The Playwright (Working In The Theatre #341)

Hello. I’m Sondra Gilman, Chair of the American
Theatre Wing, with our Board President, Doug Leeds. Welcome to our Working in the Theatre Seminars. Later in the program, Sondra
and I will tell you more about the work of The American Theatre Wing. But right now,
let’s join this very distinguished panel, and our moderator, President of the Rodgers
and Hammerstein Organization, Mr. Ted Chapin. Welcome. Today’s panel discussion is on
playwrights and playwriting. And we have a panel of active and modern playwrights, all
of whom have at least one show in New York this season. Let me introduce them to you
now. First, Marsha Norman, The Color Purple. (APPLAUSE) John Patrick Shanley, Defiance
and Doubt. (APPLAUSE) Lisa Kron, Well. (APPLAUSE) Diana Son, Satellites. (APPLAUSE) And Christopher
Durang, Miss Witherspoon. Welcome. I thought I’d ask Lisa the first question. I think
it’s fair to say that if you look at Lisa’s resume, that I think she describes herself
as somewhere between the theatre and performance art. The idea that she has a show opening
on Broadway wouldn’t jump out at you right off the bat. So I thought I would ask, what’s
it like having a play on Broadway? It’s a – it’s a little surreal. Yeah,
it was not my trajectory, as far as I – I mean, when I was – yeah, changing under
the bar at the Wau Wau Hut in 1985, I don’t think it’s what I pictured. No.
How did this one get to Broadway? Well, I had sort of – you know, I spent
the early ‘80s working in the performance art scene in the East Village. But became
more and more interested in taking my performances and making them into theatre. And in particular,
I was doing solo work. And I was very interested in the inherent problems in making a solo
performance into a play. Where do you get dramatic action, if there’s no one else
on stage with you? So, I – I then sort of focused my efforts into that. And as that
work started to develop, I started to work more in New York theatres. In particular,
the New York Theatre Workshop and the Public Theatre have been my homes in New York. And
then with the success of my play, 2.5 Minute Ride, I started to tour to the regionals.
And then when I did Well, which has a cast of six, at the Public, you know, it was successful
and producers came to look in the way that they do. But I don’t think it occurred to
anyone except for Liz McCann, that it should move to Broadway. And she just looked at it
and said, “I actually think this has a much more mainstream appeal than people are assuming
that it does.” So, it was really her vision that’s making that happen.
Liz McCann, who was on a previous panel. And also, I should say that you’re—you’re—you’re
in it. I am.
So, that’s a—that’s a big Broadway chunk. Now, Diana, you have a piece at the Public
this year as well. Coming up. Yeah.
But you’ve also done – is the Public a home for you?
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s literally – it’s the first place I ever saw a play. I went
on a high school field trip from my small town to go see Hamlet at the Public Theatre.
So it was the first play I ever saw. So, the Public Theatre’s literally the first theatre
whose seats I ever sat in. And they produced my play Stop Kiss a few years ago. And I actually
wrote the first draft of Satellites in the Public Theatre office. Because I felt that
on my own, in my own little office, I was writing everything but my next play. So when
a new literally manager came to the Public and said, “What – well, I see we have
this outstanding commission with you.” It was about five or six years old. Or, late.
At that point. She said, “What – what can we do? Anything that you want.” And
I said, “Well, I actually think that I need to go to your office and write. Because if
you’re not looking at me, and making sure that I’m writing this, (LAUGHTER) I don’t
think I’m gonna write it.” Yeah. So, it is – it is in every way my home.
Do any of the others of you have similar kind of homes at institutional theatres in New
York? I know the Manhattan Theatre Club has done several of – of your plays, John.
Yes, they – they’ve done my plays. But I don’t write there. I – (LAUGHTER) I—I
do that at home. But actually, I understand that. And at one point, I had to – I rented
an apartment out in Green Point, as an office. And it was a two-bedroom apartment, and it
had no furniture except a desk and chairs. And – and I would go out there, and I would
write. I was growing basil in one of the bedrooms, just cuz I felt so guilty about not using
the space. So I had, like, a basil farm going there. But after a year, I said to a friend
of mine, I said, “I feel like an unwed mother. I feel like I’m trapped at home, while everybody
else is going somewhere.” And so then I rented a commercial office. And I would go
in, just to have somebody to say “Good morning to,” on the way to – my own sad little
room again. But at least I had that illusion of being part of the work force. And I liked
that, for a time. Marsha, do you have a home? Well, not really. I mean, I – I work at
my house. But – but I think that this issue, of playwrights being championed by a theater
or by a producer is really crucial. I mean, I think clearly no playwright gets anywhere
without someone standing in front of them saying, “I’m gonna do the blocking, and
you can just walk through with the play.” And I – you know, I think that that’s
a crucial thing. That if we had – you know, if we had more of that, we’d have more great
plays. And I mean, the people that do find champions, you know, manage to survive.
I think there’s – there’s a common feeling among non-playwrights, that – that since
it starts with you guys, it starts with the word, that you go somewhere, sit at a typewriter,
computer, whatever, and face a blank piece of paper and decide, “Do I have anything
to say?” But is that – is that maybe not the norm? Is – does somebody encourage you
to do that? Well, I think – you know, this idea that
somebody’s eager to hear it, is critical. You know, I think right now, it would be silly
for anybody to sit down and say, “Well, I’m just”—I mean, it would be very brave
for someone to sit down and say, “I’m just gonna write a play. I don’t know anyone,
but soon they will all know me.” I mean, that’s a kind of mythic notion. The way
that it is now is, somebody says – Oskar says to Diana, “You know, we’d really
like to see whatever you do next.” And that – that makes it happen. And that’s enough
of an incentive to sit down and find something. Oh, sure. Yeah. Because then you know that
when you get finished, you know what to do next. Then you go, you know who to call. It’s
not just, “Oh, now I go see if anybody’s home next door.” You know? So, I think those
people – those Liz McCann’s – those people are crucial. In our lives.
But – but — do you also wonder, when you – given the circumstances, and you are gonna
write wherever, that you have anything to say? Or does that come – where does that
come from? Chris, where does the – how does the muse sing? Well, it’s a very good question, and I don’t
have an immediate answer. But – I guess I do have an answer. Cuz we all start before
we know Oskar and Liz. So, somebody – you do start eventually with a – with a blank
page. And – and then sometimes, you do go back to it. I remember, a play of mine, Baby
With the Bathwater, I’d had a play, Beyond Therapy, that was commissioned by the Phoenix.
So, I had that initial encouragement. “We’d like to see your next play.” And – and
I was feeling it was time to write another play. And I literally sat down, it was typewriters
back then. To a typewriter and a blank page. And I just had not a clue what I was gonna
write. And it started, “He, she, he, she, and they had a baby.” And then on page four,
a nanny came in. So – a very crazy nanny. So, in – so, you know, that was a very odd
example. Because I literally sat down not having an idea. And I mean, for some reason
I was thinking about – actually, I’d seen something very disturbing on the subway. Which
unconsciously had affected me. Which is, I’d just saw – I’m talking about the early
‘80s. Not that it matters, cuz it’s still true. I saw a two-year-old in a stroller,
and a clearly unbalanced parent, mother, just at the child, and criticizing, and on and
on and on. And I thought, “Oh, this child just doesn’t have a chance.” And that
was actually the theme of the play. That, just we’re at – you know, we’re at such
– everyone is at – is at the mercy of our parents. And, the – the good and the
bad. And if it’s mostly bad, then you’re really in trouble.
Other times, I’ve – when I wrote Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, I’d
had a writer’s block for about two years, and my mother was dying of cancer, which was
very sad. And it was a long death. And I was no longer a believer in my – the Catholic
faith I was brought up in. But I felt very disoriented, because watching my mother’s
illness, I wished I were a believer. Because it’s so hard to say to somebody dying, “I
don’t know what to say.” It’s so much easier to say, “Oh, this is part of God’s
plan, and you’re gonna go to heaven, and blah blah blah.” By the way, I’m not actually
an atheist. I’m sort of a – I don’t know what I am. I’m a – a supermarket
– agnostic. Whatever that means. But – but I – from that, thought back on my religious
upbringing. And I thought, “Wow. When I grew up in that, there was an answer for absolutely
everything.” So, my impulse went from that to, “I want to write a play in which a representative
of the Catholic Church comes out and explains everything.” And the emphasis on everything
was very important to me, and is what was actually the – the – jump start.
But I’ve also been in Diana’s position of having a – a commission, and thinking,
“Oh.” Well, one bad example. Actors Theatre of Louisville gave me a very hefty commission
that I eventually returned, because I kept not coming up with the play. And when I came
up with little pieces of it, Jon Jury just didn’t respond to them. And so, after a
while we parted company. And I gave the initial money back. Or then a happier example, a couple
of years ago, Emily Mann at McCarter offered me a commission and just said, “Would you
be interested?” And – and I used it as what Marsha just said. As this encouragement
of somebody saying, you know, “We want to know what you’ll do next.” And – and
it was the play, Miss Witherspoon, that was first done at McCarter, and then at Playwright’s
Horizons. So. Marsha, am I accurate that the Actors Theatre of Louisville gave you a commission
that actually got you started as a playwright? Well, it was a commission that I rejected.
