Playwrights (Working In The Theatre #323)


Hi, I’m Doug Leeds, President of the Board
of Directors of the American Theatre Wing. On behalf of our board, and Sondra Gilman,
our Chairperson, I wish to welcome you to the American Theatre Wing’s “Working in
the Theatre” seminars, which are being broadcast by CUNY-TV from the Graduate Center of the
City University of New York. Before we begin, we want to thank the Annenberg Foundation
for their generous support of our seminar programs. The Wing is best known as the creators of
the Tony Awards, honoring excellence on Broadway. What you may not know is that we also provide
annual grants and scholarships to New York theatres and theatre students. We also broadcast
a weekly radio theatre program, “Downstage Center,” with XM Satellite Radio. All our
educational programs are available free, on demand, from our web site, at www.americantheatrewing.org. Today, we turn our attention to the starting
point of all great theatre, the playwright. We are going to hear from four very distinguished
authors, who between them have multiple Tonys and several Pulitzer Prizes. It is my great
pleasure to introduce the moderator of today’s seminar, editor and critic Jeffrey Eric Jenkins.
Thank you. (APPLAUSE) Welcome, everyone, to the American Theatre
Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminars. Today’s topic is playwriting, and I have
to tell you that I feel like I’ve landed on some sort of theatrical Olympus. I’m
surrounded today by extraordinary talent in playwriting. I’d like to take this opportunity
to introduce these folks to you, but remember that they are not just playwrights. They are
also actors, they are also producers, they are advocates for theatre artists, and they
are nurturers, mentors of the next generation of theatre artists – probably, I think,
the most important thing that they do. To my far right, I want to introduce Harvey
Fierstein, (APPLAUSE) a noted actor, playwright. Next is one of the grand men of American letters,
Edward Albee. (APPLAUSE) It sometimes escapes notice that Edward Albee is also a noted producer. And director. And director! I beg your pardon, and director.
How well I know! And to my immediate left is Paula Vogel, playwright. (APPLAUSE) Paula
is having an honored series at the Signature Theatre Company this season. It’s a wonderful
opportunity. It’s a great company, and it’s a great opportunity to take a look at someone’s
work over the course of a season. And to Paula’s immediate left, we have John Weidman, (APPLAUSE)
the book writer, noted for his work, of course, with Stephen Sondheim, but also the book writer
of BIG and also the book writer of the Tony Award-winning dance musical, CONTACT. (APPLAUSE)
Well, we’ve had all the applause already, so we should just – John is also President of the Dramatists Guild
Council. That’s a very important thing. Absolutely. And as the President of the Dramatists
Guild, of course John in involved in that kind of advocacy that I mentioned earlier,
for other artists and sort of holding, shall we say, producers’ feet to the fire and
making sure that all of that happens. Is that right, John? It is, and Edward is a member of the Council,
and has been forever, and is very good at holding our feet to the fire to make sure
we do what we’re supposed to. Now, this season is a remarkable season, because
with this group of people we have significant revivals of your works, coming on the stage
now. In John Weidman’s case, we recently saw ASSASSINS, a brilliant production (APPLAUSE)
that was doing business in the 90th percentile, 95th percentile, and suddenly evaporated this
summer, I was sorry to see. Harvey Fierstein, they’re doing a revival of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES,
and we have a revival of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF [by Edward Albee]. So, what
I’m wondering here, as I think about all of this amazing work that’s happening – Is how old we all are? (LAUGHTER) Well, you know, we can’t exclude any of
us in that. What was it you said before we started? That we’re all gray. Except me. Yes, you. (LAUGHTER) I’m much too young to be gray. And mostly gay. (LAUGHTER) Well, what can you say? (PAULA LAUGHS) I knew
I could count on you! And, good night! (LAUGHTER) Now, Harvey Fierstein, you started your career
working as a drag performer when you were fifteen. And then, I seem to recall a performance
as Andromache in THE TROJAN WOMEN somewhere in the 1970’s? Does that come to mind at
all, ring a bell? Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. You didn’t pay him the hush money. No, I actually began – I was always an art
student, and I went to the High School of Art and Design, and somebody’s mother was
starting a community theatre group and asked if we would make posters, you know, some of
the art kids. And we went down to make posters, and then they said, “Would you like to pull
the curtain?” and so I pulled the curtain. And then they were doing OUR TOWN and my best
friend was going to audition for the newspaper boy, but he was embarrassed, because he was
the only person who showed up to audition for the role, and he figured he’d get it,
but he made me audition with him, and I got it! (LAUGHTER) And that really impacted our
relationship, until his death! (MURMURS FROM THE AUDIENCE) Upstaging even then. Yes, really! (LAUGHTER) And you know, so I
started in community theatre, The Gallery Players, which still exists in Park Slope.
I was one of the founding members at fifteen. Oh, sure, yeah. But some stupid reviewer came from Manhattan,
when we were doing BAREFOOT IN THE PARK. I was playing the telephone man, and I had a
paint-on stubble, so I would look old enough, ‘cause I was fifteen – and gave me a great
review. And in the paper was an ad for an audition, in the city! So I took the train
from Brooklyn into the city, and there was Andy Warhol and there was a dress, and the
rest is history. (LAUGHTER) That’s great. Well, now, your play – I
should say, your plays, THE TORCH SONG TRILOGY, the three plays – seem to have developed
over time, because they appeared, first “International Stud,” I think, and then “Fugue in a Nursery,”
and then the third one, of course, “Thank God I’m Okay” [SIC?; HE MEANS “Widows
and Children First!”] Well, I was working as a performer, and I
was working with a lot of playwrights, and somebody said, “Why don’t you write a
play?” And I said, “Well, I can’t spell.” And somebody said – the most important thing
to me that was ever said to me – of course, now there’s SpellCheck and things like that
– but at that time, somebody said, “There’s people that get about four dollars an hour
that will fix your spelling. You go ahead and write.” And I mean, that’s advice
I still actually give out. (PAULA AND JOHN GRIN) And I sat down and I wrote a play for all
the playwrights who were writing for me, H. M. Katuchas (PH) and Ronald Devell (PH) – I
was in the Ridiculous Movement, which was – as Edward, remember their position was,
“We’ve gone beyond the Absurd. Our position is now Absolutely Ridiculous.” (LAUGHTER)
And that was the birth of the Ridiculous Movement. And so, I wrote my first play, and the Village
Voice in their review compared me to the devil come to earth, and I knew I was on to something!
(LAUGHTER) And so, I wrote, but you know, I never took it very seriously. How doe that journey in TORCH SONG TRILOGY,
that that character, Arnold Beckoff, who I think must have some kind of personal relationship
with you – how does that reflect your own kind of journey? It’s a journey of healing.
It’s a journey of understanding. It’s a journey toward art, in a certain way, too,
the art of life. But it was a practical journey, as well. Ellen
Stewart, La MaMa herself, who I started working with when I was sixteen – I wanted to put
on this play. I had written “International Stud,” the first act, and it took me a long
time to get her convinced to put it on, because I was to be in drag in it, and she wanted
me out of women’s clothing. She felt that I had a career larger than women’s clothing.
Hunh. (LAUGHTER, BECAUSE OF HAIRSPRAY) And anyway, so she didn’t want to put on the
show. And so, when I finally convinced her to do it, the director said, “Tell her it’s
a trilogy!” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “’Cause then she’s stuck doing
the other two parts, and we don’t have to fight with her again.” (LAUGHTER) So that
is actually how TORCH SONG TRILOGY was born. I was curious, did you have any aspect of
the subsequent two plays in your head when you were writing the first one? Absolutely not. Nothing at all? No. I wrote the first one, we did it. It moved
Off-Broadway, it bombed. I went back, I wrote part two, ‘cause we had the space for the
next season. It happened that it was during the SETA program – do you remember the SETA
program? Yes. Sure! The government program. And we had all these
musicians. So I got the idea of writing a play for four actors and then have them represented
by the four musicians. I always loved “Peter and the Wolf”! (LAUGHS) And I had that idea,
and I placed it in this giant bed, and the headboard of the bed would be the four musicians,
and they would have this fugue. And so, I wrote “Fugue in a Nursery.” And that got
bought for Off-Broadway, and moved Off-Broadway and bombed. And then, I sat down to write the third play,
and this pain-in-the-ass little woman, named Estelle Gettelman (PH), who went on to become
Estelle Getty – she was a big fan of mine, for years. And she would come, and she was
only about that big (GESTURES ABOUT THREE FEET OFF THE GROUND; LAUGHTER) And she said,
“Why don’t you write a role for a mother, and I’ll play your mother!” And the idea
of this woman, that big, playing my mother just really tickled me. So I got the idea to write the third act,
you know. Well, a friend of mine had also been beaten very badly in the park, and you
know, so that gave me my theme. And I wrote the third act of TORCH SONG, which got bought
for Broadway! Never got there. And then it took me two years to get anybody to put on
the three plays together, and that was another battle. Which is very interesting, because in his
review of the three works together as TORCH SONG TRILOGY, Mel Gussow said that in a certain
way, even though it was a four hour evening, it worked better as a three act play and it
all cohered in a certain way, that there was an arc to it. Right. Well, and there certainly was, but
part of that I think is in the editing, too, of knowing it’s going to be done as an evening.
