Working in the Theatre LIVE: A Doll’s House, Part 2

I’m David Henry Hwang. I’m a playwright
and chair of the American Theatre Wing and we are incredibly proud of the
Broadway season this year and particularly the fact that the four Tony
nominees for Best Play are for American plays, for American playwrights making
their Broadway debuts, and gender parity: two females, two males, So, yay! [applause] So, it’s an incredibly exciting season, and clearly one of the major highlights of this
season and of the new plays is the work we’re going to be discussing tonight.
This extraordinary piece, A Doll’s House Part Two. And we’re going to be joined
tonight by the playwright, the director, the four cast members, all of whom by the
way are Tony-nominated because this play— [applause] because the show has been nominated for
eight Tony Awards. [cheering] And it’s also rarity in that this is a straight
play making its world premiere on Broadway. I’m trying to find out from the theater
geeks out there when the last time a new play premiered, world premiered, on
Broadway. And so far, we don’t have the answer but who knows maybe we’ll get it
in the next you know half-hour or so. To talk about A Doll’s House Part 2, let me
start by introducing the playwright and director Lucas Hnath and Sam Gold. [applause] Thanks so much! So, we’ll start
with Lucas because you wrote it. [laughter] So this is, as most of you are very aware, a
sequel to Ibsen’s iconic play A Doll’s House, following the fate of the lead, Norah,
and some of the other characters. So when you decide to write a play and
you’re going to call it “A Doll’s House Part Two,” there’s really a major gauntlet that
you’re throwing down and it could be considered incredibly courageous,
which I think it was and I love these you know these high wire acts that
succeed when a playwright takes a big risk, but really, what were you thinking
and you know what’s the origin story of this play? [Lucas Hnath] The origin story is I wrote
the title on a piece of paper and I thought it was a funny title.
It seemed audacious, it did seem kind of a like a ridiculous thing to do and
when I went to write it I was just really writing it for myself. Like, it was
a sort of naughty little exercise I was doing. So, I wasn’t really thinking about
anybody reading the play or… I mean, it was in fact a commission from a theater,
but I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that they would produce
it. I was just playing around. [Hwang] And is this one of these plays where, like, did you know the
beginning and ending? Did you outline it or did you just kind of follow your gut? [Hnath] No, this I do sometimes outline and I do sometimes know the
beginning and ending or I know the ending and I’m working towards it. This
was a case where I knew that the play had to begin with a knock at the door
because again that made me laugh. [laughter] And the… The process of writing it involved…The
real springboard was I went and found the worst translation I could
find of A Doll’s House online. Like, I went to some website
that had like a blue background and some kind of pattern, and I cut
and pasted the text into a document and I went through and just rewrote the whole
A Doll’s House Part One in my own words and I stripped out anything that was not
necessary or I stripped out a lot of things that we very quickly associate
with A Doll’s House, for example, the macaroons. So, I ripped out all the
references to that and I… Something that started to happen as I did
that is, what became really apparent was this is a play about two people who
cannot have a real conversation. They are so terrified of offending the
other, or saying the wrong thing, or starting a fight that they are just like
mired in some kind of passive aggression. And that seemed, and A Doll’s House does
end with half of a fight, but that told me that the mandate for writing a play
was Norah and Torvald need to have it out and so I knew it started with a knock at
the door and I knew that these two were going to have to really fight. [Hwang] That’s amazing! And so this play, here on Broadway the lead producer is the iconic
Scott Rudin who also lead produced last season’s Tony award-winning The Humans.
So, given that you were writing a play that you figured no one was going to really
even read or perform or anything, how does how does it happen that you’re on
Broadway, and do you get a call from Scott and what does that feel like? [Hnath] I’m still not sure! I still don’t know entirely the story of how he got the
play because I wasn’t giving it to anybody but I got an email from my agent
that was forwarded from Scott Rudin reading, “Doll’s House Part 2. Read it, love
it, want it.” And my agent said, “Do you know how he got it?” I don’t know.
