New Plays and Playwrights (Working In The Theatre #319)


(APPLAUSE) Welcome to the American Theatre
Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminar, brought to you here at the City University
of New York. I’m Jim Houghton. I’m the Artistic Director of Signature Theatre Company.
It’s my great pleasure to serve as moderator today for our discussion about playwrights
and new plays. On our panel today is a distinguished group
of writers, with diverse experiences and visions in the theatre, who share in common having
new plays and new works presented in New York this season. To my far right, sitting, is
playwright-screenwriter-novelist Paul Rudnick, the author of JEFFREY and I HATE HAMLET. His
play, VALHALLA, is receiving its premiere at New York Theatre Workshop, and his newest
film, THE STEPFORD WIVES, debuts this summer. His articles and essays have appeared in Vogue,
the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Premiere, and the New York Times. Next to him is Julia Jordan, who is seeing
four of her plays produced in New York this year, ST. SCARLET, SUMMER OF THE SWANS, TATJANA
IN COLOR, and BOY. She has also written the musicals, THE MICE, presented as part of Harold
Prince’s 3HREE, and SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL. Her work has been commissioned and workshopped
by many organizations and theatres across the country. Her plays have been published
by Smith and Kraus and by Vintage. Nilo Cruz, [who] sits to my immediate right,
is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ANNA IN THE TROPICS. His other plays, seen across
the country, include LORCA IN A GREEN DRESS, TWO SISTERS AND A PIANO, and DANCING ON HER
KNEES. His newest play, BEAUTY OF THE FATHER, just premiered at Miami’s new theatre. He
is one of this country’s most-produced Cuban-American writers. Regina Taylor, on my left, is an actress and
a playwright. Her play, DROWNING CROW, her adaptation of Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL, is
soon to open at Manhattan Theatre Club. Her play CROWNS, seen in New York last season,
is receiving productions across the country. Her current projects include a musical adaptation
of Alice Walker’s novel, THE COLOR PURPLE, and THE DREAMS OF SARAH BREEDLOVE, a look
at legendary beauty entrepreneur, Madam C. J. Walker. And finally, we have Terrence McNally, the
recipient of four Tony Awards. His long list of works, both plays and musicals, include
RAGTIME, MASTER CLASS, THE LISBON TRAVIATA, LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! and KISS OF THE
SPIDER WOMAN, as well as the libretto for the opera DEAD MAN WALKING. He has received
a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His newest work, THE STENDAHL
SYNDROME, is premiering at Primary Stages. First of all, welcome to all of you, and thanks
for participating today in our discussion. It’s my hope today that we might have the
opportunity to illuminate some of the challenges and issues that confront the American playwright.
And through that discussion, help all of us identify, through your various experiences,
how we might all come to a better understanding of our role, whether that’s as an audience
member, as an artist, or as a writer, in the process of creating new work and watching
new work evolve. So I guess I’d like to just start by running down the panel and having
each of you talk a bit about what the evolution of the current project you’re working on
has been, from sort of the incubator to its current production. So why don’t we start
with you, Terrence? Talk about the current play, STENDAHL SYNDROME? Yes. Well, STENDAHL SYNDROME is a little different,
in that it’s two related one-act plays, which I want to be performed together, but
I suppose they would make sense if they were done apart. They’re unusual in that (LAUGHS)
they haven’t been workshopped to death! I wrote them – one is quite old, the second
act, PRELUDE & LIEBESTOD, I wrote nine years ago. And I knew I liked it, but I didn’t
know what to do with it, so I put it in a drawer. And then two years ago, I got an idea
of a play that would go with it, and called the evening THE STENDAHL SYNDROME. And it was given to Primary Stages, and they
said, “We’d love to do it,” which was breathtaking! Because I’m sure you’ll
hear from the others, it’s usually, “That’s a very interesting script you’ve sent us.
Let’s do a reading.” Or “Our dramaturge has some notes for you.” (NILO LAUGHS) And
it’s kind of like the old days, when I started in the sixties – you wrote a play, and it
got produced! And it’s changed. So this is not a typical experience, to have the play
just done, especially in New York, without prior [readings or workshops]. I’m obviously
the oldest person on the panel, and the theatre has changed a lot since I began, to today.
So my experiences are going to be quite different from the other panelists. But this is – there’s
nothing wrong with workshop and development, but I think very often they become an excuse
not to do the play. If I was a dramaturge, and I’m very glad
I’m not – I consider them, really, the enemy, and I’m very hostile to them. And
I wonder why I’m so hostile. When they say, “This is our dramaturge,” the hairs on
my neck stand up. And I have never found one I thought was remotely charming. (LAUGHTER)
I think they’re sort of beady-eyed, and they don’t even try to ingratiate themselves.
They just say, “I’ve got some notes for you!” You know, and that’s — no playwright
wants to hear that. Like, “Hello, how are you? I love your play.” You don’t usually
get that. (LAUGHTER) But if I were a dramaturge, I would find a
lot wrong with HAMLET, which is probably my favorite play. But you know, what happens
to Gertrude, once Hamlet tell – you know, it’s very unwritten, how an actress would
play the last forty-five minutes of HAMLET. A lot of questions in that play, and I think
plays have to have a life to them. And I think dramaturges – it’s what happens in American
culture. I think, you know, we have big book[stores]. You know, Barnes and Nobles is chasing the
little guy out of business. Plays with dramaturges get sort of homogenized, I feel. And I go
to the theatre to hear the unique voice of a writer, not what someone has fashioned it
into. And they were not around when I started writing plays. Everybody had their own voice.
A play by Lanford Wilson was nothing like a play by Edward Albee. And now, sometimes
I feel people get all more homogenized. And dramaturges have too much to say, and I think
plays can be rewritten too much. And I learn a lot from readings. And usually, when I finish
a play, I give it to my actor friends and say, “Come on over, I’ll give you coffee
and Danish,” and just hear it. But that’s not the same as endless readings and development.
And I think there, there are so many people, their input, how the play should turn out,
can sort of flatten it out. I like the bumps and warts in a play. You know, maybe they’re
not perfect, but “Hey, that’s only something Nilo Cruz would write!” You know? And I
like that. So that’s what I think is the biggest change. Plays take years to get on,
and musicals even more, and sort of then too many people have had at them. And I’ll shut
up now. No, I look forward to exploring – you’ve
definitely hit upon a very sensitive subject that I’m sure everyone on this panel has
something to say about it. I’d like to table that, till we’ve finished going through
the panel. Regina, how about you? Why don’t you tell us a little bit about DROWNING CROW?
That was commissioned, wasn’t it? Yeah. It was commissioned by the Goodman Theatre.
It was first done at the Goodman Theatre a couple of years ago. And it is an adaptation
of Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL. It’s one of my favorite plays, and I wanted to explore
what that was about. Why does it have such resonance for me? In doing that, I started
having a conversation with Anton! (LAUGHTER) And it was, you know, what does he have to
say to me, this Russian guy living so many years ago? What does he have to say to me,
a black woman from Dallas, Texas? In that, it was really wonderful. Just universal
themes of “I’m in love with somebody who doesn’t want me,” you know, unrequited
love. Everyone’s in love with someone who won’t reciprocate. It’s also about finding
one’s voice, wanting to be seen, wanting to be heard, wanting to be recognized by someone
special and then in the larger audience, as an artist and as a human being. And then,
just discovering parts of Chekhov, which was that his background is that of serfs. His
people were serfs, slaves. And that really gives his perspective on the world and through
his writing. It is a very harsh caste system in his time. And it’s a stigma throughout
his whole life. You have a generation that remembers serfdom
in this play – it’s also a generational play. You have a generation that remembers
serfdom, slavery. You have a generation that fought really hard for social change, to become
upwardly mobile. And then you had a generation, after that, that’s not so tied to its roots,
has forgotten its roots and is kind of looking for a moral compass, and you don’t know
if this generation is going to implode or explode, is what he’s writing about. And
I was going, “Okay, I can relate to that!” (LAUGHS) I truly can relate to that. Setting it then present-day, on a Gullah island,
all black folk, makes sense in that the parallel universe is very strong here. And what I’m
doing with the play, same thing that Chekhov did. Chekhov sampled Hamlet a lot, someone
outside of his culture. And what I’m doing is sampling Chekhov and HAMLET and a lot of
other sources, mixes, the same way that artists throughout the centuries have sampled each
other, whether that’s Picasso and Matisse, whether that’s with a jazz musician who
takes a standard and riffs on the melody, is what we’re doing here. Can you talk about what the evolution of the
actual production has been? When was the first production, or how did you get to that first
production, and how has it then arrived here at Manhattan Theatre Club? It was first done at the Goodman Theatre a
couple years ago. I’m an Associate Artist with them and do projects with them every
year and a half, two years, something like that. And I presented this as a possibility,
as something I’d like to explore. So we did it there, and two years later, it’s
now on Broadway. That’s great. Let’s go to you, Paul. Talk
a little bit about VALHALLA and what your experiences have been, in terms of it coming
to New York. Well, actually, I did have an earlier workshop,
but it was in New York, which I was very grateful for. About two years ago, we did a production
at Juilliard, which thanks to Michael Kahn there, he allowed us to use actors from the
fourth-year acting class. And we had six weeks of rehearsal and a full production, with sets,
costumes, lights, and even more importantly, almost, an audience. We were given about fourteen
performances. So it was protected from critics and that kind of outside eye, but it was a
full production experience, which was invaluable. Because VALHALLA is a very complicated structure.