So you know, you can take out stuff and you can put in, you know. But also, I mean, the
same critics who had killed it in commercial productions talked about how extensively I’d
rewritten and I didn’t rewrite a word. I mean, I did edit a little. Hmm. Interesting. But you know, you’re not going to fight
with them, because they gave you a good review, so what the hell? (LAUGHTER) So, but yeah,
I mean, that TORCH SONG was definitely a longer, more involved journey, you know, than any
of the other things I’ve written. Well, speaking of long and involved journeys,
Paula Vogel, your work has been appreciated by those in the know for more than two decades. Right. And now, the current play that’s at the
Signature Theatre, which will be closing soon, THE OLDEST PROFESSION – now this is the
first time that it’s actually come to New York. Right. And then, the other plays, AND BABY MAKES
SEVEN has played here. I ran across a review, somebody named Vi Bremmen (PH) wrote that
play. Oh, yes. That was my pseudonym. And I wrote
a letter to the New York Times after Mel Gussow’s review, informing them that Vi Bremmen had
leapt from the Brooklyn Bridge (JEFF LAUGHS) and I never returned to that pseudonym. I
just wanted to have a pseudonym. It’s very interesting. I’ve been on a
number of panels, which I always adore, because it’s just a thrill to hear other writers
and how they think. And I look around and then I go, “You know, of course I expect
to be the only lesbian on the panel,” but actually, there’s something more significant.
I’ve never been done on Broadway. I am an Off-Broadway baby. I am of a generation, it’s
sort of like I didn’t find the New York apartment in time, so I ended up moving to
Providence. If I had found that New York apartment, I’d still be a New Yorker. But it’s a similar thing, in terms of when
I finally got here, from the staged readings and the holes in the wall that did me, the
tiny little 50-seat theatres in Juneau, Alaska, or Theatre Rhinoceros, or Wired Women Productions
– and I have been told that my plays are too intimate for larger spaces, has been what
I’ve been told. There’s a very interesting thing that’s happened, in terms of new plays
right now, and where we are delegating new plays, commercially. And this, I’m sure,
we’re all going to jump in, in terms of what’s happening right now with Off-Broadway.
Fortunately, I’m so hooked on the process that it never occurred to me, really, to be
anything else but in love with the actors and the directors in the room that I’m in.
It is occurring to me, as I get older, that there’s a glass ceiling of Broadway, and
that I won’t go through that glass ceiling. But it’s a very interesting thing for me.
I mean, the Signature allows me the opportunity to see a play I wrote twenty-four years ago.
It’s a new play to me. I’ve never had the chance to work on it in the room, with
actors of this caliber. HOT AND THROBBING, I’m still working on it. It’s still a
new play. Why? It is so scary right now for not-for-profit theatres, and I understand
why, that I haven’t gotten the chance to work with really great actors – I’ve had
two productions in the United States – other than the hole-in-the-wall theatres that I
can’t go see because I teach. So it’s a new play. And if it hadn’t been for the
Signature, I would never get these plays into New York. To me right now, the American theatre and
new plays and what really we’re doing is, there has been a censorship of what voices
get shown and heard and seen, and what voices don’t. And by the way, that has to do with,
for example, (TO HARVEY) SPOOK HOUSE, which, by the way, when I went and saw it – am
I having the right title? I thought it was so magnificent. It was so disturbing. This
is a play that Harvey did, I guess the second – was this the play after — ? After LA CAGE. After LA CAGE? I went and saw this Off-Broadway,
and it was everything that you look for in a new play. It told us a truth that had my
hands shaking. I was shaking! So it’s very interesting what plays are done Off-Broadway,
versus what’s done commercially. It’s very interesting what’s chosen for New York. What is, for me, a great thing right now is
that there are a lot more holes-in-the-wall with younger producers, and that there’s
actually a vitality out in the regional theatre, as well as in the downtown theatre, of plays
that run for three weeks, with plays that are done on a five thousand dollar budget,
with plays that are being written by, you know, twenty-one-year-olds to whatever, that
come and they’re gone! And to me, that’s really where I situate. This – there is one other luxury! This is
the first time I’ve ever seen a revival of my work. And partly, this is by choice.
I have not gone to see BALTIMORE WALTZ for the past ten years, ‘cause I just thought,
you know, it chews me up to go see it. So I decided to leave it behind. And we’re
about to start rehearsal with Mark Brokaw, Kristen Johnston, David Marshall Grant, Jeremy
Webb, in two weeks. What’s terrifying to me is I watch everybody’s
revivals, and we were talking about this, is that (LAUGHS) politically nothing’s changed!
And they’re still telling the truth, in terms of my [fellow] panelists on this stage,
that the things that seared us from the work of my colleagues, ten or fifteen years ago,
because it was telling a truth about the direction the country was heading in, sear us still.
So that’s also kind of an interesting thing. I don’t know what to say, in terms of how
we support art and theatre, which I think is the truth-teller right now, and has always
been. As there’s an economic suppression and a suppression by the New York Times, is
something that’s very, very disturbing, in terms of the artists that we’re not hearing. Paula, you mentioned something very interesting
when you said something about the New York Times suppressing coverage. And this was something
that we were sort of chatting about before we began the broadcast, and I was wondering
if you could elaborate about that a little bit. And I think that everyone has some feelings
about this. We should talk about what’s going on right now, in New York. Yes. Right, right. There’s what I would
call “a disappearing act,” in terms of theatre coverage. Now, I’m not talking about
critics and criticism. I think that the more reviews, the better. I don’t know if everybody
else does this, but I actually giggle when I read really deliciously scathing reviews
of my work. I don’t do that. (LAUGHTER) I only do it of other people’s work. (LAUGHTER) Or, as George Bernard Shaw famously wrote
to a critic, “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house, reading your review. Soon
I shall put it behind me,” (LAUGHTER) I think is also another delightful way of looking
at it. But I think it’s not the notion of criticism, it’s that there’s too little
of it. There’s no coverage. And we’ve seen it start to dwindle. It’s dwindled
in alarming ways. We’ve seen that theatre has been buried
inside the Arts & Leisure [section], that it’s all about film. We saw that the counter-reviews
on Sunday by Vincent Canby disappeared, that there never was that notion of a kind of counterpart.
And the reviews and the coverage and the stories, the preview interviews, have dwindled and
dwindled and dwindled. Now we have just heard – and this is what this comment is projected
[upon] – is that Off-Broadway reviews will no longer be available in print, they will
only be available on line. (HORRIFIED MURMURS FROM THE AUDIENCE) Not all. Not all, but a great number of the
Off-Off-Broadway reviews, and Off-Broadway reviews, will be available only on line. And
no matter how terrible a movie is, how disgraceful a movie is – It’s here forever. It gets reviewed, of course, at great length
in the New York Times. And that has to do only with one thing. It has to do with the
advertising dollar that movies bring into the New York Times, and Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway
shows don’t bring in any advertising money to the New York Times, and so they are expendable.
It’s disgraceful. It also seems conceptually perverse. I mean,
theatre as an art form is the one thing which has always distinguished New York from every
other city and every other part of the country. That’s less true now than it used to be,
but certainly it has been traditionally true. And so, to demote theatre, to diminish its
importance within the pages of the Arts & Leisure section, seems to me to demote the specialness
of the city which the New York Times is covering. You know, and not only is the coverage disappearing,
but I think we’ve all seen the tone and the quality of some of the coverage which
remains begin to drift and alter, certainly over the course of the last several months.