So, that’s mysterious! [laughter] And I think it’s almost like our one year
anniversary of the first time I met Scott, so it was really fast
how this all happened. But yeah, I don’t entirely know how it happened. [Hwang] So let’s move into that
fastness. So Sam, how did you get involved with the project and…let’s start there. [Sam Gold] When Scott mysteriously read the play and he, I think he read it and had the
immediate strong feeling that it belonged on Broadway and belonged on Broadway
without starting somewhere else. He just wanted to do it. He wanted to not talk
about it he just wanted to do the play. And he sent it to me, I just went through my emails to find the timeline because it’s so
bananas how quick it all was I had to get confirmation in my own email, it was
mid-August, I was working with Scott on another play and we were in rehearsals
for something and he sent me. He was like, “I read Lucas’s play and it’s really
great. I want to send it to you.” And I said, “I’m a big fan of his. We’ve never
gotten to work together. It sounds great I’d love to read it,” thinking it
would be something for five years from now. He sent it to me and
it’s, you know, as you can imagine from watching tonight, it’s like that on
the page it’s just it’s it it’s a very it’s a very exciting read. You see the
title, you think, ” you got to be kidding me,” you jump in and then it just keeps
surprising you, and I read it I said to Scott, “let’s do it.” And that was
mid-August. We sort of wrestled about schedules for two weeks, wrestled about
trying to get a cast for two weeks, we were announced for Broadway I think like
October 1st. Like, I think I read it in mid-August and I had I had dates, a
theatre, a design team, and a cast five or six weeks later. That never happens. [Hwang] So, for those of you aren’t aware,
normally what, three to five years or something, you know, if you’re lucky and
numerous workshops, and out-of-town production at least, or Off-Broadway
production, and what do you guys do to develop the show? [Gold] Well, Lucas was really
smart about this knowing that you should talk about this. There’s a real
process between the draft that I had read and the draft that Lucas knew he
would have in production. And so we, within the confines of Scott
producing it for Broadway, we made a schedule for script
development that you’d have a few were doing it anywhere, if he was going to
have his out of town, or, you know, if he was going to have that five-year process,
how could we do that between now and the opening night date that had been set for
April 27th? And the really really good thing about that story is that for my
end, and then I’ll let Lucas tell the more important part of it, but
for my end as a director, when you’re developing a play, you
don’t know where you’re headed. There’s a lot of a neurosis that comes from
sitting down with a new script and not knowing. And as a director, it makes my
job so much better when I can sit in the room early on knowing who are we
working for, who is the cast, and what is the theater, and who’s the audience and
when are we going to see this. And it galvanizes everybody to a very specific goal. You’re working towards Laurie’s voice,
you’re working towards the Golden Theater, you’re thinking about things in a very concrete
way, not in a way of “this could be anything.” But the sort of blankness of
that this could we could be doing this in Seattle in a thousand-seat theater or
in downtown Manhattan in a seventy-seat theater and “I’m not sure who’s going to be in it,
but let’s develop the play,” is a very different thing than when someone says
to me “you’ve read a script, here’s an opening night date of the
Golden Theatre and a cast. Now, develop the play.” So that was a very nice and
very different process. [Hwang] How does it feel for you Lucas? Are you someone who really needs the deadlines? [Hnath] Um…no. No.
I mean, I’m very rigid. When Scott called me and asked me what I needed to
take this play to Broadway, I said “well, I would like one workshop, if not two, I
would like to have a break in the workshop so that we work for a couple of
days, and I like to go away and work and then come back. There’s a dramaturg that
I really love working with, Sarah Lonnie,” and I asked that she be brought on board.
So basically, I replicated my process of working let’s say at the Humana Festival when
I’m premiering a play there. I have this particular process of
when I workshop a play, I bring in these things I call “scraps” which are these
little bits and pieces of text that are basically every beat of the play,
but every alternate version of that beat for every possible beat or action I can
imagine being in the play, and then I just make the actors read through them
over and over and I start to try to figure out like, “what if this is
interesting? Does it belong in the play?” “Does stuff fits in the play not belong?
Can I stitch that in?” So, deadlines are great! I when I work, I actually try to go
out of my way to find chances to get into rooms with actors to sort of do
this kind of stitching and modular work. [Hwang] Great. Well, that seems like a good
segue to bring on our Tony-nominated cast. Please welcome Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper
Jane Houdyshell, and Candela Rashad. [applause] [Hwang] Hi guys, thanks for joining us.
