Today’s Quotes

June 20, 2016

th-1“(. . . working on a play.) You do the first job as neatly as you can: She comes in. Then you do the next job: He sees her. And so on. It’s an extraordinarily useful lesson.”

“Elaine May has a wonderful motto: ‘The only safe thing is to take a chance.’ “I think she means that if you stay safe, and don’t take a chance — don’t do something that’s different from the last thing,  something that makes you nervous and holds dangers — if you keep trying to do the thing that worked last time, the encrustations of mannerisms begin to take you over. And pretty soon you’re no good at all — and therefore not safe at all. The longer you play it safe, the less interesting is what you do.”

Mike Nichols, the Director’s Art, by Barbara Gelb

NYT Magazine, May 27, 1984


Today’s Quote

January 27, 2016

best-fellini-filmsAll art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.

Federico Fellini, film director and writer (1920-1993)

(Click image to enlarge.)

Athol Fugard, VII

December 12, 2012

Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 8

Interviewed by Lloyd Richards

images-6I’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.


Athol Fugard On Playwriting VI

December 5, 2012

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.


John Guare On Playwriting IV

May 9, 2012

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

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

While I was a student at Yale in 1962, I took courses in set design, lighting, and costume from Donald Oenslager and Ernest Bevan. I needed to learn the light in which a play must live. I wasn’t any good at the technical bits, but that wasn’t the point. I learned the work processes and the range of possibilities of the design people with whom the playwright shares the stage. They provide the visual entry into the playwright’s world. The playwright is the person responsible for everything on that stage. If the play doesn’t work because of a miscast actor or because of a bad set, or it’s misdirected, it’s the play that will take the brunt. Anything that happens on that stage is playwriting. So the playwright better know the actors available, the directors, the designers, all of whom deal with the life being created on stage. I once saw a comedy in rehearsal, funny and knockdown, but not until it got onstage did we all realize that the costumes, which had looked so witty on paper, had been constructed in a very heavy fabric that disguised and covered the actors’ bodies and de-physicalized them. It was too late and too expensive to change anything. The costumes went on. They got raves. The play was a bust. So the playwright has to look at paintings, listen to music, to say, Yes that’s the effect I want my plays to have.

I love the part of playwriting that is a craft to be learned continually, the –wright part, like shipwright or wheelwright or cartwright. Whether Aeschylus or George S. Kaufman, a playwright is a writer who understands the technical aspects of knowing how to deliver exposition, how to get a character on and offstage, where to place the intermission, how to bring down a curtain. How to have all the characters’ stories end up simultaneously. That’s craft, and craft can be taught by emulation. You figure out how your playwright of the moment accomplishes those facts of the theater. You learn to study those playwrights technically, the way a musician does a score, breaking the work down to learn how its composer achieved certain effects. And then, having learned a technique, one can use it oneself.

Durrenmatt’s The Visit . . . had a profound effect on me. To have a play draw you in with humor and then make you crazy and send you out mixed-up! When I got to Feydeau, Strindberg, Pinter, Joe Orton, and the “dis-ease” they created, I was home. Pinter’s plays had the rhythm of high comedy trapped in the wrong surroundings; I identified with that. I loved the strictures of farce, besides liking the sound of an audience laughing. I loved Feydeau’s one rule of playwriting: Character A says, My life is perfect as long as I don’t see Character B. Knock knock. Enter Character B. And Feydeau’s hysteria opened the door to Strindberg.

I always liked plays to be funny and early on stumbled upon the truth that farce is tragedy speeded up. Filling up that hunger. Get to Moscow. Get into an adult world. The want becomes a need. The need becomes a hunger and because you’re speeding it up so much . . . it becomes ridiculous . . . . The intensity puts it on the edge. The top keeps spinning faster until it can only explode, and if you’ve got a stageful of people at that psychic, manic state, and an audience in tune with them, then something dangerous might happen out of that hysteria. You want to move the audience into a new part of themselves.

Beckett’s a great writer but a bad influence. Young writers used to think that tramps speaking non sequiturs was playwriting. As a teacher, you want to stop people from writing pastiches of Beckett and thinking that’s playwriting. You want them to learn how to admire him, but to know the aim of playwriting is not to become a ventriloquist in someone else’s voice . . . . You have to keep working to find your voice, then have the grace or good sense to recognize it as your voice and then learn how to use it.

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 V of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.


John Guare On Playwriting III

May 2, 2012

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

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

Until I went to Catholic high school in Brooklyn. I took a long subway ride each day to Williamsburg, which was simultaneously an old Hasidic and a brand new Latino community. I learned how to conjugate Latin verbs and do Euclidean geometry standing up in a packed morning rush hour. The training of doing homework in a crowded subway is good preparation for working in the theater where rehearsal is the place you do your rewriting—nightmarishly public, even if it’s just the cast and crew. I also went to more and more plays. The best thing I ever saw was Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Tamburlaine the Great. I still haven’t seen anything like Anthony Quayle striding over a map of the world. A body hoisted to the top of the Winter Garden stage and down below a phalanx of archers shooting arrows into it. Marlowe was better than anybody.

(At Yale) I read every play in the library and talked about plays and wrote plays, ushered at the Shubert and learned how plays were rewritten and re-rehearsed; then I’d see them in New York and see how sometimes the rewriting had harmed them.

In a good playwriting course you learn which playwright you write like. And why you admire that writer.