Some people would say that the sort of gossipy quality of some of that coverage is being
driven by the success of a columnist for another one of the daily newspapers, a newspaper which
is not read by anybody who’s ever purchased a theatre ticket! Nevertheless. (LAUGHTER)
We all know who I’m talking about! Within the theatre community, people read that column,
and the Times, it seems to me, has tried to pick up, at least to a certain extent, the
tone of that column. There was a feature piece in the Arts & Leisure
section, maybe it was during the week, but three or four days before a new musical opened
several months ago. And the piece was a snippy piece about the author. And in fact, it reviewed
the show before it opened, quoting not only the Times critic who would eventually review
it, but the Times number two critic and a major critic from another newspaper. And I,
frankly, had never read anything that in the Times before. Wrote a letter to the Times,
it was published, that’s fine. But that policy, whatever the editorial policy was
which produced that article, I’m sure remains in place, and it’s a source of real concern
for anybody who sits down with an empty piece of paper in front of them and does this work. I think everybody who watches this program,
cares anything about theatre, get your pen and paper out, write to the New York Times
and complain about it. (APPLAUSE) I mean, I also think this is part and parcel
of where we’re placing all of the arts. This is a unique form. We are in a civil discourse
and dialogue. And I don’t know how other people feel. I’m sure that New York is one
of the places that I come, not just for theatre, but so that I can see independent films that
will not get to the Cineplex near me. If I go to the Cineplex, what I am seeing is what
I call gladiatorial entertainment. (LAUGHTER) It’s as if we are being trained to be gladiators
for the empire. It is chilling and frightening! To me, the eradication and making invisible
theatre is eroding our ability to sit in a room together and have a discourse and a dialogue
as citizen-participants in our democracy. VOICE FROM THE AUDIENCE
Hear, hear! And it is this that I am fearful of. I am
not, again, talking about the nature, the necessity, the delights and torments of criticism.
I am talking about the absolute erosion of our visibility. But do you think it has something to do with
the nature of theatre altogether, and the place that theatre still plays, and what it
will be? In the old days, theatre was everything. But now we have television to do the boulevard
comedies. We have movies to do the large stories. Where? Where are they doing them? Well, you know what I mean. I mean, that sort
of silliness that we used to put – you know, the Jean Kerr kind of plays, those are done
on television. And then movies do the epic stories or the passion plays. And so, theatre
is left, as it was in the beginning, to be the place of ideas. Movies are about story.
Theatre is always about ideas. I still think theatre is everything. But I’m saying – oh – Yeah. We have an audience that doesn’t look to
us anymore. You brought up SPOOK HOUSE before. SPOOK HOUSE was done. It was a play about
a family that was ruined by a social worker. Unbelievably great. The critics came in and said I lied! They
said, “It’s not true. This couldn’t happen. No woman would ever stab her own son.”
And you know, not weeks after the play was closed down by those critics, there was a
huge scandal of social workers in New York! Right, right. And I, like, stood there and said, “Well,
I told you so!” You know? When I wrote my play, SAFE SEX, which had nobody in the play
that had AIDS, it was all about how it was going to affect all of us, the critics came
in and once again said, “He’s not telling us the truth. AIDS is a disease that will
be cured in the next year or so. It will never change our lives.” My play closed. AIDS
is still here twenty years later. I was right, they were wrong! But I’m saying, the critics
– you talk about the critics? They don’t even look to us. It’s as if we sit down
to fool somebody. “I wrote a play to fool you, not to tell you the truth as it is!” Right! We’re not looked at that way. We’re condemned, no matter how much research
or thought that we put into something, because the critics will say, “It’s not believable.”
By the way – Well, that’s what I’m saying, but they
don’t know – instead of coming – By the way, I interviewed prostitutes in a
stable in Brooklyn, and they had college degrees and I know how these women talk. But they’re
“too literate.” Now, this happens all the time, and it’s very very interesting. Excuse me, is that for THE OLDEST PROFESSION? It’s for OLDEST PROFESSION. That’s her play. That’s what she was criticized
for. And I’m saying, instead of walking into the theatre – Yeah, absolutely. “It’s not believable!”
And they’re going, “Well, you know,” – no, I don’t know anything about prostitution.
I do know a lot about whoring, and so do we all! (HARVEY LAUGHS) The inability to enter
a play world as metaphor, and insist that it is a literal interpretation of surface
reality is a very dangerous political trend. Whose truth is it? The reason that I am still in love with theatre,
every time I see your play, your play, your play, is that it is an emotional reality.
It is not surface reality. It asks us to take an emotional journey. It is not reality T.V.
It is not everybody’s reality. I want to go to the theatre and walk inside someone
else’s shoes and get inside someone else’s skin and leave my own body behind. That’s
why it’s crucial for us in a democracy to have theatre, because it’s not done by test
marketing, to get to the common denominator that washes out the specific, gritty, uncomfortable,
delightful, individual voice. And we have lost, in New York the ability
for us to go in a room and see someone else’s voice and enter into their vision of the world.
Instead, we want all of our meat chopped up in such digestible bits, that I think that
this is a dangerous political trend. I think that theatre is the bird in the cage you take
down in the mining shaft to find out if there are poisonous gases. And I feel that the New
York Times is doing a political disservice to our health as a city, as a community, and
as citizens. We are losing this muscle of empathy that only theatre gives. Film does
not. Film cuts up our meat in digestible bits by the editor, by being in the film room,
do you know what I mean? But Paula – well, sure. But of course, the
New York Times may not be covering these things, and of course, as I mentioned to you earlier,
the listings in the back of the Arts & Leisure have now disappeared as well. I know what you’re saying. Yeah, I didn’t
even know that. So it’s hard for us to track even that.
And how many people actually have Internet access? You know, when we’re talking about
a democracy, we’re talking about access – That’s right. The question that arises is, you know, who
has access to the Internet to go check the online listings? Right. Edward makes the argument that there’s a
commercial element to this, because of the advertising and because of the shrinking amount
of space. Oh, I would like to think that part of what
the New York Times is attempting to do was socio-politically motivated. I don’t think
so, however. I think, for the most part, it is sheer greed on the part of the paper, to
get advertising dollars from film. But you know, it’s only part of the problem,
what the New York Times is doing now. You mentioned earlier, lots of wonderful revivals
of plays on Broadway this fall! Yeah, I looked at that list. I have a play on there, too.
Pretty safe stuff, you know? Good stuff, but safe stuff. Right, right. Is there a single new American play scheduled
this coming season for Broadway? There may be one. I’m not even sure there is. There
are a couple of British things, but of course – Right. Something new coming to Broadway can only
come to Broadway new if it’s Edward Albee’s play, I think. All safe revivals. Again, this has to do with
the Almighty dollar. This has to do – Let me ask a question on top of that, and
everybody can answer if they’d like, and the question is, to what extent what we think
of as theatre or playwriting has moved away from Broadway, in a trend which is irreversible?
And the second question is, how much does it matter? In other words, I mean, if Broadway
really becomes a certain kind of musical theatre theme park for a certain kind of audience
for a certain kind of show – We’re not terribly unhappy, necessarily
– well, matter of fact, we’re often quite happy to have our plays done in a 500-seat
theatre, with an enthusiastic audience. It is a kind of economic second-class citizenship,
but that doesn’t bother us much. What bothers me more is if the New York Times persists
in making us totally invisible, simply because we want to have our plays done in a proper-sized
theatre, in front of an enthusiastic audience. No, no, no, my question was not an argument
in support of one position or the other. It really was just meant to be provocative. I
agree with you, I mean, that if you combine the fact that the coverage of Off-Broadway
and Off-Off-Broadway has been diminished with the fact the Broadway itself has separated
itself from the rest of the theatrical enterprise in this country, you wind up with a very very
dangerous combination of circumstances. You do. But it’s my understanding – not that I’m
going to make any more of an enemy of him than he already is to me – but it was my
understanding that when Frank Rich stepped into that position, he said, “I am taking
theatre off the front page of the Arts & Leisure. It will now be movies, because people don’t
care about theatre, and I’m moving it inside.” And that is my understanding, whether it’s
true or not. If it’s not true, I apologize to him. (ROLLS HIS EYES; LAUGHTER) I apologize
to that man for nothing, except for his morality. Keep saying it, though! I only know – I’m not going to contradict
you, but I mean, I know Frank personally. I went to college with him. And there’s
no more passionate theatergoer than Frank Rich. Theatergoer is one thing, but as I understand
it, it was his decision to pull theatre off the front page of the Arts & Leisure. I also
heard he killed Hirschfeld, but I’m not sure if that’s true. (MUCH LAUGHTER) Well, you know, this is a good point, I think,
for us to – That’s funny! To talk about the political elements that
come into play. We’re in a world now, we’re in a time where there’s a highly charged
election season going on. Edward makes the argument that this is pretty safe stuff, all
very good stuff, that we’re seeing in the revival of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES – Economically safe. Economically safe. Not intellectually safe. It’s economically
safe. Right. But there’s a couple things I would like
for us to think about here for a moment, is how those productions reflect – if they
reflect the politics of today, and how that relates back to their original productions.