It combines a story of Mad Ludwig of Bavaria, an actual king from the 1800s, with a fictional
tale of a kid from Texas in the 1930s. And these stories eventually intertwine, and that’s
what I wanted to appear as graceful as possible. And that’s why that earlier production was
very, very helpful. And in fact, one of the actresses, a wonderful woman named Samantha
Soule, who had been at Juilliard, is now in the current production, because she graduated
and she’s been working non-stop and we were lucky to be able to get her back. So after that Juilliard production, we did
do then a kind of two-week workshop at the New York Theatre Workshop, which was also
very helpful. I think, as Terrence was saying, there is an enormous amount of protocol in
the theatre today, in which everyone kind of needs to feel very included in the process.
Which can be, you know, very helpful, and I understand that emotional need, but it can
make for a long haul. But I had worked at the Workshop before, so I felt very welcome
there. I had done a play called THE MOST FABULOUS STORY. So now that VALHALLA is actually up
and running, it’s been an absolutely terrific experience. I’ve worked with Chris Ashley,
who’s the director I’ve had on my past five plays, so there’s a real sense of Old
Home Week there. And I think just one thing that I realize,
right before VALHALLA went into rehearsal for this final – for its real production,
I had just come off a big movie, off THE STEPFORD WIVES, which is a big Hollywood production,
with big stars and tons of money. And it was very exciting, but I have never been so grateful
to get back into a small room with six actors and one director! Because you just feel so
much more control, on the most basic level, and that you can get your hands dirty in a
way that a movie is such an enormous undertaking and there’s so much financial risk involved,
and there are studios and there is everyone! And it’s all quite understandable, when
you’re dealing with that kind of money and those kind of names. But the writer can get
very kind of buried and kind of frantic in those situations. Actually, I was lucky. Even on the film, I
was working with a director I had worked with before, who was very respectful, and I was
on the set every day. But there was still that sense of – it was like standing in
the middle of a freeway with trucks coming at you every second! (LAUGHTER)
And so when you’re in the theatre, you feel that the emotional stakes are, in a way, much
much higher, because everyone’s just passionate about being there. But the other stakes, the
other burdens that are placed on the work itself, are lessened to a certain degree.
It’s a play, in every way, and you’re not going to make a huge amount of money from
a play, no matter what you do! So that everyone really wants to be there, for the best reasons.
So it was a wonderful transition. Fabulous. So Julia, do you find – at least,
in this profession, I find it’s either feast or famine, and you are sitting at a mighty
feast of four productions in New York. Yeah. Talk about that and, you know, how that’s
come to be. Well, it was famine for a long, long time
there! (JIM LAUGHS) Two of the plays that were produced this year I wrote seven and
eight years ago, at school, at Juilliard, actually. And they just sat there, and they
got lost in the workshopping. I mean, they were workshopped all over the country! And
lots of dramaturges and lots of talkbacks with audiences. I always had Marsha Norman
in my ear, though, saying, “Stop writing after two years! Don’t touch it! You’re
a different person.” Yeah, so it was really hard. And it was also
incredibly hard because especially TATJANA was given awards and it was published, and
I couldn’t quite understand how that could be if it couldn’t get produced. If it wasn’t
worthy of a production, why was it worthy of these other things? So I went through a
really hard time where I stopped writing for three years, and I just felt like, “What’s
the point, really? I mean, why? I should write a novel! (LAUGHS) I should write something,
but not a play.” And then my friend David Auburn, who wrote
PROOF and who I was at school with, came over and basically told me, you know, “First
of all, you have to get over the writer’s block, so you’ve got to do something for
that.” And he said, “Switch the gender. Write from a male character’s point of view.”
Which I did, and I guess, interestingly enough, it’s my most personal play. I just sort
of made myself male, I guess! (LAUGHS) And he said, “But you know, on top of that,
it will have a better chance of getting produced.” And it’s called BOY, and it was just – the
response was completely different. I mean, I think I am a much better writer, and people
did know me already, so that helped. But, yeah. So it was all very strange, it all kind
of happened at the same time, but great. It’s been great. Fantastic. Nilo, how about you? You’ve had
an interesting journey with your production on Broadway. But that’s not my newest play! I’m working
on a new one! (LAUGHS) No, I know. Of course. You want to talk about ANNA or you want to
talk about the newest one? Well, both. Well, I actually want to talk about – because
Regina that I was very curious [about], because Regina was working with Chekhov and I’m
working with Lorca in my new play. I was in Spain, doing research on a play that had to
do with Lorca’s death. You know, he was killed during the civil war. And I wrote a
play called LORCA IN A GREEN DRESS. But when I was in Spain, I felt that I was not finished
with him. I felt like I had to explore more his life, and certainly his death. So this new play of mine, which is called
BEAUTY OF THE FATHER, it takes place in the centennial, 1998, centennial of Lorca. So
it’s as if Lorca was coming back to life, as a ghost, but he’s also dictating the
action of the play, and the play is very much about impossible love, something that was
very present in his life, when he was alive. He just wasn’t able to obtain love! (LAUGHS)
So that’s something that I’m exploring in my script. But I just did a production in Florida at
the same theatre that premiered ANNA IN THE TROPICS. And I have been writing this play
almost for two years now. I actually was writing it at the same time that I was writing ANNA
IN THE TROPICS, but for some reason, I was also getting notes from dramaturges and also
from actors. And at one point, the play started to escape me in some ways. So after seeing
the production in Florida, which I had some concerns with, so I went back to the drawing
board, actually, and took a lot of things out that I felt were going away from the story
that the play wanted to tell. And I just did a reading, as a matter of fact,
last week, at Manhattan Theatre Club. And I was just so happy that I was able to get
my hands on the play again. There were nights that I would just go to sleep at two o’clock
in the morning and wake up at four and do rewrites. So it was like a fever, just to
get back in there and see what this play was really about. So I did a reading, and I feel
like my play is back, and thank God! (LAUGHS) So that’s what I’ve been working on. And in terms of ANNA IN THE TROPICS, wow!
Just everything’s a surprise for me. I never knew that that little play that started at
a little theatre in Miami, new theatre, was going to get a Pulitzer Prize. I never imagined
that I was going to be on Broadway. And it’s been a whirlwind for me, this last year, in
terms of doing these kind of things without panel discussions or interviews. And it’s
quite overwhelming sometimes, because it keeps me from writing. And I have two new plays
circling me, but I think a lot of people want to place a face with the name, and who is
this guy who got the Pulitzer Prize this year? So I feel like I have to do this at this moment
in time, but I can’t wait to get back to the simple life, you know, of being a writer.
That’s what I love and that’s what I enjoy the most, is when I’m immersed in the writing
process. It’s a wide range of experiences. You know,
I was up at the O’Neill – I ran the O’Neill Playwrights Conference for the last four years.
And to your point, Terrence, about dramaturges, I entered into that process – which, by
the way, the O’Neill claims as having brought the dramaturge to America, which I’m not
so sure is a good thing. And when you trace back sort of the formal role that it’s sort
of evolved into over the last twenty-five years, it does seem to trace back to the O’Neill
inviting dramaturges to come in. The notion of Eugene O’Neill and a dramaturge
is mind-boggling! (LAUGHTER) Yeah, yeah. They would have just had a heart attack with
one of his scripts! And my thought is, which I was very curious
about, the role of the dramaturge, because of course, I’ve worked with many writers,
and one of the first things you hear is exactly how this discussion started, was just real
concern about yet another collaborator in the process that’s actually quite intimate.
