Playwright and Director (Working In The Theatre #203)


[MUSIC] This is CUNY TV,
the City University of New York. (APPLAUSE) Welcome to the American Theatre Wing Seminars on “Working in the Theatre.”
These seminars are coming to you from the Graduate Center of the City University of
New York. This series of seminars that the Wing provides for you are just part of the
Wing’s all-year-round programs. We have a hospital program, a program that brings live
professional theatre into hospitals, nursing homes, and AIDS centers, and we bring this
through the year. These programs came out of the Wing’s school.
The seminars are a special part of it. Right after the Second World War, the Wing had a
school in which returning veterans were able to come in and retool their trade. What they
learned they took to hospitals, and that provided an audience for them. These seminars do the
same thing. We are retooling the trade, the knowledge of professionals, in order to give
it to the people in the business of working in the theatre. The Wing is perhaps best known for its Tony
Awards. And, although they are coveted and they are a very important part of the industry,
they are a wonderful award, because they were not created for a commercial or an economic
value. They were created in honor of a woman named Antoinette Perry, and she believed very
strongly that people should be prepared in the theatre. They should know every part in
the theatre. And so, the award is given to those who have achieved a degree of excellence
in the theatre, not for a review, or not for the longest run. We’re very proud of it, and
annually, it is shown over CBS television. And it goes out across the country, so that
everybody sees how wonderful live theatre is and how wonderful New York City is, that
brings this live theatre to you. Our other programs are multiple, and every
one of them is supporting the theatre and supporting the community through the theatre.
We support “Saturday Theatre for Children,” which brings live theatre into the schools
in their own neighborhoods. We have a program called “Introduction to Broadway,” and that
program brings high school students into Broadway shows. And it’s in connection, and done with
the cooperation of the New York Board of Education, and the wonderful producers who have given
us tickets, that we in turn are able to give to the students. Thousands and thousands of
tickets have been distributed in the short time that this program has been in effect. Another part of the program, which is very
important and a plus, is that we see that the students meet with the cast and with the
crew and ask questions after the show. It does two things. It opens their minds to what
it is to work in the theatre, but it also gives them role models and another place for
them to look for when they come out of school. And so, before I take up any more of your
time, I’m going to turn this seminar over to our co-chairmen. And I also forgot to say
that I’m Isabelle Stevenson, and I’m President of the American Theatre Wing, that brings
you these seminars. But our co-chairmen today, on the seminar on the Playwright/Director,
is Brendan Gill, who is an author and a critic … New Yorker magazine, longtime man there
… and believes in tradition, as the American Theatre Wing does. And he’s also a member
of the Board of Directors of the American Theatre Wing. And George White is President of the Eugene
O’Neill Center and is internationally known. He has directed in all parts of the country
and is at Yale. And he is a splendid person, and I’m delighted to have them on this seminar.
And they, in turn, will introduce this wonderful panel to you. Brendan Gill and George White.
(APPLAUSE) All right, farthest from me on the right is
the playwright Tony Kushner, whose play ANGELS IN AMERICA is now playing here. Next to Tony
is Tim Mason, whose play THE FIERY FURNACE is also on at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
And closest to me is Jonathan Tolins, whose first play on Broadway is THE TWILIGHT OF
THE GOLDS. Thank you. On my far left is a chair inhabited
by a large white rabbit. (LAUGHTER) You’ll hear more about that later. And next to Harvey
is (LAUGHTER) Joyce Ketay, who is Tony Kushner’s representative, and heads the agency of the
same name. Next to her is the famous playwright and director, Edward Albee, who I may also
say … which is not on any cards here … could easily be called the conscience of the theatre.
And I say that with a great deal of affection and praise. And right next to me is the distinguished
director, also at the moment of TWILIGHT OF THE GOLDS, and also the director of the Long
Wharf Theatre, Mr. Arvin Brown, who’s also an international director. (APPLAUSE) On our panel yesterday, which consisted mainly
of actors, what was interesting is that so many of the actors present were also either
very busy being directors or eager to be directors. And this may well be an ancient tradition
in the theatre. But today, we also have the question of playwrights and whether they also
wish in their hearts in many cases, or in most cases, to be directors. Some do, and
some don’t, evidently. Tony, to begin with you as a person who is able to be both author
and director, is that the most natural thing in the world? Well, it’s something that I started doing.
I was trained as a director and directing is something that I’ve come to miss a lot,
because I’ve spent most of the last five or six years writing. It’s something that … I
mean, I think that there’s a lot of prejudice about playwrights directing their own work,
that is not, I think, ultimately valid. I think that playwrights can sometimes be wonderful
directors of their own work. I think it can be difficult if your work is still in process,
to be alone with it, with a cast. And I also think that, just on a purely technical
level, directing takes a great deal of time. And so does playwriting. And I think that
what I’m having trouble with is figuring out how to spend enough time writing and to sort
of ease myself back into directing, because that’s … I think that it’s hard to do both
in one lifetime. And so that’s a concern. But it is something that I miss and it’s something
that I think in the next couple of plays, one of them I’d like to take back and deal
with by myself. Edward, what has been your experience in respect
to that? I’ve been directed by an awful lot of really
good directors over the years. But something occurred to me a long time ago, that when
I write a play, I see it and I hear it as I write it, as a performed piece on stage.
I don’t write it in some kind of ephemeral reality, I see it being performed on stage.
And I keep that vision with me. And it occurred to me, that if I could learn
the craft of being a director, the one thing that I could give an audience … which is
not necessarily the thing they want … but the one thing I could give them is a very
accurate representation of the play that I saw and I heard while I was writing it. You
know, very, very accurate, if nothing else. And that’s why I started directing my own
work. To pick up on that just a moment … you said,
to learn the craft of a director … obviously, you weren’t trained as a director. How did
you do it, just by doing it? I wasn’t trained as a writer, either. (LAUGHTER) Well, okay, okay, fair … That’s an interesting
point, too, we should get back to, but … But it never occurred to me that there was
any craft involved in directing when I started out. And so I started directing my own work
knowing nothing about directing. And fortunately, the first play of mine I ever directed was
a production of THE ZOO STORY deep in the foothills of Pennsylvania, fortunately. Because
(LAUGHTER), it was without question, the worst production of any play of mine I’ve ever seen.
