John Guare On Playwriting VIII

June 6, 2012

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

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

If I don’t have anything to write about . . . I copy passages out of what I’m reading. The papers. A novel. Any writer is a sculptor who makes his own clay and then has to protect that clay in hopes of transformation.

In . . . journals I can happily be my own hero and victim. But when you translate that journal material into a play, you begin building a new world; and the I becomes just another citizen of that world to be treated with the same objective scrutiny, irony, and disdain. Besides, I don’t like autobiographical work where you can tell which character is the author because he or she is the most sensitive, the most misunderstood, the most sympathetic. Everybody including yourself should be fair game.

The typical trouble is with endings . . . . If you knew where you were going why would you bother writing? There’d be nothing to discover. I can still remember throwing up when I realized what the ending of House of Blue Leaves would be—that after the songwriter realized the true worth of his work he would have to kill his wife because she saw him as he was.

I love actors who are performers, who are clowns—meaning they are willing to make fools of themselves, to stride that brink of panic. I feel that Stanislavsky—at least the way he’s been interpreted through the Method in America—has been the enemy of performance; I’m not interested in that style of naturalism. How we escape naturalism always seems to be the key. Naturalism is great for television and the small screen. Theatrical reality happens on a much higher plane. People on a stage are enormous, there to drive us crazy.

I once asked Lanford Wilson (how he picked a director) and he said, Easy. I ask the potential director to tell me the story of my play, and if his story matches up with my story then perhaps we can work together.

In 1965 I got a job . . . as William Inge’s assistant on a new pre-Broadway play. I needed to learn how a play was physically put together by a professional playwright. I never even asked if Inge was any good, but he’d had success and had connected mightily with audiences in the past. Picnic. Bus Stop. If I didn’t like his work, the fault was mine. After the opening of the play, Family Things, Etc., later called Where’s Daddy?, the critic from the Boston paper had Inge on his TV show as a guest. He read Inge his review of the show with the camera on Inge’s face. The review was unbelievably cruel and unexpected. Inge . . . . never worked on the play again. He committed suicide two years later. I learned if one is going to be a playwright one must develop armor to deal with such horrific occupational hazzards.

Jean Kerr wrote Inge soliciting funds for a playwriting group. Inge replied, Isn’t helping new dramatists a little like helping people into hell?

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 IX of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.


Wendy Wasserstein On Playwriting

November 23, 2011

Adapted from: The Art of Theater No. 13

The Paris Review, Interviewed by Laurie Winer

The problem with writing plays is that everyone has an opinion. And you don’t want those opinions. What would my mother say: Oh, it’s nice Wendy, and I notice the mother is dead? I really didn’t want any of them to see it until the opening, but my sister Sandy kept saying she wanted to come, so finally I said, You can come but you can’t call me tomorrow and make any comments, because if you call me and don’t say anything, I’ll know you think it’s bad. So no comment, either way. She saw it and sent me flowers the next day. They came with a note that said, No Commitment. I realized that either the florist had made this Freudian slip or he was the florist to some Upper West Side bachelor who regularly sends out “no commitment” flowers.

When I was in second grade, I made up a play that I was in; I told my mother that I was in this play and the lie got larger and larger. Finally, arbitrarily, I said my play is on tomorrow, and she got me a velvet dress and made my hair in ringlets, and off I went to school. And she came to school and there was no play. She covered for me and said, I must be confused; it must be another one of my children. Then she came home and told me I was a fibber. She must have yelled at me because to this day I have trouble with fibbing

When I see the play, I feel I’m seeing a Broadway play in 1958, or what I wish those plays had been. I remember going to them and thinking, I really like this but where are the girls? The Sisters Rosensweig  is like those plays—the curtain goes up and there’s one set, and the play is well-made, you know, beginning, middle, and end. It takes place over a weekend, the stars get applause, the stars get exit applause, they each tell their stories, it arcs in the second act, all of that. It was much harder to write than any of my other plays.

In a way, The Sisters Rosensweig seems a combination of Isn’t It Romantic and Uncommon Women. But those other plays are episodic and this was a deliberate decision not to be episodic. Also, I decided not to write another play about my generation. Even though it has autobiographical materials, the focus of the play is not me. I wanted to do all those things and also evoke a fondness for plays that I love, including Chekhov.

