Playwright and Director (Working In The Theatre #300)

(APPLAUSE) Welcome to the American Theatre
Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars, coming to you from the Graduate Center of
the City University of New York. Now in their 30th year, these seminars give you the opportunity
to learn from the professionals as they share their experiences in working in the theatre.
Today’s seminar is with a panel of playwrights and directors. These are the artists who provide
the creative part of the theatre, and it’s their work that we will learn about while
we discover how the magic of theatre is created. I’m Isabelle Stevenson, Chairman of the
Board of the American Theatre Wing. And now, I would like to introduce our moderator for
this seminar, Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, critic and new editor of the “Best Plays” series.
Would you now take it away, Jeffrey? Thank you, Isabelle. I want to introduce our
distinguished group of playwrights and directors to you today. These are the people who create
theatre works that move us, thrill us, and remind us of our place in the human community.
It’s a particularly distinguished group that have extensive credits, but I’ll be
brief in my descriptions today. First, I want to introduce director Gen Saks.
He’s a three-time Tony Award winner (APPLAUSE) and he’s currently represented Off-Broadway
by the production of MR. GOLDWYN, a masterly director of comedy. Next, is playwright Peter
Parnell, who is represented on Broadway by the production of “QED”. Peter Parnell.
(APPLAUSE) Next is John Guare. John Guare may be familiar to most people as a playwright,
but he is also a Tony Award winner as a book writer of TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA and he is
also represented on Broadway now by SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. John Guare. (APPLAUSE) And a play that starts previews tonight! And a play that starts previews tonight. At Signature Theatre. At Signature Theatre. Yes! Thank you, Mr. Guare. (LAUGHTER) To my immediate
left is Dan Sullivan. Dan Sullivan is a longtime Broadway veteran and a veteran of the resident
theatre movement as well. He is currently represented on Broadway for his Tony-winning
direction in PROOF. Dan Sullivan. (APPLAUSE) Next to Dan Sullivan is Mary Zimmerman. Mary
is an adaptor and director, whose magical work, METAMORPHOSES, recently won the Lucille
Lortel Award. Welcome, Mary Zimmerman. (APPLAUSE) And next to Mary Zimmerman is Jon Robin Baitz.
Mr. Baitz is a playwright and adaptor who is most recently represented on Broadway by
the production of HEDDA GABLER that starred Kate Burton. Jon Robin Baitz. (APPLAUSE) Now, I’d like to start today with Mr. Saks.
Mr. Saks, I’m wondering, over the years your craft must have changed, in the past,
well, shall I say, forty years that it’s been (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) that you’ve
been haunting the boards and directing and acting. Can you share with us how your craft
has changed, the collaborative process has changed in that time? I’m not sure it has. (LAUGHS) I guess I
no longer approve of the double-take. (LAUGHTER) I thought that was the greatest thing that
ever was. I could do a triple-take. (DOES IT; LAUGHTER) After a while, you hurt your
neck. But then I saw just, you know, only about ten years ago, how fruitless it was
and how it was out of fashion. (LAUGHTER) And you know, people would scoff at you, even
in the street. So, I think the style of comedy has gotten softer, more believable and less
obvious. People seem to be smarter these days. They get the joke. You don’t have to underline
it. But I’m sure there – I hadn’t thought a lot about the changes, but I think they
go along with the changes of people, of life, of fashion. Just as clothes do, or anything
else we do. Does it still feel as fresh and new every
time? The great British director, Tyrone Guthrie, used to say that he worried about falling
into habits over his long career. How does it stay fresh for you each time? You say to yourself, “Fresh!” (LAUGHTER)
I don’t know. I mean, that’s one of the tricks of all acting, whether you call it
a “trick” or not. It’s spontaneity. You have to pretend it’s the first time
you did it. And so, you have to rely on new thoughts to do it. Make it urgent for yourself.
If the old preparation doesn’t work, gets stale, you have to think up something new.
“What will get me there, with a new thought?” I worked with Guthrie. He was wonderful. I’ll
give you a short story, if you don’t mind. Love it. I was in a show in Canada, which we brought
to Broadway. I’ve forgotten the name of it! But he was directing it, and I was playing
an English instructor in a Canadian college. And they were having a party, a costume party,
and I had a speech that I thought was very funny. And for the first two weeks, Guthrie
would laugh at it. He thought it was wonderful. And then he got bored with it. And he started
putting the costumes on people. And he had one girl crossing in front of me with an elephant
mask. (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) And finally I stopped in the middle of the
speech and I said – by this time, I called him Tony – I said, “Tony, are they going
to listen to me? I don’t think they’re going to be hearing what I say.” And he
said, “Quite right!” (LAUGHTER) “I’ve been very naughty.” He just took the mask
[out]. I think he made her go behind me. (LAUGHTER) Well, he would get very bored with things
he did, and who could blame him? (LAUGHS) It was boring! When we’re looking at directing and playwriting,
what we’re also thinking about, I think, is collaboration. That’s really what theatre
is all about, it’s all about collaboration. And I’m wondering, Jon Robin Baitz, in your
work recently you’ve been collaborating with Henrik Ibsen, who may be in a room with
you, his words are in a room with you. I’m wondering, did you use a literal translation
and then [change it]? You’ve adapted, you’ve perhaps updated a little bit. Not much updating, really. Okay. It’s more like gentle housecleaning and
one room gets renovated. But it’s Ibsen, you know. And in fact, it was Dan who asked
me to do it. Dan was going to direct it in Los Angeles. And many of the translations
felt very, very English, felt very British, and they felt like there was a sort of big
red curtain and it was, you know, the Old Vic. And it was some very just subtle task
of – or not so subtle task – of clearing away the tone and changing the tone and maybe
speeding it up a little bit. And maybe there are a couple less sort of bustles and entrances
and, you know, less frogging and ormolu and decoration, and it’s more just action. You
know, I don’t think Ibsen would have – I kept sort of, you know, arguing with myself
about what Ibsen would say. And I never heard back from him, so … (LAUGHTER) Well, that was the question. I was kind of
wondering about that. Dan, I thought, was the sort of Ibsen figure. Yes, I channeled Ibsen during that. (LAUGHTER) He was like the general in the portrait, the
prop. And he had a slightly disapproving look, but I got used to that. Well, that’s a good place to sort of shift.
Dan, what is that process, that process of collaboration? We have on the stage here two
of your collaborators. You’ve collaborated with Jon Robin Baitz, you’ve collaborated
with Peter Parnell. Mmm-hmm. What is that process? How does that process
work, for you, as a director? How do you take care of that process? Well, I’ve sort of collaborated more with
Peter as a producer, really. Right. And that process changes from writer to writer,
really. Some writers are completely unapproachable. (LAUGHS) And guidance, if you want to call
it that, has to be somewhat more subtle. But I think that you look for people who are like-minded,
so that you can speak a common language when you approach any text. It also has to do with
the degree of work that has to be done on any given text, also. So it’s going to change
with the personality that you’re working with. You sort of raise an interesting question,
I think, and that is, when it comes to working with new collaborators, certainly there must
develop a kind of shorthand when you’re working with people you’ve worked with before.
What’s it like when you work with a new collaborator? Do you look forward to it? Does
that enliven things? Peter, would you address that? Yeah. I mean, I continually look forward to
it, because most of the directors I work with won’t work with me again (LAUGHTER), so
I have to go on to another director! In the case of CIDER HOUSE RULES, there was two directors,
and Dan was the original producer. And actually, I’m well in touch with both of those directors
and they were working together, and that multiplied, for me, the difficulties and I guess the joys,
in some ways, of the experience. But that was hard. I think – this was an adaptation of a John
Irving book, and there was such an enormous amount of material that we were going through.