It’s a process of being extremely intimate, even within the individual, from a subconscious
sort of instinctual thing that moves into a conscious state, that ultimately gets shared
with a group of people around a table and then ultimately with an audience. Yet, to
add another person in that mix seemed to be contradictory to being effective for the process
to move along. However, when I was up at the O’Neill, every
year we’d have, you know, fifteen to twenty writers there. And the first year, I said,
“So let’s throw this discussion about the dramaturge on the table.” We’d have
these private meetings every week. And you know, the minute I did that, it became a very
long, heated discussion. And by the end of the discussion, I was trying to look for guidance
from the writers, “Do we have dramaturges at this particular place or not?” And it
was a split. And then, the following year, I thought, forget
the conversation, I’m just going to see a show of hands. “If you had a choice, who
would have a dramaturge and who would not?” And it was about a split. And it was very
fascinating to me. So I ultimately kept the dramaturge there and tried to find very sensitive,
sensible people for those roles, and really tried to talk about the writer taking the
lead, the writer really leading the process and the writer dictating what they need. And
that each writer had the right to define that for themselves, and that no two writers, as
no two individuals, necessarily approach work or themselves in the same way. But to throw this on the table a little bit,
you know, we’ve talked about (TO REGINA) your experience of being commissioned and
(TO JULIA) you’ve got, you know, four plays that are going on. And (TO NILO) you’ve
had a relationship with this theatre, and you’ve all had relationships with a theatre.
And ultimately, I think, that’s what the theatre, you know, boils down to. You talked
about relationships, Terrence, where, you know, who are those first few people you send
your play to? That, to me, is a dramaturge. Those are my dramaturges. Exactly. A good director, a good actor is a dramaturge. Yeah. Mmm-hmm. It’s a relationship. And they’re not strangers to me. You know,
a Nathan Lane or a Zoe Caldwell, actors I’ve worked with repeatedly, or Joe Mantello or
Frank Galati. These are wonderful – they do their job well, which makes them dramaturges,
but they don’t tell you how to write it or – so, yeah. They’re also in practical experiences, which
is what you’re looking for. Right! You’re looking for somebody who says, “I
don’t know how to stage this,” or “That’s not funny,” or “I can’t play this.”
Or, hopefully, “I can.” And that’s really useful, as opposed to a more academic response
to something. Right. I think we’ve gotten to a point where
we’re so in our heads that we’ve lost touch with the visceral experience of, you
know, you had that experience up at Juilliard where you got to experience your play and
sit in an audience and sit in a room with actors and a director and experience it. Versus
coming at it with questions or, you know, stuff that you’re going to do naturally
anyway. But I find often that the environment out there is one that writers are not entrusted
with the assumption that they actually have a handle on what they’re doing and a handle
on a process. Mmm-hmm. And in fact, I think we’ve created so many
circumstances in the country where these plays are workshopped in week-long environments
where a writer’s the outsider to that environment, generally speaking, where you’re invited
to a theatre to workshop your play, and it’s a resident director, a resident audience,
resident artistic director, and all this input is coming in. And in fact, what you are saying,
Nilo, where you begin, if you get enough of those, those bits of information and input
begin to remove you from your instinctive sort of gut (NILO NODS) that really helps
give birth to work. Also, my experience has been that when you
have a workshop that goes in front of an audience, because I had that with TATJANA at Actors
Studio Free Theatre, which was great. Because if you workshop something, and then you have
the audience, to me that’s the ultimate dramaturge. And when you look at the audience
and they’re fidgeting or they’re not laughing when you [want them to], that’s when you
know, “Okay, I have to look at this piece.” But it seems like dramaturges sort of insert
themselves in before we get a chance to have that ultimate thing. They come in with suggestions
on Day One, before the actors find things, before we get a chance to [find things], before
the audience has a chance to respond. And it just seems to me like maybe after we see
the audience, after we’ve worked with the actors, when like it’s clear, “This space
right here, this part of the play, I have some questions I would like to ask you,”
then that would be more appropriate. Yeah, I agree with Julia. I also think that
plays, the written word on the page is not really the play. Really, the play comes to
life, the canvas comes to life, when you actually see it on a space, with an audience. So sometimes
we’re getting kind of responses, and it’s too early in time to be getting these responses,
when you’re just seeing the play being read out loud. I think that in the theatre, we tell a play
– the story of the play is told in many different ways, not just with the actual script.
We have to remember that a play takes place in three dimensions, no? So the visual aspects
of it are also very important. The designers also tell a story, through their design. The
costume designer also tells a story. These are all things that factor in, in the development
of the play, and sort of the play coming to life. And so, I think that for me, ultimately
it’s about the production. I learn from the production, and then I go back to the
script, and certainly from the audience, too. And then I go back and I do rewrites, if I
need to do rewrites. Or if not, it’s what it is. I also think that plays, like all works of
art, they need to have mystery. And there are some things that can not be told. And
I think art, to begin with, all art is a fragmentation, you know? And it’s an abstraction. And if
you abstract something from something else, and you kind of put it in a canvas. So you
should not be defining it. I love to go to a museum and look at paintings, and especially
the modern painters, where sometimes they might have a face in the back, where it’s
not really defined. And exactly, it should be in a play. Sometimes I get notes from dramaturges,
they’re telling me, “Oh, you should really explore this character’s life a lot more.”
I say, “No, this character is what it is, and that’s it.” So it’s just like that
painting, and that face in that painting, where it’s just a little shady, and it’s
just not as defined as the others. Yeah. So you know, it’s sort of like a labyrinth
sometimes, when it comes to this question of dramaturgy. I don’t like bad dramaturges. I like good
dramaturges. Yeah, that’s a good point. Dramaturges add clarity, the voice of clarity,
another eye. As you’re in the creative process, you know, it is about just putting it out,
seeing what it is, discovering it as you go along in the process. A good dramaturge will
ask you questions. “What are you trying to do in the scene?” And you voice, “What
I’m trying to do in the scene … ” and in hearing that, you go, “Oh, that’s not
what’s happening here!” That’s a good dramaturge. I find them very valuable when
they’re very good. Yeah. Well, that’s the idea you have of, that
the individual playwrights could define their dramaturge’s responsibilities, ‘cause
then if they could run errands … (LAUGHTER) Or clean your apartment … if they went kind
of Christmas shopping … (LAUGHTER) JIM HOUGHTON
Get me some more pens, I need more paper! I did have a director who dealt beautifully
and gracefully with a dramaturge who was over-eager, which I think is often because I think dramaturges
are often trained in drama schools, and for a profession which is (LAUGHS) incredibly
marginal! And so, they really feel, “Okay, I’m gonna … ” They’ll give endless
notes. And this director would appear very grateful, and he would say, “Thank you,”
and he would fold up these multiple pages and put them in his pocket and never look
at them again! And the dramaturge never seemed to quite notice this. I think she felt it
was somehow being integrated into the work, but I guess he was just being nonconfrontational
about it. I think dramaturges are often over-educated,
and I think you get good in the theatre by experience. Yeah. So in a sense, you really don’t have to
go to college to work. No one has ever asked me if I even went to college, let alone what
degree I have! But someone’s applying to get the job as receptionist at Manhattan Theatre
Club, and she has to present a, you know, curricula vitae, you know, what has she done,
did she graduate? But no one ever asks an actor, a playwright, “Where did you go to
school? Do you have a B.A., an M.A.?” You get it through experience. And I think the
questions you expect a dramaturge to ask, I expect my director to ask. I also think
producers are – I want a producer who says, “You know who’s the set designer for this
play or the director for this play?” Because sometimes we get in a little box. Sure. I sometimes think we don’t have enough real
producers out there, and I don’t mean the raising the money part of producing, which
I don’t understand. It must be odious beyond description. But someone who really knows
the right designer and director or have a casting idea for a play of yours, you know,
“If he played that part and she did that.” I think that’s all important. Yeah. But I think theatre is based on experience,
and I think all of us learn the most in previews and rehearsals. And I think what you said
about a playwright taking responsibility for their script is very important. I think a
real sign of a beginner is to blame the actors and the director and the set designer. And
I think most of us now have learned you gotta go home the first day, if a scene isn’t
playing at the first cold reading, it’s your fault! Go home and work on it, don’t
wait till the first preview. But, you know, the pool of talent in this
city is still bigger. And I want to say to young people, “Just join a young theatre
company,” you know? “Watch them grow.” When I started working with Manhattan Theatre
Club, they were really small potatoes. Now, they’re producing Regina’s play on Broadway
in an I-don’t-know-how-many million dollar theatre. You know, we used to do the plays
up at a Polish social hall on 74th Street. And that’s where a young person should get
involved with his peers, her peers, one of the wonderful young companies Off-Off-Broadway,
and learn together this terribly difficult business of putting a play on. Yeah. I think we lose sight of the importance
of those relationships, that we respond in those kind of environments. And I think all
of us, in all of the experiences we have or wherever we are right now in our particular
field, you know, we can look back and sort of bullet back to those relationships that
were formed in those small environments, and you’re working for free or you’re throwing
a little money into the till to try to make it happen and make your own work happen. You
know, we want to so short-cut it, you know? We want that, we want to identify that thing
and we want it right now. I’ve read scripts by young writers, a fairly,
you know, “So this is a good script.” And they say, “Well, I only want it done
on Broadway, and I want Pacino and DeNiro and nobody else.” And it’s like, “Get
real! It’s not going to happen that way!” You should happy if the Flea Theatre wants
to do it! Yeah, yeah. Right! And the Mint. And be proud they want to do
it! I don’t mean “be happy,” but that’s how it works. Absolutely. Arthur Miller’s play began in a small theatre. Exactly. MASTER CLASS began in Big Fork, Montana. Did
you ever hear of Big Fork, Montana? I didn’t. No such a town of four hundred people existed.