But first, I want to start with something I alluded to earlier, when I mentioned ASSASSINS,
which was a heart-stopping production for me, it was brilliant. Joe Mantello, it was a complete bull’s-eye,
it was great. No pun intended. (APPLAUSE) And completely deserved its five Tony Awards,
and perhaps even more. What happened there, though? This was doing ninety-five percent
business, and then it evaporated this summer. Is there a [reason]? You know, I was, as you can imagine, I was
also upset about the schedule on which the show closed. You know, we were playing to
ninety-five percent houses. The actors never came out and saw anything less than what – it
at least felt like a full house. The show had been extended beyond – I mean, look,
the Roundabout does a series of shows one after the other, and there was another show
coming into that space. Usually, it’s somebody else’s show, so you get angry. In this case,
it was another one of my shows, so it was a little more complicated. (LAUGHTER) But you know, and I’ve discussed it at length
with Todd Haimes. I was not shy about trying to figure out what happened. And the response
essentially was an economic one, not a political one, that the Sunday on which the show closed
was co-terminus with the point at which they had put a certain block of tickets on sale,
and that when they had put another block of tickets on sale, tickets which covered the
period of time which would have begun with the following Tuesday night’s performance,
sales had been weak. That when the show opened, the reviews are
really good, that was not reflected in the sales the next day. The show won five Tony
Awards, not reflected in the sales the next day. That, whatever the audience – it’s
confusing. People were being told that this sort of Broadway musical was something they
should go see, but whoever the audience was out there that would ordinarily have gone
to see a show based on those instructions, and the fact that this was sort of an unknown
Stephen Sondheim musical, those people did not come to the box office. Now, the theatre was still full. The Roundabout
had, the previous season, been burned badly by a couple of bad decisions about recasting
shows and extending shows, one of which was NINE. And they made a very, very conservative
decision to close this show when they closed it. I think that if they could go back and
do it over again, they would not have closed it so precipitously, because it has provoked
exactly this kind of conversation. Well, this is a good way to lay that to rest. Yeah. (LAUGHS) Now, on the other hand, there
may be more to the story than I have recounted here! But you know, Todd was completely open
about describing the economic side of it to me, said he had not been pressured by anybody
on his board. You know, everybody always knew the Republican convention was coming. I don’t
know that they knew that the show would win five Tony Awards, and that it might, God forbid,
run through (LAUGHS) the Republican convention! It was always going to close around Labor
Day. So you know, basically, I think I am putting
those rumors to rest. That does not make it any less disappointing. People don’t always
get your work right. And when a director and a cast and designers get it as right as they
did with ASSASSINS, you want it to be there until nobody else wants to see it, you know? Right. And I have friends who, for one reason or
another, because they were out of town or whatever, you know, thought they’d come
back at some point in August and catch it then, and by then it was gone. So there are
people who never had a chance to see it. So you know, I feel torn between enormous gratitude
towards the Roundabout, which did it and did it so well, but still the frustration that
it is not still there for people to buy a ticket. But – and it does circle back to the question,
you talk about critics and the Times – back to the question of the New York audience,
whatever that phrase means. But I was surprised that people did not turn out in larger numbers
than they did to buy tickets to that show. Ticket buying habits have changed. Because
of 9/11, people don’t necessarily buy tickets three months in advance. There’s a lot of,
you know, sales during the week when the people are buying tickets to see a particular performance.
But even so, it felt like the show would receive more economic support from an audience than
it did. Harvey, let’s talk for a moment about LA
CAGE AUX FOLLES. And it’s returning to New York now, we’re in a time when the issue
of gay marriage is part of the discourse in this country. How do you think it reflects
its own time, and how does it reflect now? And are you revisiting the text? Now, that’s
a question I really want to ask everyone. Are you revisiting the text? Are you making
changes? When they came to me to do LA CAGE again – they
always want to revive it just as it was, and I was not interested in bringing it back.
I felt it deserved a new production, that when it was done the first time around, 1983
was a different time. We were scared. People were scared. TORCH SONG was, and I think remains
the only, gay-themed play to ever make money on Broadway. Many have come and gone, but
none have ever made money, and TORCH SONG ran five years. LA CAGE is the only gay musical
to ever make money on Broadway. And so, I wanted it revisited, and a new production.
And certainly, as the writer of the text, and it’s a very “book” musical – I
think there are only nine songs. I mean, there are reprises, but I think there are only nine
songs in the whole show. It’s a very book musical, and it ain’t Shakespeare. So you
know, even if it was, I would have rewritten him, too. (LAUGHTER) But I sat down with the
script, and I had no fear of looking at it, and I started right from page one, writing
new jokes. But when it came to the essence of it, to
telling the story of this gay couple that had raised a child – I mean, it’s a story
about a marriage of twenty-some-odd years almost ruined by their child’s thoughtlessness
– there was nothing to change, nothing of the politics to change. The father of the
girl is the deputy general of the T.F.M., is what I wrote originally, the Tradition
Family Morality party. And the father of the boy says, “Well, I like that. Sounds a little
bit of everything in there!” (JOHN LAUGHS) You know, you didn’t have to change that
at all. I didn’t have to change their political positions. The fun was that I was able to put stuff back
in that had been removed by them, what was a little scared, and it would not even shock
you now! But it’s amazing – You’ve sharpened the edges, is what you’re
saying? Well, no, I’ve actually put some stuff back
in. Like, at one point, when the boy says, “I’m going to get married to this girl,
and I’m bringing the family here,” in a series of lines, the father says, “You
traitor! You Judas!” And then they wouldn’t let me say the final word, so it made it,
“You traitor! You Judas! You collaborationist!” But I’m able to put it back to originally
what I wrote, and it will hopefully get a lovely laugh, which is, “You traitor! You
Judas! You heterosexual!” (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE) Well, there’s your laugh! So, in a funny way, you know, that has changed,
so I’m freer to do that stuff. They were very scared to be sexy back then. The opening
number, “We Are What We Are,” you know, they all stood in these sort of Erté poses
and never touched each other. The loving couple only kissed at the final curtain, and then
just on the cheek. I mean, we’re not, you know, the boys – “girls”! – start
the show naked. I mean, you don’t see dingles and things. (LAUGHTER) But it’s much more
daring – Dingles? Huh. I’ll explain later. (LAUGHTER) I always
have to explain to Edward later. (LAUGHTER) But the fun part was also in casting. I could
not get them to hire a gay person to play a role in this show. Right, I remember this. You know, and I don’t think Arthur Laurents
would mind my telling the story that I said, “These roles have to be played by gay people.”
I don’t care – you have the greatest seventeen-year-old actress in the world, she can not play a grandmother.
There’s stuff she doesn’t know. Life has not taught her yet. And there are stakes,
especially in a musical where you don’t have a hell of a lot of time for character
development, there are things in a gay person’s baggage that a gay person would carry onto
that stage that I don’t have time to explain, that an audience would feel. That is the magic
of theatre, you know, of what the actor brings, what the playwright brings, what the audience
brings, that marriage. And anyway, heterosexuals played the leads.
During the run of the show, Keene Curtis took over, playing one of the leads, playing Albin.