And there was this common source material, so the directors were very much hands-on,
in a good way, with me from the beginning. And that was actually refreshing, that I could
produce material quickly and then get a very quick response from them about what seemed
to be working and what wasn’t working, from both the draft stage on, obviously, into production. And when you were working on CIDER HOUSE RULES
– which, if folks don’t know the work completely, it’s a two-part, seven-hour
sweeping epic adaptation of the John Irving book – when you were working on that, wasn’t
Irving at the same time developing a film version of it? Yeah. He had been trying for years and had
done a number of drafts of the screenplay and had been working with different film directors
on the way to – and the timing actually worked out that we produced our play and got
it down from eight hours down to about six hours, first in Seattle at the Seattle Rep,
and then in Los Angeles at the Taper, just around the time that John did get the movie
finally on. And the play actually did, I thought, a beautiful job of scooping out a lot of his
own material for the screenplay. But that was actually quite different, and we were
going for something that was a little bit more closely applied to the book itself. So
he was able to do his adaptation in two hours of movie as compared to our six hours. And what is that process like? I asked Robby
Baitz about, you know, having Ibsen in the room with him. What is that process like when
you’re thinking about, you know, John Irving and he’s still very much with us? Yeah. But the thing was, John, by his own
– he, from the beginning, first, has a great interest in movies but doesn’t particularly,
you know, have a great interest in theatre and was a little bit, I think – didn’t
know what to think of the fact that we felt very passionately about trying to get this
book on the stage. And he stayed out of it. I was, you know, grateful. I mean, he sort
of said to me from the beginning, you know, “Go and do what you’re doing,” I think
once he understood what it was we were trying to do. Then there was a period after he saw the production,
in a very good way, actually, where we had several long conversations about where the
production was going, in terms of, especially, the second half of the evening and the problems
which he was also facing with his movie. So we had talks about that, too, because he sent
me the screenplay and wondered what I thought of certain things. It was actually an interesting
experience. Do you think, maybe, that CIDER HOUSE RULES,
the two-part epic, helped him to solve some of those problems? You know, they are very different. I think
he was able to see – no, I don’t think it really helped him solve. I think one of
the things he said to me was that he felt that the humor that was in the book came through
very strongly with the use of narrative on stage and that that was something that, good
or not, he was going to probably lose a lot of in the movie. And there is a difference
in tone there. Mary Zimmerman, you work in a slightly different
way than we often think about developing works. You adapt classic tales, ancient tales, and
bring them to the stage with these sort of magical productions. But you work in a slightly
different [way]. We often think of the authority of the director in the rehearsal hall, with
the playwright, with the designers, with the actors. And in your case, there’s a slightly
different focus. Could you tell us a little bit about that? Yeah. I mean, I don’t write anything until
I’m in rehearsal. I don’t write – the act of making a script and the act of directing
it are not separate. I write every night or every morning, right before going into rehearsal.
And there is this base text that the actors are sort of reading, if they can, but I’m
also sometimes doing texts that are five thousand or three thousand pages long. And they’re
not going to read them. But I mean, I’m sort of like – I often
take really large texts, and in a way, my task is to find the structure of just an evening
for them. And they’re often episodic texts. So it’s an act of, you know, being cunning
in the sort of arrangement of them. And what episodes I tend to choose or be drawn towards
often is dependent on who I’ve already cast. Like, I think this actor or that will excel,
I can sort of see them doing this or have a very strong visual idea of how to do this
episode and not such a strong visual idea of how to do this other one. Or in the case
of METAMORPHOSES, you know, there’s like three hundred tales in Ovid. The ones that
sort of make it into the show are the ones that can benefit from the water – it’s
done in a pool of water – that make sense that way or are added to that way. And my strongest collaborator, in a way, aside
from the original text, but in the traditional sense of people who are alive, that you can
have lunch with and stuff (LAUGHTER), are my designers, you know? Because a set design
works – you know, they have to be building the set even before you’re in rehearsal.
Just, that’s the physical way it has to happen. And so, my designers and I are always
looking for a set that’s going to be constantly full of surprise and challenge and have character
and be defined and yet not confining or overly dictatorial in what’s going to happen. And often, I find that I’m scripting to
exploit the set, you know? I’m scripting to use every trap door that we’ve put in
it or every ability to fly. I adapted the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, actually (LAUGHS),
and we had floor-to-ceiling wooden file cabinets that could do all kinds of tricks. Like, you
could pull on a file cabinet and it would be a stairs that came down. And I had no idea,
you know, I had no idea what we were going to use that for. And that ends up sort of
being a guiding principle, rather than the sort of conventional thing, where it’s you
have the play HAMLET and you then go and talk to your set designers and HAMLET requires
this, that and the other. And you look for the actor who’s best at Hamlet and the actor
who’s best at this. This, it’s all kind of like hopefully rising at the same time.
Everyone’s sort of discovering things sort of at the same moment. My happiest experience with that in collaboration,
in a way, with a set, was I also adapted (LAUGHS) “Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel
Proust, into a piece called ELEVEN ROOMS OF PROUST, in a ninety thousand square foot warehouse,
where the audience went from room to room. And we had every rehearsal in the warehouse.
And instead of me, like, staging something pretty and then my lighting designer comes
in and lights it in a pretty way, my lighting designer was there every night throwing these
strange shadows onto the walls and doing strange effects, and I would stage into those, so
that hopefully everything kind of fits together. Can I keep talking, or have I talked too long?
(LAUGHS) No, you’re doing great! (LAUGHTER) Okay! (LAUGHS) It’s really collaborating
with the voice of the text, the author’s. I feel like I’ve never sought collaborators,
and I know how kind of spooky and flaky this sounds, but these texts have always sort of
found me. And my job is, I feel like I’m sort of getting out of the way, you know,
as much as possible and being unselfconscious. And that’s partly why I don’t write in
advance, and I only have a three or four week rehearsal period, just like a normal play,
because it’s too fast for me to calculate. And I don’t want to be calculating to make
it work. I don’t want to be trying to fix it. I just want to be, like, urgently seeking
a way to express what is in this text that seems like it wants to come out. Do you think of the actors as collaborators,
also? Absolutely. Although not – definitely, in
what they can contribute consciously, physically. And in fact, more than one of my adaptations
includes scenes in them that the actor came up to me – ARABIAN NIGHTS, someone said,
“You have to read ‘Azizon, Aziza’ (PH) and we have to do it.” And that story became
a centerpiece of the play. And in other ones, too, they’ve said, “Aren’t we going
to do, you know, this story or that?” ‘cause they’re reading the text, too.
They don’t write script, but I colonize them into the play (LAUGHS) as much as possible!
Like, I steal little things I see them doing on breaks, little interactions they have.
I exploit – like, for instance, there’s a girlfriend of mine who’s in a lot of my
plays who used to do something for her boyfriend called “The Naked Dance,” where she’d
do this, like, little comic dance on the bed. And like, I’ve had her do that in, like,
four shows. (LAUGHTER) And that’s a kind of thing, you know, when you’re working
over and over with the same actors, even if it’s an already scripted thing, you say,
“Oh, do, you know, do the thing that you did that was so good, that was so funny.”
You know, you pull that in all the time. But Mary, how much preparation do you do?
I mean, you must know a year in advance, I mean, to read up. Not really. And to tell the truth, I – I
mean, I do sometimes. And when I cast the actors, I know the big parts they’re playing.
Like, when I did THE ODYSSEY, I knew Odysseus and I know Penelope and Telemachus. Beyond
that, like who’s going to be Cyclops or who’s going to be all the sirens or whatever,
that’s an ensemble and that all just sort of falls out day to day. I actually only really
read the primary text. I don’t cloud my head with other people’s ideas about it.