I mean, I – I had decided that I wanted to be a writer. And I had decided I needed
to take off a year and work three jobs, to get together the money to sit down and write.
And in the course of that year, Jon Jory called me and asked me if I would come talk to him.
He wanted to commission a play. The play he wanted me to write was – he wanted me to
take a tape recorder out to the local schools, who were currently undergoing bussing, to
achieve integration in the schools. And interview people and then bring the tapes back to the
theatre and – you know, we would make the play, then, out of those tapes.
And – I walked out. He said, “You don’t have to”—you know, “Take a week.”
And I said, “Okay.” But – I mean, I’m walking out of the office thinking, “I don’t
want to do this. How can I actually turn down $5000, when in fact I’ve said that what
I wanted to do is write plays.” And I thought about it for a week and came back and said,
“You know, I can’t believe I’m saying no here. But that – that isn’t what I
want to write about.” And there was just like – then there was this pause. In – in
which sort of my future was right there, in this little pause. And Jon – and Jon said
– because I was getting ready to say, “So, you know, okay. Thank you.” But what Jon
said was, “Well, what do you want to write about?” And that was it. that was, like,
it. And I said, “Well, I don’t know.” And he said, “Well, let’s have some lunches.”
And he put me through this sort of three-week – you know, intensive lunch course. Of – you
know. What – he said, “I can just tell you the mistakes you don’t have to make
as a first-time writer.” And Chris knows from Juilliard. I mean, I still convey these
same lessons that Jon told me in those three weeks. And then – you know, he – he especially
gave me a great piece of advice about – you know, “When you’re looking for a subject,
look to a time in your life when you were terrified. When you were really frightened,
when you were scared, when you were just frozen in fear.” And that – that does indeed
turn out to be a great place to look for subject matter. So, what – what I did, I remembered
a – a girl that I knew who was – I knew her when I worked at a state mental hospital.
And she was this really dangerous kid. Really violent, really awful, hideous 13-year-old.
Who by that time, of Jon asking me the question, was in federal prison for murder. So you know,
I decided, “Okay, I’ll write about her.” Because she scared the daylights out of everybody
when she was around. And you know, that – basically, I wrote
that play. And Jon said, “Oh my God! You know, you’ve just won the Great American
Play Contest.” I mean, it was literally like that. It – and – in those days. This—these
things happened. In the old days. And you know, so – so the – it actually, I think,
was one of those good situations, where he – you know, he evinced this interest in
me. But I avoided that commission, that would have taken me down the road to – you know,
documentary playwriting. Which – you know, I can easily see that that would have happened.
If that – if that play about bussing had been good, then maybe I would have gone out
to GE. And – you know, I would have been on another kind of dramatic life. So.
That’s an interesting comment, about taking a moment from your life that’s terrifying.
I don’t know if I’m saying the write word. Does that – does that sound familiar?
Well, I think it’s good advice. When Marsha says I’m familiar with it at Juilliard – Marsha
and I teach at Juilliard. We co-teach. So it’s like running a talk show together.
And I – I actually didn’t realize that it was from Jon Jory. That – cuz that is
a – a great thing to say. And I can see that when Marsha mentions it to our students,
they all light up. Because it – you know. Something you have a really strong reaction
to is a good place to start. I’ve not consciously written anything that I was afraid of, at
least that I can remember. Has anyone else? The thing – the thing that’s interesting
about – David Lindsey-Abaire has a play just now on Broadway called Rabbit Hole. And
he – you know, he’s very kind, and says, you know, “Marsha told me that I should
write something that I was r—that I was afraid of.” And he said, “At the time,
I was 26.” And he said, “I had nothing.” You know, which is interesting. I mean, when
you’re that young, what can frighten you? But as soon as he had a child, then he understood,
“Oh. Okay. If anything happened to this child, I would be in big trouble.” So, that’s
– in a sense, that’s the sort of wisdom of the advice. That you – something about
fear really imprints memories, smells, real specifics. What people had in their pockets
when they said things to you. you know, you can easily recreate that circumstance, that
so frightened you. Since we – you both mentioned Juilliard
– you are the co-directors of the Juilliard Drama Division. The Playwriting part of the
Drama Division at Juilliard. I just wondered, what kind of training did any of you all have?
Before we talk about what training you give off now. Did you train?
I took a course called “Introduction to Playwriting,” at – at NYU. (LAUGHTER)
It was actually – it was very helpful. You know? I read a couple of books on playwriting,
and I wrote a play. And they put it on immediately. I’d been a poet for many years, and – nobody
cared. And I wrote a play, and everybody got together and built scenery and learned their
lines, and put on costumes. And I said, “Well, this is significantly better.” And – I
recognized as soon as I started writing in that form, that that’s what I did. So that
– you know, I – that introduction, for me, was rather brief. But I’d been in school
ever since. And the school is the theatre. You know, to actually go in front of an audience
and work shows, is – very instructive. I think it’s fair to say that all of your
work plays with the rules. Twists the rules, and – and breaks the fourth wall, and twists
the fourth wall, and all that kind of stuff. Did you feel that there’s a – are there
some rules, and – rules that you have to know before you can break `em?
Well, I say that there are. (LAUGHTER) You know? I mean, I think it’s useful. When
you’re – when – you know. It’s useful to know that – that conflict is at the – is
at the center of the theatre. It’s useful to say, you know, plays about one person are
somehow – you know, the audience relates to them more quickly, because we go through
life as a single person. So you know, when you’re watching Othello, and not Othello
and His Brother, you know? That’s easier. There are some things like that. I think there’s
a kind of – you know, it’s Aristotle. I mean, it’s – you make a promise at the
beginning of the play. You know, we—we’re gonna find out who gets Momma’s piano. And
at the end, we find that out and then we can get home. You know, there are – there are
those really basic things. But I think – and I think knowing them actually helps. I think
it helps to have – you know, students basically sort of rebel and say, “Oh, that’s not
true. I can write a play about eight people.” And then sometimes they can.
I mean, in Stop Kiss, you play with time. Uh-huh (AFFIRM). I mean, is that something that you thought
of when you started to write it, or as you were writing it, you thought, “Ooh, I can
tell this story by taking the form and twisting it a little, breaking it a little.”
Well, it did come together. It did come together. I guess – I had – I have had an experience
in my life where – you know, in one moment – you know, my life irrevocably changed.
And – cuz of something that happened to my mother. And so – I think r– that happened
when I was 18. And so, I have – for a long time before I wrote Stop Kiss, I was thinking
about, can you believe that just x-amount of time ago, my life was like this. And now
it’s like this. One moment.
So, yeah. So that, I think that – you know, it wasn’t a place of terror. But I mean,
the initial reaction was terror. But it did come from a place of like, I’m trying to
make sense – sense of two pieces that don’t go together.
But the theatricality of it was developed? Or did you sort of think – think of it at
the – Well, I thought about the kiss. I thought,
first – you know, the – kiss. And then I knew the kiss would be the last thing in
the play. And then I just said, “Go back, and start at the beginning.” (LAUGHTER)
And figure, how would it lead up to that? And have you found as a performance artist,
when you’re writing your own material, you have to be – you’re – I mean, you edit
it by doing it. And if there’s no reaction to something, you know, “Whoops.”
Well, it’s tremendously instructive, yeah. I mean – I mean, I think the thing that
has to happen – and it’s a really hard concept to understand, is dramatic action.
And I think we can describe it. And I’ve – taught this year – I haven’t done
a lot of teaching. But this year, I taught a course– to the graduate playwrights at
Yale. And it’s interesting how – just how difficult it is to really grasp what it
means for something to happen on – to really happen on stage. To watch someone change.
In particular, I think, for the audience to see what might happen to a character, that
the character doesn’t see themselves. How to really make that happen.
I mean, I think – you know, none of us know what’s going to happen in the next minute,
really. And that’s the essence of what happens in the theatre. Is to capture the audience
seeing the character, not – you know, that set-up. Of what life is. And – you know,
certainly in performing my own work, when there are – I mean, Paula Vogel actually
– I – worked with her as an actor workshopping Minneola Twins. And it was amazing to watch
her ruthlessly cut her play. And she said to me, “Never hang on to poetry for its
own sake.” You know, the play has to move. And as a performer, of my own work, I can
totally feel that. I mean, it makes me ruthless about – you know, images that I love, or
language that I love. But when I’m on stage and there’s actually no dramatic action
behind them? It’s like trying to – you know, pull a semi up a hill. It’s really,
really difficult. And so – it – it is very instructive in that way. And I don’t
know – I mean, like John, I learned about the theatre by doing theatre. And I – you
know, happened to come to New York in this particular time, where I got to be on stage
all the time. Making plays and throwing them away. With – you know, audiences that were
really interesting. But really, no kind of attention that had any pressure attached to
it. And so, I feel in a certain way, like, I trained like a vaudevillian. You know, it
was a very lucky way to get to do theatre. And I feel like I learned a lot. And I don’t
– I don’t know how you really learn about theatre, unless you’re doing it.
Actually doing it. Unless you – I mean, because it’s not
– you know, a script, it seems to me, is a blueprint for this thing that happens on
a stage. And then this thing that happens with an audience. And you don’t – it’s
always incomplete, unless you’re having that interaction with the audience.