And that’s where we went to start, give that play life. And that all comes from these relationships
that are formed. Yeah. And you know, getting back just to the dramaturge
situation for one second, so that – I don’t want to appear to those out there who work
very hard and who are good at what they do – you know, it depends how we define “a
dramaturge.” You know, I think sometimes we point attack on a dramaturge as the person
who’s got their M.F.A. from whatever program and now they’re a dramaturge. To me, a dramaturge
is defined by those relationships, you know, that are important to you. And I’m sure
each of you could cite people in your lives that you would say are invaluable to the evolution
of your work and a real sounding board for you. And if that’s how we define a dramaturge,
then I think there’s room for that relationship. It’s, I think, the sort of institutionalization
of it that has cast a very negative shadow on that role. But back to the relationships that are important
to all of us, you know. Paul, you’ve talked about having your relationship with New York
Theatre Workshop. (TO JULIA) You’ve had relationships with directors, I know that,
evolving even now, you’ve worked with several. Mmm-hmm. And Nilo, you’ve talked about your relationship
with the New Theatre down in Miami and so on, and (TO TERRENCE) Manhattan Theatre Club,
obviously, and also (TO REGINA) with the Goodman Theatre. Talk about the importance of those
relationships, and what they’ve meant to you. Well, I’ve had a multi-year relationship
with Christopher Ashley, with the director, who I treasure beyond all words, because I
think finding a great director, finding your director, is like finding an ideal parent,
or a perfect therapist. It’s the person who you can, most importantly, in a way, fail
in front of. ‘Cause I think, and this actually speaks to what we’ve been talking about,
that you’re at such an immensely vulnerable point when you are going into production,
when you’re working on a play, that you want to have someone you trust absolutely.
Someone who will tell you “That stinks,” or “That’s funny” or “Go in that direction,”
and who you can just go to that way, and not worry about the opinion of the world quite
yet. So that’s why, with Chris, I hope I never take him for granted, because every
time I have a new play, that’s where it goes first. And then, beyond that, it’s wonderful to
have theatres where they at least, you know, know your name! Where they’ll say, “Sure,
you know, show us whatever you’re working on.” But it’s funny, I thinking back to
when a play I wrote, JEFFREY, about ten years ago, was a play that was turned down by every
theatre on the planet, for various reasons. It was a comedy dealing with AIDS and it was
very gay, and it had so many things working against it! And I would even, along with the
turn-down, sometimes there’d be wonderful letters from the literary manager, saying,
“Oh, I loved this! We’ll never do this!” or “Our audience will never stand for this!”
And at the time, I had a wonderful agent, a woman named Helen Merrill, who was sort
of legendary. She died a few years back. She was a grand German woman who had been in this
country for about fifty years and become more German with every moment. (LAUGHTER) And she
finally took the play and marched it over to the W.P.A. Theatre – no longer exists,
it was run by a terrific man named Kyle Renick – and said she was not leaving until he
agreed to do the play! And luckily, he agreed pretty fast. So it was that. But the mere fact that there weren’t so
many levels of hierarchy and the board and, you know, the literary team, that he actually
could just read it and say, “Yes,” and then suddenly we were underway. It was so
thrilling and I was so grateful! And I did other plays there. And it was still – oh,
my God, you felt also so protected and so treasured, in the nicest possible ways. And
I feel that way about the New York Theatre Workshop as well. Also, it’s particularly dicey when you’re
dealing with comedy, because that’s so subjective. And what I do love is watching that sometimes
a lot of these not-for-profit theatres, which are very dedicated to doing difficult work
and challenging work, that if you do a comedy, it turns everyone into a big laugh whore.
(LAUGHTER) You know, that suddenly the people who are used to writing grants all day long
and speaking, you know, at graduate programs, are suddenly saying, you know, “That’s
not landing!” (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) You know, “The audience wasn’t going for
that,” or “God, shouldn’t you have a better button at the end of that scene?”
And you suddenly feel that everyone’s turned into, you know, David Merrick. But that’s
fun, ‘cause that way you realize, oh, okay, we’re all in the theatre now. You know,
this is no longer, you know, a dedicated, intellectual forum. So, yeah, I loved having
those people around me. How about you, Julia? Relationships? Yeah. What’s evolved for you that’s meaningful? Well, I work with this director, Joe Calarco.
This will be our third time working together. And I just feel like I’m going to hold on
to him for life! Because we’ve had that sort of perfect relationship, where I can
be really, really, bad. I can write really, really bad stuff, and he has no qualms about
telling me. And we’re both screamers, and we don’t hold it against each other. (TERRENCE
LAUGHS) It’s just perfect! And he did two children’s shows for me, and both times
we were casting very young actors who didn’t have a lot of experience. And just sitting
in the audition process with him and watching – sometimes actors would come in and I’d
be like, “They can’t! They’re not good enough!” And he’s be like, “No, they
are. Trust me!” And he was right twice. He delivered two great casts, great performances.
And so, I just believe in him. And then my other really important one is
– and, you know, I’ve also worked with Will Pomerantz, who is amazing. But Primary
Stages has been really good to me. I was in the writers’ group, and I wrote my play
BOY in the group, and I had never been produced here at the time. And they were interested
from the beginning and so supportive. And when South Coast Rep, who commissioned the
play, let it go, when they passed on it, they just stepped up and said, “We’ll do it.”
And they’ve just stuck by me ever since, so it’s been good. Excellent. How about you, Nilo? Well, I love working at this little theatre
in Miami, because I’m pretty much left on my own. There’s not a dramaturge there,
although I have a really wonderful relationship with a dramaturge that I want to talk about.
So actually, when this new theatre had commissioned me to write ANNA IN THE TROPICS and I was
there in residency through a theatre TCG grant, and they had announced the play before I finished
writing it. It was pretty remarkable! (LAUGHS) But it was really great, because it gave me
the impetus to go in there and write the play. I basically wrote it in, I think, less than
six months. Of course, the first draft was full of mistakes, and (LAUGHS) I had to go
back! I was terrified of showing it to the artistic director. But between the first draft
and by the time we got into rehearsal, I was able to refine the play. So it was really wonderful, because I got
to see the play up and see where the play was at. And then I went back and rewrote the
play, and that’s the play that I sent to – and I find out that I was nominated for
a Pulitzer, I couldn’t believe it! So I had done some rewriting and sent it to the
Pulitzer people. And then I got the Pulitzer and I did more rewrites on the play after
that! You would think I would just leave it. I was a little bit afraid, because I thought,
they’re gonna knock on my door and say, “Hey, that’s not the play that we gave
you that award for!” But I do have a wonderful relationship with
a dramatist at the McCarter Theatre, Janice Paran, and I actually dedicated the play ANNA
IN THE TROPICS to her, because she did help me a lot in doing some rewriting on that play.
And what’s really wonderful with her is that I can really dialogue with her, in where
I’m at and I can bounce off ideas from her. And so, one of the things that I like about
working – and the McCarter is a theatre that I love to work in, because I find that
I need readings. I’m not just the writer who just writes a play and, “Okay, it’s
fine.” I need to hear it, because I find that writing for the stage, that it has to
be musical, the writing must be rhythmic. So by hearing the play, I could see where
my rhythms are in certain scenes. There’s also a problem, in terms of rewriting,
is if you start getting a lot of notes from people and you start – I think rewriting
is such a delicate thing, because you start putting information into the play, it does
interfere with your rhythm sometimes. So it’s a tricky kind of balance here. I know I’m
going all over the place! No, no, no. But more than anything, again, working with
the McCarter has been really lovely for me because, again, I could see where I’m at
in the development of my play through a series of readings that they provide for me. And
I’ve had, like, three plays done there, so. Excellent. Regina? Yeah, I was thinking of Janice as well. She
is one of the best dramaturges in this country, I think. She’s someone I can talk to and
trust, and I know she’ll just like, you know, give it to me straight. But the Goodman
Theatre, I’ve worked with them for several years. And it is a place that was very valuable
to me, in terms of a place where I could feel like I failed, and I think that’s really
important, to be able to feel comfortable enough to fail! (LAUGHS) To say, “Okay,
I’m going to take a risk here,” and they take that risk with me and support me in that.
