Pa. 'Jail' Offers Surefire Cure for Writer's Block

It's a self-imposed exile for aspiring writers and for many it's working

View Comments (
)
|
Email
|
Print

    NEWSLETTERS

    Getty

    The inmates are observed from a small black-and-white screen on the first floor of the Grand Midway Hotel in Windber.

    Chris Mancuso and Brian J. Cano sit handcuffed, talking and typing, forming the words and concepts that are key to their freedom. They have been enduring the cold, isolation, surveillance and occasional stench of fish since Easter Sunday.

    Welcome to Blair Murphy's "Writer's Jail" — a self-imposed exile for aspiring writers.

    "I think this is a great concept," said Mancuso, his breath steaming in the cold confines of the Windber hotel's unheated quarters. "It has the potential to be even bigger."

    Mancuso and Cano are seasoned writers, directors and actors from Staten Island, N.Y. In addition to co-starring in the show "Scared!" with Mancuso, Cano is the tech manager for the SyFy Channel's show "Haunted Collector." The two are longtime friends of Murphy, who purchased the creepy and iconic Grand Midway in 2001 after working for several years in the Hollywood film industry.

    According to Cano, the hotel has been an ideal setting for their sabbatical.

    "It's a quirky place with a creative vibe going on," he said.

    But "Writer's Jail" is no vacation. The writers are kept in their room, under surveillance from two mounted cameras, and allowed to have "yard time" once a day for an hour.

    And they said that after a pleasant Sunday and Monday — good meals and pleasant visitors — they were exposed to some uncomfortable elements.

    "Tuesday it was like a rude awakening," Cano said. "Once we hit rock bottom we had to work our way back up."

    Murphy is utilizing social media to allow friends and fans of this unusual experiment to sound off and interact. He said the Facebook page for the Grand Midway Hotel has been blitzed with more than 100 comments and received more than 1,000 "likes."

    "We're trying to make it engaging," Murphy said.

    Facebook fans have suggested rewards, writing elements and even punishments for the writers.

    The result: A memorable punishment when their "cell" was made to smell like fish.

    "It was a little demoralizing, I'd have to say," Mancuso said.

    The writers have also encountered strange characters like the Mysterious Russian, Chuck the Calligrapher and Rob the Plagiarizer — all constructs of Murphy's. He said he even "convinced" — with a round of drinks — patrons of Zeigler's bar to pay them a visit.

    According to Murphy, this semi-orchestrated, spontaneous mayhem has all been part of his plan to create a unique and random experience for his guests.

    "It has helped my writing process," Mancuso said. "(Murphy) is the ultimate host."

    Cano said the bizarre writing recommendations from the Facebook world have included requests to incorporate a talking duck and a carjacking nun into their production.

    "This is almost like a social experiment," Cano said. "We wanted to promote this and hype this — open it up to social media."

    Their screenplay is in the vein of a comedic road trip gone wrong. It is tentatively titled "Frank's Big Break."

    "It's a collaborative effort," Mancuso said. "Who knows? It could be our 'big break.'"

    According to Cano, they have already cranked out 75 pages. Their goal is to hit 90 before Sunday.
    "We're working really well together," he said, likening their screenplay to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" in terms of originality.

    Pending results of their "parole hearing" with Murphy, the writers will be released Sunday. Cano said the worst part of his experience has been the cold, while Mancuso said he has hated being limited to a two-minute phone call per day with his girlfriend.

    "I have a good woman waiting for me on the outside," Mancuso said with a grin.

    "Writer's Jail" isn't the first time Murphy has opened his home for publicity, as the historic hotel has also hosted events like Draculacon and Kerouac Fest.

    And it may not be the last time — Murphy said he has already heard from writers in Pittsburgh and other areas inquiring about when they can come to "Writer's Jail."

    Cano, for one, will testify to its results.

    "If I was at home I'd probably be on page two."