How is Shakespeare able to write these long pathetic passages, and it’s not boring?
How do you do that? I mean, I – I know exactly what you’re talking about. I write a wonderful
turn of phrase. I’m very pleased with it. (LAUGHTER) And I cross it out. Because I know
I have to get on with it. I’m like, “Why doesn’t Shakespeare have to get on with
it?” Or, why is he getting on with it? But don’t you think it’s hard –
Yeah! Oh, yeah! I mean, it’s hard to make those plays. I
mean, that’s why it’s so rare that you see –
A good production. A good production of Shakespeare. Because
the – the director and the actors and – you know, because those people have to find that
– you know, what that mechanism is. And it’s not easy to find, I think.
I mean, I think– I mean, the one thing that I’ve found to be true is that we’re all
scared to say who we are. We’re all scared to tell the truth. We’ll do anything, rather
than tell the truth. And then when you do tell the truth – and by the truth, I mean,
what is true for you. In the moment. The audience likes it. They’re interested. They’re
with you. They smell it. And when you’re lying, and showing off – whatever it is
you’re doing – it’s just boring. And so, I wonder if Shakespeare just wasn’t
a real truth-teller. And that you’re gonna sit at the feet of a person who has that kind
of courage. That’s pretty amazing. I mean, it’s clearly
a collaborative world, the theatre. And – you know, as writers, who’s – who’s the
next collaborator that you let in to – to your project? Do you guys write, and have
somebody that you show it to? Or do you—I mean, I’ve got – I mean, sometimes it’s
a commission that’s come from a specific person. So, I assume that’s the specific
person. But I’ve always wondered, who is the – I mean, because you can have opinions.
You can have more opinions than you need. Where are the important opinions, and in what
order? I like to have actors read it out loud. I
like other people to be there. Cuz nobody can control the situation then. Either it’s
playing, or it stinks. I think this is really right. It’s really
hard – we always advise people, you know, don’t – don’t just hand it to somebody
to read and have one person talk back to you. You know? Give it to – it’s not meant
to exist on the page. It’s not a piece of – you know, it’s not a manuscript, in
that way. And what you need to do is hear it. And then you need to get the response
from the other people that are in the room. You know, you need to kind of see what it
is. You need to let it, like, rise up out of the – off of the print. And – to see
what you have. I don’t think you know what you have, ‘til you—but – but it happens
a lot, that young writers will revise – you know, they’ll – they’ll be so eager
to hear from someone, they’ll take it next door. You know, in the middle of the night.
And – “Read this.” And then – and then the person next door will say, “Well,
I don’t know. What – why – I think you should make the brother a dog.” (LAUGHTER)
Or – like that. Right? And then the person, “Well, you know, that – that’s good.
I’ll go do it.” And so that before anybody has even had a chance to hear it or see it
or read it, or – you know. A rewrite is in the works. And – you know, that can – that’s
a mess for kids. So, this hearing is really – that’s really the answer.
And are actors easy to come by, to – to – to read?
Dime a dozen. (LAUGHTER) I mean, I’m thinking of the breadth of plays
that are represented on this panel. I’m thinking, you know, some – there wouldn’t
– I wouldn’t necessarily think the same group of actors would read each – you know,
each one of these plays. But I just – you know, I’m curious, because you’ve all
written a – a great many, you know, are there actors for whom you perhaps write for?
I think they’re an eager and wonderful group of people, that are really willing to help.
And I think – you know, yeah. Chris has people in mind when he writes. You know, I
do, too. And you know, they don’t even have to be alive, or available. You know? You can
still write for them. Yeah. That’s very (UNINTEL).
But you – I mean, you have some actors that are like, read your work better than others.
Right? Have worked with you before, and — Yeah, I – I do. I – I actually don’t
usually write with them consciously in mind. Partially, I wrote an early play, History
of the American Film, with Sigourney Weaver in mind, before anybody knew her. Cuz Sigourney
and I went to Yale School of Drama together. And even though she’s deservedly had – had
a wonderful career, her first couple of years she had trouble getting cast because of how
tall she was, how patrician she was. And – patrician she seemed. And – anyway. I – I told her
I had written History of the American Film with her in mind. And not only that, but I
– I even added a joke where they talk about their heroine being – having to leave the
orphanage, because she was too tall. (LAUGHTER) And I couldn’t get anyone to hire Sigourney
in the part. They – came close, but – and – and it made her feel disappointed. And
so, I – I actually protected myself and my actor friends by just not consciously writing
about them – or, writing with them in mind. And – and happily, Sigourney has – when
– when Beyond Therapy was done off-Broadway, it was Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Collins.
And at that point, she had just come out with Alien. And even though it’s nothing like
my play, the – the – (LAUGHTER) the theater was very happy to hire her, suddenly. So ri—
I mean, it wasn’t they who had turned her down the first time. But.
But I – I’ll agree with John. I absolutely, the first thing is, I want to hear actors
read it aloud. And – and I think it – the hard – the tricky thing is, I’m sure we
all know some of the same actors, and other times don’t. I mean, I – I went to Yale
School of Drama in the – in —the Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, the late Wendy Wasserstein
– period. And – so, I know all those people from there. And then when I came to New York,
we were somewhat called the Yale Mafia. Partially because you do tend to work with people you
went to school with. And I later learned there are other mafias. There’s – oh, what – what’s
the – what’s the college that Kathy Bates is from in Texas?
SMU. There’s that Mafia. A lot of talented people from that. And – there’s starting
to be a Juilliard Mafia. I was gonna say, have you created a Juilliard
Mafia? And NYU, too. Any case. But I find hearing
actors read it aloud is – is just so wonderful. And you just hear things. There was – the
first time I heard Sister Mary read aloud – she has long monologues. But there was
one – she’s reading questions that are given from the audience. And – there was
this one question, that she had a three-line answer, and then three paragraphs more. And
when I heard it, the three lines were so good, that I just heard that the three paragraphs
that followed were just blah blah blah blah blah. And it was actually the first cut I
made. And it was – no one suggested it. It was just hearing it aloud. So, I – I
love hearing it with actors. I was wondering, John, if any of the Catholic
stuff that he was talking about is familiar to you in any way. (LAUGHTER) Well, you know, Catholicism is a great religion,
because it gives you this enormous thing to react to. (LAUGHTER) No, it’s true. And – and filled with specifics. Yeah. Costumes, lines. (LAUGHTER) And – I think
in general, that that—that’s – that’s very stimulating for an artist. Whether it’s
the Catholic Church, or – right now I’m writing about the Marine Corps, cuz I was
in the Marine Corps. And – specificity, the specificity of experience coming in, generates
a specity—specificity of expression coming out. And – that’s why – you know, one
of the great dangers for playwrights now, and has been for some time, is pop. Because
so much is coming in, that is just this year’s television program. That your tendency is
to respond very specifically back to that. And what that means is, in a year it’s going
to be dated. So, it’s nice if you can expose your children to traumatic experiences (LAUGHTER)
over and over again, as I’m sure Chris – I take my children and lock `em in a closet,
and hit ‘em with a baseball bat once a day, just so that they know – (LAUGHTER). What they’re missing. Something they can draw on later. Have something to write about later. (LAUGHTER)
Yeah. Well, you made a passing reference to – to
television. I want to talk a little bit about the fact that you’ve all chosen to work
in the theatre. And also, other – I mean, other professions. Other writing professions
as well. I – I know that you, Diana, are a – are still a write for – Law and Order?
West Wing, you were? Law and Order: Criminal Intent, yeah. So – so, is that – is that one slot during
the day, and then playwriting is another slot? Or is it – what – what – what do they
both give you? Oh. The – particular way my show works,
is it comes in waves. I’m almost like a freelancer on staff. Like, when it’s – you
know, it’s sort of batting line-up. There’s Warren Leight and Marlene Myer (?) and Gina
Gianfrido (?) and myself and some other writers. And so, when you’re at bat, you’re plotting.
And then you’re writing. And that takes about an eight-week period. And then you have
sort of auditions and pre-production. But after that, you have another – probably
eight weeks off. So – and then somebody else is at bat. And you go to the – back
to the dugout. So – so, when I’m in the dugout, is when I can work on my plays. And
pick up my son at 2:30, after school. But it’s – but it’s a different kind
of writing, right? On television? Oh, yeah. It’s really – I mean, TV writing,
you talk about, like, you know, “Are you writing for somebody?” I mean, you are literally
– you’re an employee. You know? So you’re thinking, like, “Oh, will my boss like this
line? Oh, he’ll like this line. He likes that kind of line.” Or – you know. Or,
“Oh, this – oh, he’ll find this. Hmm, he’ll”—you know. So, you’re always
trying to second-guess – you know, somebody else. You know, who – and that person will
ultimately – you know, re-write your draft anyway. You know. So, you’re kind of jockeying,
“Ooh, I want this line to survive, cuz it’s mine.” You know. “So I’ll make it try
and sound like him.” Whereas with playwriting, you know, it’s – it’s almost intimidatingly
you alone in a big room. You know? And you – you – you know, you say, “Echo!”
