Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 8
Interviewed by Lloyd Richards
I’m glad I’m an actor. I’m glad I’ve had acting experience, because I think it has sharpened my craft as a playwright. Acting has made the writer realize what actors need up there on stage to make a moment work . . . . I often think of my plays as being written with three characters sitting at the desk: the writer himself; and then behind his left shoulder is the actor . . . and behind the other shoulder is the director who’s eventually going to be responsible for the staging of it. There’s a triple psychology that functions when I write a play.
I had been working with John and Winston in an amateur context, a black drama group from New Brighton, the black ghetto of Port Elizabeth. They approached me one day and said that they wanted to turn professional . . . . At that point in South Africa’s theater history . . . the notion that a black man could earn a living being an actor in South Africa was just the height of conceit. But they were insistent, and so we looked around for a play for them to do. We couldn’t find anything that really excited us, anything that I wanted to direct them in. Then John said, “Couldn’t we make a play?” We tried various ideas, all of which petered out. . . . I fed John and Winston constant provocations from what I knew about them and their lives. It was my job to take home whatever had happened in the rehearsal room and start shaping it. I used my craft to structure and define and dramatically shape what they had provided by way of raw improvisation. That was my process. I am a great believer in architecture, in structuring. It’s my discipline.
Fortunately American audiences and American actors go for the same sort of theater that I try to write. I don’t think it’s an accident that I earn eighty or ninety per cent of my living as a playwright in America. In England it’s only about ten or fifteen per cent. The English don’t tune in to my plays as strongly as American audiences and critics. This relationship between New York, American theater, and myself is one that I’m very happy with and hope to continue.
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.
This is the last post in the Athol Fugard series.