(LAUGHS) No, but I mean, how far in advance do you
read the primary text? Well, to tell the truth, I’ve actually had
shows scheduled because I liked the title (LAUGHTER) and I hadn’t read the book. I
actually pitched a show, JOURNEY TO THE WEST, because that title was so beautiful, and I
knew one scene from it that my friend Bruce Norris, an actor, had read to me. And that
one scene was like, “I’m there!” Another thing I did, called “Haft Paykar,”
I call it MIRROR OF THE INVISIBLE WORLD, it’s a twelfth century Persian poem – all I knew
about it was I ran in the street into an actor named Paul Giamatti, who I bet a bunch of
you know. He’s a compulsive reader, and he had just come from Coliseum Books, and
he was carrying a book called “Haft Paykar.” And I read the back of it, you know, this
Penguin edition, and it said, “A man has seven wives and they live in a castle with
seven domes, each of a different color. And one night a week, he goes to each of them,
and he hears a story in which that color is prominent. And they are alternating tales
of requited and unrequited love.” And that’s all I needed to hear! I mean, that’s all
I needed to hear. And then, you know, I take sort of what I want and don’t take what
I [don’t] want. I mean, I think it lives, you know, in my heart in a really strong way.
And I have a really kind of familiar relationship with books, you know. I had like a huge crush
on Dostoevsky when I was fifteen, like literally had a sexual fantasy about him. (LAUGHTER)
Or not really about Dostoevsky, but like Dimitri and do I really like Alyosha better or Dimitri,
but Dimitri’s – I mean, you know, I actually had like schoolgirl crushes on literary figures.
That’s how I’ve, you know, lived in the world. (LAUGHS) Well, it’s certainly paid off for the theatre. Well, you know, people say to me, like, “Oh,
you do such risky things and such obscure things.” I don’t know what they’re talking
about. Like, to me, these texts that have been around for four thousand year, that’s
– so what are they talking about, that that’s a risky thing? It’s awfully, you know, approved,
it seems to me. What about the water? (LAUGHS) What about, like, where’d it come
from? No, I want to know how you get actors to go
into the water. Oh, they love it! You know, they’re up for
it. And plus which fact, I first did that show at school, where I’m a school teacher.
And the students, you know, if you use young actors who have nothing to lose, they’ll
do anything. And actually, the method in which I work,
oftentimes – I’ll tell you a secret. People say to me, “That show is so good. If only
you had thus-and-so, thus-and-so Famous Actor in it. If only you had thus-and-so-, thus-and-so
Sophisticated Actor in it.” And no matter how many times I tell them the show would
not happen with those people in it, they would never, ever agree to do a play without a script
in which they didn’t know what part they were playing or what it was going to be, ever.
And you can’t just then put them in after it’s done. It’s the spirit of the thing that everyone
responds to. I believe this. And sometimes I look at people I’ve cast, and I think,
like, “Oh, they’re not the most sophisticated or technically perfect.” But you know, you
respond to a lot of different things in the theatre, and the spirit of the thing is one
of those primary things. And my actors are really game to get into the water. I mean,
you know, they freeze and they this and that, but they – (LAUGHTER) Oh, darn! Oh darn! Like tech for that show is a kind
of hell. (LAUGHTER) Because they’re sitting in it eleven hours a day, and the water temperature’s
dropping, dropping, dropping, and it’s – Do you get it up to a certain level? Yes. What level do you get it to when you first
start? Well, it’s actually contractual what it’s
between, because it can be a contested thing. But it’s like ninety-six to a hundred and
two. But you turn off the heat the moment the show starts, so the water temperature
starts to drop at that moment. Does Equity come in with a thermometer? (MIMES
DIPPING IT INTO THE POOL; LAUGHTER) No, but my stage manager does, absolutely.
And you know, there’s pool maintenance, definitely, with a net and everything. Which
is handled, by the way, by electrics! Oh! (LAUGHTER) Good to know that. If you can figure that out. Electrics handles
all things to do with water. How hilarious. Almost scary. Set handles the deck and props handles the
pool liner. (LAUGHTER) Well, they’ve got it delineated carefully.
John Guare, I wanted to ask you about the process – I understand that you do have
the show opening at the Signature, the play. But I am interested to hear something about
the process of a book writer involved with a musical. You know, what is that process
like for you, over time? You’ve had a couple of different experiences, with KISS ME KATE,
being involved with updating Sam and Bella Spewack’s work, and now on THE SWEET SMELL
OF SUCCESS. What is that process like for a writer? Well, it’s a job. I mean, it’s just great,
because it’s just great fun. I mean, when I had written TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, the
book for that by accident, thirty-one years ago, for Joe Papp and Bernie Gersten in Central
Park, and it was designed to be played on a truck that went around. So, like Mary, I
knew we had to write something that could be set up and it was written for – and also
we were – The specific event, the specific place, yeah. The specific event. If we had done it on in
a theatre, it would have been a different show, and I don’t know if [it would have
been] a show I would have been happy with. But because it was written to be done on a
truck, and so we wanted certain actors – it was going to play in every neighborhood, we
said, “Then we want people in the cast from every neighborhood that we’ll be playing
in.” And luckily, we got Raul Julia and Clifton Davis and Carla Pinza. And in the show, see, we were cutting it down
to ninety minutes. Any other Shakespeare play, I wouldn’t have tackled, but this [play],
the structure is very ramshackle, and they’re not sure how much of it Shakespeare wrote,
but passages of it are just beautiful. So Mel Shapiro, the director, had this idea,
he brought me in to structure, because we had just worked on HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES, which
had a farce structure, and he wanted me to structure it into a ninety-minute event. And then, we had this idea of playing out
on the street, this noisy street, and it was a summer of great racial unrest and turmoil,
that how would people listen to this exquisite poetry? So we got this idea that Galt MacDermot,
who composed HAIR, was going to be a resident composer that year again, just fortuitous,
he was there and he was going to write some incidental music for it. So we said, “Wouldn’t
it be funny if the songs acted as subtitles before the speech?” (LAUGHTER) So that the
audience would know what the meaning of the scene was, it wouldn’t be put off by the
poetry and it’s being Shakespeare. And so, “a couple of songs” grew into thirty songs,
again, by being sparked by the cast. And it was a wonderful time. And then it moved, you know, into the park
and got great reviews and then moved to Broadway! And the main problem was, I had to give it
a much more formal opening. And the greatest problem was writing a formal opening, because
you just sort of ambled into it in the park. It was light and then it got dark. But this
way, the curtain had to go up and there had to be sort of a very formal opening. And that
was the most problem. It was a nightmare to write the first twenty minutes of the play. But then we did, one day. I mean, it was a
nightmare because we couldn’t – we had all these fancy openings, and I said, “I
don’t know what the problem is. I mean, we just want to show we’re doing [it]. You
know, it’s just a play by Shakespeare that’s nuts.” And I said, “That’s right, wait
a minute!” There was this great actor named Jose Perez, this young kid, and I said, “Just
come out and bow – ” And the audience would have great trouble getting into the
play. And I just said to Jose, “Just come out and say, ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona, a
play by William Shakespeare,’ and hit your head.” (MARY LAUGHS) And he did! And the
audience went, “Yay!” and that was it! I mean, that’s what playwriting was, what
book writing was, was giving a semaphore that let the audience into the world of the play. And then I was asked to do a ton of musicals
there. I won a Tony for that, and I was asked to do a lot of musicals, one being – it’s
still like a dream then – David Merrick asked me to do a musical version of ARSENIC
AND OLD LACE, with Mary Martin and Ethel Merman (MURMURS FROM THE PANEL), with music by Richard
Rodgers. And I, luckily, said no. I went off to Nantucket and started a theatre. But I didn’t do a musical until a friend
of mine brought – Roger Berlind had this show called SOPHISTICATED LADIES that was
in Washington and going to close, and Roger had produced a play of mine, LYDIE BREEZE,
and he said, “I wish you’d come see it. You know, the show is going to just close,
and come down and see it.” And I went, and I saw it, and I knew how to fix it! I said,
“I know what to do!” And there was another choreographer there, and so we asked Roger,
we said, “If you close it for ten days, we promise you we’ll give you a show.”