(LAUGHS) And then you go somewhere unexpected with your writing. That’s very important,
to find a place that you can do that. I think a lot of theatres play it safe. They
want that show that’s going to be a hit, that’s going to sell out. And I think particularly,
also with myself, if you’re in a big institution, audience is in the back of people’s heads
when they think of choosing plays. When they choose black plays, who’s going to come
see it? Maybe they’re trying to develop their audience, so they want to open it up
and bring black people in. But then, sometimes I find that some theatres want you to shape
your work for their audience. That becomes a huge problem, because you know you can’t
work like that. You can’t work like that at all. So to find a place where you feel
like you can be true to your own voice and be able to take some risks, that’s very
important. Terrence? I think the notion of failing, that the theatre
provides the playwright and the theatre artists who work there the opportunity to fail, is
very very important if we’re going to have art in theatre. I think it’s equally important
that when the artist fails, they still embrace him. And I think a lot of us have felt, when
we have failed, we’re no longer quite as welcome at the theatre. Yes, right. Which is very disappointing. You know, the
Globe produced all of Shakespeare’s play. He didn’t have PERICLES or TIMON OF ATHENS
and they said, “Well, go away for a while until you get your act together.” And then
suddenly, they got THE TEMPEST and WINTER’S TALE, because they suffered through the plays
that I don’t think are as great as some of the others. And theatres don’t always
do that, you know! They say, “You’re here to fail!”, you know. Then you fail, and
they’re like, “Wow, you failed!” (LAUGHTER) And I’m here to fail again! (LAUGHS) And I think really supporting an artist is
– I think it’s a tragedy that there was no one there for Tennessee Williams in the
last years of his life, or Eugene O’Neill. Though Eugene O’Neill did write some pretty
great plays, no matter how badly he was treated by – I went to Columbia, and you couldn’t
even – drama stopped with, oh God, Thornton Wilder, somebody. But O’Neill they wouldn’t
even mention. And not a play of his was in print when he died. I didn’t know that,
and I was shocked when I wanted to know more about this guy called O’Neill. All his plays
were out of print, and the terrible failures he had with his last two plays. And it’s such a responsibility these institutions
have to the artists to let them fail, and mean it, and not just say it. And it’s very
tricky now, and I think what you’ve said, as our institutions get bigger, they get more
conservative. And they’re so worried about broadening their subscriber base, and I don’t
think any of us particularly write for the subscriber base, people who know two years
in advance, “Oh, I want to see that play May 11th, 2006.” (LAUGHTER) I don’t know
people like that. Most of my friends make a decision that night, practically, to go
see a play. So it’s a more conservative audience you’re writing for, and you become
hostage. “You know, we’ve got ten million subscribers, and next year we want twelve
million!” Well, I don’t think that’s how art happens. And finally, you have to talk about art when
you’re talking about theatre, or it’s just commerce. And it’s very hard to run
a theatre now and (TO JIM) you have your own, and I know it’s difficult, but it’s a
very fine line. But I think the most important thing, if we are to have artists in the theatre,
that they really feel supported, especially when they fail. To, you know, write a big
hit play, and they say, “We love you! We love you! Bring us your next play!” So when
you have a really big flop, and they say, “We’re going to do your next play,”
that “it matters to us.” End of speech. (LAUGHTER) Yeah. Well, no, no, I couldn’t agree more.
Frankly, I founded a theatre based on that, you know? And that’s terrific what Signature does.
I don’t know if this audience knows your mandate. It’s wonderful. Well, it was founded out of those impulses
of one feeling that the writing committee was being discarded, just one at a time, through
the hit-and-miss effort that was prevalent, and still is, you know? Where, you know, you’re
only as good as your last play, and maybe your last two. Maybe you’re given one extra
shot. And I found that not only that was a really hostile environment for writers, and
I still think is relatively hostile, but also that they were just being lost and forgotten,
you know? I think Tennessee Williams is a perfect example of somebody who deteriorated
partly because there was nobody out there embracing him and his work. You know, it’s
really shocking. The last play of Tennessee Williams, I forget
the exact name of it, do any of you know? It was supposed to close on a Saturday night
after like a week, and I said, “I’ve got to see this!” So I drove from the end of
Long Island on a Thursday, and it had closed the day before, mid-week, which is unheard
of. And there was a note, “For refunds, call the producer.” And it was like, you
know, “Apartment 12D on,” you know (LAUGHS), they didn’t have an office! And the phone
number, a personal number, “Call this guy for a refund.” And this is Tennessee Williams,
being produced out of somebody’s apartment! Yeah, yeah. It’s terrible! I mean, there was no one
there for him. And how we can let this happen to our artists? Well, I also think we start thinking backward.
You know, all good art evolves. And I totally agree with you that there is a sort of general
sort of outside notion of how to approach a product in the theatre, you know? They approach
it from – not that this is universal, “They” we always say – but you know, we have to
take responsibility as artists to listen to those voices that are within us, to surround
us by the people who are those people that we trust and encourage us and vice versa,
and take responsibility for our role in it as well. Again, pointing to some discussions I had
up at the O’Neill, we had these roundtable discussions, I cut – they used to have critiques
after every reading, when the whole community would gather and talk about the work. And
they went something like this. The first five minutes were, “I loved it! You’re great.”
And the next five was, “You know, I didn’t quite understand,” and then the third and
final segment was, “And here’s how you fix it.” You know? There was this whole
sense of stripping it down while it’s still in its incubator and infancy, you know, pulling
judgment out on something that really there’s no business for. And I find it interesting that – I think
it’s because we’re dealing with the written word – that most people feel they have some
authority, because they write letters and they use language every day in their lives!
(LAUGHTER) I don’t think it’s something that’s even conscious. I think it’s just
assumed on some level. You know, we would never imagine telling a sculptor, you know,
standing behind a sculptor as they’re working and presenting something to us that “I don’t
quite understand that that’s a shoulder,” you know? Mmm-hmm. Absolutely. But there’s a process that’s allowed,
that that sculptor picks a slab based on, you know, the idea, the amount of clay, cuts
away, and starts touching it. And almost the minute they start touching the thing, it’s
a process of the art informing the artist. And ultimately, the art wins out, if we’re
really listening, you know. But I don’t think we afford our writers that opportunity.
And when we do, when there are those relationships, as you’ve all described, whether it’s
with a director or a theatre or whatever it might be, a dramaturge in your case, you know,
then the work begins to thrive. The art begins to be born. And when you find those adventuresome
producers out there, and there are some out there! Yeah. Well, I think it’s very dangerous, this
whole concept of “understanding.” I remember when I saw a Tarkovsky film, THE SACRIFICE,
I didn’t understand anything! But I loved it, and I went back to the theatre three times,
and still I understand it, but I loved it. There was something – there was a certain
kind of – I felt connected to what he was doing. I felt an emotional connection. The
same thing happened to me when I saw Pasolini’s film, SALO. I was very young when I saw it,
I was in my twenties, a very dark film. And I tell you, I went back in my thirties and
saw the film again, I thought, “My God, this is a master[piece].” It’s a very,
very dark film, but I thought, “This is a masterpiece, the way he stole the story
in a very elegant way, this really dark story about sadomasochism and the times of fascism
in Italy.” But I was not ready for it then. And just to say, “Well, I don’t understand
it,” well, maybe it’s me that doesn’t understand it, but the work of art has a certain
kind of wisdom and knowledge and it should be what it is. Mmm-hmm. Yeah, I remember, we did a season of a wonderful
writer, named Adrienne Kennedy, who I’m sure you all know. Oh, yeah. Of course. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) An extraordinary writer, and I remember, I
had never seen anything of Adrienne’s. And I had known THE OWL ANSWERS, and I started
reading more of her work as we were considering a season. And I started reading it, and in
several instances, I found myself in a situation where I wasn’t following it, but by the
end of the experience, I was deeply moved by it. And I just love that contradiction! Completely. You know, I was completely taken away by something
that was just greater than I could grab on to in that moment. And to see that work – again,
speaking to the point about the work being heard and experienced in a three-dimensional
way – the first time we put that work on its feet was extraordinary, to hear that language
come alive. Well, I’m drawn to Chekhov and Shakespeare
over and over, and HAMLET I probably have memorized, but to say “I understand HAMLET”
would be an absurd statement. Right. “I understand THE SEAGULL.” How can you
understand these plays, in all their complexity? They just draw us to them, because they’re
so resonant. Yes! And you know, you understand a polemic play,
with a, you know, bang! point to it. And real art, I think is much more mysterious and timeless
and – And thrilling! (LAUGHTER) And thrilling, yeah! But it’s easy for a
writer like Adrienne Kennedy to be dismissed as “too difficult” or, you know. Absolutely. But those plays, you never forget having seen
one of her plays. I remember when they were brand-new in the sixties, the world premiere
of THE OWL ANSWERS, and it was just remarkable! I mean, how can you forget having seen that
play? But say “I understand it”? You’re not supposed to understand it, I don’t think,
Adrienne. No, no. “Oh, here’s what it means!” in one sentence.
