Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 9
Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo
To stay around any place you love, you have to have a job . . . . I worked backstage at summer stock doing jobs from garbage man, to strapping on Herbert Marshall’s wooden leg, to fixing Gloria Swanson’s broken plumbing in her dressing room with her yelling at me as I worked the plunger. I ran the light board for her show, which involved bringing up all the stage lights surreptitiously when she came onstage so the audience would subliminally think, Gee, isn’t everything brighter when she’s around? . . . . It was called a “star bump.” Knowing lore like that made me feel there was a secret freemasonry to the theater. Then I toured as an advance man for a summer stock package, setting up the show each week in a different theater before moving on to the next. Even with Six Degrees of Separation I felt part of my job as playwright was to go backstage two or three times every week during the run to check the backstage temperature—who’s unhappy, who’s not speaking, whose costumes are wearing out. You must keep people happy backstage because that affects what’s onstage. During a run, the playwright feels like the mayor of a small town filled with noble creatures who have to get out there and make it brand new every night. When a production works, it’s unlike any other joy in the world.
My parents started taking me to plays early. Plays have a celebratory nature that no other form has. Theater always meant celebration, a birthday, a reward for good grades. I felt at home in a theater. I loved being part of an audience. All the rules—the audience has to see the play on a certain date at a certain time in a certain place in a certain seat. You watched the stage in unison with strangers. The theater had intermissions where you could smoke cigarettes in the lobby and imagine you were interesting. The theater made everybody in the audience behave better, as if they were all in on the same secret. I found it amazing that what was up on that stage could make these people who didn’t know each other laugh, respond, gasp in exactly the same way at the same time.
My mother’s family was in show business. Her two uncles toured in vaudeville with a bill of sixteen plays they cobbled together from 1880 to 1917 with titles like Pawn Ticket 210, The Old Toll House, and Girl of the Garrison. Lines like the old man coming forward and saying: Twenty five years ago this very night my son left home taking the money he did not know was rightfully his. Oh, if I could only see him again. (Flickering outside the window.) Oh, the same lightning! The same thunder! (Knock knock.) Who can that be!
My grandfather was a cop in Lynn, Massachusetts. In a raid on a Lynn cathouse they found a very small child left by one of the arrested girls. He brought the baby home; he turned out to be five years old and a midget. Little Billy was taken into the act by the uncles for the good reason that he was a great little hoofer and song shouter. The act broke up when little Billy left to join the George M. Cohan Review of 1918; dressed as a tiny soldier, he was one of the cast who introduced “Over There.” My mother’s real brother, who was known in our family as Big Bill, became an agent for stars like W. C. Fields, Al Jolson, and Will Rogers. Big Bill was called “Square Deal” Grady by Damon Runyon for the “creative” contracts he made with his clients. He was head of casting at MGM from 1934 to 1956. I never saw Big Bill much but his presence and power to discover people figured heavily in my dream life. In fact, the monologue that opens the second act of House of Blue Leaves happened exactly as described: Big Bill was on a major MGM talent hunt searching for an unknown child to play Huckleberry Finn. To escape all these kids, he came to see us. I decided fate had sent him to me: I would be Huck. I packed my bags and went mad and auditioned. He quickly left thinking he’d been set up by my parents. My mother cried. It was horrible. I gave up all dreams of acting at age eight. Playwriting seemed a lot safer.
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 two of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.