And we just made a show up in ten days. And that, strangely, I think, is what musicals
are about. Then I had done KISS ME KATE – I’m not
supposed to talk about that, because I didn’t take any credit on it (LAUGHTER), which is
how we got the rights to it. Because we did Sam and Bella Spewack’s show, and there
were just things in it that were just – the show had never been revived in fifty years,
and there were things in it that just made no sense, Bernard Baruch jokes. (LAUGHTER,
ESPECIALLY FROM JEFFREY) Well, it makes you laugh! See, maybe we should have kept them
in. And KATE had no number in the second act, except at the very end, and so it was just
wanting to address [things], as if keeping the show out on the road. And also, again, the director. I had wanted
to work with Michael Blakemore, who was a director I admired tremendously, ever since
JOE EGG, which was profoundly important for me, just a beautiful production. And Michael
was directing it and I wanted to work with him. So that was great fun, to just – because
a play is one thing, but a musical is like a great Erector set, a great contraption,
where you have to solve problems immediately, writing in a sort of semaphore style. And well, one thing I forgot, I had written
the book for a musical in 1968, and ’86. We did the same show twice, with Jerome Robbins
directing, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. And it was a true nightmare.
And talk about a director being bored – Jerry Robbins, we did a workshop in ’86, he wanted
to go back to it again. And he did two scenes that were staggering, that I mean, directors
would build careers on. And he did them, and they worked. Jerry tossed them out, and said,
“Let’s start all over again.” And so, that recklessness of the bored director can
be, you know – it was a great, remarkable – just it was a nightmare experience, because
it was an adaptation of a Brecht play, somebody who defies musicalization. (MARY LAUGHS) But
I wanted to work with Jerry, and it was a great, great, great experience, a remarkable
experience. And then, Kathleen Marshall asked me to do
another, to fix, to patch – again, it’s patchwork – for City Center Encores! You’ve
worked there, you’ve done – No, I haven’t. You haven’t? Yes, on BABES IN ARMS, which
is a great show, it’s the definitive show about “Let’s put on a play in the barn.”
And it was amazing that that was not much in the play! I mean, the memories of the movie
are what – so it was just patching that up to make it be what we thought it was, to
make the audience’s expectations of it, to conform to that. And then, I was asked to do SWEET SMELL OF
SUCCESS, a movie that I love and revere! And the producer then, Garth Drabinsky, this bankrupt
thing called Livent, he was taken away during our first workshop, which was a whole other
story, but very freeing. Nothing like having a producer taken away by the police! (LAUGHTER)
You’re having a nightmare – it was like a fantasy, a playwright’s fantasy! “Hey,
come and get him! I’ll pay his fare! I’ll pay to let him go!” (LAUGHTER) But anyway, I love that, and I’m very proud
of the musical, because I felt that why it would be a musical was if the world out of
which it comes is the world of Times Square. And it’s the dark side of Broadway. It’s
a very unromantic view of Broadway, and the life, you know, of press agents and gossip
and columns, and the relations of the press and the insidiousness of that. Also, the passions
in it were so high that I said, “This will force singing.” And I wanted Nick Hytner to direct it, because
of his work on TWELFTH NIGHT, with water! And CAROUSEL. Not MISS SAIGON. But at least
he had experience with – you know, he was the director who had the range of work that
I admired, from MADNESS OF KING GEORGE to CAROUSEL to TWELFTH NIGHT. And happily, Nick
came on board. So again, it’s always been a wonderful experience. I think that working, adapting a musical is
a much more a joint effort, in the sense, like working on a movie, when you’re writing
a movie, you have to scale back your writing, because you just say, “Well, the camera
will take care of this description, the camera will do this. And it’ll get too much of
a muchness if I [write it].” It’s the same way with a composer. You say, “I have
to write this back, because the music will take care of this.” But you have to write
what the scene will be and write the intention of the song, so that the composer, Marvin
Hamlisch, and the lyricist, Craig Carnelia, will then take from that and write the song
out of that, so that hopefully the link between, the gap between the spoken word and the sung
word will just be invisible. So, it was a great experience. It would have
been on sooner. We had to wait a year for John Lithgow. Everybody had different commitments,
and we just kept, you know, piecing it together. Did you go back to the novella, as well? Yes, but the novella didn’t give anything.
Because strangely, the novella and the related short stories are very cozy stories about
Sidney and J.J. traveling around, going up to Susan’s graduation from college, and
they’re sort of like little anecdotes. And the story of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is very
close, I mean, it’s close. Uh-huh. Right. Also, what we remember, also what I love,
and what another – the sense of homage, I must say, in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS was
that, what we remember in the movie is the extraordinary dialogue of Clifford Odets,
who apparently was in a van on Broadway, that you can see in some shots, typing up the scenes
as they were filming them! And so that’s what’s missing from the novella. When you
read it, the story’s there, but the juice in it, as supplied by Odets is not there. John, what is the role of playwright and director
as you move from Off-Broadway to Broadway? I don’t understand the question. Who has the say, between the playwright and
the director? Why would there be a difference, Off-Broadway
or on Broadway? Well, in the transfer from an Off-Broadway
– I think what Isabelle is asking is about how does that transfer process work, from
Off-Broadway to Broadway? Does the director have any more authority? We’re talking about
the authority of the director. But on a musical or a play? I don’t understand. Either one. Does it make any difference? No. I mean, if you have a rotten experience
Off-Broadway, you’re not going to have a great experience on Broadway. (LAUGHTER) If
that gets to be an issue, then it’s a play that’s not going to transfer. I guess I might say the one thing you can
say about that, it’s sort of the director’s responsibility if the space is very different.
That’s kind of his problem or her problem more than the playwright, wouldn’t you say? But I’ll tell you something, I do think
that it’s – because everything that ends up – it’s what the Dramatists’ Guild
is about, is protecting, you know, that text. And I think that it would be within the playwright’s
purview to say if a play that he had written for a ninety-nine seat theatre was suddenly
going to transfer to the Broadway Theatre, you know, to the Gershwin, a two thousand
seat theatre, that I think that you would say, if you’re just going to do that, to
market it, that you would have a right to say, “My play will die there, and you can’t
do it, no matter what star has come in.” And so, I think that the relationship – I
mean, in musicals, the relationship has always been, I think, that the director in a musical
is the king, because there are so many more aspects of the theatre that have to be addressed.
And so, you have to have a director that you respect, that you’re asking, “What are
the requirements that you want?” I think that in a play, I once asked – (CELL PHONE
RINGS; TURNS IT OFF) Uh-oh! (LAUGHTER) And that happened to you in your theatre, it was
in the Times today about how your performance was disrupted by that very thing! It’s true! It wasn’t me, though. (LAUGHTER) But I once asked Lanford Wilson – oh, it
was a mess, you know, I couldn’t find a director to work with. And I asked Lanford,
I said, “How do you find a director?” And Lanford said, “It’s very easy.”