And then we get back to the dramaturge issue, people trying to maybe make a play mean something. Yes. Right! (LAUGHS) “What does LONG DAY’S JOURNEY mean?”
(NILO NODS) It’s a great experience to sit there, to me, for those three and half, four
hours of that play. Oh, my God, yeah. Well, you know, the problem is that they want
to mean something that they personally understand, in their terms. And so, it becomes – that’s
another thing with the talkbacks and the workshops and everything, is when everybody starts weighing
in, you lose – if you’re trying to draw a specific character, specific circumstances,
it seems to me that the more perfectly it’s drawn or the more specifically it’s drawn,
the more the common humanity becomes apparent. It’s when you have too many people sort
of rounding out all the edges, all of a sudden it doesn’t really feel human any more, you
know? Yeah, yeah. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) Well, listen,
we’re going to come back in a minute. And when we come back, I’d love to talk a little
bit about what I find very compelling is this notion of fear that drives all of us in our
art, and in our choices every day. And then, what’s our role and responsibility in the
art itself? Where do we stand and take responsibility for the trends that happen and all the things
we’ve talked about that are upsetting us? Where do we stand in that and how do we participate
in perpetuating circumstances that are not always helping the art? We’ll be back in
a few minutes, after hearing from the American Theatre Wing. Thanks.
HOWARD SHERMAN I’m Howard Sherman, Executive Director of
the American Theatre Wing. This seminar, part of our ongoing series on CUNY-TV, is only
one way in which the Wing works to enhance the understanding of theatre, for students,
for aspiring professionals, and for the general audience. As a not-for-profit organization,
with its roots going back almost ninety years, the Wing has long stood for education and
excellence in theatre. Our other programs include a video guide to careers in theatre
– available, as are many of these seminars, on our web site, americantheatrewing.org – our
grant program, which provides funding to fifty of New York’s institutional theatre companies,
and perhaps our best-known venture, the Antoinette Perry Tony Awards, created by the Wing in
1947 and now recognized as the pinnacle of achievement in Broadway theatre. We’re very proud of the work we do, and
we’re continually exploring ways in which the Wing can better serve and sustain the
vitality of theatre. And we’re grateful for the support of our donors and members,
who make our work possible. And now, back to our discussion.
(APPLAUSE) And we’re back. I’m going to continue
our discussion with our panel of playwrights. Just before the break, we were talking, I
introduced the idea of talking about fear, and our responsibility within the field, to
deal with some of these issues that are confronting both our writers and the field at large. So
I’d like to open up with talking about the fear sort of quotient a bit. I think what’s
been fascinating to me, and rather consistent with every artist I’ve ever worked with,
and every writer in particular, is that fear, within all of us, is a real motivator. It
drives us, it feeds the art. And I mean, I’m talking about the healthy kind of fear, stuff
you’re just afraid of delving into or confronting, or you’re surprised. You talked earlier,
Regina, about surprising yourself in your writing, and how exhilarating that is, and
part of that, I think, comes out of confronting a fear within us. When we were doing the Arthur Miller season,
I remember at the opening of a brand-new play of his, we were sitting out in the lobby as
the audience was taking the play in. And he was just sitting out there, sort of confounded,
and said, “You know, where do these people come from? Why are they here?” You know?
And part of that was speaking to just a part of himself that was afraid of what he might
confront through that process. And I found it extremely liberating. So I just felt, for
us to talk about that a little bit. Why don’t we start with you again, Paul? Well, I used to have – I still do have this
fear, when I very early in the playwriting process, when I do a first draft, that I used
to think, “Oh, my God, every line should be perfect before you continue on to the next
perfect line!” (LAUGHTER) And so when I realized that would mean I would write one
play every three thousand years … (LAUGHTER) So I would just sort of spew out a first draft,
just get it on the page, just get it over with. And then I would have this terror that
I would be killed that night in a car accident (LAUGHTER) and that people would find this
first draft and imagine that I thought it was good! (LAUGHTER, ESPECIALLY FROM THE PANEL)
Then it finally occurred to me, if that should happen, I would be dead, so why am I worrying?
(LAUGHTER) So it was, you know, that sort of fear of something less than perfection. And then I met another playwright, who was
actually quite – not really a very good playwright, but one of the most confident
human beings I’ve ever met! (LAUGHTER) And she was so sure of her own genius that at
the end of each day of writing, she would put the pages she’d worked on in the freezer,
so in case her apartment caught on fire, they would be saved. (LAUGHTER) Or at least chilled!
(LAUGHTER) Wow! (LAUGHS) I wished I had that sort of regard
for my work, and my appliances! (LAUGHTER) Gee! But it was that kind of thing, where you just
have to get over it, because you think, just it’s – and you know, that fear could so
continue throughout the whole writing and production process of, “Oh, it’s never
gonna be good enough! People are gonna hate it! They’re gonna hate me!” You know,
all of that. And you just, eventually you say, “All of that is all going to happen!
So just do it.” Yeah, yeah. How about you, Julia? Well, I think when you were talking about
Arthur Miller – I mean, I don’t want to compare myself to him! But I always feel a
little bit like, “Why? What’s so special about me?” Like, why would they want to
hear exactly what I have to say about anything? But then I think, oh, well, maybe I just,
you know, say it a little bit better, write it a little bit better? You know, I don’t
know. But it feels like for me, it’s a fear of not being good. It’s a fear of sort of
being exposed as not what maybe I crack myself up to be. I don’t know. Yeah. Nilo? Well, for me fear has to do with facing the
blank page, is that not knowing what I’m going to write about. Because I usually do
not know what I’m writing about. I usually start with something it could be. It could
be just a face, a character, it could be a name. It could be some particular kind of
behavior that I’m interested in exploring. So I never know what the play is gonna be
about, and just facing that blank page, and then thinking to myself, “Well, how did
I write the last play? And how did it happen, you know?” So I think that’s fear for
me, more than anything. And I think it’s a good thing. I think fear
is important. And I also, when I see actors, you know, those moments before going on stage
and how nervous they get, I think it’s important, because something else kicks in. Whether it’s
that adrenaline or – it keeps you human, too. And I think that we need to be in touch
with the human in us, when we’re dealing with the arts. So it’s a good check and
balance. Although I also think that fear can also keep us from working and from challenging
ourselves, too. So I think it’s a double-edged knife. But I think what we shouldn’t fear
is fear itself. Mmm-hmm. (PAUSE; LAUGHTER) What did I say? Well said! I like that! Keep that! (LAUGHTER; NILO DOESN’T APPEAR
TO REALIZE HE’S ACCIDENTALLY QUOTED FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT’S FIRST INAUGURAL SPEECH.) Regina, how about you? I’ve been living daily with fear and pain
for the last two weeks! (LAUGHS) I’m in previews right now. I haven’t slept in two
weeks. For me to even function at all is really hard. To just get up and put on your clothes
is facing fear, every day. Birthing a new project, and this is my first time on Broadway.
I was going, “Okay, you know, okay.” But actually (LAUGHS), I’m like, “Oh, no,
God!” It’s been really very painful, difficult and I hate admitting fear, but absolutely,
I’m scared to death! (LAUGHS) And that is the process. I think you grow from it. You
learn from it. But this has probably been one of the most difficult experiences I’ve
ever had. And you go, “Well, okay, you’ll live through
it, and hopefully, someone will produce you again.” And I have faith in that! But this
process is very hard. It’s very hard. And I feel like – well, I’m just being very
honest! – I feel like the stakes are much higher than I’ve ever faced before. And
the thing, though, is that I have faith in the process. I have faith in the people that
I work with, and that gets me through the day. Talk to me after we open! (LAUGHS) But
that’s how I feel at this moment. Terrence? Well, I want to thank Paul and Julia for telling
about a fear I wasn’t aware of, but now, of course, I have it! (LAUGHTER) What is the
audience doing here? Why should they come see a play of mine? It never occurred to me
that you should have that fear, so thank you! (LAUGHTER) I have a play opening in a week,
tonight. Our pleasure! Oh, God, why did you do that? I never knew
I had that fear! I’ve caught it, it’s like the flu! (LAUGHTER) My own personal fear
is a new one. My fears have shifted over the years, as I’ve gotten older – not wiser,
but older. But I think the fear now is after the debacle, whatever you want to call it,
of CORPUS CHRISTI, which was my last produced play in New York City, I became very fearful
as I was writing the new play, called DEDICATION. “I’d better not say this! I’d better
not do that! I’ll get in trouble again. Manhattan Theatre Club will be mad at me.