(LAUGHTER) Except possibly LOLITA on Broadway. (LAUGHTER) And then it occurred to me that maybe there
was some craft … That production of THE ZOO STORY made it quite clear that the director
… who happened to be me, the author … had no idea what the play was about. (LAUGHTER)
Or if I did have any idea what the play was about, I had absolutely no way to communicate
with the actors. And so maybe, I thought, I should start learning the craft of being
a director. And fortunately, there were a lot of good
directors around who were directing my plays around the world. And so, I sort of took a
course by sitting in, with Allen Schneider directing in New York, and Peter Hall directing
in London, and Ingmar Bergman directing in Sweden, and Zeffirelli in Italy, and Barrault
in France … I went and I sat in on productions of my plays that they were directing, very
quietly, mouse, mouse time. And I began to learn something about the craft of being a
director. And I don’t know whether I’m a very good director or not, but I do know that I’m
very accurate to my intention as an author. (LAUGHTER) In the nineteenth century, there were no directors
evidently, you know … somebody said yesterday that … he was saying that the star … Well, there were no critics, either. (LAUGHTER) The chief saying was that the star of a play
… like, a Henry Irving or somebody like that, or Forrest, or Edwin Booth … he just
wanted other people to keep out of his way. And he ran the show. I mean, he did all the
timing of it himself. And the temptation then grew up to have this taken away from him,
and quite rightly so. (LAUGHTER) Because somebody else is a better judge of how the star ought
to behave. And think of all the star turns at that time. Nobody talked about ensemble
acting then. But what do you think is the chief characteristic of a director in this
respect, Arvin? Well, I’m totally a collaborative animal,
so I love the kind of give and take between the director and the writer. I mean, Jonathan
and I have just come through a wonderful experience, I think. I began, actually, as a writer, so
in a sense, those are the only tools, originally, that I brought to directing. I had never … I
knew nothing about backstage life, I didn’t come from the theatre. I always thought I
was going to be a writer, and I had a sense of language and a sense of why words were
used the way they were. Nobody ever had to tell me about subtext because again, it was
something I’d experienced personally, in writing short fiction. And yet, what I had discovered in my own life
was that there was a kind of nudity involved in writing that I couldn’t take. I mean, that
moment of looking at that blank piece of paper in that little room was just terrifying to
me. And so, when I found directing, I felt that it could incorporate many of the things
that attracted me to writing, the creation of a world. But it was a world that was just
that one step removed from me, so that I could function within it in another kind of way. Jonathan, picking up on what Arvin said, how
about your interaction with your director? I’m sorry, I was still thinking about when
there were no critics. (LAUGHTER) I actually … it was interesting when you were talking
about it … I have also directed a number of shows, but I sort of for now, decided for
myself that I preferred not to direct my own plays, for the very reason why Mr. Albee likes
to. I find that, if I’m directing a play of my own, I do it exactly as I pictured it,
and then I find that there’s probably a lot there that can be found by somebody who doesn’t
have that idea going into it. And with Arvin, it was a very pleasurable
experience, because what makes Arvin so good as a director and makes it such a positive
and rewarding time is that he doesn’t tell you how to rewrite your play. Arvin just keeps
pointing things out to you and inspiring you, and he says, “You know, you bring up this
theme here and it … where does it go?” And you go, (CLAPS HANDS) “Oh, yeah, I’ll be back
in a half hour.” (LAUGHTER) So for me, at least for now, I really like having someone
who can come and look at my work and find out what happens between the two of us. In the old days, of course, the musicals and
everything like that were much more collaborative that way. But one of our most distinguished
playwrights in the thirties, S. N. Behrman, in previews, would be running up and down
the aisle, asking people’s advice about what he should do. (LAUGHTER) And it was an extraordinary
thing to see this distinguished person really begging for help and … I don’t think you have to … That happens in the nineties, too, Brendan,
let me tell you. (LAUGHTER) I don’t think you have to beg any more. I
think people are much more willing to give it to you right then. (LAUGHTER) Do you accept free advice from audiences in
previews, or what do you do? Well, you have no choice but to listen to
it, I mean, because everybody’s pretty eager to offer it. I think what Romulus Linney said
once, you know, the basic human desires are food, sex, and to rewrite other people’s plays.
(LAUGHTER) And it’s out there. I have, all of a sudden, I think, a morbid
fear of being in charge. I’ve never directed and I never will. I mean, never is a long,
long time, but even as a child, I think … there are different modes of communication. And
I think, perhaps in retrospect, one of the reasons I began to write was my profound distrust
of conversation. And I could write, but I couldn’t speak to a friend with assurance
that I would be understood. Directors can communicate. A good director
knows how to communicate to an actor, and over the years, I’ve learned just to sit back
and watch them work and bite my tongue when I think they’re going wrong, and even to curl
up on a sofa at the back of the rehearsal room and fall asleep. It’s comforting. Their
voices are going on (LAUGHTER) and in time … well, THE FIERY FURNACE was directed by
a large white rabbit who is not here (LAUGHTER), a wonderful director of the American theatre
named Norman Rene. And when a playwright finds a director that he or she can trust, it’s
a joy. And they bring things to the play that I hadn’t seen. Playwrights may, however, find a director
taking the play in a direction very different from what he himself thought he had intended,
so then what happens? Do you continue to fall asleep in the back? Well, no. If it’s going in a direction very
much different from the author’s intent, no, then you do have to resort to other means
of communication, you and the director. Weapons, and … Because I think Arvin, you’re thought of as
being extremely sympathetic to the purposes of the author, dead or alive, because you’ve
directed so many plays of great dead playwrights (LAUGHTER), taking care to make sure that
that was, as nearly as possible, the play that you think they had in mind. I think again, that comes from my own writing
background. The text matters a great deal to me. And I learned early on that, you know,
words were not used accidentally, which doesn’t mean at times that they shouldn’t be changed
or developed or whatever. But I’ve never been of the school that sees a play as a kind of
scenario for excess of one kind or another. I don’t believe in it. I don’t particularly
respond to it when I see it in the theatre. I think the word is very exciting. I think
it is at the foundation of what moves me in the theatre experience and has made me want
to really devote my life to it. And I think the word has to be treated with a certain
respect. I really can’t help but break in here. You’ve
talked about your background as a writer quite frequently. What is your background? Give
us just a little bit. Go back. Well, I went to Stanford University as an
undergraduate, and was lucky and unlucky to be a part of one of only two writing workshops
in the country at that time. And this was an extraordinary workshop. It was led by a
man named Wallace Stegner, a great novelist, who died just a year or so ago. But my year
that I was there … as a senior in college I was accepted into this workshop … and
it was being taught that particular year, since Stegner was on sabbatical, by Malcolm
Cowley (PH), the great editor, and Frank O’Connor (PH), the great Irish short story writer.
And that was pretty heady company. And I was the only student and all around
me … there were six other writers in the seminar and they were all very high-powered,
professional writers, including Ken Kesey, who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
in this seminar, and Larry McMurtry, and it was quite a group. And trying to keep up with
them was, at first, exhilarating, and ultimately, for me, it was … trying to balance a student
loan at the same time … very defeating. And I ended my time at Stanford and went abroad
to study for a year, feeling very disenchanted with my own writing and wondering whether
I would ever be good enough, because I had reason to have very high standards. And until
I discovered directing, really doubted that I would, in fact, be able to function in an
art form at that point at all. One other thing … I wanted to bring the
discussion over to Joyce a minute, because there is the marriage broker, perhaps, sometimes
between … I was wondering how I was going to fit in
here. Well, that’s how. (LAUGHTER) That’s how. Do
you indeed, since you represent playwrights, do you also … well … I represent directors, also. Yeah. So, and doing that, do you … how do you
marry the two, if that’s necessary? Do you, or do they come with a director? How does
that … or does it change depending on the property? It really depends on the property. In representing
both, it’s a little frightening representing both a director and a playwright on the same
project. You can get into a lot of trouble. (SHE LAUGHS) You don’t want to take sides,
and really what you should do is take sides as an agent, you should really be behind your
client. When you have both of them working with each other, and then there’s a problem,
you have a problem. So that’s a little sketchy. Putting playwrights with directors … some
playwrights really like a lot of input. They like, you know, what do you think, what director
do you think would be good? Some don’t. Some feel that they know exactly what they want
and that’s what they do. I sort of take the cue from my client, where I’m going to go
with this, whether they want me to be part of it or not. The hard thing is when I have a client who
wants to direct his own work, and I’m not sure that’s the right thing. Especially with
a young playwright or a new playwright, whose play could use another voice, another thought,
in the process. I think the beauty of theatre is the collaboration, and so … the collaboration
not only with the director and playwright, but also with designers, and all of it becomes
this gem that everyone’s worked on. Sometimes, when it’s a playwright directing his own work,
there’s a facet that’s missing. Not always. How did you … I mean, there are two parts
to this now. How did you become an agent? What’s your background? And two, what do you
look for in a director vis-a-vis a playwright? What do I look for …? In a director, vis-a-vis a particular playwright,
if you’re asked to try to put something together. Okay. If a play is a language play, a play
that has wonderful language, which is the kind of play that I love (SHE LAUGHS), then
you need a director who is good with character and the language and the respect for the play.
Sometimes plays need a visual sense, that’s really important. So you look for a director
that has those qualities, but also a really incredible visual sense that can bring … I’m thinking of a particular play, that is
a wonderful play, that’s going to be done in Seattle, that really needed a director
that had a real sense of what the thing should look like. And it took a while to find, and
I hope we found the right one. (LAUGHTER) No playwright who’s ever appeared here would
ever write anything except what you call a “language play.” Well, some are “language” in a different way,
I guess. Yeah, you’re right, saying language. In an individual sense, I was thinking only
… maybe that’s true for murder mysteries or something like that, their visual sense,
if you were directing SLEUTH or something, but other than that it must be respect … Well, the particular play that I was thinking
of was a play that deals with a photographer. It’s kind of loosely based on the life of
Diane Arbus (PH). So, it needs a kind of visual that maybe another play would need less of
to bring it out. In the history, are there famous, rambunctious
fights between … now, Lillian Hellman, for example, always wrote a complete play, as
Edward does. Every word of it was in place when she finished her script of that. Yeah, but she would do four or five drafts
before she permitted it to be shown to anybody. Umm-hmm. And then so having got that done,
I didn’t know whether she’d had bad luck or had big fights with her directors or not because
… Well, she was so easy to get along with. (LAUGHTER) But other playwrights, notoriously, have to
be coached into … another person who’s been very difficult, in the old days at least,
was Arthur Miller, who always had very strong ideas about what his plays should be like.