So, you know there’s a lot of extraordinary things about this play and I love it so
much and I love your performances. Obviously one of the unusual
aspects of it is that it as it takes as a jumping-off point of Ibsen’s play and yet
it stands so completely on its own. To what extent was in the working of
your characters is it necessary for you to incorporate the backstory from
Ibsen’s play to form the characters for this play? Was that a consideration or
not? [laughter] [Chris Cooper] Yes, certainly, it certainly matters. It matters. There was the particular translation that I had on my on my shelf I dug into,
and good Lord, it must be… it must be 60-70 years old translation,
but it worked for me. I’ve seen versions of it on film while I live in Massachusetts
just before coming to New York to work on this at hunting Huntington Theatre in
Mass. They were doing a production, I said “yeah, you know, it would be good just
to hear, just to hear the words.” And I mean certainly it makes a
difference and in another way it’s not monumental that it be such. [Laurie Metcalf] I obviously went back
and read the play just to remind myself of the circumstances. But the way
that Lucas has constructed it with this 15-year gap, it’s like a brand-new
character because Nora has gone off and reinvented herself: had all these life
experiences and is a brand new… I gave that gift to myself to make my
own starting-off, jumping-off point. I think it works. I think that this is
a Nora that we would never have seen had she not left obviously and had these
experiences, so it’s kind of like a free pass that way to do to invent her
however. Like, maybe her humor came forth all of a sudden, or maybe you know just
her so it was more for the to remind myself of the plot in the
circumstances in the first one. [Hwang] Since you mentioned humor, I mean, one of the things that’s extraordinary about this play is that it’s, you know, A Doll’s House Part 2, and
it’s so funny. To what extent were… Did you know that you’re writing
a comedy or did you guys realize when you signed on to this that
this play was as funny as it is, or was that something you kind of discovered
the first time you were in front of an audience in previews on Broadway? [laughter] [Hnath] You know, I actually remember reading about a couple of critics have said this that
in Norway when Ibsen’s plays are performed, it’s not uncommon for it to
get—for those plays to get—big laughs. A couple of years ago, or many years
ago, I saw Lee Brewers production of A Doll’s House which I won’t go
into detail describing, but was an incredibly funny production of the play.
So, I actually always thought the Ibsen was pretty funny. It’s just that the
translations don’t really communicate that. So, I had hoped it would be funny,
but I had certainly it points in various workshops prior to this cast being
assembled I heard it not funny, and so it takes a
special group. I mean, Laurie, you’ve talked about reading it on the page and— [Metcalf] I saw a lot of
humor on the page starting with the title which I found hysterical.
So, I knew that since there were some obvious built-in humor on the page coming from Lucas that he probably
would be open to finding more. So, I looked at that ajar door and tried to
[laughter] shove it open so further. [Hwang] Anybody else on the humour question? [Jane Houdyshell] I thought it
was funny! I mean that’s about all I got. I thought it was, and it is. I
mean it’s delightful to hear the play every night through your ears,
and when we first started performing it we didn’t know, you know, whether
people would be as amused as we were. I think that the comedy in the play is
great. It’s organic and off-kilter and fun and surprisingly contemporary and I just
love all those elements in the play. [Condola Rashad] I agree. [laughter] [Hwang] And so Lucas is talking about
this workshop process. Were many of you involved in the workshops? So— Yes? [Houdyshell] Yes! [laughter] [Hwang] So how does that work? Like,
he gives you scraps of things to read? [Rashad] Well, no. I mean, we always had the base of it and then
basically he might come in and he would have a few versions of parts of scenes
and we each trying to figure out exactly what the specific composition was going to be.