You know what I mean? And – and — and you’re the only one who can say, “Well, that really
sounded like you, when you said ‘echo.’” You know. Like – you know. It also explains, in a way, why – why playwright
– plays are owned by the playwrights. And when you do television, you get a paycheck.
You work for – it’s a work for hire. Yeah. Somebody else owns it, right? Yeah, sure. And I – I don’t think of those
scripts as, “Here, read something I wrote.” This is like, this is my day job. Yeah. Yeah. What about the – But, you know, the fact that it’s you writing
them. I mean, even though, yes, you’re being paid. Yes, the story – yeah. You know, that
crew over there at Criminal Intent—I mean, that’s a fantastic bunch of playwrights
writing. I mean, starting with Warren. I mean, you know. This is – and I think television,
it’s really benefiting from this kind of influx of writers from the theater. Who – you
know, you can’t not write like yourself. Do you know? You – yes, you can do the job.
But still, the work on that show is – is wonderfully informed and funny. And – you
know. And takes human beings seriously. And – you know. I mean, I think that – that
there are a lot of people that don’t understand to what extent theatre-goers are staying home
and watching the work of theatre-writers on television. Do you know? And th—that’s
something that really needs to be addressed in the theatre. And the producers need to
understand that – you know. This is a serious thing that’s happening. Television’s being
taken over by playwrights. And so, what does that mean for – you know. For the theatre.
I think it’s something to talk about. And those are also New York-based television
shows. So that you can – you can write for the Public Theatre, and you can also write
for – That’s right. For the Law and Order series of shows. Right. Neil Simon wrote for Sergeant Bilko, and – and
other stuff as well. I’ve always wanted to get a part on Law and Order. I just want
to be the guy that you ask, and I don’t know. (LAUGHTER) Every week. That you come
and you ask, say, “No, I never saw that guy.” (LAUGHTER) You could get that job. You’re just doing that audition, just right
now. Yeah. Now, John, you were actually an Academy-Award-winning
screenplay writer for Moonstruck. What was that like? What do you mean, was? (LAUGHTER) I read your – it was a couple pages back
in the bio. That’s right. What was – what’s that like? What’s
the movie world like? Well, the first four films that I – I did,
I wrote on – on spec. I wrote exactly what I wanted, and those four films were made in
the order that I wrote them. So, I was very lucky and anomalous in that way. And – then
I wrote – you know, some movies for hire. One of them was Congo. (LAUGHTER) And – you
know, made a lot of money that I needed to make. And it was fine. I’ve been fortunate
in that I have a very strong ability to quit. So, whenever anybody wanted me to write something
that I didn’t want, I just quit. And – sometimes life will let you do that. Necessity can make
things quite different. And I would have done what was necessary to support myself and my
children. It just didn’t come to that. If I may, I wanted to – I once asked John
how he got Moonstruck made in his voice. Cuz I – I thought it was so wonderful. And – because
I’ve had dreadful luck in – in writing movies. And when John said he wrote it on
spec, what he means is, he wrote it in his own apartment, for himself. And then had the
finished script, and shopped it around. And then – how quickly did you find Norman Jewison?
Because he just liked it as it was, which almost never happens. Yeah. Yeah. It – But he just liked it. Yeah. He just liked it. And – and Tony Bell
just liked Five Corners, which I basically wrote at the same time. And – Yes. Yes. And both of them were made. And they pretty
much shot what I wrote, and – you know, asked me to change a couple of things for
locations. And r—and that was it. So, I was just – it’s just completely atypical. Cuz – But then, everything’s atypical. Yeah. For everyone, always. It’s a great model. I mean, Adam Rapp – No, it is. — has just done the same thing. Yes, right. I mean – I mean, I think playwrights need
to hear this. About, don’t wait to be offered the big money to write the movie that’s
gonna make you famous. Just go ahead and write the movie. You know? And then – and then
it’s y—then it’s yours, and you’re in charge. Yeah. No, it is a – I great way. My thing
was that after a couple of plays, I – I had various Hollywood meetings. And – and
either I’d be offered an idea to do it, or sometimes they’d say, “Do you have
an idea?” And particularly early on, I would have ideas that were just as quirky as my
plays. And they would like them, but then they would pay me to write them. And so because
they were in on it from the beginning, that meant that you got all this feedback. And
in my case at least, I felt by the time I – I mean, I was proud, I always got through
all the drafts. And I would really work hard to take their notes and keep it, and be good.
But when it was over, I found that they kind of went, “You know what? This is too quirky.
I don’t think we want to spend millions and millions on it.” So – and unfortunately,
I did that several times. (LAUGHTER) And also, the – the money was very helpful. You know,
cuz – it’s also true that someone can do what John did, and no one’ll buy the
script. So it’s not like it’s a perfect one way to do it. But I must say, I admire
John for doing that. And I thought that those two movies you mentioned, Moonstruck and Five
Corners, are so idiosyncratically yours. And that’s so rare in American movies. So, I
think that’s great. It is. And a lot of people write spec scripts,
and that doesn’t happen. Right. And I was fortunate. I was quite fortunate. Had – had you done a movie script before?
Did you know the format of it? Or did you just figure, “I can do this?” I – I had gotten a National Endowment for
the Arts grant for playwriting. And I had been painting people’s apartments. And I
knew with the money that I had gotten, that I had a year that I could write. And I wrote
a new play. And then I thought, “If I don’t do something to change my situation, I’ll
be painting people’s apartments again in a few months.” And so I thought, “Well,
I have to write a movie.” And I started watching James Bond movies and thinking, “How
would you write that? How would you actually write that down?” What I’m looking at.
And then I started to read screenplays. And I read one called Scarface, by Oliver Stone.
And I got it. I was like, “Oh, I get it. I get it.” Because if I actually – what
I was reading was real purple prose. You know, this guy, incredibly handsome, and his hair
blowing in the wind, his face set against injustice. And I was like, “This is bad.”
And then I thought, “Would it be bad if you saw it?” And I thought, “No. It’d
just be Al Pacino. In a boat. It’d be okay.” You know? And – that’s what he’s doing.
You know? This is not for publication. This is to capture what you want to capture when
you’re shooting. Which is a different – different animal. And then I be—I just turned around. And
I turned that camera on my own childhood. And I just remembered what was cinematic about
my own childhood. And wrote down all those visual scenes. And then I thought about a
story that would hook all those scenes together. Many parts of which were true. And then put
together this sort of autobiographical – cinematic collage. And named it Five Corners. And – and
they made it. So. That’s sort of how I got into it. There’s a – there’s a wonderful quote
which I may mangle slightly from an interview with – with John. In which you said that
the first half of your – of your career was – was spent dealing with your own problems.
The second half, dealing with other people’s problems. Yes. I – I made a – a decision, several
years ago. I had a big-picture moment about my life. My writing life. And I saw, okay.
The first half of my writing life, I’m gonna work out my problems, and I’m gonna talk
about my family, and I’m gonna talk about my girlfriends, and I’m gonna do all that
stuff. And then at a certain moment, I’m gonna enter the Parthenon, and I’m gonna
start to talk with the men and women in the – of the city, about what is going on in
the world. And that is what I’ve chosen to do now, for the last probably three, four
years. And it’s a very exciting thing for me. And organically-timed for me to turn my
attention in that direction. And it’s – it’s such an exciting and interesting time in the
world, right now. Where everybody is full of feeling and ideas. And the clashes are
right there in front of us. And emotion is not enough. And analysis, and the – and
logic, and emotion, and impression, all have a tremendous part to play in an international
social dialogue. It’s a great time to be writing. Lisa, do you have any reaction to – (LAUGHTER) I thought you said you were wrapped. A reaction to that. I mean, cuz – of – of
– what parts of your life you deal with, at – at whatever time. I just – I think
it’s a fascinating quote, about dealing with your own problems, or dealing with – with
others. And I just wondered if you had a – a reaction to it. And they’re not all the
people in the panel who are members of a group called The Five Lesbian Brothers. So I thought
(LAUGHTER) – there had to be something there. Well, first of all, I just want to say, no
one’s ever asked me to write for TV. Or film, or anything, really. Except for the
theater. Would you write for TV? Right. (LAUGHTER) If you get cast. I see we’re
working the – I feel so much better. You have been invited, you can play the guy
who doesn’t know. Well, I understand that impulse. I mean, that’s
totally interesting to me. I – I completely understand that impulse. I mean, I have always
– I work – I have always worked in my personal work using autobiographical material,
although I have also – my point has never been to tell things about my life. For whatever
reason, that’s how I know to – get to – to find a level of specificity and truth.
That feels dynamic, and interesting to me. But always what I strive for is to – and
what I – what I’m trying to do is deal with ideas, themes, issues, through that prism.
But I – I mean, I – I feel, often, like I would love to write about – you know,
draw on something else. And – I mean, it was very interesting for me to hear that.
Because I do sort of anticipate that at some point, that will also be true for me. Marsha? It – it’s a great subject. I mean, we
– Chris and I had this writer at Juilliard who – I think, invented this term. She talked
about all writers having something she called “content.” Your content. Which would be
your – your sort of stuff that you wrote out of. And that even after you quit writing
the details of it, it was – this content would still determine what you paid attention
to, and what you were drawn to. One of the best conversations I ever had with Chris was
about this idea that we’re all really, really great writers when we’re writing out of
that central core of our being. And then we’re sort of okay writers when we’re writing
about other stuff. But there are certain subjects where we might be negligible, even, as writers.