And that led to a lot of excitement. Much more flexible, though, than Lillian was,
interestingly enough. Or at least, more excited … I don’t know about more flexible in terms
of maybe a director’s input, but I think more genuinely enthusiastic about the possibilities
of rewriting, never quite feeling that anything was finished, you know? There’s a great Lillian Hellman story from
a production that I did some years ago of WATCH ON THE RHINE on Broadway. And the cast
was very, very fond of Lillian, actually. This had been unlike all the stories we’d
heard, a remarkably happy experience. And she was leaving to go to California. And the
cast decided to give her a party across the street at a restaurant. And one of the actors
sort of spearheaded the whole thing and collected the funds to buy a cake and there was a lot
of discussion about what to write on top of the cake. And finally, they decided simpler was better
and so they decided on “WATCH ON THE RHINE” and the date, whatever the date was, 1985,
whatever. And, just five minutes before Lillian was to arrive, escorted into the restaurant,
they opened the box and looked at the cake. And neatly written across the top of the cake
was “WITCH ON THE RHINE.” (LAUGHTER) That was what you would call a language cake. Right. In the seminar on performance, there was a
great deal of discussion that was opened up on the role of the audience to the actor.
And it was started by Stephen Spinella and Joe on ANGELS IN AMERICA, on the different
audience that they had on Saturday night to the audience that they had in August and July.
That there is a difference in audiences, and it told the actor something and how the actor
reacted to it. What does the audience tell you, you director?
Let’s start with director, because you’re the one that is the last person to hear the
audience, I guess. Your words go back to the playwright. But what does an audience tell
you? How do you react to that? I think gauging audiences … this is a very
personal reaction … is one of the hardest aspects of my job. The rehearsal experience
for me is so profound and the collaboration, when it’s going well, with actors and writer,
and designers, for that matter, is so exciting. It’s hard, sometimes, not to feel terribly
vulnerable to the audience response. And I know years ago, when I would talk to
someone like Mike Nichols about his extraordinary ability to gauge an audience in very commercial
terms, realizing that that laugh isn’t happening exactly the way he wants it to happen, therefore
he will build to it in a different way. You know, I mean, that kind of structuring in
relationship to an audience response is a kind of remarkable gift, which is just not
sort of part of my arsenal. I get a very general sense of an audience.
I certainly understand when we have them, when we don’t have them, when they’re attentive,
when they’re hooked. I worry sometimes when the laughs are big as to whether we’ll make
the transition into the substance of the piece. And there are always individual people in
any audience whose opinions I crave. But as far as really having a great blanket sense
of where the work goes, from audience reaction, it’s hard for me. Isn’t that the whole purpose of the play,
is to bring it to the audience, or shouldn’t they be one of the most important ingredients? I think that’s true, and I sometimes wish
I were more involved, than sometimes I am with the audience response. But as I say,
I mean, I watch, and we’ve just come through a preview period in which I saw at least one
show every day. And I gauged the differences in audiences, and I am involved with it.
And I’ve had to fight my own vulnerabilities and conquer them as far as wanting to shut
myself away from an audience response and just put myself out there. I mean, this is
just … after all, every director, I think, has to find certain things that are more difficult
for him to do than others, and those are the ones that have to be worked on. So for years,
I’ve worked on this. I just don’t find myself able to structure
very specifically on a moment-to-moment basis in terms of audience response. I find too
many variables, too many different ways that an audience can be affected by outside circumstance
that might have nothing whatsoever to do with what’s happening on the stage. It’s a very tricky matter, very tricky matter
about the importance of audiences’ response and judgment. We all know that no two audiences
are the same. One night, you have an audience, bright, informed, alive people. The next night,
it can be the Night of the Living Dead. (LAUGHTER) We all know about this. But, judging a play
by the way an audience responds to it is not necessarily a valid judgment. A preview audience,
that has not been told how to think by critics, for example, is usually a much more objective
audience. But having said that, is the function of any
art to please the majority audience? I don’t think so. I think not. I’ve seen too many
plays that have been tried out before too many audiences and all of the important, tough,
rough edges have been sanded away. I’ve seen too many plays being put in workshop, and
tried out before audiences where the play, I’ve found, has lost all of its validity and
been made safe because it pleases an audience. There’s a great danger in paying too much
attention to an audience. That’s an interesting … that’s very, very
true. And, you know, since you’ve moved a lot of barriers or horizons back … I mean,
you’ve … going back, ZOO STORY and VIRGINIA WOOLF was doing all of these things, and they’ve
come into the sort of classics, but they’ve come not through an easy way of being … And
I wanted to, picking up on that, go over to you, Tony, a little bit, because I know ANGELS
had a long history. And there’s a couple of things, when we talk
about ANGELS. One is the long history, which I wish you’d get into about the evolution
of that, and it’s still evolving, as I know, even as we speak. And also, I mean, that process
… we talked about visual, too, because it’s both a play of language, but it’s incredibly
interesting visually, too. And I wanted to ask you a little bit about how much of those
visual concepts are yours, and how much the director’s and you know … in other words,
both of those things, so it’s a big question. But let’s start with the evolution of ANGELS. You know, just to add one little thing about
audiences, though. I mean, I agree with Mr. Albee in one sense, and then in another sense
I don’t. I find, in at least the regional theatres in this country, which is where I’ve
spent most of my time working, that the danger actually comes before people get in front
of an audience, that the rough edges are mostly sanded off by diligent hands that are all
over the script. Dramaturgs and directors and assistant associate artistic directors,
and you know, people who work in the theatre ,sort of making it in the process, theatre
product, before it ever even gets a chance to get out in front of an audience. I mean, it is exciting to me. I guess I’m
feeling strongly about this now because we’ve had two previews now of PERESTROIKA, and it’s
immensely long and complicated and everybody’s sort of going nuts. But we had this audience
on Saturday night that was this completely insane Saturday night audience and … all
sort of ANGEL groupies, I think (LAUGHTER) … and so they were just shrieking with laughter
and it made the play go on forever and it made it feel like a four and a half hour long
Benny Hill skit. It was sort of horrible. (LAUGHTER) And I felt like the worst writer
in the world afterwards, and was sort of suicidal all weekend. And then, last night we had this sort of Tuesday
night audience and they were these sort of serious, you know, Tuesday night people. And
they laughed, but they didn’t laugh a whole lot, and they listened, and they were sort
of there. And they didn’t like jump to their feet at the end, shrieking and screaming,
but they were a respectful, intelligent audience. And the play just sort of opened up for everyone.