If you can’t be arrogant in drama school, where can you be? You learn to approach, say, Chekhov as a peer. How does he deal with entrances and exits? You study how Chekhov gets somebody offstage; you see how he takes a simple exit in Uncle Vanya, in which Sonya leaves to ask permission to play the piano and builds to Sonya’s sudden return—“He says no.”—a heart-stopping moment that sums up a life.

I saw a college production of The Importance of Being Earnest at every performance, and so I wrote a play in emulation of Wilde. I wrote an additional act to Plough and the Stars because O’Casey didn’t go far enough. Shaw—Heartbreak House is the best. Williams’s Orpheus Descending opened in Washington my freshman year, and I went to the first performance. A latecomer fell noisily down the steep balcony stairs during the first act; I yelled out, It’s Orpheus descending! and everybody laughed. Oh, if only I could be European or Southern and not cursed with the nothingness of my surroundings!

O’Neill won a Nobel, so he was like a European. It’s hard to learn from somebody like O’Neill. He’s great in spite of his flaws. His genius has nothing to teach others except to keep writing all your life, and maybe at the end you’ll write a few masterpieces.

We can only learn one lesson from Shakespeare and that’s that there are no stage directions. It never says, Juliet (in a melancholy yet noble, quixotic way). The emotions and the intentions must be firmly embedded right in the lines.

I was very taken with Auden and Isherwood’s Ascent of F6 because it took place scaling a mountain. I only knew plays in living rooms. I hated our living room. Through reading F. Scott Fitzgerald and reading about him, I learned about his friend on the Riviera, Philip Barry, also an Irish American. I liked the destructive lives they led and the glamorous wish-fulfillment worlds of Holiday and The Philadelphia Story. I wished I lived in their living rooms with no financial necessities. I liked the rhythm and artificiality of high comedy. And I liked Barry’s plays for their mood changes. They could suddenly go pensive. For learning purposes, they seemed more manageable than O’Neill.

Barry wrote not only boulevard plays like Holiday or Paris Bound, but far more instructive, nobly failed experiments like Hotel Universe or Here Come the Clowns. I did a thesis on him and learned about the nineteenth-century form comedie larmoyante, “tearful comedy”—noble and brave and smiling through the tears and flattering the audience. Take the closing lines of The Philadelphia Story: “You look like a goddess.” “Yes, but I feel like a human being.” And how comedie larmoyante grew into the well-made plays of Sardou and Scribe and then how that was turned on its ear by Ibsen whose plays did everything not to make you comfortable.

Moss Hart said the audience will give you all their attention in the play’s first fifteen minutes; but in the sixteenth minute they will decide whether to go on the journey you want them to take. That first fifteen minutes draws up the contract of your agreement with the audience. You can subvert it or play with it, but you must set up the premises for the evening, whether the play is Mother Courage or Getting Gertie’s Garter—well, maybe not Getting Gertie’s Garter. I once gave a course at Yale on only the first fifteen minutes of a play. The Homecoming. The Cherry Orchard. What the Butler Saw. The information the audience receives in that opening movement, that musical statement, allows us to enter the world of that play.

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 IV of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.


Jane Anderson On Playwriting

November 2, 2011

Adapted from: Jane Anderson knows it’s time to let go

The Los Angeles Times
October 7, 2007

As I write this, I’m well into the third week of rehearsals for my new play at the Geffen Playhouse, “The Quality of Life.” As the playwright, I would have ducked out by now to let the director and the actors work out the nuts and bolts of interpreting the play. Maybe I’d get the occasional phone call from the director wondering if they could possibly add or cut a line. But mostly I would rightfully be asked to disappear so everyone could mess around with the text in peace without having me hunched in the back of the rehearsal room wringing my hands.

Writers are free to blunder without fear of judgment (unless you count our own internal critics, who are unfailingly harsh). Getting lost is part of the creative process, and actors must have freedom to wander and explore. This applies to the theater director as well, especially if he or she is working on a new play that’s never been decoded before.

I know that my actors appreciate having direct access to my head. There are times when they simply want to know what I meant by a line, and I’ll fill them in if I sense it’ll help them solve a piece of the puzzle. It saves time in rehearsal and cuts down on their frustration factor. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable explaining too much, and I’ll say, “Well, what do you think that means?” like some Freudian shrink. The actors hate that; if they ask, they want to know. They’re thinking of making the deadline of opening night and they don’t want to waste energy going down the wrong rabbit hole.

But the theater director is a different kind of animal. He or she has no control over a production once it’s up and running. Maybe the pace, the tone, the style of the play have been set, but the performances will always be in a state of flux. The actors run the show. As they should. They’re the ones who have the relationship with the audience, not the director or the playwright. Once the play opens, it’s their baby — and most auteur types are not terribly comfortable with this idea.

I’m humbled by the fact that I must eventually release the reins to this profoundly talented company of actors. There’s no postproduction for me, no editing or sound mixing, no color-correcting for the DVD. And when the run is over, the set will be struck, the cast will disperse and all that will be left are some dog-eared scripts and the knowledge that something remarkable happened on that stage.

It used to be . . . I’d sink into a dark hole whenever one of my plays closed. Maybe that’s what drove me to seek out the permanence of film. But coming back to the theater as a hyphenate means that I have to cede control of my work twice-fold. It’s the ultimate lesson in letting go.

So here’s to living in the moment. And here’s to the magic of the stage and the beautiful impermanence of it all.

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.