That – that there’s something about the right material, the right topic, the right
kind of conflict, the right forces at work, that pull that great writing out of you. You know, it used to be that – that, like,
Tennessee Williams would say, “Oh, okay. I – I am assigned to write this story. And
I write it over and over and over for my whole life.” And you – you can look, in fact,
at various – you know, writers. And say, “Well, okay. That as a theme, that’s a
story he really liked to tell. That was a journey she kept being on.” And – but
there’s something really thrilling in it, about knowing that – you know, yeah. You
find that. And you – you know, whether or not you actually say the details of your life,
you’re still writing out of that urge. I mean, I’m always writing about confinement.
About being trapped. I mean, when I’m – when I’m writing about that, I’m really good.
And when I’m writing about people that have lots of options, and lots of freedom, and
no problems and no confine— they’re not in jail in any way – you know, I’m just
– you know, a perfectly adequate person that can write sentences in English. And – and
that – you know, that’s – that’s a thing to really – be kind of modest and
humble in the face of. About the – about writing in the world. I want to – I’ll just add something about
what John said. I – I – I identified with it. I think we’re close in age, probably,
and it may be part of that. But, I – I – I started writing plays in a very absurdist
style. And as I kept going, I started to bring in more emotion that people could identify
with. Cuz I was scaring them with my absurdist plays. But I started to realize that even
my absurd plays were based on my extended family. I’m an only child, but I have many,
many aunts and uncles, and lots of crazy interactions. And I was really drawing on that all the time.
Up through my play, The Marriage of Bette and Boo in 1985 at the Public, which was my
one unabashedly biographical play, which dealt with my parents directly. And I played myself.
(LAUGHTER) It was very weird, too. But – the play that I wrote after that,
two years later, was Laughing Wild. And – Right after the Reagan years, and – and
the city has all these mental patients in it. And anyway, I – I realized that it’s
not been a conscious decision, but I think my plays since then are not coming from, I’m
thinking about my family any more. I think I slightly finished that, with the other one.
And I’m also finding that I don’t write as frequently. And I think it may be because
– you know, growing up, you have a full 20 years of taking in all this stuff. And
you have a lot to put out. And then – you know, as you’re looking around the world,
you know, you may process it more slowly. So, anyway. I – I really was interested
to hear you say that. Cuz I recently had that thought about myself. Okay, let – let’s take a little break
now, and hear a little bit more about the American Theatre Wing. I wanted to ask a – a question. If there’s
any – any concerns, when you depict in one of your plays somebody who’s very specific.
I know you write for yourself. But if you write for somebody who’s very specifically
alive, or is a figure, if there’s a certain sensitivity to it. I wanted to ask Chris if
– if that’s come up in your – in your work. You mean public figures, or family figures? No – either. Well, I think – I think family figures are
– family figures. Writing directly about your family is a tricky thing to do. And I
think lots of people do it. And with The Marriage of Bette and Boo, I – I wrote the very first
draft – early on, as an exercise. Famous last words. Never expecting to produce it.
And I even used everybody’s real names. And then – in the little world of – of
Yale, one of the – my playwriting teacher, Howard Stein (?), showed it to a directing
student, who wanted to do it. And in that world, a – a director with the acting students
in a formal production was a big deal. And so I changed the names, mostly. And – I
let it be done. But I didn’t let my – relatives know about it. Because – anyway. And then
I put it aside. Because I thought, there are ten characters in this, and I’ve written
a one-act, and that’s impractical. And I think it can become a full-length. But later
one, when I had expanded the play after my mother died, there was a period where Joe
Papp had decided to do it. And I suddenly just got aware that my father was still alive.
Well, I didn’t become aware he’d been alive. (LAUGHTER) I – I became conscious
of the fact that he could read reviews of the play that would sound rather like him,
and it would make him feel bad. So – I – I called Joe Papp up, and said, “You know,
I’m having cold feet about it, because my fa—father’s alive.” And Joe was a very – he had very father-son
kind of dealings with his playwrights, especially the males, of course. And then some father-daughter
ones. But anyway, he was very sympathetic to that. So we postponed the play. And – we
– when it was done, my father was still alive, but he’d had a stroke, and was no
longer mentally aware. And so then I felt – and – but I mean, other people would
sometimes go ahead with it anyway. I just felt bad about my father. So – I did it
later. I – (LAUGHTER) I hope – I hope – well, anyway. I don’t have too many
relatives left living. But there were some people I was alluding to, that I thought,
“You know what? I can’t wait for them to die.” (LAUGHTER) Gotta get the play on. And you know, I lived through it. and it’s
part of my material, too. And so, I did change the names. And you know, fictionalize it some.
But – there were some people I was – you know, willing to just take it on the chin,
if they were upset. And Lisa, your mother is a major figure in
your play, right? Don’t mean to cut you off, but – Yeah. No, no, please. That’s a good point. Yes? Yes. It’s complicated. I mean, I – I think
it’s – Is your mother living? She is. Yeah. Does she have a lawyer? (LAUGHTER) No, it’s a wonderful portrayal of her. I
mean, I would – I – when I saw Lisa’s play at Sundance a couple of years ago I thought,
“Oh, if that could only have been my mother. I would have been okay.” (LAUGHTER) Right. I mean, I think – I mean, 2.5 Minute
Ride was about my father. Although it was a solo. The character of her – of him was
not embodied on stage. I mean, I think ultimately, it is a very flattering – but you know,
who’s to say? I mean, I think – Has she seen it? Yeah. Many times. Yes. Does she give you notes, or does – does
she love – does she love it? She loves it, and she’s terrorized by it.
I mean, there are things about it – I mean, she has trouble – believing, in a certain
way. You know, I mean, she’s – she is the character who’s on stage. And you know,
when people see it, they’re like – and then they meet my mother. They say, “Oh
my God, I thought you were exaggerating. You weren’t kidding.” I mean, because she’s
a big personality. But the first time she saw it she said to Jayne Houdyshell, who is
unbelievable, who plays my mother. And really – I mean, people often think she is my mother.
I mean, Jane is just masterful. And so she really gives you the illusion that there’s
this – I mean, you know, she’s sort of written as this kind of extratheatrical character.
Someone who’s popped in the middle of a play, but has now idea what a play is, or
what the rules of the theatre are. And – which is really, really fun for the audience. And
Jane does it so beautifully. I mean, people think that she is really this thing. And – and
she does that while projecting to the back of a 1200-seat theatre. I mean, she’s – she’s
unbelievable. And the first time my mother saw it, you know, she said, “Oh, Jane. You
did such a good job. Even I want to be Ann Kron.” (LAUGHTER) And – but you know, the play talks about
a lot of things that are hard for my mother. You know, it talks about her chronic illness.
And – you know, the fact that – I mean, the thing that– the things that audiences
end up loving about her, but she’s self-conscious about. And she would not choose to put those
– put those things on stage. And I – I – I mean, even for my father, who – I
think that he’s very – I mean, it’s a – certainly not – you know, it’s a
complicated picture of him, that’s in 2.5 Minute Ride. But it’s very flattering to
him. And he has a much easier time than my mother does, se—seeing it as something outside
himself. Which essentially it is. But even for him, I think it’s a very dislocating
experience. Because – you know, you’re made up of a million different things. And
then somebody takes 12, and turns – and says, “This is who this person is.” And
you know, the focus really changes. I mean, you know, the first time my father saw it
– you know, there were conversations that he hadn’t even really registered. And all
of a sudden, they become a defining moment. And what that definition was, was – he was
happy with it. But it’s – you know, I often think it’s
like – you know, those cultures where – to have your picture taken is to have your soul
stolen. And I feel like in a certain way, that’s what I’ve done. I’ve stolen their
souls for my play. So – you know, I think I go along either because it’s true or because
it’s what I tell myself – on the assumption that there’s some greater good being served.
And that may or may not be true. But it’s not comfortable. It’s not comfortable. And
I think it is a trade-off. It’s – you know, there are ways in which my mother loves
it. And she’s very flattered. And other ways in which it is not what she would choose. Any of the Bronx – neighborhood guys, or
– or gals in any of your plays come – Oh, tons. Tons. I mean, I did a play about
my family – I – I did an adaptation of the book Alive, about the Andes disaster,
and then – you know, I sat down and had dinner with the guys who’d been cannibals.
And – you know, we – we talked about – you know, you know, I had written what they said.
And – they were vetting it in saying whether or not they thought that was credible. And
– you know, one of them asked me, he said, “How did you know what it’s like to be
in the deep snow?” I said, “I’m from the Bronx.” That’s all I could come with,
by way of an answer. My mother wouldn’t see Five Corners because, as she put it, “I
understand the mother’s thrown out the window.” (LAUGHTER) And she knew who – which mother
that was. You know. So, sure. No, I think it comes up in all our work. Doesn’t it
come in yours, Diana, or no? Well, I was – I have the opposite problem.