And it was great. I mean, of course, I love those people who
were there on Saturday night, but I also hate them. (LAUGHTER) And there’s a struggle … you
know, the actors and the director … it’s a lively sort of struggle, I think, to sort
of fight with the audience. George Wolfe talks to the actors about not letting the audience
take over the play, and I think that that’s a great way to look at it. MILLENNIUM APPROACHES was written in 1988,
and I’ve been working on the second part since 1990. And it was done for a theatre in San
Francisco, the Eureka Theatre. And then … primarily developed, though, by Oskar Eustis at the
Mark Taper Forum. Then it was done in London at the National Theatre in 1990, I guess,
and then went to the Taper and then came here. And it’s been through a hundred and fifty
billion workshops. But actually, Oskar, who was the director
that I developed the play with and who worked on it, is also, in my opinion, the best dramaturg
in the United States, and is tremendously respectful of a writer’s process. And I forget,
somebody … maybe, Jonathan, when you were talking about Arvin … I mean, that there’s
a tremendous respect and not a sort of, you know, “Do this and do that,” and sort of fit
the play into some pre-existing model. So Oskar was tremendously helpful. Joyce, actually, is the first person to suggest
… when we came to New York and I needed to go with someone else directing it, Joyce
had just seen JELLY’S LAST JAM and called up and suggested … she was the first person,
apparently the Jujamcyn people were already thinking about it …but she was the first
person to say to me, “You should go see this musical. You should think about this guy,
George Wolfe, directing it.” And it was primarily because, even though the play is obviously
very, very full of words (HE LAUGHS), maybe overfull of words, it needed … we all felt,
after having seen it in four different venues … somebody who could really make it sort
of move and fly. And we saw what George had done in JELLY’S with a kind of a magical way
with transitions and making the event dance. Could I interject something here? When I made
the suggestion, a lot of people said, “Oh, no. They’ll never get along.” You know? (SHE
LAUGHS) And I said, “Well, let’s just put them in a room. I mean, this could be kind
of wonderful or it could be really awful.” And it kind of worked. But if people had gone
with what they thought, they thought of George and they thought of Tony and they thought,
“Oh, no. No, no, no.” Then we would never have gotten them together. Right. And it’s actually worked out. And they were great together. Was that the first time you met George? Yeah. Well, I met him, he came to see the
show in Los Angeles before … Did you have doubts about him? About George? Yes. Well, I was scared, simply because I didn’t
… I mean, before I met him. I mean, I loved JELLY’S and I thought it was wonderfully directed.
I mean, I’d seen some of his other work and I’d met him once for about ten minutes, after
he saw ANGELS in Los Angeles. But when you haven’t worked with a director before, it’s
a terrifying thought, because you don’t know who this person that you’re sort of buying
into is going to become. (LAUGHTER) And how you’re going to get along, because it’s … inevitably,
I think with a playwright and a director, it’s going to become a meeting of fairly strong
personalities. I mean, it better be that, because if not, one person is going to wind
up being flattened. Which one is that? Well, it shouldn’t be either one, but frequently
you see playwrights who just eat directors for breakfast and you see directors who take
playwrights and sort of, you know, completely maul their play. So I think it’s better if
it’s two people who can, if necessary, like a good marriage, sort of fight and change
and struggle, and it’s equally balanced. So, I mean, it’s been amazing working with George.
He’s a … How about the visual side of that, too? That
was the next thing. Well, I mean, the play comes with these sort
of angels crashing through ceilings and stuff, so it sort of has that. I mean, there’s certainly
a … it’s a sort of a healthy mixture, I think. None of the directors who have worked
on it … Declan Donnellan in London, and George and Oskar and David Espianzo (PH) in
San Francisco … have really visited any kind of … I mean, the play doesn’t really want much
scenery, so I think it’s a lucky play in that way. Another play that I wrote, BRIGHT ROOM
CALLED DAY, needs scenery, but nobody’s yet figured out what scenery it needs. So it’s
been problematic. I think that it … Was it presented in London as it is here? No. Physically. … well, they’re about to open … What were the differences? It’s just … well, the Cottesloe Theatre
is, I think, the perfect theatre space in the whole universe. I mean, it’s just because
it’s big enough to be epic, but it’s very, very intimate, and sort of chamber theatre.
And Declan Donnellan is an amazing director. It’s tremendously simple and it feels just
… it’s such completely different people. It’s like night and day, a feeling to the
production. It’s hard to describe. And dangerous to describe. Timothy, tell us about … did you know Norman
before you got into this? How did that go together? I knew Norman only through the works of Craig
Lucas, and just socially, to say hello to. And I was a little apprehensive, because he’s
so damn funny and so fast and he thinks on his feet. And I always felt sort of stupid
every time I had met him before. And it was the fact that he loved my play that helped
put me at ease, and all of that banter that he is capable of just went away during the
rehearsal. And he’s a very, very quiet man in the room. Very quiet, very slow-moving
… Almost as quiet as now. Almost as quiet as now. (LAUGHTER) This is
how quiet Norman is. And his patience with the actors was extraordinary to watch. I’d
never actually worked with somebody who, very quietly, went over two inches ten, twenty,
thirty times. And the actors loved it. They would come off on break and go, “You know,
he’s really good!” How did you meet him? Was that put together
with your agent or how did that … It was put together through Circle Repertory
… Oh, sure. … which is my home company in New York.
And Norman is a company director, I’m a company playwright. Uh-huh. Arvin, you were talking about the audience
and your relationship with it. In your play, one of the difficulties is to put together
these opposite things. You have a lot of laughs, people are laughing. At the same time, essentially,
there’s anguish behind everything. Yeah. Yeah. And so you can’t do a kind of Mike Nichols
building up a lot of boff laugh stuff, when you know that the real direction of the play
is other than. And those two things, I think, work extremely well in the play. Oh, thank you! (LAUGHTER) Anyway, but the difficulty of managing that
kind of thing is a perilous, perilous path. And yesterday, the actors were talking about
one thing that they felt strongly about, that directors are involved with, and that is withholding
and waiting to give the audience the full impetus of this … ? Yes. And so part of the director’s job is this
act of withholding, knowing what they want to deliver at the very end. Yes. And you have to hold back a lot and then let
it out little by little. And of course, that’s also the art of the playwright, but the director
is able to control that, and he is certainly the person who can do it, as perhaps the playwright
might not be able to do it, and might not know how to do that. One of the things that Arvin did in rehearsal,
which was getting me so excited in rehearsal that I just had to leave, I trusted him so
much, was that TWILIGHT begins with an extended scene where you’re introduced to all these
characters, that has a lot of humor, a lot of family situations, and establishes the
relationships. And Arvin went through that script with the cast, line by line, and found
the pain and found everything that comes later in the play that is planted in those lines. And so, whereas originally some people had
felt the play was very funny and then very sad, Arvin found that it’s a funny and sad
play. And I think that made all the difference for us of how it played. And so it didn’t
become, “Get that laugh.” And, if anything, the laughs became greater because they were
rooted in something real, which I think is always the goal of doing any kind of play,
comedy or not. And I was concerned when we first started
that Jonathan might, in writing it, have had some sort of a different feeling about that
and be very anxious for a kind of humor that might not be rooted. And one of the early
things that we discovered, working together, which was great, was how very concerned he
was that the people be real from the get-go, and that nothing was ever … That’s more anguish in the play than laughs. Yeah. What was the evolution of the play? Was it
done in workshop in other places and how was it … No, TWILIGHT is very interesting because it
sort of came about in sort of the old, 1950’s commercial way to do a Broadway show. I finished
the show in March of ’92, and then I gave it to some friends, who of course hated it,
and then gradually got some people who read it and said, “This is really something.” And
I rented out a theatre in Los Angeles, the Matrix (PH) Theatre, on a Monday night, and
got some actors together and a friend to direct it and we did a reading and filled the house,
God knows how. And from that reading, I got a producer who
had come to see it, who is here today, over there, interested in doing it, and the Pasadena
Playhouse was there, interested in doing it. And they worked out a deal, and the show was
up in, I think, six months, or less than six months. And I think that really was very good for
this play, because I think, as Tony was saying, I really feel that TWILIGHT is a play, had
it gone through a very long workshop process, because it’s about issues that everybody gets
so angry about and has such clear ideas of how you should present these kinds of things,
if at all, now, that I think it would have been flattened out tremendously. Especially
because I didn’t have any reputation or really enough strength to protect it, probably, that
we would have lost all the things that are making everyone so uncomfortable. And I’m very pleased that we got it in front
of an audience right away. And at that first preview in January, I think we all recognized,
“Well, there is something here that is definitely touching an audience.” And it’s just been
… the work has been to make the production as good as it can be, to make the script as
full as it can be, without losing that kernel of dynamite or whatever it is that is sitting
there at the middle, that’s getting everyone so hot under the collar. Somebody must have asked you, or begged you
along the way, not to make a title of a serious play a pun. Actually, no. Nobody that’s … No. No. I’m looking forward to … there’s
going to be a German production, apparently, and I can’t wait to see … Oh, God. It’ll be GOLDERDAMMERUNG. (LAUGHTER) Did you go out of town for your previews,
or did you … Well, the play was first done in Pasadena,
and that was before Arvin joined us. And they have a series where the show goes to Pasadena,
Poway, which is a city outside San Diego, and Santa Barbara. And then we were dark,
for like two months, as Arvin came on and we did some more work on the play. And we
played the Kennedy Center in Washington, San Francisco, and Austin, Texas, which was wonderful.