And Arthur Laurents called me up on the phone after his first performance and said, “I
told you you were wrong, and you are not!” (LAUGHTER) And he said what a difference it
made when you finally had somebody who had been through those struggles all his life,
so when he stood on that stage and finally was given the opportunity to sing, “I am
what I am, and you will not push me down again,” that he had a whole lifetime to bring. We
begged for that! So anyway, so now I don’t have to face that
kind of stuff, you know, and there was no problem of casting actors that didn’t want
to play gay, and it’s a whole other ball game of the freedom. Just on this level alone,
if this makes any sense, when we had the very first rehearsal of the original production,
and they put all of the drag queens in their high heels, they fell around, they tripped,
they were turning their ankles. You put this bunch in heels, honey … ! (LAUGHTER) There
was not a tripped person – I mean, not one of these boys hadn’t been in his mother’s
closet all his life. (LAUGHTER) And they were traipsing around, they were tap-dancing, there
was no trouble in heels at all! So you know, the only problem with reviving
LA CAGE is how damn old it makes me feel, because those chorus boys were all just being
born when we did it the first time, because I wrote this show before I was thirty, you
know, and now I’m forty-two. (LAUGHTER) Harvey, when you did it the first time, and
you talk about “they” wouldn’t let us do this, “they” wouldn’t let us do that
– I’m being kind. Was it specifically the producers, or was
it a general feeling around the show, given the year when it was being produced and what
“they,” in some large atmospheric sense, thought would work or wouldn’t work with
a Broadway audience? Well, no, some of it is my darling Arthur,
who I love, but you know, I read his autobiography and I certainly didn’t recognize any of
that stuff! (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) You know, a lot of it, he was the leader of our
ship and certainly taught me a lot of what I know, both as a human being and as a writer
of books. But he was frightened, you know. Our producers were not so – ‘cause I think
they had – now, they never expressed it to me. It always came through our fearless
leader, our director, so I don’t know. But I don’t mean to blame him or anything. It
was different times. Yeah. And those were different careers, and they
were, you know – I’ll tell you a story. I was at a restaurant with some people and
was overheard by a waiter. TORCH SONG had just moved to Broadway from Off-Broadway and
LA CAGE had just gone into rehearsal. And I said something, like, “Yeah, I put, you
know, talkin’ fags on Broadway, and now I’m gonna put singin’ and dancin’ fruits
there, too!” Well, it got reported on Page Six. And when I came into rehearsal the next
day of LA CAGE, Arthur had the entire company stand up and turn their backs on me. (MURMURS
FROM THE AUDIENCE) And he said, “We are not fr-r-r-uits! We know not about fruits!” Arthur said that? Yeah, Arthur. (EDWARD QUIRKS HIS EYEBROW;
HARVEY LAUGHS) Oh, Edward, I love you so. Your silence says everything! (LAUGHTER) It’s a good story. It’s great. But you know, and I went home, you know, and
wept for many hours, you know. But that was – I mean, could you imagine if I said “fruits”
now? I mean, nobody would [notice], you know? I mean, and it’s in the show! It’s not
like it was a word that wasn’t used. I mean, the character says, “Suddenly, you’re
no fruit, just because you had sex with a woman once, drunk at the Lido?” You know,
I mean, it’s there. It’s not like it was a language [issue]. But that was a different
time. It was a different time. It’s gonna be interesting now – That’s a married woman talking to you now! Yes. She got married to her partner! (APPLAUSE) Thank you. But that’s the interesting thing
right now. When we’re talking about, you know, things being safe that are being done
commercially right now, and how LA CAGE felt then, when the notion, I think, of identity
– gay, lesbian, heterosexual, ethnic, etc., and so forth – identity felt in the Reagan
years much more separate. It seems to me that this particular election is trying to separate
(LAUGHS) audience members, all of us, into those identities again. So I’m wondering
how it’s going to feel right now, in an election year, to see LA CAGE, when there
is supposed to be a Constitutional amendment that’s trying to get passed. That’s going
to be very interesting. But I just want to say to you, by the way,
I thought the original cast members did much better in heels than I could ever do! (LAUGHTER
FROM THE PANEL) So I completely believed it, you know? (LAUGHTER) And may I say, you do much better in a suit
than I shall ever do! (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE) Well … (LAUGHTER FROM THE PANEL) Edward,
I have a sense you have something to say. I don’t know. I’m having too much fun
listening! Me, too! (LAUGHTER) But the question of does one change a play
one has written, because it’s going to be revived – now, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA
WOOLF was written in 1960, so that’s a quite a number of years, isn’t it? That’s forty-four
years since I wrote it. And I am not the same playwright. Right. I wouldn’t dream of letting somebody else
rewrite my play. I wouldn’t dream of it for a second. And therefore, I’m not going
to let me rewrite my play, because I am a different person. Right. I wouldn’t let you do it either! (LAUGHTER) Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!
But fortunately, nobody’s asked me to do that. But Edward, what you wrote is Shakespeare,
so. (APPLAUSE) Stop! It’s true. That is true. And obviously, we’ve known each other too
long to know that it’s blow[ing] smoke up anything of yours. (LAUGHTER) But plays like
that don’t come along – those are those gifts that you just really wouldn’t mess
with. I mean, mine’s a musical! (LAUGHTER) Yeah, but the problem, however, is that I
feel that way about every single thing I’ve written. (LAUGHTER) You think that’s [true]? Yes, the answer is yes. Oh, I should keep that note you wrote me! Well, wait, I’d like to ask Edward a question,
because I guess I was in high school when VIRGINIA WOOLF opened. And it opened on Broadway,
before Edward was Edward. Well, he was sort of Edward, but with a little “a.” (LAUGHTER)
But it opened on Broadway, and I mean, I saw it three times. And when you sit at the back
of that theatre – where I guess RENT has now been playing (LAUGHS), for fifteen years
– and you looked at that Broadway play audience, who did you see that you don’t see any more? Oh, great question. Going to the theatre then? Going to see a play of that seriousness, in
a Broadway playhouse, as opposed to at Lincoln Center or at the Manhattan Theatre Club or
at the Roundabout. It’s so hard to answer that, because a play
like WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, which got a lot of lousy reviews in the dailies
when it opened, by the way – Walter Kerr said it had a hole in its head, which made
me wonder about what he was talking about. And audience reaction, and some of the weeklies,
got that play on its feet, and it ran for two and a half years, which was fine. So,
why did the play become a success? Because the audience who went to see it told other
people, and they liked it. I don’t know whether it was the same audience that were
going to other shows on Broadway that year. I don’t know how audiences have changed.
I do know some things about audiences. The more ticket prices have gone up, the harder
it is for young people, one of the reasons that young people don’t go to theatre very
much any more. They have their movies and rock concerts and other stuff to go to. But
it’s considered by young people to be an old person’s activity and is considered
not to have anything to do with what the world is all about, which, as we know, is preposterous
nonsense. But when we did WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA
WOOLF on Broadway, in 1962, for a total cost of forty-five thousand dollars (MURMURS FROM
THE AUDIENCE) – now the revival is going to cost close to two million. We had ticket
prices at seven dollars and now they’re going to be seventy-five, of course. I imagine
the audience will be different. But a play like WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF brings
with it a certain baggage of acceptance, a certain baggage of “This is something that
we probably should see because it was so successful.” Whether that’s a virtue or not, I don’t
know. It’s awfully hard to answer how audiences
have changed. I do know that the older I get, the more audiences seem to be about my age.
And maybe forty-five years ago, they all seemed to be a lot younger. I’m not sure. Well, you know, I think for the past twenty
or thirty years, though, we’ve been talking about the aging of the audience. And we keep
talking about the aging of the audience, even as we work – you know, I teach in a drama
department that has fifteen hundred undergraduates getting drama degrees and they care about
theatre. Passionately! Passionately about theatre. Yeah. So there is an audience there. Yes. And there are opportunities, through clubs
and whatnot, to get inexpensive tickets. I think – Richard Christianson from the Chicago
Tribune once said to me that for his entire working career – which goes back, you know,
almost fifty years, from this point back fifty years – people have always been saying that
the audiences are getting older. And he believed, and I’m beginning to concur, that in fact
it’s a natural sort of thing, that people begin to become more aware of the theatre,
but that doesn’t mean we stop outreach. Here’s one disturbing fact, though. Generally
speaking, the last tickets sold for a straight play are the cheapest. Yes. Those are the last tickets sold. That’s
troubling. And those are to the youngest audience members. Yeah, that’s troubling. Yeah. You know, having done HAIRSPRAY and,
you know, gotten to watch that audience on a daily basis, there’s a natural progression
of the show being open from the theatre people who see it right away, and then you start
going into the others, you know. And more and more and more kids. But I think that’s
natural, I think it always – I mean, I was dragged to theatre by my parents every weekend.
You know, we either went to the opera, the ballet, the theatre, or a museum every weekend.
But it was five dollar theatre tickets and ten dollar theatre tickets! And there wasn’t the Internet to distract
you. And there wasn’t the Internet to distract
them! Right. Though I think, I mean, my mother was a librarian,
she would have dragged us anyway. (JEFFREY LAUGHS) But we had no money. I mean, we were
a poor family. We had no money, but we could do that. We could go to the theatre. You know,
Jack O’Brien always tells the story of some actress, I can’t remember who it is, when
theatre ticket prices went up to eighty dollars, she said, “Eighty dollars! Oh, I don’t
think I can be that good! (LAUGHTER) Eighty dollars eight times a week? I don’t think
I can be that good.” And I would think, you know, a hundred dollars, you know, for
two and a half hours! And I think of, you know, shouldn’t I be sending this to some
kid in Africa? I mean, really! (LAUGHS) Wasn’t the first ticket to break a hundred
dollars NICHOLAS NICKLEBY? Yes. I remember thinking, that people are paying
a hundred dollars to see Victorian poverty. (LAUGHTER) I just thought that was kind of
extraordinary. But a lot of it, over a very long period of
time! A lot of Victorian poverty! You got your money’s worth. That’s right. And they paid a hundred dollars, and then
they brought a box lunch. Yes! That’s right, that’s right. Well, the other question that arises now,
you’ve said that VIRGINIA WOOLF, you wouldn’t allow yourself to rewrite. And we spoke about
this a little bit earlier – Well, mind you, all along the line, the number
of times I’ve directed – I directed the revival on Broadway in 1976, with Colleen
Dewhurst – Yes. I made little snips, little snips here and
there, if I thought I was being self-indulgent and the writing was good, but it was unnecessary.