He said, “I give them my play, and I ask them to read it. And then I meet with them,
and I ask them to tell me the story of my play. And if the story that they tell me vaguely
matches up with the story that I think I’ve written (LAUGHTER), then I know we can work
together.” But that’s all it is, you know. A good production is one where everybody is
involved in telling the same story. And that’s a happy production. But I think in a play, that it’s much more
– I do believe, as a playwright and as a Council member of the Dramatists’ Guild,
that the text of a play is the key element in a theatrical production. And everybody
is working towards that, including the playwright, towards protecting his own text or honing
in on, not changing gears, not rewriting his play out of his intention. Right. Or not allowing the director to rewrite his
play into another play, that the director didn’t intend. In casting, does the playwright or the director
work with the casting? For me, I find that the auditions are the
most valuable time, because I think you decide what the style of the production is going
to be from the auditions, where you say, “Oh, isn’t it interesting the way that girl – she’s
not right for the part, but she found a laugh there that’s very interesting,” or “I
like the way that he did that,” or “I didn’t like the way – these people, I
think, found the difficulty, found the traps in the script that we must avoid.” That,
you know, it can’t get too emotional, or it has to be – you find the style of the
play, for me, evolves out of the very collaborative connection between the playwright and the
director during the audition process. I think that’s true. I think, very often,
actors coming into auditions don’t understand that. They think that the playwright and the
director are sitting there very judgmentally about them, but very often they’re discovering
the play in that moment. Dan, you’ve had a lot of success recently,
working with O’Neill in AH, WILDERNESS and MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN and then Shaw with
MAJOR BARBARA. And you’ve had a lot of success as well, working with new plays. You’re
noted for your work with new plays and the development that you did at the Seattle Repertory
Theatre. How does that process, for you as a director, developing a production, how does
that differ, other than that you can hear the playwright breathing in the room with
you? I think it doesn’t differ at all, really.
(LAUGHS) You can’t make a lot of changes, you know, when you’re working with already
extant work. But you know, depending, again, upon how much work has to be done on any given
script, the actual work of just digging and finding the subtext is exactly the same, from
a classic work to a contemporary work, a new play. You know, I might get in trouble here, but
playwrights sometimes – forgive me! – aren’t the authority on what they write, in the same
way when we describe a dream, we maybe aren’t hearing what we’re saying sometimes. Like,
would you believe that a little bit, do you know what I mean? I think that’s absolutely true. Well, I
mean – Of course, they’re the ultimate authority.
But you know what I mean, there are parts that are unconscious. No, no, you know, I write – you tend to
write very much from dream and image. And in my case, anecdote and recollection, and
not necessarily having a sort of entire vision of a narrative. You might have a vision of
a world, but that’s not the same as having a sense of a narrative and what that entails
and where it leads. Or just in that moment of auditions, I think
actors, when it comes mirroring back to you or when the director tells the story back
to you, you do have revelations about, “Oh, that’s why I’m drawn to this,” or “That’s
what I was really saying,” yeah. But that’s the great part of collaboration.
I mean, you have to be that open. I mean, you have to know where you feel when your
play is working, when the music of it is working. Right. You have to know what it is to protect. Because
I think a new play – I mean, the play where it’s starting previews tonight – it’s
so new, you know, that I don’t have it clear in my head, what you just said, you know?
And that’s why the auditions were very powerful for me, in trying to see, “Oh, this is what
the style of it has to be.” And then, like, first preview is so much more
terrifying than opening night, because that audience is, like, telling you everything
that you’ve forgotten during the rehearsal period. Stuff that was funny the first day
and that hasn’t been funny since. You know, stuff you thought was really serious turns
out to be sort of funny. Or you want to get that under control, or whatever. It’s just
so scary, first preview, I think, I’m just shaking, you know? I don’t think so. No, I just shut everything
off entirely, get through it, and move forward, knowing that it’s going to take actors,
for instance, at least five or six or seven times in front of an audience before they
even feel comfortable enough to communicate what they’re doing. Yeah. I write off entirely the first audience. And
who would want to go to a first preview of something? (LAUGHTER) You know, what kind
of audience is it? Your big fans! It’s a room full of sadists. (LAUGHTER)
You know, for the most part. It’s your fans, they want to see the play. You know, judging sadists. I’m very hostile
to first audiences. (LAUGHTER) “Why are you there?” I think that’s a defense. Yeah! What else is there to being a playwright
but defense? Yeah. Actually, I get so nervous that about
ten minutes before I just lose all sensation and I’m just nowhere, you know, barely
there. What’s your experience of that, Peter? Well, you know, I’ve seen a little bit of
both, what Mary and Robby are saying. It’s very, very terrifying for me, the first preview.
I should be able to write it off, but it’s hard for me. I do think, though, it’s sort
of a next step. It’s sort of a clean slate, in the sense that I’m there to sort of listen
to how they’re responding. And that’s a whole ‘nother thing and it’s up there
(GESTURES TOWARD THE STAGE) and it’s no longer in here (GESTURES TO HIS HEAD) and
yet, it’s got to go back in there (HIS HEAD) a little bit. And it’s all so athletic,
you know, you think, “Oh, God, how much am I going to have to (LAUGHS) redo?” I end up watching Dan, usually. We usually
do them together. And he knows I’m watching him, and his hand will just go up and there’ll
be a little scissors motion. (LAUGHTER) You know? And so all the whole first week, and
he’s just making a suit, you know? (LAUGHTER) But you also can’t panic during previews. No. Yeah. Just keep rocking the boat every night, and
so the actors always have new lines, and then they never settle. You have to – because
often, don’t you find that there can be something that seems like the most giant problem,
but the actors eventually organically, like the irritant of sand in an oyster, make a
pearl out of it, you know what I mean? They just coat it and coat it and they smooth the
edges and they make it work, you know? But if you rock that boat every day, giving them
pages and pages in some kind of panic, it does take them days and days to get it in
their bodies and make sense of it. Even though they’re good at faking like that’s true,
but when they’re faking it, it doesn’t work. And then so, you make more changes or
whatever. You know, in a way thought, your process from
the beginning – That’s right! Works from that kind of time, right? Yeah. I mean, there’s a little bit of “get it
done.” If you’ve got three weeks, and you’re starting from nowhere, you’ve got
a little panic going to begin with. (LAUGHS) You’re absolutely right. No, it’s
a total panic and it’s a high wire act, you’re right. And it’s changing all the
time. But on the other hand, it’s not in front of an audience, and I’m not being,
you know, judgmental with them, you know? Gene – Nobody said anything about the producers,
or the people who put the money in the show! (LAUGHTER) And those are the dangerous people
on that first preview, because they – ( GETS UP AND LEAVES) He doesn’t like producers. What did I say, John? No, I’m sorry. (LAUGHTER) You’ve lost your audience. Oh. Excuse me. Well, let’s talk about producers
– You just said “producer,” Gene, and you
were off – Always talk about first previews! (LAUGHTER) You know, for a commercial production, I think
it’s the most scary of ever, because talk about watching the other faces! You see these
people who have put their money in it, and if a laugh doesn’t come, they’re like
(MIMES DESPAIR). They have terrible reactions. And you can’t help but be influenced by
it. We’re patient, the directors, the actors, and the playwrights. But they’re not – because
they’re civilians! And I wish there were a way to keep them out, but … (LAUGHTER) Well, we’ll try to solve that problem as
we take a little bit of a pause, so that Isabelle Stevenson can tell us about the good works
of the American Theatre Wing. (APPLAUSE) (APPLAUSE) Before we get back to the American
Theatre Wing’s seminars on “Working in the Theatre” – this one is on playwrights
and directors – I’d like to remind you that these seminars are only one of many programs
that the Wing undertakes. You’re probably familiar with the American Theatre Wing’s
Tony Awards, given for excellence in Broadway theatre. We also have a substantial grants
and scholarship program, providing aid to Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theatres, as well
as to promising students, to pursue studies in the theatre arts. As a long-established charity, our other meaningful
and thriving programs are designed to promote excellence in the craft of theatre and to
introduce young people and their families to theatre and the magic it unfolds. Our hospital
program, dating back to World War Two, when we also created the legendary Stage Door Canteens,
to entertain patients in hospitals, nursing homes, AIDS centers and child care facilities. We take pride in the work we do and remain
grateful to our members and everyone whose contributions help make possible the programs
of the American Theatre Wing. Our work is so important to the theatre and the community,
and we are proud to be a part of this exciting industry. Now, let’s return to our panel
on playwrights and directors, and our moderator, Jeffrey Eric Jenkins. Jeffrey, would you like
to start again? Thank you, Isabelle. When we left, we were
talking just a bit – Gene Sake had begun to talk about the role of producers in the
collaborative process, if you will. We’ve talked about some of the collaborations between
playwrights and directors. We’ve talked about some of the collaborations among the
company. We’ll return to some of that, but I thought we should return for a moment to
talk about this relationship of the producers to the development of works in the commercial
theatre. Gene, what do you think is the drawback of the commercial producer? What is the advantage
of the commercial producer? How does that relationship work? Well, first of all, I wish we had a different
word than “collaborator.” It always makes me think of the French and the Germans. (LAUGHTER)
And really, we’re talking about people who help one another, not who kill one another,
although that’s what producers and directors and actors often do. But you know, and I think
about producers like David Merrick, there’s a man who was a dirty rat! (LAUGHS) I mean,
I’m sorry, he was a terrible man! He could do the worst things to you. You couldn’t
trust him for a minute. And he would get his way. And he would get his way because he was
strong, acquisitive, and not stupid! He had been in a playwriting class with Tennessee
Williams. Yes? I wouldn’t put it past him. In St. Louis. (LAUGHTER) But the collaboration and the talk about producers
has to take into consideration, who’s the strongest personality? Who’s the one with
a track record? Who’s the one who can get the money? Who is the one who is just a domineering
personality? And unfortunately, that often is the person who leads the artistic taste
of the show. Well, of course, that’s changed a bit in
recent years. We often talk about the loss of independent producers to the producing
community, as more and more we see corporate entities becoming the producing entities.