Which is, I think people assume that I’m writing autobiographically. And then sort
of feel stunned and betrayed, when I find out that I’m – I’m not. You know. So,
Stop Kiss is about these two women, who – you know, fall in love, and they kiss, and they
get beat up. And people would come to me afterwards, “Did that happen to you?” Or, then, you
know, the assumption that I was gay. And then really, the sort of disenchantment when I
wasn’t. You know. I was very – you know. I – I was hurt by it, actually hurt and
shocked. Because I assumed that since I was a writer, that people were counting on me
to use my imagination. Though I do agree with what you’re saying, in terms of content.
You know? Like, it – coming from a true place. But it was really ultimately for me,
about my – kind of my falling in love with my mother, in a way. And my newest play – you know, has a couple
– there’s my – my new play is the first one I’ve written that’s actually have
– has race-specific characters. And – and it is about a – you know, a new mother.
And I’m not a new mother any more, but I am a mother. And so she’s Korean-American,
and the husband is African-American. And they move into this brownstone in Brooklyn. And
– and the husband’s actually – was adopted into a white family, so now they’ve moved
into this primarily black neighborhood. So they’re—they’re all having sort of really
racial identity issues. And – and my husband, you know, said to me, “Are people gonna
be disappointed I’m not black, the way that they were disappointed that you’re not gay?”
And I said, “Probably.” (LAUGHTER) You know? But I do – I do, you know, sort of
– I – I struggle with this assumption that you’re – you’re literally writing
about your life, all the time. I think you told us of one of your plays,
which is not about your family. One of your early plays. (LAUGHTER) I – I – no, I – truthfully,
I wrote my mother over and over and over and over again. And – and she did finally come
to see one of them. But – didn’t – didn’t recognize herself at all. Or, wasn’t able
to say to me that she did. But you know, I think that – it’s – that parent-child
relationship – I mean, this is like Oedipus. You know, hello. This is not, like, something
that new playwrights do. This is one of the central relationships in life. And so it’s
really the obligation of writers, I think, to put those big relationships up on the stage.
And people continue to want to see them. You know? I mean, All My Sons. Okay. Do you know?
I mean, that’s really one of the things that people have other figure out. Is, what’s
their relationship to the people who’ve gone before. And – so I think that all those
parent plays are actually quite – quite compelling. And – I’ve the – also had
the belief that anything that has happened to you, belongs to you. In other words, if
someone – whatever your parents did to you, that’s yours. And so, they can – you can
– you know, you’re free to portray them, crucify them, (LAUGHTER) you know, beat up
on them, or salute them, or whatever you want to do. But they– you know, you have the right
to use them as characters. Because it did happen to you. It’s not like something that
you – you know, that you don’t have a – you don’t have a right to talk about.
And I think that that’s a thing, people that know writers just need to – get used
to the idea that you’re gonna show up in the work. Because if you have any impact at
all, we’re going to write about you. And that’s just how it is. And if you’re interesting. Well, yeah. Yeah. Do you think that Oedipus Rex is about Sophocles’
family? (LAUGHTER) I think – I think that Sophocles is a child
of somebody. you know? Right. Yeah. And – and – and I think that if we really
knew, we would have some idea, and we could – you know, sit around in academic land
and talk about that. But you know, I – I just used it because it was an obvious good
example. I don’t have any inside info. No, but I’m – I’m – actually, I’m
interested in – th—I didn’t – I wasn’t being facetious. Do you think that Sophocles
was writing about his family? In Oedipus Rex? I’ve never thought about it. (LAUGHTER)
But I mean, I – I get Marsha’s point. That – that we all – you know. Come from
mothers. The question – the Oedipus question is,
where did I come from? Yeah. Uh-huh (AFFIRM). You know? And how do I – and how do I relate
to the people in the world? How do I explain my attraction to that person. Do you know?
I mean, those are all – those are all big family issues. And so, yes. (LAUGHTER) Yes,
that was his mother! You’ve got to live with that answer for
the rest of your life! (LAUGHTER) Marsha Norman said. (LAUGHTER) I want to talk about – about other people
that you enter in – that you welcome into your collaborations. Specifically, first directors.
I mean, recently, as I’m sure you all know, there was an interesting article in The New
York Times about the copyright issue of directors. And do – do directors – are they entitled
to, should they have a copyright in their own work. And then how on earth can you separate
that out from r—your – your work as – as writers? So, I – any director – you know,
thoughts? I know that there’s the same director – you’ve worked with – I don’t know
if you’ve all worked with – with the same – But do you want to know about people, or do
you want to know about this issue? Because this issue – issue is very big. And we can
talk about that. I want to know – people first. Because – because
I think people lead you to the issue. I mean, are – are there directors that you have
a particular relationship with, that you feel – that – that you feel is an important
collaborator to you, or just an interpreter? Well, there are certainly directors that I
have felt that way about. And on this copyright issue, there are – there – there’s one
director that I felt was so helpful, that I was willing to grant him a continuing interest
in the play. And I think that that does happen a lot. But – you know, I think that the
– the issue is that that’s a – it’s a decision that a writer needs to make on
a case-by-case basis. You can’t make the decision, you can’t be forced to decide
that – you know, in advance of the work. And you – you can’t create a situation
that makes it impossible for people to do later versions of the play. I mean, one of
the – the issue around the director’s copyright is that – you know, if somebody
has the right to own the phrase, “Exits left, carrying bananas,” then, you know,
then anybody that ever wants to do that again either has to – has to find out which version
has that in it, and – you know, the – directors owning the stage directions is a – just
a practical nightmare for the theatre. And would ultimately mean that everybody just
stopped doing – anything that was owned by anyone. You know? That – that you can’t
– you know, basically the stage directions are – are based on a piece of writing that
is underneath them. And that’s what – you know, that’s where the copyright belongs. Do you find that as writers, you – you – you
tend to put more stage directions in that are your notion of it, so you can sort of
protect from what a director might say? Or do you – do you – do you tend to write
plays that are – that are – that don’t have a lot of stage directions? You know, the thing – we just need to straighten
out a couple of things about issue. You – Okay. Yeah, I agree. That was confusing to me. Copyright only – you know, to – to get
a – you know, for Gerry Gutierrez, or any of the people that have actually – you know,
are in the middle of this issue, at least historically, they simply send a copy of the
script to the copyright office. When – to have a copyright sim—simply means that it
arrived at the office. The office simply goes, “It came in this day. And now we’re gonna
file it over here.” Right? And they don’t – you know, just ha—just having proof
that they received it doesn’t actually mean that you now own anything. And – you know,
the actual ownership of the mar—the notes in the stage directions, which is the notes
in the margins, that’s – that’s not actually, if you took the play away, they
would have really only – only owned the notes in the margins. You know, so that it’s
– it’s a thing that the courts are really gonna have to look at, in terms of, what – what
actually is there to be owned? And what kind of nightmarish sort of record-keeping process
there would have to be, if – if any court actually found that you could own – you
know, “Exit left, carrying bananas.” I – I was just gonna say, I mean, cuz growing
up, I read plays when I was young. And – I read a lot of Noel Coward. And – you know,
it said, “Exit left, carrying champagne glass,” blah blah blah blah. And – I don’t
in any way – I don’t actually write lots of stage directions. But I sort of write logical
ones. Or, if I want them to be sitting on a couch, I may say that. And – if, then,
the director has them sitting on two chairs separated, I feel that that’s an interpretation,
but not something that should be owned. So, I actually haven’t worked with any who’ve
gotten up—upset about it. I – I’ve actually liked and enjoyed most of the directors I’ve
worked with. And actually, like and en—enjoy some of the ones who’ve been involved legally,
too. But – you know. And it isn’t usually about
just exiting left, cuz that would be silly. I mean, it is true that some plays are hard
to do. And if a director comes up with a – a particular interpretation that helps the play,
to me that’s – I understand their concern about it. And then they’re also very concerned
that some people in the country can go and see it, perform in Lincoln Center Performing
Arts thing, and then go copy it. I, though, don’t know how to really protect them from
that, exactly. Because it is true that when you look at the
play—you know, just use – thinking of Noel Coward. I mean, you know. If he sets
it at two balconies in the Riviera, I don’t think a director should own that. Almost no
matter what they do. I – I mean, if – if they set it, instead of on two balconies,
on top of two elephants for some reason, it would be – you know, and that would either
be a big flop, or big critical success. And the director would be praised for it. But
I don’t know that that should be copyrighted. I don’t know how you copyright that. Let’s – can we – oh, do you want to
– Well, I think this is always a problem in
theater. And – I mean, I’ve dealt with it – I mean, the creation of my plays is
always very collaborative. And so, even before this was an issue, I was giving people who
had been very – and also because I’m on stage, and I really count on the director
in the – creation of it, to do – I mean, I’ve – essentially what I’m saying is,
my directors have always been intensely dramaturgically involved. And I have always – recognized
that, contractually. But that being said, it’s often then been very difficult to quantify
what that – what that’s supposed to be. And you know, I think in the collaborative
process, everyone gives 100 percent of what they have. You know, you’re in – and then
there comes this moment where you have to try to separate that out and quantify it.