You know, it didn’t move the play forward or delineate characters, it was just Edward
being proud of his writing, I’d cut a little bit here and there. (PAULA AND JOHN SMILE)
But no re-thinking of the play because this disturbed somebody or might even become anachronistic.
That’s tough! If it’s going to become anachronistic, it’s going to become anachronistic,
and I can’t do anything about it. Well, then, with THE ZOO STORY, a few years
ago you did a little bit of a revision on it, that great play, and then you’ve written
recently, and I told you my feelings about this already, this beautiful, searing – Say it again. Well, it’s this searingly funny new play,
HOME LIFE, as a companion piece to it. It’s what happens to Peter and his wife, before
Peter goes to meet Jerry in the park in THE ZOO STORY. And the interesting thing there is I did not
change a word of THE ZOO STORY. I wouldn’t do that. I did make a little cut in THE ZOO
STORY, about twelve years ago, one of the times I was directing it. Because again, Albeean
excess, Jerry runs on the knife, he collapses on the bench. He’s got a knife deep in his
aorta, and in the original text, what does he do? He has an aria! (LAUGHTER) He talks
for a full page, saying what happened to him and what it means and everything like that.
I cut it down, because you don’t talk that way, and it’s not an opera. That was the
only change I made, and that was because I had been foolish. And I did it not that long
after I wrote it. When I decided it would be interesting what
happened to the character Peter at home with his wife before he went to the zoo, so I would
know more about the character Peter when I saw him on stage with the character Jerry,
I knew I wasn’t going to change a single word of THE ZOO STORY and I wasn’t going
to change the nature of the experience of THE ZOO STORY. I was going to amplify it,
perhaps. But I wouldn’t – I don’t think any author should second-guess himself, in
that sense. I love death scene arias, by the way. I just
need – Desdemona! What’s Desdemona without that
great Verdi music? (JEFFREY LAUGHS) Well, that’s Verdi. It doesn’t work in
Shakespeare. DESDEMONA, of course, is your play that’s
the other side of OTHELLO. That’s right, yes. I stole it a little bit,
yes. (LAUGHS) The backstage – But I love – I mean, it’s the quality
of writing that I fall in love with, with other writers. It’s something that is implausible.
It’s something almost impossible. How would you [speak at length], with a knife in your
gut? But when I go back and I look at the plays that I love, I mean, they’re these
extraordinary – I know what’s gonna happen when I die. It’s like, what did Isadora
Duncan think, in the last thirty seconds? She probably wasn’t thinking in Jacobean
poetry, you know? Yes, she did. She was, she was. (JEFFREY LAUGHS) And I know, when I die, I’m probably going
to go, “Oh, oops!” She was. You think so? Well, I’ll probably go, “Oh,
oops!” But when you read these great works, they’re saying things like, “Like diamonds
we are cut with our own dust.” I mean, isn’t that wonderful, if you could say that as your
last line as you expire? (LAUGHTER) And to me, that’s the wonderful thing about an
Albee aria. It’s the collapsing and the expansion of time. This goes back to what’s
surface reality? The thing that I love about all of your play worlds is that I have to
go with it. I have to ignore my laws of physics. I’m so sorry to be contrarian about this,
but I love that aria. I love that aria. But isn’t that what theatre does, that movies
can’t do? That when you sit down in the theatre, if I say, “This is a barn,” the
audience will go, “Okay, it’s a barn.” This exact same set, if I say, “This is
a palace,” the audience is going to say that it’s a palace. Yes. But they won’t do that with a T.V. show.
They won’t do that with a movie. They won’t do that anywhere else, and that’s part of
the experience of being in the theatre. I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that
I cut a great deal out of the last aria – sorry, Paula – of TINY ALICE the last time it was
done. Now – I know, you told me that, and I loved the
first way! (LAUGHS) Yeah. There was Brother Julian – I seem
to have this habit of giving arias to people when they’re dying – he had been shot
in the belly, and he was bleeding to death – I loved it! And he had an eleven-minute — (LAUGHTER)
monologue. We had a problem there, during the original Broadway production, with John
Gielgud playing Brother Julian. And he began rehearsals by saying (DOES GIELGUD’S VOICE),
“I don’t understand a word of this play, not a word!” (LAUGHTER) And a week before
we opened, we’d just started previews, I got a call that John wanted to have a meeting
with the director and the producer and me. And he announced that he couldn’t possibly
do that eleven-minute monologue, nobody could do it! And I said, “Well, John, if anybody
can do it – ” (GIELGUD’S VOICE AGAIN) “No-o!” (LAUGHTER) And I said, “But
I love it!” God, eleven minutes, it was, you know – Yeah. (TO PAULA) I loved it about as much as you
did, as a matter of fact. Yeah, yeah. I probably still do. I do love it. And I got rather annoyed during that meeting.
And I remember – I don’t know how I had the nerve to do it – I said, “Well, John,
there are three choices. You can either do the first half of the monologue – you know,
the first five and a half minutes – stop. Or you can start in the middle and do the
second five and a half minutes of the monologue. Or we can do ‘Hits from the Monologue.’”
(LAUGHTER) There was a long silence, and then John said, “Very funny, Edward, very funny.”
(LAUGHTER) That’s a great John Gielgud, by the way. Thank you. Great. And he did one almost as good. (LAUGHTER)
And we did “Hits from the Monologue.” And when we had a new production, with Richard
Thomas playing Brother Julian, a couple of years ago, four years ago, I said, “Oh,
boy, here’s the opportunity! I can go back to the eleven minutes and make Paula happy!”
And so, we did a rehearsal with the eleven minutes, and I began having a terribly uncomfortable
feeling that John Gielgud had been right! (MURMURS FROM THE AUDIENCE) I mean, it wasn’t
Richard Thomas, who was very splendid, but I was bored out of my mind. I kept saying,
“Come on, let’s get to the chase! (LAUGHTER) Come on, let’s do it!” And so, I took
the eleven-minute monologue, which I had cut down to five and a half minutes for John,
and I cut it down to a proper two and a half. And it was all because I was so in love with
my writing that I resisted doing something that was commonsensical. Now, see, this is very interesting, because
I tend to be – I do a lot of drafts, and I do a lot of cuts, and I want to get things
shorter and shorter and shorter. But my problem is that I fall in love with the first draft
of another writer, and I can’t let it go! And I love reading those early drafts. And
this is actually very problematic in that, in terms of the writers that I’ve worked
with, I’m so entranced with that first vision of the world, that they listen to their own
critic and editor and they do the chops. And I’m like (PRETENDING TO SOB), “Oh, goodbye!
