Athol Fugard On Playwriting VI

Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 8

Interviewed by Lloyd Richards

images-4For a long time I thought that drinking had a great influence on my imagination. Not that I’ve used alcohol at any of the few desks where I’ve done my writing; I’ve always sat down at my desk very sober, but alcohol was there as a part of my life. Especially at night, after a day working, I used to enjoy my whiskeys, my wines, my beer. And then with the last carafe at night I brainstormed, putting down ideas for the next day. It was a critical aspect of my writing cycle and it led me to believe that if I decided to give up drinking I would end up not writing any longer.

(My) marriage has survived on the basis of one absolute rule: total privacy. It came about quite unconsciously, without any fuss; we never addressed ourselves to the issue. I think two writers living together can be dangerous. I never know what (she) is writing, what her novel is about, until the first copy comes from the publisher. And she, by and large, knows nothing about the play that I’m working on until she sits down in a preview or a first-night audience. We exchange sighs of relief or groans of despair at the end of the day, but it’s as general as that. They are noises, like two draft animals stabled together, blowing and groaning away.

(W)hen I wrote The Bloodknot, nobody in South Africa wanted to touch it. If I hadn’t got hold of Zakes, whom I had already known from some previous work we had done in the theater, and said, “Let’s do it,” and then tried to sort out the traffic on the stage—in addition to taking on the role of Morris—the play wouldn’t have got done. It was the same with Hello and Goodbye, People are Living There, Boesman and Lena, Sizwe Bansi is Dead, The Island, and Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act.

I only started enjoying the luxuries so taken for granted in the American theater when I came to Yale. I had never had designers in my life. I had never had dramaturges—I’m still trying to discover what to do with that animal; what do you do with a dramaturge? I think they are asking themselves that question as well. God knows I have no conceits as a director. Someone has to organize the traffic. That’s what I do: I see that people don’t bump into each other on the stage. I look after the six-foot rule.

The six-foot rule is that no two actors must come nearer to each other than six feet unless there is a crisis. Get closer than six feet and you’ve got a crisis in the action. So I organize the traffic. I also understand the text, because I wrote it. With those two contributions to the event, I have discharged my responsibilities as a director.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates — and many more —  have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

Part VII of the Athol Fugard series will post next Wednesday.

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