So, there were certain parts of the play that used to be here, and now let’s see
if we can try and hear what it’s like if it comes here instead of there, and so
it’s just about kind of hearing it out loud I think in giving Lucas a chance to
hear it come from us, and then see what felt most organic. [Hwang] And can anyone
identify any specific things that changed either in the workshop process
or the preview process? [Rashad] Your last line. [Metcalf] Well, the last of the play didn’t
come in until halfway through previews! [Hnath] Yeah, it was. There were
maybe three options we were playing with. I mean, really just two main ones
and then we settled on this last one. I mean, so many things changed. [Metcalf] A lot of it was finding
the balance in arguments. One that I remember is when Emmy has that
one very powerful speech about marriage. Advocating marriage, her
very powerful speech that I remember you saying became lopsided, that my character needed
to come back with something, and you wrote the lines, “you don’t know
what I’ve tried to give you. I’m trying to change the world for you.” And
also, the lines over here by the wall. What am I saying? “You know, I do believe
in marriage, I do, but marriages, but love is different.” “I do believe in love, but
love is different from marriage.” All those were additions late in the game to
balance out Emmy’s very strong speech. I remember Jane…We were going to
cut some lines about what Jane’s that cut not backstory but your living
condition was. And with then we all felt like you we needed to be reminded that
she had a little room in the back and was on some tiny allowance. That’s
when people would advocate for their character. But, there were many, many changes. [Hwang] So in terms of this whole balance
question, because you know Nora is obviously a kind of a major at least
19th century kind of feminist icon. And you guys are revisiting this from that
perspective but also from a contemporary perspective. So, to what extent was the
words that was that responsibility, kind of, I guess, in your mind either as you
were writing it or as you were advocating for your
characters, or directing it? [Hnath] I mean…gosh, I’m trying to think of a way
that’s not a long, rambling answer to this question. I mean, first and
foremost on my mind was just trying to make sure that we understood what
every character in the play was trying to get and what were the stakes
behind it. That was the base level, I needed to know that for
everybody. But one of the things that we did in the course of the early October
workshop process, the first time that this cast got together,
was that we got a bunch of scholars, folks like Elaine Showalter, Carol
Gilligan, these Norwegian scholars and feminist scholars to come in and read
Nora’s arguments and note them and to respond to them. Like, every single point
she makes, we asked them to sort of give their own response to it.
It was interesting because 1. It gave us a chance to figure out, “oh,
well that’s a really interesting counter-argument for one of the other
characters to make,” or at times we would subtract something from her argument
that we thought too much jeopardized the stance that she was taking and
distracted us from whatever it was that she was trying to get. I don’t know if
that really directly answers the question, but that was something we were
thinking about a lot. Laurie, do you recall anything that sort of
addresses that as well, or Sam? [Gold] Well, I actually think that question guided a
lot of the rewriting process. I think that what we all read when we first read
it was a draft that had all of the character and all of the drive and
all of the spark of it was there, but that you didn’t know when we
started out how how everybody’s arguments were going to balance each
other and how Nora was going to win. You need those arguments
to be balanced, but from what you’re saying about if you’re
going to bring back the most famous 19th century feminist from
dramatic literature and bring her back to the stage,
she has to leave, she has to come through that door for a
reason, but just to have to leave the door at the end for a reason. I think
that the reason she leaves at the end was always I think the the biggest thing
hanging over the rewriting process because of the weight of what that was
going to be saying about about why to bring back this character. That was a
great I think because we had these scholars and we all had all of us in a
room and it kind of gave us a little extra motivation to
kind of do do Nora proud in some way that way. [Metcalf] We knew she had to
have a second epiphany, her second epiphany, and we knew it had to happen in
the Emmy scene. So, there was a lot of playing around with that: what was going
to trigger her epiphany to know that you know no the world isn’t going to change
unless I go out there and do it myself. That was that was high on the list. [Hwang] Mike choreography.
So, I’m going to bring up a slightly different issue which is, you
know, just as a theatre artist of color myself, I’m always looking for more
opportunities for other artists of color. And often the argument is
made, “oh, well an audience can suspend its disbelief for a lot of
things. Like, you can have an actor playing four parts, ten parts, twenty parts,
and the audience can suspend its disbelief. But, if you have a family and
the actors are, you know, of different races, I just can’t deal with that!” But
clearly here, you made the decision and you can, and the audiences can, and it
feels like you’ve just cast the best actress for the part. [applause] So how has that decision made? Let’s talk about that a little. [Hnath] I mean, I’ll say that that my first dinner with Scott, I said,
“I think we want, there’s no reason to cast all white actors in this play.