And I’m wondering, Dan, what has your experience been in dealing with – I’m reluctant to
say “collaborating”! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) – in dealing with producers in the
artistic process, in the creative process, bringing the work to the stage. I don’t know what it’s like with you,
Gene, but I’ve found myself very often being a buffer between the producer and the writer,
trying to find some way to keep the producer away from the writer, trying to find just
sort of politically the way to navigate through the difficult periods of previews when, as
you say, a producer will very often start to make egregious demands on a production. Yeah, I think that that’s true. And I think
because you and I are both kind, normal (LAUGHTER) – Well, speak for yourself, Gene! (LAUGHTER) Wonderful people. Yes. And I’ve been a buffer many times in that
situation. One play I did called GENERATION, in which Henry Fonda was the star. And that’s
another thing we haven’t talked about, is the star actor or actress, who is very important
and has a great deal to say. Whether they exercise it or not, their presence is great.
But this was a first-time playwright. It was a strong producer, Freddy Brisson, who was
not a very good producer, I’m afraid. But he’s dead now, I can say whatever I want. Tell his nickname. Oh, “The Lizard of Roz.” He was married to Rosalind Russell, “The
Lizard of Roz.” He was married to Rosalind Russell and he
was called “The Lizard of Roz.” (LAUGHTER) And he was, too. He was the son of Carl Brisson,
the entertainer, a man who never got out of his tails. You raise an interesting point, about the
star actor, and I wanted to ask – You’re trying to get me back on track, aren’t
you? (LAUGHTER) Well, I might be. You’ll never do it. You never hear enough about Carl Brisson.
(LAUGHTER) That’s why we’re all here. But you know, I wanted to ask Robby about
the experience, because – Good luck, Gene! Well, let me finish the story! All right. The story that I started, right? I just remembered
that I had had an ending. (LAUGHTER) It was a first-time playwright. William Goodheart. Yes, who is also now deceased. So we can talk
about all these people! (LAUGHTER) But Bill Goodheart has his own ideas, since (LAUGHS)
he wrote the play, of what should be done. And one day, it actually came to a fistfight
between Freddy Brisson and Bill Goodheart. Is that why he’s dead? (LAUGHTER) No. I was there. I was like a referee, dancing
between the two of them. (LAUGHS) Fonda, boy, Fonda said, “That’s the last time I will
ever do a play with a new playwright.” Who won the fight? The playwright. No, he didn’t win, no. He was lucky he had
Fonda, and me, because I think we helped his play a good deal. But we talked sensibly to
him, and kindly. So I think he profited by it. Whereas Brisson punched him in the nose.
I mean, that’s why I keep going back to personalities and what a great part of our
whole collaboration is, what kind of people we are and how good we are at psychiatry and
morality. Well, I wanted Robby to address that issue
about working with star actors. Certainly, in TEN UNKNOWNS you had Donald Sutherland
and Juliana Margulies in marvelous roles. And what was that experience like? Certainly,
you had Dan Sullivan to work with them. But how does that experience work? Perhaps you
could both address that issue of working with a star actor. Is there a sense that they have
more sway in the rehearsal room? How does that [work]? I don’t think about their status that much.
I think about their sanity a lot. (LAUGHTER) And their general ability to kindly cooperate
and to be part of a process, and their generosity. I don’t have that much experience with stars,
but the little experience I have with them is that they tend to not like being treated
like stars. And I think the more that’s not a part of the equation, the better things
are. You know, that particular play was not made easier by some of the personality stuff,
but I don’t think that necessarily had anything to do with “star”-ness, I think it had
to do with … medication or something. (LAUGHTER) Or the lack thereof! I think also, though, that if you’re talking
about, you know, film stars, they’re very often so used to a way of working, which is
(LAUGHS) they’re really in control of what they’re going to say! Unfortunately, usually.
So that, very often when they come into the theatre, they expect the same kind of input.
And I’ve often found, again, just that it’s important to be able to listen. Very often,
the instinct is to say, “Wait, I’m not going to be listening to this.” Yeah. “I’m going to work the way I usually work.”
Sometimes, you’re working with very smart people, and the ideas are good. So you have
to be able to balance your own vanity against what you can actually learn. To me, it seems that the difference between
working in films and working in the theatre, Alan Pacula told me that when he was making
his picture, I forget, THE DEVIL’S OWN. And out of the trailer one day, Harrison Ford
came and said, “These are the lines I’ll be saying in this scene.” And Brad Pitt
came out of his trailer and said, “These are the lines I’ll be saying in the scene.”
And his job was then to put their versions of the script, which featured both of them,
together. But it’s about the play, and I feel that we have to have a director who is
a very strong rock at the center of it, who says, “This is the intention.” And otherwise,
if the star hijacks the show, then it’s a bad star. Then it’s something that has
gone wrong from before production started. Robby and I were working on a show once (LAUGHS)
where we were in previews out in L.A., and the star came in, very sweet woman, a movie
star, and she had written an entire speech for herself. Yeah, I used to have it on my bulletin board!
(LAUGHTER) It was actually great, I have to say. It’s on, you know, Hotel du Cap stationery.
(LAUGHTER) Would this be an Ibsen speech? No. It was not. It was actually one of my own,
and it was much better than mine. But it wasn’t mine, and it went on, you know. It was very
long, and it involved several grudges and scores she was settling offstage. (LAUGHTER)
And, you know. But what did we do? We just said, “Oh, no, not possible!”
And she was, in that case, very sweet about it. Yeah. She said, “Oh, okay.” I mean, she started
with, “Oh, you mean I can’t do that? Oh, all right, I won’t.” But, you know, in another instance, with another
– I guess the tactful thing is not to say the name, ever – (LAUGHTER) But it sounds like – You’d think I would know that! But the first
day of rehearsal, you know, Dan and I are sitting next to each other, and Dan’s hand
cut, little cut.” So we’d sort of confer with each other, and a little two-line cut.