It’s this college town, and this incredibly warm … It’s a great place. … loving audience, and I want to go back.
(LAUGHTER) Timothy, what about the evolution of FIERY
FURNACE? THE FIERY FURNACE, I think, began about fifteen
years ago. I was living in Minneapolis and had a friend who co-founded a shelter for
battered women, one of the first in that city. And she’d come by my apartment and tell me
stories from work and she would sort of unwind and (HE LAUGHS) when she left, I would be
like this, because the stories were truly horrific. I got permission to spend a night
in the shelter, because I said, “I’ve got to write about this.” And that was a very
rough night. And I came away from it knowing that I couldn’t write about it because I would
be writing about an issue, and I didn’t want to write a “TV Movie of the Week.” So I let it go for a long time, maybe ten
or twelve years. And five years ago, that Wisconsin farm woman began speaking to me
in my head. And it turned out not to be a play about the abuse of women, although that
figures in it, but a play about women and the choices that were offered to them in an
earlier era. And I hope that audiences see that the range of choices isn’t that much
different today. Edward, because of your stature and experience
in the theatre, do you find it difficult, necessary … in other words, if you have
a workshop somewhere, I would think that, because of the attention, just because of
your name … is it difficult to get away where you can really focus on it, without
a lot of other voices coming in and nattering at you? I’m going to say something rather unpopular.
I don’t think any play should be presented, gone into rehearsal, produced, until it is
ready to be seen. I think too many plays are workshopped and tried out, and do this before
they’re ready. It’s very difficult. I go as far afield as Vienna, sometimes, Vienna,
Austria. Well, my first plays were done in Berlin, Germany. I go quite far afield. I
go wherever anybody wants to do a play of mine. But I suppose people show up, if they
want to, and review them in Vienna or Berlin or … I just had my last play, FRAGMENTS,
commissioned by a theatre in Cincinnati, and Bill Henry of Time magazine came out there,
for heaven’s sake. Which I thought was rather nice, especially since the review was more
favorable than not. (LAUGHTER) You know, had it not been, I probably wouldn’t have been
as happy. (LAUGHTER) We all know our true feelings about critics. Any critic who likes
our work is a good critic and any one that does not is a bad critic, right? Yes. And the same critic can be both. Yes, it’s amazing the way you guys can be
so bright one week and (LAUGHTER) … and a year later, you can have lost your minds. Can you cast your mind back to 1958, did you
feel that way then? No. As you do now, that a play comes on, that
it doesn’t need to be analyzed, and it doesn’t need to be a workshop, and you just put it,
you get it there and then that’s it and you … Back in those days, that process wasn’t going
on. Back in those days, it was assumed that this play is ready to be produced. This is
a good play. Let’s not hope that we can fix it during rehearsals. Maybe musicals were
done that way back even then. No, we’re not talking about … yeah. I don’t know. But plays, it was not assumed,
“We can fix this one. Let’s go into rehearsal because we’ve got this hopeless TV actress
who’s out of work,” for example. (PAUSE) No, nobody’s involved … (LAUGHTER) Good. You
know. Plays were done because somebody, the producer, the director, somebody thought that
they were ready to be done. Now, my first work, ZOO STORY, was done in
Berlin, in German, even though I wrote it in New York, in English. Richard Bauer (PH),
bless him, I think we all miss him, those of us who care about the serious American
theatre, wanted to do them in New York, a double bill of THE ZOO STORY and Beckett’s
KRAPP’S LAST TAPE, as it had been done in German. These were done in English. They were
done, I guess, because they were ready to be done. But through the years, what’s changed all
that? The cost? That you have to have something almost perfect before you present it? Not perfect. Or … Safe, usually. Safe, all right. Well … Safe. No, that’s not the word to use. Yes, it’s a lot closer than “perfect.” That’s not the word to use. Yes, it is, unfortunately, it is. Of course,
I suppose the cost of theatre production, considering that it is so unreasonable, has
increased more than inflation has, I guess. We did THE ZOO STORY and KRAPP’S LAST TAPE,
1960, on Off-Broadway for four thousand dollars. (GASPS FROM OTHERS) We did WHO’S AFRAID OF
VIRGINIA WOOLF on Broadway in 1962 for forty-two thousand dollars. (LAUGHTER) You know. And
that play would probably cost eight hundred thousand now to do in a revival. Those kind
of hideous expenses make cowards out of people who are normally just knaves, you know? (LAUGHTER) As a playwright, and not only a playwright,
and director, are you concerned that the cost of the production, that it’s going to cost
that much if you have the staircase coming down on the right side instead of it coming
down on the left? Or not using the staircase and therefore eliminating two union members? In theory, I hold to the premise that any
play that cannot be done with one naked light bulb and a couple of chairs probably has something
slightly wrong with it. I hold to that premise. I can imagine seeing Beckett, Chekhov, and
other playwrights I greatly admire done in minimal circumstances. But that’s theory. But my plays tend to have small casts. It’s
probably not the limitation of the stage as much as it is the limitation of my mind. I
don’t know what to do (LAUGHTER) with eighteen characters wandering around. You know, I’d
be happier dealing with three or four, that I could handle, you know? That won’t be tripping
all over each other. No, I don’t think in commercial terms, which is quite evident,
considering the popularity or unpopularity of some of my plays. People want to go to the theatre and there’s
something that’s holding you back, that we don’t have the audiences we should. I came
to CUNY this morning at nine-thirty or a quarter to ten, down Broadway and passed TDF. And
there was a line, the entire block of people standing in line with umbrellas in the rain
to get tickets at the one-third-off price. Now, not everybody can stand in line, but
it was certainly an example, and a very good one, of people need to go to the theatre and
want to go to the theatre. So there has to be some reason for that high
price of tickets that’s keeping them away. I mean, we discuss this over and over. We
discuss it on the Production Seminar. But really, it’s the first time I’ve brought it
up into the Playwright/Director Seminar … You know that the cheapest seats in the house
… I’m trying to find an answer to this. The cheapest seats in the house are standing
room. (LAUGHTER) And you’re standing behind somebody who’s paid fifty or sixty bucks for
a seat. And the great virtue of standing room is you can get out when you want to … (LAUGHTER)
you know, without tripping over anybody. I mean, when I started first going to the Broadway
theatre, right, when I was delivering telegrams for Western Union and really broke … when
I wasn’t sneaking in, there are many plays that I don’t know what the first act was like
(LAUGHTER), because I got in at intermission. But when I could afford a seat, the back row
of the back balcony, which you hear better than anywhere else, and a play is a hearing
experience much more than a seeing experience, if the play is really worthwhile. You hear
better back there than anywhere else. These people who’ll insist, for cachet or whatever
the reason is, they’ve got to sit in the sixty-five dollar seats, well … But they do. It’s a small group, but that’s
not who we’re talking about, really. How do you feel about this? What kind of an audience
do you want to develop, so that there are more people to see your plays and your work? You tell me you had two audiences. You had
your Saturday night audience and you’ve got your Tuesday night audience, apparently two
different kinds of audiences. But the audiences are there. Yeah, I think they are. I mean, I’m a little
nervous about the TKTS booth crowd and a certain kind of audience that still, I think, is clinging
to a mystique of what Broadway used to be. And also, I mean, sort of the kind of audiences
that … well, I won’t name names, but there are certain imported musicals that I think
attract these people by the thousands because it’s a ticket to a Broadway show. And I think that there’s a sort of relationship
to the kind of glor- … I mean, John Lahr actually said it wonderfully in that essay
that he wrote in the New Yorker, in the Broadway issue last year, that it’s sort of a glorification
of the individual ego that Broadway was at its best and that it’s still kind of something
that people are eager to participate in, even though it may, at this point, be tarnished
or non-existent. I don’t know. I mean, we’ve tried very hard
in ANGELS to get discounted tickets available and there are eight hundred seats in non-preview
performances a week that are at half-price. And so, you know, we’re trying to make it
cheaper. It’s a tremendous conundrum, because the people that work on Broadway that get
paid the money that makes the prices go up … I mean, ANGELS at this point is costing
well over two million dollars. I don’t know what the ultimate sticker is going to be.
