John Guare On Playwriting V

May 16, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 9

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

A playwright is a writer who only has ninety-nine pieces of paper to tell his tale. You’ve got to get your story told in approximately two hours. If it’s too long you have to learn how to cut without destroying the intention of your work . . . . Theater is the place where you learn all your lessons in a crowd. Imagine a novelist watching five hundred people simultaneously reading a draft of a novel and then making adjustments based on their immediate responses. Also, you had better know the audience with whom you want to draw up the contract. Peter Brook gave a seminar at La Mama and someone asked him what the prime aesthetic problem was in the theater. He said, Oh, that’s easy. When once you’ve discovered the laugh, it’s how do you keep the laugh.

Off Broadway was beginning—our version of Paris in the twenties. I saw remarkable plays at the Caffé Cino by Lanford Wilson and H. M. Katoukas, who walked around the Village with a parakeet tied to each finger of his hands. Ten parakeets flying all around him. The Caffé was run by a burly Sicilian, Joe Cino, who worked in a steam laundry from seven a.m. to four p.m., then went to his kingdom, his paradise, a café on Cornelia Street decorated with a crush of twinkling Christmas tree lights, religious statues, Kewpie dolls, and blowups of Jean Harlow and Maria Callas, a kind of insane storefront attic. I brought two plays to Cino. He said, Sorry we’re only doing plays by Aquarians. I sputtered that I was an Aquarius! He looked at my driver’s license. February 5. He weighed my plays in his beefy hands, then checked his astrological charts, and said, You go into rehearsal in two weeks, run for two weeks with a possibility of an extension for a third. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had been a Gemini.

Edward Albee earned himself eternal playwright sainthood. Out of the profits from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he and his producers took a lease on a theater on Van Dam Street, and every week for six months of the year from 1963 to 1969 they produced a new play. The plays were not reviewed. Audiences just showed up at the theater to see what was there. They were very exciting times. I once wrote a play called A Day for Surprises on a Thursday and it opened the next Monday.

I had the first act of House of Blue Leaves, and I played the lead—well, read it. I liked the people who were up there—Bobby Lewis, Alan Schneider, Jose Quintero, Lloyd Richards. I liked the sense of community and festivity. It was all very receptive and intelligent and hip. I found an audience it was great fun to write for. I had a place to write for. I learned about keeping at the business of doing new work in front of audiences, working with actors, learning the way they work, finding the kind of actors who understand the rhythms of your work. That’s all a theater company is really: a group of talented people who laugh at the same jokes. You have to learn about design. What kind of visuals your work needs to register. And the audience—you have to keep listening to the audience, not to see what they want, but rather to learn how to make them respond the way you want.

If you’d like to read what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights 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 VI of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.