The Catholic Church, someone will be mad at me.” And those voices just go, “Take the
calmer route, don’t go there.” And then you think, “Oh, I’m gonna just take that
other route, just to say f*** you!” (LAUGHTER) And that’s not art either, you know? Yeah. You gotta be level-headed. And that scared
me that I was gonna – “You think CORPUS CHRISTI upset you? Wait’ll you see this
one!” And that’s not good writing, out of hostility. So really, I’ve never felt
so that you can, I guess, get into trouble as a writer. I’ve never – you know, people
like plays, not like plays. But this was different! Yeah. And when you have death threats on your life
(LAUGHS), you really can get into big trouble! (SYMPATHETIC LAUGHTER FROM JULIA) And it’s
not fun. And I never saw that play until I saw it in just a production in Chicago about
two years ago. They were doing it, and I bought a ticket. They didn’t know I was there.
And it was so nice to see my play without going through a metal detector! Oh, yeah! And dogs barking at you, and all that! (LAUGHTER)
Bullhorns! And (LAUGHS) I liked my own play, actually! I had never seen it in New York.
So that’s a fear, to stay true to yourself. And I think that, you know, it’s a fear
of “People aren’t going to like me,” and I don’t think an artist can worry about
that. (GENERAL AGREEMENT) I think we’ve all written plays that have upset people,
and that’s another function of art, too. To challenge people, certainly, and not be
complacent. But that’s a quiet fear, it’s not like the fear you talked about, (LAUGHS)
which I will experience tonight, thank you! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) “Why are these
people here? I don’t know you! (PH)” But I did have a man come up to me the other
night and (LAUGHS) he said, “I’m a middle-class man from New Jersey, and I think your language
was unnecessarily raw.” And I said, “Well, I’m sorry, thank you for that.” And this
woman came up and said, “I’m his wife! I loved it! (LAUGHTER) Don’t stop!” But
if you start thinking that, you know, “Is this raw or not?” It’s what you felt when
you wrote it. And we were talking in the green room, a big comment we all get is – you
know, it’s open to the audience – “You’re such nice people. Why do you have to use vulgarities
in your writing?” And it’s just so – I can’t believe people even ask you that.
Don’t they listen? Don’t they ride the subway? Don’t they live in New York City,
you know? Yeah, yeah. And that’s not vulgarity. A four-letter
word is not vulgarity. What’s going on in the world is vulgarity! So. But I think that
that’s my biggest fear, that I will think, “Well, this play’ll get done if I fix
it that way.” And it’s tempting, and as you say, the stakes on Broadway, don’t they
seem higher, Paul? And you’ve done both. Oh, sure. Well, also, it’s so public. (MURMURS
OF AGREEMENT FROM THE PANEL) ‘Cause I had an experience on a play called I HATE HAMLET,
that had – for anyone who has sort of a tabloid memory – it starred an English actor
who was deeply mad and just alcoholic at an Olympian level! (LAUGHTER) And he was playing
the ghost of John Barrymore. And the first act ended with a climactic on-stage duel,
between Nicol [Williamson] and the young actor, Evan Handler. And Nicol didn’t care for
Evan, or anyone else on the planet, and one night during the duel actually stabbed Evan
and drew blood. And Evan, God bless him, who was an absolute saint, left the stage at intermission
and the production. And so, the next morning, I went downstairs,
and it was the full front page of the New York Post, was a still of the duel with the
huge headline, “I HIT HAMLET.” (LAUGHTER) And the little head was “STAR SWATS ACTOR
ON THE BUTT.” Just sort of New York Post poetry. (TERRENCE LAUGHS) And this then continued,
and there were TV crews from all over the world at the theatre. It just became this
sort of grand adventure. And it was such a bizarre event. And people would come up to
me and say, “Oh, Paul! This’ll be such a great chapter for your memoirs!” Like,
lucky me! (LAUGHTER) And I thought, “Is that what they told people, you know, in the
lifeboats on the Titanic?” (LAUGHTER AND GROANS) But it was suddenly, you know, it
was just madness! And it was being played out in front of everybody. So yeah, when you’re on Broadway – and,
I think any form of theatre, you’ve got an audience, God willing, so that you’re
putting yourself on display. And that’s a risk that, you know, nobody put a gun to
your head and said you could do that, you had to do that. So it comes with the territory.
But yeah, it’s very unnerving. And it’s funny. I think people sometimes imagine that
because the actors are on stage, they’re the most exposed, and yes, in a sense they
are. But I think the trembling playwright in the back of the theatre is having maybe
even a far larger breakdown. (LAUGHTER) You know? ‘Cause you’re feeling the waves
of response, lack thereof, satisfaction, praise, what of the future? And it’s very daunting. But on the other hand, it’s the exhilaration,
you know. And it’s also why you don’t do a play every day! Because you’d collapse.
But you know, when things go well, there’s no greater high. You know, it’s just why
theatre will never die, because you only get that level of ecstasy from a live audience,
you know, when the response is going well, when it shoots the actors that much higher,
there’s nothing like it on earth. So that’s why you put up with all the rest of it. Yeah. Well, I feel much better! (LAUGHTER) I mean,
this past week has been like, “Oh, my God! Hell!” When you have like a hundred people
walk out (LAUGHS) – Oh, no! You’re going, “Oh, my God!” But the
people who stay, they’re really wanting to stay, so that’s good. Unless people are
walking out and it is getting – you know, there is nothing like that! There’s nothing like seeing people putting
on their coats at intermission, you know? Oh, man! You know he’s not gonna have a cigarette,
they’re heading for the subway! Yeah, yeah. Or in the men’s room, when you’re standing
at the urinal at intermission and the guy next to says, “Isn’t this the worst play
you’ve ever seen?” (LAUGHTER) Now you don’t pee, you know, and it ruins the second
act – it’s horrible! No, but you have to be careful, because you
can misread even the most violent audience reactions. Just last week, during previews,
there was a woman who – sitting, of course, dead center, in the front row – who, in
about the second scene of VALHALLA, got up, you know, made her way through all the other
people, ran to the back of the house, went into the lobby, and vomited! Oh! And I thought, “Oh, my God! (LAUGHS) Did
I do that?” And then, God bless her, she came back. And actually, during the course
of that evening, she left two more times to throw up. But I loved her for coming back!
(LAUGHTER) I thought, “If I was that sick, I’d just go home!” She wanted to see your play! I thought she wanted to see how it ended. She did! So I thought, “Oh, I could have taken this
as my first review!” (LAUGHTER) But luckily, she was very kind. So I think you have to
– the live event can go all sorts of ways. We don’t need the critics, really, to tell
us how our plays are going! (LAUGHS) The audience really lets you know. They really do. And at a certain point, yes, that’s true.
And at a certain point, if you are doing something that is outside of the boundaries of what
people are expecting, then you have to stand behind the work and say, “This is work.