And that, of course, is horribly frightening. But the people that work in the theatre are
working tremendously hard, so one doesn’t want to have to … You know … You’ve gone out of your way to make your … Arvin? … show available to the downtown crowd and
an uptown crowd. Yes. I sense something happening. I hope I’m right
about this. I’d like to believe it’s true, anyway, in terms of the audiences and what
brings them into the theatre, no matter what the ticket price. And I think all three of
the plays represented on that side of the table really suggest that, that they’re all
plays which, while not written from an impulse of “issues,” contain issues. I mean, they’re
extremely organic pieces. But they all deal with issues. And that we’ve gone through,
in this country, obviously, and are going through, a very troubled time. Very important thing. And I think, when I first went into the theatre,
American plays, particularly, that tended to think of themselves as being issue-oriented
in any way tended to be very intellectualized, very awkward, very much head plays. And that
thing that European writing so often found, where the issues were issues of moment-to-moment
living. I mean, people’s lives were involved in whatever the political or sociological
concept was that was being discussed. Well, I think now, in new waves of writing,
we’re getting close to that. And it’s because, certain issues, we can’t deal with as abstractions.
We have AIDS. We have the economic situation in this country. And we are deeply and dangerously
affected by these issues every moment of our lives. And I’m beginning to sense plays now
coming out which are able to make an organic attempt to grapple with these things, and
audiences … and we’ve been experiencing this at TWILIGHT OF THE GOLDS and I suspect
you guys have as well … who, for the first time in my recent memory seem to have a hunger
to address. And have it live, before them. Well, and have … I’m sorry to interrupt this, but we’re going
to have to stop for just a minute. And then, we’ll be open to questions and once again,
this is not enough time even on this part. And I have to make this point, with our playwright,
director, actors all here, that’s there’s not women represented, and I don’t understand
how that happened, because Antoinette Perry was a playwright, director, and actor, as
well, and the whole Tony Award’s come out of that concept. So we have not forgotten that, it’s just that
at this particular mix, there is not a woman playwright or director. Having said that,
take time to just stand up and stretch and come right back again and we’ll continue with
this discussion. (APPLAUSE) (MUSIC) This is CUNY-TV, the City University of New
York. (APPLAUSE) We’re continuing the American Theatre Wing
Seminars on “Working in the Theatre,” which are coming to you from the Graduate Center
of the City University of New York. This seminar is on the Playwright/Director. And, as always,
we have Brendan Gill and George White as our co-moderators. And without further ado, we’ll
get right back to what is the role of the playwright, the director, and why are so many
actors and playwright/directors turned to directing. And vice versa. (LAUGHTER) One thing I’d like to … just quickly make
a comment. There seems to be much more … before the break, we got into the business about
how people were … Arvin was talking about a change. And I think there is. I think not
since Edward Albee’s VIRGINIA WOOLF in 1962, in the long arc of over thirty years, to ANGELS
IN AMERICA, has there been this kind of beginning again of attention to serious plays, non-musicals
that is beginning to hopefully evolve again in the American theatre. I think that’s very
exciting. One thing that also has come up is there’s
been a bandying about of terms like “dramaturg.” And there’s been some question about “What
is a dramaturg?” And I’d like some people to talk about that. I can only tell you that
it started for me, as someone who related to the literary manager in the Berliner Ensemble
with Bertolt Brecht. And there’s a distinguished critic from the
New Yorker, Brendan’s colleague, Edith Oliver, once said, “A dramturg is like the old-fashioned
washing machine. You know, you had a wringer and a crank on the side. I am the crank on
the side.” (LAUGHTER) I’m not sure that’s the exact … but I know, Arvin, you have
dramaturgs at the Long Wharf. You might just define for people … How did they come into being? Well, we essentially have a literary department
of the theatre. In this case, there are two people working closely together, who read
scripts, write up reports on scripts, and then become involved in a production of a
new play, to the extent, frankly, that they’re wanted, which I think is the best mechanism.
I mean, there are director/writer relationships that are so specific and so personal, that
the intrusion of a third force into that situation is just not helpful. It was a European thing to begin with, wasn’t
it? Yeah, I think so. All the state theatres in Europe have dramaturgs,
and you go to school to become a dramaturg, and then you are appointed for life, in many
cases … It’s a very tricky area, I find, in the rehearsal
process. I mean, I love talking to a good literary mind about a piece before it goes
into the rehearsal, possibly, and sometimes even as a kind of critiquing in the aftermath.
But I remember I did a show at … Yale, trains dramaturgs as part of their drama school program
… Which is brand new now, I mean, that’s in
the last twenty years. Yeah. There never was such a thing. But when you direct, as I did several years
ago, when I did a production of AH, WILDERNESS! at Yale, I was assigned a dramturg to work
on the production, someone I had never laid eyes on before. And he was, unfortunately,
as Jonathan says in his play, “a bit socially challenged.” He wasn’t a tremendously forthcoming
fellow. And it ended up in the rehearsal that we all spent our time trying to organize his
social life and make him feel wanted (LAUGHTER), and find a function for him, you know, within
the … and it was exhausting. So … (LAUGHTER) But I think that the whole wave of dramaturgs
now seems to resemble most for me what I see in Hollywood, which is called the development
process, or “development hell,” as everyone calls it. I think that the danger is that,
I think, very often now, playwrights will be assigned a dramaturg at a theatre and there’s
never any promise of a production. It isn’t leading toward an actual production. It’s
just someone to work on the play to lead it towards how they think it should go, but it
doesn’t go towards a production. And you may not end up with a better play, you may end
up with a play that pleases this person who has a desk job. And so I think that can be
a danger. Is that part of the reason that you cannot
get the show on the road as quickly as you did in production before? When you talked
about it, Mr. Albee, when you said you had a play ready and you had a production ready
and you went right into it. Well, I always get my plays produced rather
quickly after I write them. Without a lot of these … Yeah. … things that are going on? Yes, but sometimes not necessarily where I
would want them. But, you know, I do get them produced shortly after I write them. There’s
nothing wrong with a dramaturg, I suppose, as long as it’s not somebody with an agenda,
or somebody who is trying to shape the politically correct aesthetic of this particular regional
theatre. I think dramaturgs turn up much more in regional theatres than they do anywhere
else. Then they’re … As long as they’re not limiting what happens
in the theatre, or as you said before, shaving off all the rough edges, then they’re okay.
You know, it’s nice to have somebody involved in the theatre who can read, and stuff like
that. No, I think … well, we’ve used them, I know,
at the O’Neill Center, early on, and I cooked up the … I took … I frankly stole the
term because we needed another pair of eyes and ears to sit with the playwright who was
sympathetic, who said, “I don’t quite get that,” but as a questioner, not somebody with
an agenda, as you said. But I do think that’s become, perhaps, an
intrusive, developmental … very much like screenplays are developed now. And it’s a
scary thing, rather than another pair of eyes and ears. The whole fact that the Yale Drama
School has a Department of Dramaturgy is a rather frightening aspect of things, I think. It’s part of a bureaucracy. Everything becomes
a bureaucracy. And one of the worst things about everything that ever took place in Europe
in the arts or anything else was that they were bureaucracies over centuries … Yeah, that’s very true. And now that taint is entering almost everything
we do in the arts in this country. This is why everything takes so much longer to get
done, as Isabelle was saying. But people, in their creative lives, don’t live that much
longer, but they write fewer novels than they used to. People used to write a novel a year.
(LAUGHTER) Yeah. And plays used to come out very rapidly, one
after the other, when you think how many there were done … Joyce Carol Oates writes ten a year. (LAUGHTER)
` Those are … The exception. D’Arsinal wrote three hundred novels, but
he also was … that was rather weird. But it does get harder and harder to get the work
out. And … And that, I think, it should be discussed,
too. Let the playwright continue playwriting, and the director direct, and without too many
people in the pot. And wouldn’t that make life a little bit simpler for the theatre?