A friend of mine was dating a rabbi, so I went to speak at his temple. We were talking about Jewish women and self-image, and I said that I never thought of myself as undesirable or unattractive, frankly, until I turned twelve and began watching these movies in which none of the men ever fell in love with anybody who looked remotely like me. No one was ever Jewish, no one was hardly ever brunette. I never thought of that before, but in retrospect it really makes me angry.

Women who are a bit older can believe in something and also see it ironically. And younger women who once thought that to be a feminist you had to be antimarriage, have no sense of humor, and have hairy legs, are changing . . . . Feminism has affected me more in my writing than in a specifically political way. Sitting down to write a play that has three parts for women over forty, I think, is political.

For a woman to be heroic she doesn’t have to save the planet. My work is often thought of as lightweight commercial comedy, and I have always thought, No, you don’t understand: this is in fact a political act. The Sisters Rosensweig had the largest advance in Broadway history, therefore nobody is going to turn down a play on Broadway because a woman wrote it or because it’s about women.

It’s interesting that the two most successful straight plays the year Sisters Rosensweig came out were mine and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—a play about three women over forty and an epic about a gay fantasia. Even five years before, that wouldn’t have happened.

My plays are my art and not just self-revelation. Creating a well-made play means you have to round the edges so they fit into the form. Also, the plays are deliberately comedic. Humor masks a lot of anger, and it’s a means of breaking up others’ pretenses and of not being pretentious yourself.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (This is the first of a three-part post adapted from the Wendy Wasserstein interview in Paris Review. Part two will post next Wednesday.)


Beth Henley On Playwriting

August 10, 2011

Adapted from: Act I: the Pulitzer, Act II: Broadway

By Robert Berkvist, The New York Times, October 25, 1981

I hate the feeling that the play has to be seen as really great, instead of just an enjoyable evening in the theater.

If a play is set in the South, it can be kind of eccentric and people will accept it. The language can be more poetic, too.

I guess (“Crimes of the Heart”) is not an easy play for people to pick up the tone of — to know whether it’s funny or sad.

The feelings are kind of autobiographical, the business of how sisters relate, or bear grudges — things like that. But none of the events depicted in the play ever happened to my family, although some of them were things I had heard of.

Not to denigrate my play or anything, but all this acclaim is just the way the cards happened to fall. Theater is such a business now that it’s got nothing to with art or good work. My kind of writing happens to be salable these days. I’m sure there are a lot of talented people out there who aren’t writing plays but working in factories while they wait for someone to “discover” their stuff.

The theater makes it pretty hard for a writer. People can be real mean about your plays. I don’t blame some writers for turning to Hollywood for money and praise.

I didn’t like the feeling of being at everyone’s mercy, so I decided to do something creative. Of course, everyone in Los Angeles is working on a screenplay, so what I did wasn’t bizarre at all. But no one at the studios would read my screenplay because I didn’t have an agent, so I thought I would write a stage play that might at least get performed in a small theater somewhere. That’s when I wrote “Crimes of the Heart.”

Women’s problems are people’s problems. There are certain subjects I mightn’t get into, simply because I don’t have the necessary knowledge, but I don’t think my being a woman limits my concerns.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


Today’s Pic

May 26, 2008

January 16, 1977

In this photograph my old friend Jacquie Roland (cartoonist, artist, actress, writer, etc.), on the right, is feeding lines to local actor Joe Cimino, who played the title character of “Zorba” in the Baltimore Spotlighter’s Theater production of that Broadway musical. Jacquie is the person I have to thank for introducing me to Baltimore community theater. In this case, she also introduced me to the Zorba director, who was kind enough to allow me to photograph his rehearsal process as part of my research into the mysteries of theatrical production. At the time I was teaching myself—with the help of a bunch of books, museum visits, and one pro friend—to produce photographic images, so this was an opportunity to combine two of my top interests. Technical note: the “starburst” effect of the light between Joe and Jacquie is pure photographic artifice, created with a filter which screws onto the camera lens. The clear glass filter has an inlaid grid of thin wires which creates the flare effect by, I assume, bending the light rays. The amount of flare can be adjusted by simply rotating the filter a bit this way or that. In the image above it appears that I had the filter set for the greatest possible dramatic effect. This smaller image is an example of a shot made during the same rehearsals but on a different day and without the filter. Except for the lively (and sexy) acting of Joe Cimino and Audrey Herman, Spotlighter’s founder, this image lacks sparkle, huh? Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.