I’m very proud of it.” Yes. Yeah, gotta do it. And that’s a good thing, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate you all talking
about this, because I think it’s so important. I think people assume somehow, because you’re
sitting in these chairs and talking about work that’s important to you, that somehow
you know how to do it, and somehow, you know, you don’t have fear. But I think one of
the most liberating things we can offer, not only [to] this audience, but anyone viewing,
is to in fact expose that fear, and expose that, you know, it is new every time. It is
new every time. You hit that blank page every time, whether you’ve been writing for forty
years or for five years. You know, it’s the same challenge. Your experiences inform
it, but it still, as you said, Terrence, you know, you may be older, but you’re not any
– Wiser. – wiser, so to speak. But in fact, you are,
but you know. If there were a formula [for] writing a successful
play, there would be so many successful plays! Yeah, exactly. And what do you think the rate is of successful
plays? One in a couple hundred, I would think. Yeah. Yeah, of successful anything, I think! In
any art form. Well, let’s just stick with plays, I mean,
this is very hard. Exactly. Yeah. I say, it’s like trying to grow an orchid
in Alaska, for a play to blossom. There are so many things that can go wrong, from the
time we finish our scripts to – I think, as Nilo said about sets, costumes, it’s
all part of telling the story. Especially a new work, you know? Everyone has an idea
now of what our old plays should be like. Yeah. But in our new plays, we’re as good as the
actors, designers, directors, people we’re working with. ‘Cause no one knows what DROWNING
CROW is supposed to be yet, you know? There’s no template for that play yet, in New York
City, certainly. And then next, oh, there’ll be another production of it, and there’s
another way to do it. But it’s very hard. And also, Off-Broadway, don’t you think
we work every bit as hard? Didn’t you work as hard in your little theatre in Miami as
you did at the Plymouth, the Royale here? Oh, completely. Oh, yes. It doesn’t change,
yeah. Because people think – the pressure is greater,
but we work just as hard Off-Off-Off-Broadway to be good. Absolutely, yeah. And the actors work as hard, everyone does. Well, there were a few comments from the audience,
during our break. And several of them, were jumping off of the CORPUS CHRISTI thing and
talked about censorship, in terms of whether it’s self-imposed or in other ways. Have
any of you – I know, Terrence, you just talked a bit about CORPUS CHRISTI – have
any of you felt that, within yourself, censoring yourself as you write? Or have in fact felt
it from outside sources and forces as well? I think one of the wonderful things about
the theatre is that, alone among mediums, there can be less censorship, because the
writers have far more legal controls over it. The Dramatists Guild contract means that
no one can change a word of your work, without your permission. So that, at least at that
level – also, I think because the economics of theatre are far more limited than in film
and larger mediums, it does give you more freedom. And also, because the audience can
be more sophisticated, if they’ve made a habit of going to the theatre. I think that’s one of the things that’s
so exciting and unique about theatre, is that the material can be far more challenging,
far more provocative, far more delightfully obscene than in any other medium where you
have ratings, and you have PG-whatevers. The theatre, thank God, doesn’t come with those
restrictions, so that – but self-censorship is something else. Well, and Terrence, I thought,
put it beautifully, where you wonder sometimes, are you deliberately censoring yourself, or
are you deliberately trying to be outrageous for its own sake, which can be another kind
of trap? So it’s interesting. And that’s also something the audience will tell you,
is what lines they will and will not cross. And sometimes that becomes the point. Like,
no, push ‘em! You know, say, “No, I don’t care if this is going to upset you.” Although I did remember – I think (TO TERRENCE)
you were saying about language – that my aunt, beloved aunt, told me that same criticism
at her husband’s funeral. He was lying in a coffin a few feet away, and she said, “Paul,
you know, your uncle always loved you, but he didn’t know why you had to use that language.”
(LAUGHTER) I thought, “At his funeral?” (LAUGHS) So that’s the kind of thing we’re
– it’s amazing that people still come up with that, in an age of, you know, David
Mamet, about people who, you know, for years now have been so saying every possible word.
So yeah, I think that self-censorship is probably the greatest danger. Well, I wrote a play, the TATJANA play, that
requires the nudity of a twelve-year-old girl. I mean, it has to happen. It is really the
turning point for the whole play. And that was, interestingly, the play that, I think,
brought me to the attention of a lot of theatres. But I was also told, point-blank, that it
would never be produced. And they were wrong, it is being produced. And it was also interesting
to me that when it was read, the audience had no problem with it. Now granted, they
weren’t seeing it. But they had no problem with it at all, the subject matter, at all.
But the artistic directors were afraid of it. So I did go through some, you know – I did
try to steer myself into a little bit more of a commercial vein, to start getting myself
produced. And it didn’t work. You know, ultimately, TATJANA went up on its own, and,
you know. So yeah, hopefully, I’m going to put those ideas aside. Yeah. How about you, Nilo? Well, I’m thinking a lot about it, as my
colleagues are speaking. And I think that there’s always a level of censorship all
around you, because some people are going to like your work, some people are not going
to like it. Sure. But I don’t think about those things. As
a matter of fact, one of the things that I love about – I love doing my work as a writer,
but I also like teaching. And I tell you why I like teaching, because one of the things
that I like about being in a classroom is that I’m with a group of young people who
are willing to take chances. They don’t know their craft well enough yet, but they’re
courageous, and they want to experiment. They want to try new things, they want to break
away from, like formulas. And I find that that keeps me on my toes,
too, as a writer. It keeps me fresh, and it keeps me being courageous and, you know, tackling
that next play, and maybe writing it in a completely different way. And so, I don’t
know, I mean, something that I try to do for myself is to combine the time that I spend
alone as a writer and certainly, getting inspired by other plays, but also getting inspired
by the new generation. What are their concerns? And again, that courage, which I think has
to be so alive in all of us, and the artists, because that’s what art is all about, is
being courageous. It’s interesting, because a gentleman in
Spain is translating my play, believe it or not, from the English to Spanish. I could
have done it, but I’m very busy these days. And I met with this gentleman in London, and
he said that he had concerns with certain – I think he feared the language, because
the language in my play, ANNA IN THE TROPICS, it’s lyrical. And I face him, and I said,
“I’ve translated Lorca many times, and other people. I’ve seen the translations
of Lorca, and a lot of people don’t trust his language.” And then I said, “You know,
be courageous! This is what the art is all about! You know, face the poetry and go with
it and run with it. That’s what this play is all about.” Anyhow, so maybe that’s
a form of censorship in some ways, too. I try – I mean, I’m interested in beauty.
I find that sometimes I’ve gotten comments from people, like saying, “Well, people
don’t speak that way.” And I said, “Well, I’m certainly not interested in having the
kind of language that one hears in a bodega, in a grocery store.” Because to me, that’s
not art. I find that we’re writing for the stage, and when one is writing for the stage,
you know, the language – I’m interested in beauty (LAUGHS), you know? And I think
that to have beauty on the stage is extremely – you have to be courageous. That’s excellent. Regina? Yeah, yeah, censorship, yeah. (LAUGHS) When you’re watching a hundred people walk
out of your play, does a part of you stand up and begin to try to censor yourself on
that? No. I mean, you can’t. Good, good. Yeah. You just face it. And you stand behind it,
and you face it. Well, we have a few minutes left. And you
know, we’ve talked about a lot of things, about the craft and about the environment
out there. What’s our role in this? You know, when we talk about, you know, there
are too many workshops, or you know, I need this or I need that. You know, you talked
about the Dramatists Guild has a provision in there that says you get the final word!
You get the final word on casting, you get the final word on every word being as is,
and ultimately, whether or not a production is done. Do we need to say “no more” to production?
To the young person who is being thrust into a situation where it’s an opportunity, but
it comes with a certain amount of baggage, is that something we’ve got to take on more,
to change the environment out there? Or what can we do to embrace the environment and make
it a better place, for your fellow writers as well as yourselves? Let me start with you,
Terrence. What are your thoughts on that? I think, write more plays. Keep writing. It’s
very easy – Paul said, you know, you can’t write a play every day or have one produced,
it’s too emotionally draining. You have to go out and have a life, I think. Yes. I think you’ve got to get really away from
the theatre sometimes. It can get very insulated. But we’ve got to keep writing plays. And
I think as Nilo said, very wisely, courage is a great part of this. This great act of
will to assemble people, sit in a room, put the lights down and they go up on one end
of it, and tell them a story, to think we can hold their interest, that takes courage,
I think. And you know, I wrote a play about Maria Callas,
and as someone once said about her, “She didn’t lose her voice, she lost her courage.”
And I knew exactly what they meant, the will to go out there and say, “I can hit that
high C,” and she lost that. And I’ve seen actors lost their nerve, and I’ve seen writers
lose their nerve. And that’s important. That’s very hard to talk about publicly,
it’s a very private thing. I think it’s very important. I’m so glad we acknowledged
it today. I think being an artist is a very courageous thing to be. But I think the main thing we do is write
our plays. And I do believe, if you write a good play, it will be done. It may not be
done on Broadway with Nathan Lane and, you know, Madonna, but it will be done. (LAUGHTER)
And that’s the important thing. And all of us have plays that have begun so modestly,
and because they had some quality and reached other people, they were eventually produced
in New York and people have seen them, I hope, and care about them enough to invite us to
be on this panel. So you’ve got to remember that. We have to do the work first. You can’t
[say], “I’m gonna write this great play for you!” You gotta write the play, you
know? That’s number one. So I believe that very strongly. That’s the main thing we
do. I think working with younger people, getting
them interested in the theatre, the possibilities of theatre. When you said what a heady art
form it is, the intoxication that happens between a live play and an audience does not
happen at LORD OF THE RINGS. I mean, I loved it, but it’s not the same thing as when
you’re seeing a show that’s really cooking, or they’re really laughing at, like, one
of Paul’s comedies. And that’s wonderful, and that’s why you do it.
And I think working in the theatre is its own reward, and anyone who goes into the theatre
to get rich is very, very stupid. (LAUGHTER) You do it to have a great life. And as writers,
we do have wonderful lives. And as Paul said about Dramatists Guild, no one can make us
change our plays. The buck stops with the five of us sitting up here. Well, I’m being flagged that time is very
short. I’m sorry! No, I want to thank you for that, because
I think it’s a wonderful place to leave this discussion. And I want to thank each
of you for your courage – one, to sit on this panel, but most importantly, for the
work that you offer us every day. You help illuminate things in ourselves that move us
and take us to places that we are privileged to go. So thank you all, and thank you all
for joining us today. (APPLAUSE)

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