Or do you feel that you want these extra hands? I think there are sort of two questions. One
is credentials. I mean, I know that, for some of us, we’ve been making a lot of critic jokes
and whatnot, even with the presence of our beloved Brendan here, but I think one of the
things about … I think some of our current, contemporary objections about critics is,
exactly what are the credentials? What is the background? Why should we … why are
we listening to this particular voice? And I think the same thing is true of dramaturgs.
I mean, I think, too often, we really don’t know what the credentials are. And the second problem then is that like every
other relationship in the theatre, it’s intensely personal. I keep coming back to that. I mean,
it’s the meeting of a certain directorial and writing sensibility with a dramaturgical
sensibility, that can sometimes be extremely helpful and fruitful. And when it’s an imposed
relationship, it can be absolutely counterproductive, and in some ways, quite destructive. It’s
just a question of… Timothy, go on. I just won’t come out against dramaturgy at
all, but I know that I’m wary of it, having had a play dramaturged to death in a major
regional theatre. And not through any, you know, ill intention. The intentions were all
wonderful, and by the end of the process, I was simply so confused, I had lost the play.
And it’s gone. Now, it may be that it was a play that should have been lost, but I’ll
never know that. Yeah. I’ve been fortunate to have Lanford Wilson,
another playwright, as my primary dramaturg, although he would never call it, you know,
use that term. And in THE FIERY FURNACE, Norman Rene, the director, was, for the want of a
better word, the dramturg. He was a director, though, which is, I believe, that’s the director’s
job, is to help the playwright with his play. Yeah, I … go on. Like if God had a dramaturg (LAUGHTER), you
know, I mean, would we have an armadillo? Or a horseshoe crab? (LAUGHTER) There’s something
funny-looking in what comes out of the subconscious. And if you neaten it up, you know, it’s lost. I’m quickly learning that one of the most
important tools a playwright must have is to be able to filter out the voices that he
or she should not listen to for a second. That, I think, probably, you know, the only
way to survive, and I’m trying to develop this very quickly right now, is the ability
to hold onto whatever sense of self and the sense of your own work. Because it’s amazing
how many voices you’re going to hear the minute you put a play up on a stage and the curtain
goes up. It’s just amazing. It’s the danger of homogenization. Now you’re writing another play … Yes. That’s the great wisdom … Yes, by God I am! (LAUGHTER) You’re in the midst of it … I mean, you’ve
started it … Yeah, I actually haven’t started writing the
dialogue. I do a lot of note-taking and a lot of just amassing material before I write
the actual play. We’ll all be glad to help you with those things.
(LAUGHTER) I brought copies for everyone. (LAUGHTER) Let’s talk about how do you start writing
a play? Timothy, do you gather a lot of notes together and … what is the method of writing
a play? It’s going to be four different stories here.
I tend to hear someone speaking, and then, about a year and a half later, start writing
the plays. Do you take any notes along the way? Very few. I used to, when I was younger. I
kept recipe card boxes full of notes. And that was a wonderful way for me to work because
… at that time, and now it doesn’t seem to be. Tony? I take … usually, it’s about nine months,
but sometimes a year and a half before I start writing, and I usually start with a title
and some idea of disconnected things that the play will be about. And then I start doing
reading and researching and thinking about it, or interviewing is something that I’ve
just started doing, with something that I’m working on now. And I just sort of put it
off as long as I possibly can, until either internal pressures or Joyce or the theatre
says, “You have to start writing now.” (LAUGHTER) And then I start writing. And then usually, the first draft … which
I’m beginning to get very interested in the question, I mean, because I think that the
issue of even voices that are tremendously smart and that you trust … people that you’ve
worked with for years who are absolutely brilliant … can sometimes give you incredibly bad
advice, with the best intentions in the world. And I’m beginning to go back to first drafts
of plays and look at them and say, “You know, there’s a lot … ” It’s sort of all there,
in a way. And if it wasn’t there, in that first draft, it’s probably not there at all. That sounds like something from “The Wizard
of Oz,” but it’s true, I think. And you have to sort of hang on to that. You can’t … it’s
like Walt Whitman rewriting Song of Myself a hundred and fifty times, and every time
he did it, he made it worse. And the first one is the one. So, that’s … I think that’s interesting. Could we hear
from Mr. Albee? Yeah, and I wanted to pick up because Edward,
you said you never, you know, in a sense, went to school for playwriting, because I
think that’s an important thing, too. I don’t … I wonder how many of you ever took playwriting
courses? Or you just did it? I don’t think you did, did you? No, but, I guess I did, since I started reading
and seeing plays when I was … Okay, but I mean, in college, or taking a
course … No. Playwriting 101. She was asking about the creative process. Right. I discover that I have been thinking about
a play. (LAUGHTER) By the time a play moves from the unconscious to my awareness of it,
it’s already begun to exist. And then I let it develop to the extent that it wants to,
until it wants to be written down. I write nothing down. I don’t take notes. I won’t
write scenes down. I made an experiment once, when I was writing
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. And I was in the first act, because I write my plays
from beginning to end, which is sometimes unusual, but I do. And I got an idea for something
that I thought would be good in the third act, which as you know, in VIRGINIA WOOLF
is a long, long way away from the first act. And so I wrote down about a four page scene,
and I put it away. I went back and finished the first act. Couple of months later, I got to Act Three,
and I remembered that I had written that scene. I looked at it, and I liked it a lot. It was
really good writing. (LAUGHTER) I tried to put it in the play. It wouldn’t go. The characters
would not say it. (LAUGHTER) Because I’d written it down too damn soon. That simple. We’ll go to questions now, and I’m sure there
are many that want to be asked of this distinguished panel. Would you like to start? Yes. My name is Raymond Bell, and I would
like to address this to Mr. Albee. As a playwright who often directs his own work, when you see
your work directed by someone else, do you see any relevant changes that might not have
occurred to you in the beginning? I just mentioned that we write both from the
unconscious and then the conscious mind. A good director, including me, sometimes, can
find in my work things that I was not consciously aware that I put there. A bad director will
find things that I did not put there. (LAUGHTER) That’s a good answer. Hi, my name is Mohammed, and any of the playwrights
can answer this question. Has any of the directors taken too much liberty with your work, that
you fail to recognize your work? I mean, it’s hard to believe that, you know, you’re not
involved, but let’s say you’re out there doing some regional work and you came back on the
opening night and say, “Wait. No, I don’t remember writing this play.” (LAUGHTER) Timothy, I think you had something like that
with a dramaturg, but did that happen vis-a-vis the director, too, or … No. That would be a very terrible story. And
I think a rare one. He can fire someone he’s not happy with. Fortunately. Yeah. The director. The trick is to try to write a play, actor-proof
and director-proof (LAUGHTER), critic-proof and audience-proof. (LAUGHTER) So any director,
who really is merely a showoff and nothing else, will have a hard time screwing up your
play. You try hard to write so that it’s difficult to do it. It’s amazing how clever some people
are sometimes. (LAUGHTER) I know that when I was very young, and much
different to what I am today, the only people I ever have physically assaulted in my life
were theatre directors. (LAUGHTER) And now, I’m asleep at the back of the hall. (LAUGHTER)
I’m docile. Would you like to … ? Yes. Shirley Goldstein. To all playwrights,
but I have to revise it a little for Mr. Albee, because he answered it, now that you’re established
writers, do you ever run into any problems getting your work produced? And I would like
to know, Mr. Albee, about your first work, if you had any problems, or were you already
in theatre when you got your first play? THE ZOO STORY was my first play. And after
I wrote it, I didn’t know what to do. And so I showed it to a lot of theatre people.