And of course, it’s completely impossible to do. It becomes this – intertwined thing. And the courts are not – And – and I’m – you know, horrified
by this sort of copyrighting notion. I completely agree with you. That it’s – I mean, I
think in general, the – the sort of move in – in the world in general, to – you
know, limit the use of intellectual property, is problematic. And is gonna – is – you
know, increasingly gonna kind of shut down the free flow of ideas and creativity. But
we also have all seen – I mean, I’ve certainly – you know, been to some – regional theatre,
or a university theatre, and seen a production. And thought – “Well, they just totally
lifted that production.” They – I mean, we also know that thing. I mean, directors
do get their work lifted. And I don’t know who the other directors are who are doing
this. But it does happen. Well, this is one of the issues that the Directors
Guild itself – you know, is trying hard to figure out how to police its own membership. Right. And the playwrights can’t be punished
for that. That’s right. And the – the ability of work to be done
can’t be shut down by that. It – it is one of those things like, you know, the thing
– the pornography thing. You know it when you see it. Like, you know when somebody’s
work has been stolen. But then, how r— how do we – And what’s the remedy, you know? What’s the remedy. And is the – are the courts the place to
make the determination. Exactly. Let’s push this slippery slope to the side
slightly. And I want to – but I want to ask about – about, have you had experience
when you have – written a play, it’s been produced, it’s been published. Then you’ve
gone to see a production of it that to y— either bears no resemblance to – I mean,
they’ve just – they’ve reconceived it, or they’ve put it on top of an elephant,
or something like that. Have you had that experience? And has it been pleasurable? (LAUGHTER) I – I had an experience in Finland. Where
(LAUGHTER) – where I’d been on this kind of USIA kind of – you know, drunken six
weeks in Scandinavia, of seeing my plays done all in very cold, dark places. Which, my work
is very popular there. And so (LAUGHTER) – at any rate, one – one evening I arrived sort
of on the arm of the Finnish ambassador. And – and this enormous woman came up to me
and she said, “Ah. This evening, your play be performed on a block of ice.” (LAUGHTER)
And so – and so proceeded this – this worst moment, in the playwright’s nightmare
night, when you sit down. And – ‘Night Mother’s a play that requires a sofa, and
a – and – and a kitchen table, and a couple of doors. And – you know, sort of – it’s
a little small house. So I go in. And here on the floor is a gigantic
cigarette pack. And there’s a vertical fish tank. There’s a trapeze. And on the floor,
there is this pink stained stuffed satin tiger. All right? And I’m thinking, “Okay. Okay.”
So and at the top of the play, stuff like – Jessie, like, pops out of the cigarette
pack. She swings on the trapeze all night, waving the gun at Mama. Wearing fatigues.
The — the – the moment in the play where people are supposed to change the sofa, put
on a – the dry sofa cover. Jessie came out with this gigantic yellow and black velour
tiger suit. And they stuffed this thing that was on the floor into this tiger suit. And
you know, your heart just – your – you just fall apart when that happens. Were all eyes on you to see how you were reacting,
or were they just – Oh, no, I don’t think that it made any difference.
There was this curious moment, though, at the end, where they were introducing everyone.
And the play had all been done in Finnish. But you can understand a play that isn’t
in a language that you understand, cuz you know the play. And so they were introducing
everyone. Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo. And then somebody would stand up, and they would
applaud. So then I hear this doo doo doo doo doo, “Marsha Norman.” And suddenly there
was this thing. And I thought, “Oh my God.” Because I’ve already decided to close it
down. Do you know! I decided that afterward, I’m talking to the ambassador. He’s talking
to Samuel French. They’re talking to the publishing, and – and it’s – and – and
you know. But I did. Of course, I stood up. And then there was a – people were looking
– looking at me like, “What was that about? What did you – what was that play?” I
mean, you know, they – they had messed it up to the point that it was just incomprehensible. Did you close `em down? I did. I did. Well – you know, I said – because
they had changed the end, they had changed – you know, they just did – they made
all these huge changes. So what it does, actually, truthfully, like all of rotten life, it makes
a great story. But the experience of it was really painful. I’ve had bad experiences. But nothing as
bad as that. That’s amazing. (LAUGHTER) John, any that you’ve witnessed? I would have loved to have been there for
that. (LAUGHTER) I would have loved that show! No. I mean, I – I did a – they did Danny
and the Deep Blue Sea in – in Catalonia, and I went. And – the director and translator
sat next to me when I watched this play, and this – the lights came up, and the actors
said the r– first few lines to the director. Started sobbing. And he sobbed through the
– his own work, moved him so deeply. That I couldn’t really understand the play. I
was like, more concerned about (LAUGHTER) – you know? I thought, “Wow, another culture,
I guess.” You know. No, I – you know, I’ve seen – you know,
bad productions. But actually, I always sort of feel they kind of get it. They get the
play. They might not be able to do it. They may not get the elegance of it. But they get
the rude, large picture of it. So, I haven’t been fortunate enough to have Marsha’s experience. Go to Finland, I think. I’m game. I’m – you know. If they did
my play on a block of ice, I’d be on the floor! (LAUGHTER) It’s like, what – I
have no, like, part of me that’s like, “What are they gonna think of me in Finland?”
I have no (LAUGHTER) – they could hate me in Finland, I’ll be fine. (LAUGHTER) Have an—have any of you gone back to plays
that you have written before and made changes? That have been published, and had a life,
and gone on – years later, gone and looked and – and thought, “Ooh, I could make
that better?” Or have you respected your own sort of work from the past, to say, “Leave
that where it is?” Most of the time I think it’s dangerous
to go back too far. Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Cuz you’re gonna tinker with something that’s
all of one fabric, and it’s gonna – Tennessee Williams used to do that. He used to go back.
And they stopped him. Because – he was – doing things to his plays that were, in the other
– judgment of many others, not – not in their best interest. Yeah, I’ve had the same feeling. Especially
the plays I wrote in my 20s. I feel like I was such a different person then, that it
would be very odd to go back to them now, and try to do something. So. No. So one moves on. Yeah. Yeah, for me. I think sometimes you
maybe have a trouble play. Although I’m thinking of ones that aren’t published,
actually. That you wonder about going back on. But truthfully, I haven’t gone back
on it. So maybe I won’t. Well, another slightly troubling area, but
I think we should touch on it. Has the – in your experience, has the critical community
ever been helpful to you? In terms of reviews of your shows that you have – Well, I actually have one positive one. And
oddly, the last time I did an American Theatre Wing, some time in the ‘90s, she was here.
Edith Oliver of The New Yorker. And she worked at the – O’Neill, as a dramaturg. And
– you know, I’m sure there were some people who were unhappy with her reviews. But – partial—I
always thought that in many ways, she was a very kind reviewer. And – I think her
working as a dramaturg – gave her a lot of insight about, you know, it’s – it’s
hard to write a play. Anyway, she was very – supportive. And when my play, Beyond Therapy,
was done off-Broadway, it was weird. Back then, there were two previews. Which is crazy.
And the fir—the – second preview, most of the papers came to. And it was really an
uncertain one. And they were mostly bad reviews. And then the magazine reviews came to opening
night. And that was a good performance, and they were mostly good. Including Edith Oliver’s
in The New Yorker. Except she said, “When there’s the Act Two restaurant scene, the
audience is on cloud nine, and they want to go home. And Durang, however, has two more
scenes yet to do. And he should realize that wrapping up plot is not his strong point,
and it doesn’t really matter wh—he should have ended when they were all on cloud nine.” And – we had still, like, a month of – performances
to get through. And every time that scene would come up, I would whisper to the director,
Jerry Zach, “Ed—Edith wants to go home now.” (LAUGHTER) And – because I was realizing,
I – I did have to tie it up. But after about a couple weeks I thought, “Okay. She’s
– it was a very nice review. What she really means is, the play feels like it’s about
to end now. And it’s upsetting that it doesn’t.” And so, I was lucky enough to get a Broadway
producer for it, who also agreed that the play needed to be rewritten at the ending.
And I – I took Edith’s suggestion in the – in the print, that it should end here.
And in the original version, it’s a very – it’s a – a dinner, where – Bruce’s
ex—his lover Bob comes with a – a shotgun, and – it’s actually a blank gun, but scares
everybody. And Prudence gets mad and goes home. So in the rewrite, she didn’t get
made and got home. I found a way to keep her in the restaurant, to let it wrap up in the
restaurant. And – I do – and that’s the published version. And so – so, thank
you, Edith. (LAUGHTER) Did she come back and see it on Broadway,
and – Oh, I hope she did. I don’t know. It’s
interesting. When I saw her – I was here as – oddly, as an actor, for Putting it
Together, the Sondheim review, which I enjoyed doing. And afterward, I saw Edith, who came
up. And – and – and I said, “Oh, it’s nice to see you.” And I said, “You know,
I haven’t been writing as many plays. I feel guilty about it.” And she said, “Oh,
yeah, but you’re going into a different period of your life.” And it was after Laughing
Wild. And it – it – it was actually she who made me think kind of the thoughts John
had, about – maybe I’m moving in a different thing. I don’t mean to – to be too loving about
critics. We’ve all been traumatized as well as including stopping writing for long periods.
(LAUGHTER) And it is – playwrights are also famous for remembering all our bad reviews
verbatim, and – and not remembering the good ones. But anyway, I have a fond – feeling
in my heart for Edith. Any other critic — I’d like to see some more inspiring critics.