And the name-of-the-star put his head in his hands and went, “Oh! Just … you’ve eviscerated
me here!” (LAUGHTER) And you know, you just know that you’re in for such a terribly
bumpy ride. Well, Peter, you’ve got a big star in “QED”,
Alan Alda, and how has that process unfolded? Now, you’re also a television writer and
producer, with a number of credits to you. Yeah, well, “QED”, actually Alan was always
involved with “QED”. He had an interest in finding a way to put the character of Richard
Feynman on the stage. But I actually started out as though it was a job, to the extent
that I met Alan and read the books, Feynman’s books, and thought, “I think there’s a
way maybe for me to make this work.” I was intrigued enough to try it. But not at all
in the form that it’s in. And in fact, it went through many, many drafts
that had many characters in it, that were on the stage in the play. And Alan and I both,
I think, sort of agreed from the beginning that that was the way it would be. And he’s
an actor who likes working with other actors and likes the give-and-take of that, and I
had no particular interest in writing what has almost become a one-person play. It literally
astonished me how I could go through almost a kind of playwriting course. I mean, I could
show drafts that are completely different drafts of what was on the way to being “QED”. And then, as it became what it became, it
got a little scary, because then it became clear to us that it was going to be him and
me and Gordon Davidson, the director, in the room together, pretty much the whole time,
except for one scene where another character comes in. And it then became about something
else, because I very much wanted to make sure that every moment was going to be right for
the character and for Alan doing the character. So then, the journey became even more rigorous,
in a way, once we determined that was the way that the play was going to go. So it’s been remarkable with him. And he
was absolutely the other collaborator in that, with myself and Gordon. In the second act
of the play, he really – we did [it], beat by beat, on its feet, after I had a kind of
version of it. And Alan, every moment, needs to know exactly where we are, and we were
sort of working through, almost graphing through, the emotional life of the character. So for
me, it was ultimately very exhilarating to work that way. But it certainly didn’t start
out [that way]. That wasn’t the first, the way we started out to where we ended up. But stars can be great. John Lithgow is an
ideal person that you want to [work with]. I mean, John Lithgow is a perfect actor. He
behaves perfectly. I mean, sometimes you need a star, because they have a special quality
and an authority that makes them stars. But when you have somebody who has that quality,
as John Lithgow does, yet still the modesty. And as Robby said, about actors just wanting
to work, just get in a script and work, work on the script and work on the text and listen
to the director and the playwright. So it can be a remarkable, very, very invigorating
experience. Is there a time, then, those of you who are
directing want the playwright to go away for a little while, so you can work with the actors
alone? Or do you, you know, want that playwright in there all the time, feeding back in whatever
way? And what kind of feedback do you want the playwright to give to the actors? So it’s
sort of a two-part thing. Dan? I think the writer should be able to be there
whenever they want to be. Sometimes, I wonder why they’re there. Sometimes they’ll just
sort of – Because it’s more fun than anyplace else
to be. Yeah. I remember, sometimes with Wendy Wasserstein,
who will be in the room every minute of every rehearsal, through techs, never leaves the
room. And that seems kind of punishing to me, in a way. It’s not. It’s that it’s rare, you know.
It’s that it’s not the real world, which is so, you know, horrifying. It’s that it’s
your world and you can’t get enough of it, really. And also, tech is the only time I
can sleep (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL), in my life, ever! But I also think, the only times that I’ve
ever wanted a writer not in the room is if there’s too much writing going on, and too
much fixing going on, at a time when you’re really trying to get the thing on its feet
before an audience. Very often, that will happen, just as you’re starting into previews,
in the techs, when you see that the actors may be a little bit nervous, and suddenly
they’ve got new pages, and “Could we just wait for a while (LAUGHS) before we do this?”
That will occasionally happen. I had, with Neil Simon, very good experiences
with that, the vision of – I don’t know what to call it. He liked to watch the play
from the standpoint of the writing, first of all, to see if the scene worked, in rehearsal.
And he would say to me, “I don’t think that scene’s working right,” and I said,
“I know, and I think I can make it work.” He said, “No, no, I watched it. It’s not
your problem, it’s my problem. I haven’t written this right. I want to go out.” And
he’d go out, to another room, and write something. Come back in a very short time,
usually, with something new, which would work. Not always, but most of the time, he’d find
his way by listening to the rehearsal. And I didn’t mind that at all.
There were other things where he was entirely impatient about things. For instance, in LOST
IN YONKERS, which was a good example for many things, and I’ll tell you. I’d stage a
scene, and he liked it, he thought it was fine. And he went out of the room, and I said,
“You know, I think he’s being upstaged on this. I’d like to make a different arrangement.”
The whole cast was onstage. “I’d like to arrange everybody differently.” And so,
I was doing that, and I did a different version of it. He came back in the room, and I thought
he was going to kill all of us. He said, “It was fine, perfect! Why are you touching it?
Why? Damn it!” And he walked out of the room in complete anger. “Okay, I’ll put
it back. (LAUGHTER) Sorry, I lost my head for a minute.” I had an experience like that. I mean, just
in terms of what that collaboration is. I did one play with Neil Simon, and it was an
example of how a director and a writer don’t work well together, only because I spend maybe
a week at the table to begin with. We were doing a thing called LONDON SUITE, which was
four short plays. So we start out, we finish the first day of reading. We come back, we
start again talking about the subtext, etc. (LAUGHS) He gets up, he’s walking around
the room, very, very nervous. At a break, I finally go up to him and say,
“What’s wrong?” He says, “I can’t work with this. What? What? I can’t work!
You’ve got to get it on its feet!” And that was the time I asked the writer to leave.
I said, “Okay. Why don’t you go away for a [while].” ‘Cause I don’t know how
else to work. I have to sit here and figure this out. I can’t stand up and start walking
around unless people have some sense of who they are! But didn’t he ever ask you, before, how
you work? I mean, it seems to be part of the things that you would have him talk with? No. No, we didn’t talk about that. We should
have. But in fact, he did go away, and we did our work, and he came back, and we worked.
But it was not – from that time on, it was a little wonky. I’m actually having, sort of in a way, my
first collaboration in the sense that I’m doing an opera with Philip Glass, so he’s
composing the music and I primarily did the libretto. And he’s a perfect collaborator,
in my feeling, in that he’s like, he’ll make these little suggestions, but then he’ll
always say, “But you’ll do something wonderful! You know, you’ll do something wonderful.”
And he’s very passionate about it, and at the same time, sort of hands off about it.
But I have had this weird experience where he was calling me – because he had me do
the words first. And he wanted all the words before he started writing anything. And then,
he would call me, like, every morning, at like seven thirty. And he’d say, “Yes,
Mary, there’s a problem. There are some problems I want to go over. You have the word
‘planet.’ Can we make it ‘planets’?” (LAUGHTER) And then he would say, “You say,
‘Night and day, night and day.’ Can we make that ‘night and day, day and night’?” And it’s on that level, and this went on
for weeks. And I was like, “Why is he calling me?” And then I realized that he was being
as respectful towards the words as if they were notes of his score. I finally sort of
figured that out. And where I would never tell a musician, like, “Can we make this
a different note?” he was treating the words the same way. But just that led me to all
kinds of thoughts about there’s sort of a valuative difference between words and notes,
you know? A note is a note, and it can’t be any other note, and you might say that
about words. But these little changes meant nothing to me. And then he finally called me up, and he said,
“I have found a rather serious mistake in the libretto.” And I was like, “Here we
go. (LAUGHTER) We’re going to have to, like, cut a whole scene and rearrange it.” And
he said, “Sometimes you capitalize ‘Sun’ and ‘Moon’ and sometimes you don’t.”