Oh!” I hate to lose a word of it! And this is an interesting thing, in terms
of flaws, and I don’t know how else to say this, but I actually fall in love with another
play’s flaws. I think all plays, all theatre is flawed, and the wonderful thing is the
discussion of the flaws, or falling in love with the flaws. I mean, every time people
do another version of Shakespeare, they’re basically looking at “What do we consider
a flaw? What do we not?” And in terms of you saying, you know, here – I wouldn’t
touch the playwright – but you are, in essence, in terms of TINY ALICE, and you are, in essence,
in terms of ZOO STORY, re-shaping it. I find it wonderful to have those variations out
of there. Now, the one thing that always, I’m kind
of mystified, is that people think that writing a play is neat and tidy and that it comes
out that way, and you move on to the next, and it’s sort of like ZOO STORY begets this
play which begets WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, which begets, you know, TORCH SONG
begat, and so on, and I’m sure – and it’s not tidy like that! No. It’s all of the layers. One of the things
which I’m going to try and do this year, as often as I can, and I’m hoping by the
time this airs the critics will have taken me up on it, is I want to do playwriting course
for critics, New York critics. I want to do a playwriting workshop with subscribers. I
want to do a playwriting workshop with producers. Because I really think that the more that
people know what the theatrical process is, and the more that they can see the flaws,
and the more that they can see the backstage, and the more that they can see the kind of
interesting struggle to make a play come through, and the more that everybody knows, that, in
essence, they do have a play within them – the more I think that theatre’s gonna flourish. I think that what’s happened is that we’ve
cut out knowing the process and having the process accessible, which is why it’s great
to have things like the 52nd Street Project. By the way, it would be great – has this
program ever had the young playwrights on? I don’t think we’ve had the young playwrights
from the 52nd Street Project yet, no. Right. But I mean, just knowing the different
stories, for example, on TINY ALICE, makes me participate. When we – I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to
– I don’t do drafts. I do one draft. I know! And then cut. I tell myself that every time I’m working
on the nineteenth draft, Edward, that you only do one draft! I’m lazy, that’s all. Yeah, when the Roundabout decided to do ASSASSINS,
I went back and I looked at the script, and I hadn’t looked at it for, I don’t know,
seven or eight years, really. And I read it, and I got so depressed. I thought, “God,
I used to be talented, and now I don’t know what I’m doing!”, you know. And I went
back into my computer and I found the early drafts of it, in which the scenes were twice
as long and they were filled with terrible things, and I immediately perked up. (LAUGHS)
I thought, “Oh, I see.” And I remember what a – you know, what a – I mean, it’s
– writing is awful! I mean, it’s just (LAUGHS), you know, what a tortured process
it was to get it to the place. But I had to be reminded. Well, that brings me actually to PACIFIC OVERTURES
– did I interrupt you? Did you want to continue? No, no, go ahead. I want to talk about PACIFIC OVERTURES a little
bit, because this is a fascinating musical that started its life in 1976, I guess – Yeah. On Broadway, and came back to Off-Broadway
in the mid-eighties, and now is coming back to Broadway. And I’ve seen it everywhere
in the past year or so, last couple of years. Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, London? How is this
happening? What’s going on? What’s the interest in it? It’s a little sleight of hand, in what looks
like a million productions of ASSASSINS [SIC; HE MEANS PACIFIC OVERTURES} in the last few
years, it’s really not the case. Just coincidentally, there was a very good production in Chicago,
which then went to the Donmar Warehouse in London. And a production that started in Atlanta
at the Alliance Theatre which then moved around. I mean, this is a show which over the course
of the last twenty-five years has been rarely, if ever, done, in part because it appears
to be quite somber. And we were committed, initially, to the idea of having it performed
by an Asian-American cast. And when it has been done by something other than an Asian-American
cast, it really doesn’t – it’s not – it’s wrong. It just feels wrong. It looks wrong,
feels wrong, doesn’t work. And you know, this production, which is going
up at the Roundabout now, we’re very excited about, because Steve Sondheim and I saw, I
guess about three years ago, in Tokyo, the first Japanese production of PACIFIC OVERTURES,
by this wonderful director named Amon Miyamoto. And he took it, and just did it. I mean, he
was totally unconstrained by any of the sort of nervous approach to the conventions of
Japanese theatre that have governed other productions here. And it had enormous energy
and vitality. And given what it’s about, the fact that the Japanese had taken this
American musical about Japan in the United States. They were doing it in Japan, in Japanese.
And that production was then brought back to the Lincoln Center Festival, done in Japanese,
with supertitles, felt like, you know, you want to shout “Olé!” like in a bullfight.
It felt terrific! And so, you know, now unhappily it will be
done in English, (LAUGHS) because we’re dealing with Asian-American actors, but the
cast is terrific. But it is still a Japanese director and his designers’ take on this
American musical. So it’s gonna be fascinating to see the way it turns out, and it’s at
Studio 54. How does the musical and its topic and its
thematic, how does that speak to us differently now than it might have then? Or is it? Well, I mean, it’s interesting. We got asked
a lot in 1976 if it wasn’t somehow really about the United States in Vietnam. And that
was the context in which the show was produced, but it was not a musical about the United
States in Vietnam at all. I mean, my initial fascination with the material
was with the material itself, was with this country, with its highly developed, sophisticated,
very pure culture, which had shut itself off from the rest of the world for two hundred
and fifty years suddenly being bullied into what we think of as the modern world, and
what happened as a result, and how that happened. Having said that, yes, the war in Vietnam
– America was in the middle of an adventure in Asia in 1976 and now we find ourselves
in the middle of an adventure in another country, in Iraq. And I think inevitably, there will
be people who look at this show with that in mind, and it will be very interesting to
see how they respond and how they react. I mean, we have, you know, keeping mostly
with what Edward said, we’re cutting a little, little snips here and trims there, but it’s
the first thing I ever wrote. I mean, I wrote the first draft of it in the Yale Law School
library, as a way of escaping from becoming an attorney. Here I am! (LAUGHTER FROM THE
PANEL) So it’s a very young work. But I looked at it, and you know, I’ve changed
a little here and a little there, but very very little. I think it should stand as what
it was, and I’m quite pleased with it when I listen to the show now. You must have thought a lot about Gilbert,
of Gilbert and Sullivan, while you were doing it. Or no? Yeah … yes. I mean, there were all kinds
of some cultural influences kind of flying around – Well, I was actually thinking about the law
school. Oh, excuse me! (JEFFREY LAUGHS) Yeah. Yes,
yes! It was – like I staggered out of my first contracts class, and I thought, “I
gotta do something else!” You can’t do law! Although I finished law school. I loved law
school! I just didn’t want to be a lawyer. It’s interesting, you said – you talked
about the Asian-American cast – I left the Dramatists Guild, I walked out on the Dramatists
Guild and quit, because they wouldn’t stand up against the producers of MISS SAIGON to
insist on using Asians in Asian roles. And I went to the Dramatists Guild and I said,
“Will we not take an artistic stand here?” and they said, “Absolutely not! Not against
producers.” You’ve got to get him back. We need the
money. That’s the thing. No, we absolutely – They said, “Not against producers, we don’t
stand up!” Come back. We need the money. I officially – we have nothing but Asian-Americans
in this cast of PACIFIC OVERTURES. Would you rejoin the Dramatists Guild? Well, but I’m saying that was – oh, should
I come back? Yeah. Well, let’s see. All right, we’ll talk backstage. A little bit of recruitment going on here! Absolutely. We’ll follow through on that. But what I’m also interested in, now, John,
you’re the son of a noted dramatist, Jerome Weidman. And you just mentioned that you were
in law school when you were starting to write this. And you come out of a humor tradition
at the Harvard Lampoon and the National Lampoon. I’d actually like to take a few minutes,
just so that we can communicate with our students and with people in the audience beyond about
how your lives in the theatre, you know, sort of got started. Well, I’ll make this brief, because I don’t
know that it’s helpful to anybody. I mean, I had gone to the theatre my whole life, and
my happiest times were spent at the theatre. But it was never my intention to have a career
in the theatre at all. I didn’t act in high school plays. You know, I was sort of a serious
kid. I thought I would become a politician. And my dad, who was primarily a novelist,
really only worked in the theatre for four or five years, but he saw writing as a treacherous
way to make your way through life, and did not encourage either me or my brother to follow
in his footsteps in any way, in fact was pleased that we weren’t. But I wound up in law school, you know, in
the early seventies, which were still the sixties, and was sort of aimlessly trying
to, you know, drifting from kind of what – you know, we didn’t worry a lot about what we
were going to do five years from now, five minutes from now, in the sixties. And I just,
I looked at law school, and I thought, “I don’t want to be a lawyer. This is not for
me. What could I do right here right now?” And I thought, “You know, you could sit
in the Yale Law School library with a legal pad and a pen and write a play.” I knew
what a play looked like. You put the character’s name in boldface, and then you write what
they say underneath, and then something comes after that. So I did it! And I did it with the innocence
that you have when you don’t know that you don’t know what you’re doing. I just did
it. And I finished it, and I sent it to Hal Prince, who I had met through my dad, and
he decided to do it. You know, and he and I – which even now seems, I mean, crazy!
And you know, he was casting and we were going to do it as a straight play, and eventually
he decided it needed to become a musical, so that’s – off to the races with that.
But this is really something I sort of stumbled into, and then had to catch up with myself
over the course of the next ten or fifteen years afterwards. Well, Paula, you have quite a different experience
in your trip through the theatre, journey. Yeah, yeah. I was – my parents divorced
when I was ten, and I went to live with my mother, who was a secretary. So we were actually
below the poverty line. We didn’t have any money. No one in my family, before my brother
and I, had ever gone to college. And we were out in the Maryland suburbs. I think I’d
seen maybe one or two shows on field trips. I was, however, addicted to a program on the
radio, called “Matinees at One.” And I would actually save up my money to buy musicals.
