17th-century London.
“That’s kind of my version of the Western,” he says of the period piece. “I try not to get stuck in historical work, but I do tend to do a good deal of it. It’s nice to be able to write in the style of something that seems like another century, to make your audience think you’re not just trying on that style.”
That idea, of convincingly inhabiting another voice, predates Hatcher’s time as a writer. “When I was at Denison,” he says, “everything was acting.” He tried his hand at writing, mostly skits, and a few short films that he calls “very embarrassing,” but he didn’t immediately grasp the path he’d chosen. “I think most playwrights probably enter the theater through the acting portal,” he says. “Bit by bit, we peel off, and those of us who want to stay in theater become directors or producers or writers.”
Hatcher wrote, producing original scripts and adapting works by George Bernard Shaw, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Once established, he headed west to pitch adaptations in Hollywood. “Nine times out of 10, the answer was no,” he says. But there were exceptions, occasional TV and film work that gave him a chance to show his chops. Now a proven commodity in the business Hatcher calls “peculiar,” he says, “I love doing screenplays. When there’s a dry spell in one business, it’s nice to know the other business is there.”