(LAUGHTER) So, that’s like the degree of – But that’s a big difference! (LAUGHING) Was it? I can imagine a composer responding to the
importance. There’s a difference between ‘sun’ and ‘Sun.’ Yeah, ‘Sun.’ I suppose. I suppose that’s
correct. But I was like, you know, “Can I get back to sleep?” (LAUGHTER) Like, we
can change that down the road, and he had an urgency about all that, you know? But so
far, he’s been great, and it’s because his visual sense – and I’ll just say that,
well, you know, I can’t – he has a very, very, very, very large musical aural sense.
And his visual sense is a little bit more – it’s a little – it’s not as large.
(LAUGHS) And some of his suggestions are a little, you know, they’re a little odd.
But he, you know, just hands it over in this really beautiful way. And so, like, he’s
coming for the first, like, four days of rehearsal, and then for tech, weirdly enough, and previews,
you know. But that’s because that’s when the orchestra comes, and he wants to hear
the orchestra. John – Excuse me a minute. I just wanted to say something
about the actor’s contribution. I forgot who said this, but talking about good contributions
that the actors have, good feelings about what should be and things that bother them,
that they want to change. And often, depending on the person, of course, it was very helpful.
When I did LOST IN YONKERS, Mercedes Ruehl was worried about her part, to the point where
it drove me crazy. But in the end, I found out she was right! There were things in the
end of the play that had to be changed, should be changed. And I must say, she got her point
across and Neil Simon accepted that and agreed. I mean, he saw it with the changes in, and
said, “Yes, you’re right, it’s better.” I think I’ve found, unless it’s an issue
of real vanity, which you can really tell pretty quickly, they’re generally right,
usually. Yes. Well, they have to become the authority on
the part, you know, because they’re going to play it night after night and you’re
not there. And they’re the one who’s like – your concentration’s a lot of places,
but theirs is there. Although hopefully, theirs is on the story and not just their part. Well, I’m working with Donald Moffat right
now on a play [A COUPLE OF STOUT INDIVIDUALS], and he just said, “This beat gets in the
way of my line.” And he’s been very, very right about making cuts that will allow him
to – more and more, I see the way he works, what he needs for the part, to remove these
certain blocks. Right. But I feel like, sadly enough, our
role as directors is to render ourselves obsolete. And at the very beginning, you’re sitting
amongst the actors. You have this physical proximity that’s, like, this close. And
then, they start going up on stage, you’re sitting in a chair, but you sometimes leap
up and go back. And then they’re up on stage and you’re out in the house, and every now
and then you go up to them. And then, you leave the building and they’re just there.
And you kind of make – you know, your job is to not need to be there any more, to be
forgotten about, in a way. And that’s it! (LAUGHS) What a sad story! (LAUGHTER) But then we reconstitute, you know, another
family right away. You know, I like the rehearsal process. I don’t want to be an actor. I
don’t like the repetition. You know, I just don’t want to do that. I like being in the
room and having things happen, and being there at the invention of the moment. Have you ever written a play on your own,
just written a play? Sort of, very close to. It was still kind
of based on something, but I guess all the words were mine. It was based on the Pygmalion
myth, actually, but yeah. It was just in school. Do you do much direction of other people’s
plays or have you? Very little. Just Mr. Shakespeare, you know,
‘cause that’s always like, you just learn – I know it sounds corny, but just by that
proximity to that text, you learn a lot, even if it’s sort of you can’t articulate it.
Just, you always find out, like, around the table with Shakespeare, like, “Oh, well,
we’ll cut this. Who needs this?” And then you find out, “Oh, the reason those little
servants or these lords are talking for four lines is because every actor is backstage
changing for the giant ballroom entrance that’s about to happen!” (LAUGHTER) And I have a friend who says that he can just
see these actors on stage, you know, at the Globe, going, “Will, I can’t make the
change! I can’t make the change! You know, you have to write something.” He’s like,
“Okay, here’s some more jokes.” (LAUGHTER) You find out, like, how for the theatre they
are. And you learn a lot about, like, structure and just a whole lot of things. And I’ve
done a couple other things. Like, I did a Tom Stoppard play, who I was always a huge
fan of, too. I’m interested also in how playwrights develop,
where they get their ideas. Robby mentioned earlier something about dreams. And I’m
wondering how your dreams come to the stage, how you dream your play, in a sense. Well, not literally. Of course, of course. I don’t write from, like, you know, a dream
journal or something like that. (LAUGHTER) Maybe I should, who knows? But I tend to work
from anecdote and from memory a lot. And some time ago, I was listening to a radio report
about psychiatrists and how the American Psychiatric Association had a war with itself in the late
sixties and early seventies. And there was a series of interviews with psychiatrists,
and it seemed enormously theatrical, and it got me started writing something, which in
fact wasn’t really about psychiatrists but was about the thing they were arguing about,
which is a definition of illness, a definition of how we pathologize people and what it means
to be segregated against. So I also think I’m struck very much by
painters’ work and the stories that painters tell, that somehow lead to larger questions.
But you know, there are different kinds of writers, and it might be easier to be the
kind that, you know, reads about how the code got broken and then writes that play. But
that’s just, you know, that ain’t me. So, I don’t know. Peter? How does what you imagine, how does
what you dream, how does that come to the stage? What makes you think about these, write
these things? Well, I also don’t keep a dream journal.
I do read a lot and absorb, I guess. And it can be a pretty slow [process], how it comes
in. I never really thought about what areas, except that I know that history, lately science,
separate from “QED”. I’ve been working for a number of years, on and off, on a play
that I started before “QED” that has history and a lot of science in it. And it may be that – I’m trying to find
something that I don’t understand, that the process of writing is sort of trying to
help me to understand. And it usually isn’t until the end of a first draft, way later,
that I will say, “Oh, well, I guess that’s what this play is sort of about.” And then,
the rewriting will be to help me get to make that better, towards what that is. For our students who want to follow in your
footsteps, could I ask a quick question? Where did you come from to be a playwright? What
came before? I came from Los Angeles, and I didn’t want
to be a movie writer, but I was a writer. And all plays, I think, are self-portraits.
So you have to have this temperament that is involved in portraiture, I think. Where
am I now? How do I locate myself? I think that’s sort of almost what Peter is saying.
But you know, I don’t know that there’s school, though I think there is. And I think
the great thing about being a playwright is that it’s not something that you need to
ask permission to do. You need not train. You know, you don’t have to ask other people.
You almost – it’s entirely self-motivated. So, that’s where I come from. Where do you come from? I grew up in Douglaston, Queens, and my parents
are still there. I go out there a lot. I came into the city from when I was very young to
go to plays and see plays, and I can remember those that were particularly extraordinary
to me, that felt like they were life-changing, one of which was the original production of
HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES, along with JOE EGG, two great, extraordinary experiences for me. (AFTER A PAUSE) Oh! John, what do you have to say? You just want to make – writing is my job
in the theatre. I love working in the theatre, and playwriting is my job in the theatre.
I like to W-R-I-G-H-T, to fashion, you know? I like to make something that connects to
an audience. I like making a theatrical event. But if I couldn’t write, I’d work in the
theatre. I don’t know. I’ve sold orange juice, I’ve checked coats. I mean, I’m
serious, I love working in the theatre, and that’s my job, and just to keep – I hate to interrupt you. This has been so
wonderful, listening to you. You share your knowledge so generously with us. But the time
has come for me to say thank you very much for being here. Thank you, Mr. Jenkins. And
thank all of you for being so very kind and generous to the American Theatre Wing. This
has been one of the seminars on “Working in the Theatre,” coming to you from the
Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Thank you so much for being here.

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