And by that, I don’t mean that they – you know, really like what you do, and say how
much they like it. But that in fact, they – they see something in what you’re doing,
or – and/or, they see something in the future world that they ache for. And they can describe
it well enough to inflame people to go in that direction. Having said that, I’ve never
experienced such a critic. Never seen such a critic. Kenneth Tynan had moments. That
were – were rather inspiring. When he said – Look Back in Anger, that – anybody who
doesn’t like this play is not my friend. (LAUGHTER) That’s somebody taking a risk.
You know? A personal risk in putting something on the line. A different kind of thing on
the line. And entering the – the theatre collaboration in a different way. But I think
anybody – or, most of the people who have that spark, don’t go into that. And I think
that’s too bad. I’ve seen some young critics, who – who have that. Have a bit of that.
And they either get out, or it sort of dims. I mean, the – the interesting ques—I mean,
I agree with you, that’s an interesting kind of criticism to read. But in terms of,
for an individual playwright, though, what that critic aches to see in the world is what
that critic aches to see in the world, and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do
with what the playwright aches to see in the world. Yeah. And – and so, the problem is that there’s
not – that we’re dependent on one paper, basically. That there’s not enough. You
know. I mean – Yeah – yeah. — a lot of interesting critics would be helpful. I don’t know. I mean, I got a rave review
from The New York Times for a play a few years ago, and nobody came anyway. (LAUGHTER) Cuz
– It d—it doesn’t necessarily make them
come, but it can – Cuz the Iraq War was on, everybody was staying
home watching the war, you know? But it can stop them from coming. Yeah, no. Absolutely. Absolutely. And I – I assume that you’ve all had some
version of the experience of the critics not going for a show too well, and audiences – I
mean, I saw The Color Purple the other night, and you couldn’t have – there wasn’t
a seat to be had in the theatre in the middle of January. Right. You know, and the – the critics weren’t
overly kind to it. and – Well, it wasn’t about them. It wasn’t – (LAUGHTER). Do you know? I mean, I think one of the – the
thing, though – that’s just me being me. But – I think that there’s – a thing
I wish for – with critics, is that they knew who did what. I wish that they were in—involved
enough in the theatre, as a world. I mean, you know, restaurant critics can tell the
difference between the waiters and the chef. Right? (LAUGHTER) Good point. And if – if we had that, even. That would
be really helpful. So that, if we had people that could tell what was direction, what was
writing, and what was acting. You know? If we could – that would be fantastic. Because
then, I think, writers could really take responsibility for the part that they did. And I think that’s
– unfortunately, that’s not what happens a lot of the time. Could we do that? Could we get the restaurant
critics to (LAUGHTER) – Well, you know. (LAUGHTER) One of the things
I wish, too, I wish that we had – restaurant critics, you know these people love to eat.
Do you know? They do. You can feel it. And when – when they don’t get the food they
like, they still like food. (LAUGHTER) Right. But they just don’t like that food. Like that food. Right. And I – that’s what I wish we had in critics.
You know, people that just love the theatre. And when they were unhappy, it was unhappy
because they loved it so much. Not because – they were eager to wipe it off the face
of the earth. Which is, I think, what happens – you know, what’s – what – what’s
going on at the moment, in any rate. Do you think Juilliard could have a critic’s
program? Or do you think it’s – I think we’ve had a couple of writers at
Juilliard. We’ve had a couple that, we’ve tried to twist their arms and say, “You
know, Mike.” (LAUGHTER) In this one case. “This is what you need to be doing. You
need to be writing. Cuz you see everything, and you”—you know, I – I think that
– that playwrights actually could probably turn into wonderful reviewers. But given the
bad things we say about them, who would want to be one? So, do you know? But I – but
I think clearly, if – if critics came out of – you know, some real theatrical training,
that would – that’d be a plus. I like the fashion critics probably the best.
I mean, they’re the best writers. And they’re thinking in the most interesting way. I like
this idea of just having critics from other stuff. Like, have fashion critics – Yeah. Automotive critics, even. — review the play. Yeah. Yeah. But then they’d just say, “Ugh. Dowdy.”
(LAUGHTER) Have you had – had – I mean, I – I’m sort of biting my tongue
in – in a way. Because I feel like, oh, well, on the one hand, I have critic – you
know, good reviews to thank for the fact that I s—support my family. (CLEARS THROAT) But
specifically, with – with my new play, I – I do remember reading a – a review of
a sort of subsequent regional production of Stop Kiss. When they sort of said, “Okay,
these punchy – this – you know – you know, unpredictable sequence of punchy scenes
– you know, is engaging. But I wonder if this writer can really sustain conflict and
drama within a scene,” or da da da. And I thought, “Oh. I – that’s a challenge
I’d like to meet.” You know? And I really fe— and I really – my big – you know,
thing, w—and when – when I started this new play – you know, trying to – shape
all these ideas into one story line, and all. But the thing that really drove me was, “Just
remember to write longer scenes.” (LAUGHTER) Cuz like – and every time I feel the impulse
to end the scene, I just go, “Just keep writing it.” (LAUGHTER) You know? Does the role of the dramaturg also enter
into this – is the drama—I’ve never quite understood what a dramaturg is. Never
been one. But, are they sort of supposed to be critics at an earlier stage for you guys?
Or are they – I have no interest in them. We don’t speak about (LAUGHTER) – but,
you know. Th—they serve a – a purpose, I think, in the theatre – you know, where
there are historical matters to be dealt with. Where there’s explanation to be done, and
research to be done. You know, I think that – that – it’s become a kind of unfortunate
practice, that l—there are dramaturgs who are – who get too soon in the lives of – of
young writers, in particular. And – and sort of, who get – who are there to sort
of read plays for a theatre. Do you know? Ba—basically, they’re having a life out
in the regional theatres. You know, to sort of read plays, and assist in various ways
in the literary department. And I think playwrights, by and large, find that they – they – you
know, just would like to be left alone. You know, wait ‘til I ask you a question. I
think is sort of the – the thing that most writers feel. Although clearly, dramaturgs
love the theatre, and know what – know what it is. So. Are they – are they perhaps frustrated writers
themselves? Or – I don’t think so. No, not by and large.
They really are – more like editors are, in the world of writers. Of books. Fortunately, with the cutbacks in the arts,
most theatres can’t afford them. (LAUGHTER) I mean, I worked very – John Diaz worked
as a dramaturg on Well. And the structure of Well is very complicated. And Lee and John
and I collaborated on the – you know, teasing out of that structure. But I would agree,
that when I would do workshops at a regional theatre, and would just be given this person,
who I was expected to accept comments on the play, I would think, “You don’t know anything
about my play.” You know? “I don’t know why I – why is this happening? I don’t
understand what the assumption is.” We get a lot of complaints at the Dramatists
Guild that in regional theatres, the dramaturg is used to convey the notes of the artistic
director. So that – you know, this person comes into the room purporting to be a friend.
Right? But actually bearing the – you know, “Cut the second scene by 30 minutes.”
Do you know? That – that sort of note. Right. The – because the artistic director
doesn’t have the guts to do it – or the time, or – Or doesn’t – or is busy. You know. But
– but, it’s a – it’s odd. It’s a thing that’s kind of – we – I feel like
everybody’s sort of in discussion about the role – you know, playwrights would love
to know that they could get to the theatre and have a friend there. You know? Somebody
to talk to and go – you know, have a drink with, and – that would be great. So, if there’s one thing that you could
do to improve the state of the – the theatre, and the playwright in the theatre, what – what
– what might that be? Any thoughts? I have a thought. Shoot. I mean, this is not a major thought. But I
think that – I mean, when we were at Sundance, which – Marsha and I were there in the same
year. My dramaturg at that time was Jocelyn Clark, from the Abbey. And he just k—kind
of casually mentioned at one point that playwrights always got to see plays at the Abbey for free.
And I thought, “Well, of course they do.” And I thought, “Why”—I mean, I thought
– and I sort of became possessed. And we’re trying to do this in some modified way for
Well. But I– I became possessed with the idea that actually, there should be a system
in the New York Theatre, where every actor, every playwright, every director – everyone
working in the theatre can go to the box office, and – you know, show some – a union card,
or whatever. And if there’s a free seat, they can go see the show. And Michael Summers actually told me that
that was – part of the culture in the 1800s. And it was called honoring the profession.
And I feel like, none of us can afford to go – I mean, I feel like ticket prices in
general are a basic problem. But I also feel like it’s a culture of scarcity. We all
talk trash about shows that none of us have seen. And we need to be in it together. And
we need to have the cross-pollination of ideas. Of really getting to see what everyone else
is doing. And I just think that we should all be able to go each other – see – every
show in New York for free. That’s a – that’s a good idea, and probably
a good place for us to end this conversation. (LAUGHTER) Just cuz, where – where do you
go from there? It – it should be done, though. Anyway. I’d like to thank you all very much
for being on the panel. This is – (APPLAUSE). This is the American Theatre Wing’s “Working
in the Theatre” Seminar. It’s coming to you from the Graduate Center of the – City
University of New York. Thanks very much. (APPLAUSE)

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