There’s no good reason.” So, we wanted we wanted to sort of
open up the casting as much as possible. There’s also something. You know, this is
a play that there is that concern that like oh or people get really
literal minded about like, “oh, wait, why is… Emmy doesn’t seem to match her
parents!” I mean, if you look at the design, it’s deeply abstracted. Its
design telling you, “don’t take this thing so literally. These are the mythic
iterations of these characters on stage.” I actually rather like plays that
are somewhat abstracted because it sort of lets us get non-literal about stuff
that frankly I don’t care about that much. I would rather just have
the best actor and the part and open up the casting as much as possible. [Gold] Yeah, we just made offers to a dream cast and then they all said, “yes.” [laughter] I find the fact that we even have to talk about that from a perspective of diversity
a depressing round of applause for me. [Hwang] So, given that you guys, all that
you made offers, you guys all said “yes,” you all knew this was a new play and
that it was going to open cold on Broadway, is there a
calculation that an actor makes about “is this a good idea?” Or, is it
really just you look at the script, you decide whether you’re going to do it, and
it wouldn’t make any difference really if it was, I mean, the additional pressure
on Broadway that doesn’t factor in as much. [Rashad] I mean, I just read the play and was
like “yeah, I want to do the play. So that was the first number one. That was it.
And then, you know, when you read the play you can see why there was so
much fate weather why you know it was so much faith in in terms of it being the
you know going straight to Broadway because that play is that rich. And
so, I believe that as well, and I think when you really believe in something
like that and also if you’re really moved as an artist to do something, you
kind of just go, “I’m gonna do it.” Yeah, sure, I mean, in another mindset,
certain people might get more calculated about it and that’s one way
to go about it. But, I think at the end of the day, as an artist you kind of just
decide what is going to… What story you feel you need
to tell, and it was something that I felt like I wanted to be a part
of telling. So, that was the most important thing. [Houdyshell] I was really really
attracted to the play. It was, it’s an attractive play on so many levels. I mean,
in terms of its ideas, in terms of the characters themselves, in terms of the
stylistic quirkiness of it, everything about it just seemed really attractive
to me. I’d never worked with Sam Gold and I always wanted to, so that was
attractive to me, and when I heard who everyone else in the cast was going to
be, that was really attractive to me, and so yeah, it seems like kind of a
no-brainer to say yes. hello yeah I mean [Cooper] Well frankly, I haven’t
been on stage in decades, literally. Folks have said, “well, when
you going back to stage? Blah, blah, blah.” And I said, “when I find
something, and when the time is right, and when I find
something that really knocks me out.” Scott Rudin over the years has
approached me, and those plays that he’s approached me we’re all pretty familiar
with, but it was just this really caught my attention and it was simply reading
the script. It’s no chess game of “who is this going to payoff here?” or, “what do I
do here?” You know? It’s just “take the leap. Take the leap and do it.” [Metcalf] It was a leap because
we knew that we were going to have workshops, so we knew
that the play wasn’t finished. But with Scott Rudin behind it, knowing
that you know the A-team was going to be leading it and with Sam and Lucas,
and then I never felt weirdly. I think we kind of stopped feeling. There
was no pressure about going to Broadway in the rehearsal room, ever. There could
have been, but there there just wasn’t. We just were all working as a team and we
just kept progressing every day and there wasn’t the stress
that could come with that. [Gold] I will also say that I think sometimes bringing a play of
Broadway creates pressure that can be bad for the play. In order to be in
a commercial marketplace, do you have to make sacrifices to the
play? Do you have to cast the play in a way that isn’t your ideal way to cast it to
make it reach an audience? Do you have to make certain kind of compromises to make
it work in the marketplace? And we had the opposite experience, which is that
you have a play that’s great roles for actors, but it’s hard that you know
Laurie and Chris don’t live in town. It’s hard to get them here, it’s hard to get a
cast together for a play. The fact that we had an opening night date on
Broadway and Scott so devoted to it meant that we could dream about
who we really did just have a meeting and dream about who we wanted,
and Scott while we were having that meeting could text those people and, you
know, coerce them into getting on an airplane! And that is sort
of the opposite of “did the pressure of Broadway make it
challenging?” It actually for this play was a very lucky opposite of that. [Hwang] Well, I think it’s a very lucky situation for all of us on Broadway.
Thank you for bringing this show, thank you for your gifts. [applause]

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