I would find, you know, bottles and wash them off for the two cent deposit, save up the
money, and then buy the original cast album of MY FAIR LADY. I was just in love with musicals. So I was in high school, and there was a drama
class. I was fifteen years old, fourteen years old. I wandered in, they were doing SKIN OF
OUR TEETH, and I thought, “I never want to be outside this room again.” And I just
basically went and read every play that I could get my hands on, won a scholarship to
college, Bryn Mawr, and started writing musicals. BEAUTIFUL QUASIMODO. I wrote a musical which
outed the founder of Bryn Mawr College, called IN HER OWN IMAGE (LAUGHTER), a lesbian musical,
and shortly thereafter got bounced out of Bryn Mawr College. (LAUGHTER) But at any rate! At that point, I was hooked and went to Catholic
University. I studied acting. I performed in THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE, as Sister
George, and during the post-play discussion, everybody said, “Well, we don’t believe
that you’re a lesbian.” So I realized I wasn’t going to be an actor. (LAUGHTER)
And I became a stage manager. I was a secretary and a stage manager. And I applied to Yale
School of Drama, was wait-listed, didn’t get in, and had a hunch I’d like teaching.
So that’s what I did. I went to a Ph.D. program, which I got kicked out of, but same
thing. I did incredible readings in the library and then started writing plays. And since
I didn’t know anyone to collaborate with, I thought, “Well, you know, maybe I ought
to learn to write a play without music.” And that was basically it. I went to every
little tiny hole-in-the-wall in this country, with staged readings in New York. I did three
jobs in New York, secretarial, factory work. Worked at American Place Theatre as Wynn [Handman]’s
secretary. Never got done here. And finally kind of went, “You know, I can’t afford
to live in New York.” A teaching job came up. I created a program for playwrights. And
I decided I would look for the most talented writers, who may not get into Yale. (LAUGHTER)
And I decided that this program would be for people who wouldn’t have access, because
they couldn’t afford grad school, so it’s completely subsidized. It’s tuition- and
stipend-paid. That’s great. And I decided that I would spend my time in
the room producing between ten to twenty plays a year, in different forms. And that’s how
I’ve spent the last twenty years. And an interesting thing happened. Teaching – you
know, I don’t teach – but working with younger writers, they really kick my butt!
And they say to me every day in workshop, “I don’t see how you can say that. I don’t
think a play is just that. I can prove you wrong. What about this? What about this? What
about this?” And just now, these playwrights are starting
to come to New York and be, you know, recognized, like Nilo Cruz. But I worked with Nilo ten
years ago, and the things that he – and people like Sarah Ruhl – I mean, the writers
I’ve worked with are extraordinary. What it made me realize was that I have faith in
the theatre. I believe it’s important. I know that there are ways that we can make
a living and still remain in the field. They dared me to push the envelope. I have a very
kind of different – it was something like my twentieth play, THE BALTIMORE WALTZ, that
ran for seven weeks, that Frank Rich gave a respectful review for, that suddenly I was
“discovered,” on my twentieth play, at age thirty-eight. So my aim in life is to continue writing,
simply because I must be in dialogue back to these extraordinary young voices. But my
aim in life is to make sure that these writers make a living, break through into the American
theatre, ten or fifteen years before I did. That’s my goal in life. And to stop the
brain drain that we’re experiencing right now, so that they don’t go to law school.
Or (LAUGHS) you know, they go to law school, but maybe as a sideline, as a hobby! That
their first love remains the theatre. So yeah, it’s a very different – I mean, I’ve
been very, very fortunate with my students. Well, Edward, you’re a noted teacher in
your own career, and have done quite a bit of that in the past decade or so. What is
it that drives you to give back in that way? I mean, you are one of the great playwrights
of all time. You don’t have to do that! What is it that keeps you going back into
the classroom? Very much like Paula, I don’t think that
I teach. I work with a lot of young playwrights, and I probably learn more than I give, as
a matter of fact, I learn more about playwriting. I like to – well, it’s probably very,
very selfish. Not only do I learn more than I probably give, by working with young playwrights,
but maybe I can persuade them to hold the line against commerce and hold the line against
selling out. And eventually, we might have a theatre that I’d like to go to! I imagine
that it has something to do with that, more than anything else. You can’t teach. I can’t teach anybody
who’s not a playwright how to be a playwright. I can teach them how other people did it and
they can do bad copies. That’s called playwriting a lot, of course. But I like to try to help
young writers, who I think have this very, very difficult thing to analyze called talent.
It’s this amazing, this amazing gift which may be well formed, it may not be well formed
– how to proceed and hone that without selling out and without compromising too much. And
if they can do that, if more people can do that, then we may have a better theatre sometime.
And that’s the basic reason to do that. Is it giving back? No, it’s getting, which
is why I do it. It’s getting things. In terms of collaborating with directors,
how does that process evolve for you? Now actually, the question I really want to ask
is about development, because one of the things we hear about so much in playwriting today,
and I hear this particularly from younger playwrights, is this “development hell”
that they’re stuck in. They’re forced into it. They’re forced
into having their plays examined to see if there are any rough edges that can be honed
down, if there are any dangerous thoughts that can be taken out of the play. (PAULA
NODS) Most of the workshops that most young playwrights have to go through are destructive
and cynical, and having to do with making the plays safe, rather than the exciting,
dangerous experiences they should be. Yes, yes. I can’t imagine any of you actually getting
caught in development hell at this particular time in your careers. Not true. No, you have to say, “Go fuck yourself,”
if they don’t like what you’ve written. Yeah, yeah. No, not true. That’s right.
(APPLAUSE) You can – I mean, you know, I was talking
to Paula about this earlier – several years before this production of ASSASSINS, Steve
Sondheim and I were approached by another very accomplished director, who wanted to
do the show again in New York. And we started to meet and to talk, and to meet and to talk,
and it reached a point where he said, “Look, I gotta tell you, it just didn’t work the
first time, and I know what you need to do, which essentially is to pull it apart and
rewrite it.” And we said, “You know what? We think we wrote what we want to write. We’re
satisfied with it. Let’s be friends, but goodbye.” And you know, when Joe Mantello
came in, Joe, acting as a director, had very good ideas about how to tease out our intention
as authors, but he did not impose himself on the authorial process. In that sense, it
was a wonderful collaboration. But you know, for young writers, it’s very
difficult to resist. I think often, when they’re presented with the opportunity of a production,
the thing they want more than anything else in the world, there’s a director and a dramaturge
in between them and that stage. And if they are made to understand that they will have
to listen and take notes and that whatever their unique, idiosyncratic voice is, it’s
gonna get through bent through these other prisms, it’s a destructive thing. One of the things that the Dramatists Guild
has been doing, and the Council of the Dramatists Guild, (TO JOHN) under your stewardship as
much as anything, is to try to make it possible for young playwrights to hold the line against
the commercial and corrupting pressures that they’re under. The only thing we can’t
do, the only thing we’ve not been able to do, is protect a young playwright from himself. There’s a collaboration in theatre, as we
all know, and where the original brain holds the line in collaboration is always a dif
– you know, when am I being difficult? When am I not, you know, listening to somebody
else? You know, everybody in theatre gets some of this stuff. But just to give you an example (LAUGHS),
Jerry Herman and I were on the phone yesterday. Now, I’m not seventeen years old and Mr.
Herman is neither! And we were talking, and it finally came out that neither one of us
liked something going on with this, but we were both, like, too embarrassed to say so!
I mean, we’re Jerry Herman and Harvey Fuckin’ Fierstein! We can say we didn’t like something!
(JOHN LAUGHS) You know, but we’re, like, there quietly going, “Well, maybe he’s
right and maybe we’re wrong.” You know? I mean, so there is that collaboration that’s
there. But Michael Feingold, years ago, wrote a review
of a Shakespeare piece, and he said, “Well, this season, I’ve seen So-and-So’s production
of TAMING OF THE SHREW and So-and-So’s production of TAMING OF THE SHREW and I went to England
and I saw So-and-So’s production of TAMING OF THE SHREW, and I saw this production of
TAMING OF THE SHREW and So-and-So’s production. Just once in my life, I’d like to see Shakespeare’s
production. You know, what did he want?” And sometimes, it comes back to that. It needs
to come back around to that original voice, in the head – That’s right. That we, as writers, we talk so much about
the empty page and that challenge. But for me the challenge is, that voice in my head
that just makes me crazy until I finally write it down. You know, “All right, I will shut
you up already, to write it down.” I don’t, knock wood, have the problem with the empty
page. I have the problem with “I don’t want to write!” (LAUGHS) You know? And it
makes me crazy until I finally put it down. Well, the question that you raise, of course,
is, what does a playwright want? Unfortunately, we’ve pretty much ran out of time today.
So, I want to say thank you to this brilliant panel of people who have joined us today.
This has been the American Theatre Wing’s “Working in the Theatre” seminar on Playwriting.
I’m Jeffrey Eric Jenkins. This is coming to you from the Graduate Center of the City
University of New York. Thank you for joining us.

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