I remember, I showed it to Bill Inge, who said, “That’s nice,” and did nothing more
about it. But, strange set of circumstances, it had its first production in German, in
Berlin, because a composer friend of mine had sent it to a teacher of his who lived
in Florence, who’d sent it to a German-Swiss actor friend, who translated it and sent it
to somebody in Frankfurt. And so it ended up in Berlin. So that was circuitous, but
not too much of a problem. You know, the theatre is a very hungry business,
and there aren’t that many good plays around. And it’s not all that difficult, depending
upon where you go, to have your play received sympathetically. If your goal is only a two
thousand seat theatre, then maybe you’ll have some problems. There are a lot of good, sympathetic
theatres around this country. Many of them, as far away from New York as you can get. The only thing I would add to that is that,
because the four of us are all white men, that it is the case, even now, with as many
regional theatres as there are and with a lot of them going bankrupt, that I think that
for, you know, Latino playwrights, African-American playwrights, and women, it’s still enormously
difficult, even for very, very good writers, to get productions. And there’s one playwright,
Maria Irene Fornes, who is my opinion is one of the great writers this country has produced,
who, if you read the Voice last year, is, you know, is sometimes having trouble making
an income. And it’s so … I think demographics has a lot to do with it, so … Hi, my name is Lily, and this is addressed
to any of the playwrights. How does one get over writer’s block?
(LAUGHTER) Hmm. That’s interesting. Well, for me, I mean, sort of like what the
other writers were saying. I don’t write until there’s something to write. I know there probably
are some very disciplined playwrights who get up every morning and have a cup of coffee
… or Tennessee Williams in his bathrobe, who would write every morning for a few hours.
I feel the writing is not the hard part, it’s having something worth writing that’s difficult.
So really, it’s just developing a gestation period. And I keep busy, sort of doing other
things that provide an income, you know, in between the times when I’m ready to have a
play. I always have two or three plays in my head,
which I think contain ideas and should be written down. I like to think that if I stop
having ideas for plays, I’ll stop writing. But considering the popularity of plays that
contain no ideas, maybe I’ll start … (LAUGHTER) Then I’ll start being popular. Would you like … Yes. Hi, my name is Dean Fortunato. I’d like
to address this to Mr. Albee. Where do you think Broadway will be, twenty or thirty years
from now? Do you think the musical will take over, or do you think we’ll get back to dramas
and plays, more plays? Well, the sooner we realize that Broadway,
what we call Broadway, has less and less to do with American theatre and has much more
to do with commerce, expense account, and all the rest … the sooner we realize that,
we won’t ask that question any more. Broadway is almost an anachronism. There are very,
very, very, very few, maybe one a year, good, serious, American plays, which are tolerated
and permitted to exist on what we call Broadway. The really serious American theatre is Off-Broadway,
Off-Off-Broadway, regional theatres, and university theatres. Maybe Broadway can come back and become useful
and become necessary. Now, it is fundamentally, for anybody who cares about the serious American
theatre, it has become, for a variety of reasons, almost exclusively a waste of time. So don’t
worry too much about it. (LAUGHTER) I have to ask a question there. But you care
about theatre, and therefore, don’t you want to sustain a magic that has gone on for a
long time, and we’ve asked this question over and over again in the seminars, why Broadway?
If Broadway has become what everyone has said it has become, just a big commercial blob,
than why does everybody want to be on Broadway? And the answer’s always been, because that’s
where everybody is coming. And you talk about the theatre in Europe and it talks about Broadway.
No matter where you go, “Direct from Broadway,” across the country are the words Why won’t
you, or why wouldn’t you want to sustain that? I think it would be very … look, we all
like to be very popular. We all like to make a lot of money. We all like to have our plays
seen by as many people as we possibly can. The important thing is to be able to do it
on our own terms. If we can do it on our own terms, super. Tony is capable of doing it
now. One or two playwrights can accomplish this. But, generally speaking, the compromises that
are demanded by Broadway, for a variety of reasons, don’t make it a healthy environment
for serious drama. They’re a great, great place for commerce, for the theatre owners,
for advertisers, for the New York Times and its advertising section, and a few other places.
But it’s not a healthy home. But, Arvin, you were striking an optimistic
note … Yeah. … about the possibilities of a recovery
of this feeling for serious plays on Broadway. Yes. Well, I was thinking a little bit more
generally than Broadway. I mean, I think it will, and possibly can, judging from the playwrights
represented here today, affect Broadway. But, you know, I think one of the factors that
doesn’t get discussed often enough on this particular subject is the fact that with the
proliferation of theatres on the regional scene, which has now been accounted for the
last twenty-five, twenty-eight, thirty years of my life. There is a remarkably educated audience out
there. And the New York audience, by and large, has fallen behind, in my experience, that
educational level. I’m talking about theatrical educational level. There is an audience that
has been consistently exposed to a very wide-ranging spectrum of the literature, that by and large
the New York audience, unless it works very, very hard to seek it out, has not been exposed
to. I am sensing, and I hope I’m right, as I said, that there’s beginning to be a visceral
connection between audiences as I see them and issues that are presented in terms of
plays. But even that, I suspect, is something I sense more strongly when I work outside
of New York than I sometimes feel it in New York. And I work both places all the time. So I think that it’s very interesting, and
very exciting, as a potential of the theatre, echoing what I think Edward has said, that
there is a remarkable audience out there now that is not just exclusively located in San
Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington. Jonathan mentioned our experience with Austin, Texas.
Wonderfully intelligent, thoughtful audiences, interesting questions. I mean, this has been
my experience around the … Excuse me, what is a “New York audience”? Well, there’s another … Can you define that? I think that’s a very key question. I mean,
I think that it’s very hard to know exactly who the audience is and what the audience
is in New York. I mean, what’s exciting for me about a New
York audience is that it is exactly that. I mean, it is, in a sense, a national audience.
Because if you have a play running in New York, over the course of a few months, every
kind of person that lives in this country will come through the theatre. I mean, at
least one or two of every single kind of person. And I think it’s a very exciting … I mean,
I still am completely in love with New York, so I feel like, you know, Broadway is here. And what I’d like to see happen, actually,
is have the Federal Government buy several of these theatres, because one thing that
is also not mentioned and the thing that was a big draw for me, is that the theatre buildings
themselves are the most magnificent theatres. Some of them … I mean, the Booth is a masterpiece.
And it’s hard to say, “Well, I’m going to be an American playwright, and I’m never going
to work in this house that has …” The Walter Kerr is a wonderful theatre. Yeah. And you just don’t want to give that up. You
don’t want them all to shut down and become Moonie churches or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest
… Yeah. … you know, thing. I mean, they really are
great spaces. And it would be lovely if there were some way for … and I think Federal
subsidy would be the answer, to create a kind of a National Theatre using these spaces,
because they’re some of the greatest theatres in the Western world. One more question, I think that’s all we can
ask for. My name’s Greg, and this is a question for
any of the panelists. Before a play opens, you may have a feeling that it’s ready, or
that it’s not ready. How often are these pre-opening instincts correct? (LAUGHTER) We’ll go around quickly. We haven’t much time. I think you have to define “correct.” I mean,
do you mean in terms of the critical response, or how … you know, it gets down to that
value judgment of … Well, in terms of you thought it was ready
and everyone else thought it was a bomb. Or you were surprised, you didn’t think it was
ready and then everyone liked it, as opposed to … I guess, critical acclaim. Or the audience,
it’s either. You know, it’s difficult to say. I mean, I
think, again, it goes back to that idea of, at least as a playwright, having to hold on
to that inner voice of knowing when you’ve done your work and when you haven’t. I mean,
in terms of our experience on TWILIGHT, the play was working incredibly well with a preview
audience. And the reviews that came out were very mean-spirited, it wasn’t … these were
not “Technically, the play fails because of this, this and this,” they were just, “We
hate this.” (HE LAUGHS) “Go away.” And so, I still feel the play was ready, and I still
feel it is ready and we’re on at two and eight later today. (LAUGHTER) Listen, don’t say the play failed. Oh, no, I … You don’t mean that. You mean that the critical
response was not what you imagined. Don’t assume that if a play … Actually, it is what I imagined. I’m Jewish.
(LAUGHTER) Don’t assume that if a play gets bad reviews,
it has failed necessarily. Don’t assume that. You’re absolutely right. Thank you very much for being with us. (APPLAUSE)
This is the American Theatre Wing Seminar on “Working in the Theatre,” and today’s seminar
was on the Playwright/Director, and a most extraordinary group of talented people have
come here this morning. The seminars are coming to you from the Graduate Center of the City
University of New York. I’m Isabelle Stevenson and I think you all for being here. Thank
you. (APPLAUSE)

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