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.


Wendy Wasserstein On Playwriting III

December 7, 2011

Adapted from: The Art of Theater No. 13

The Paris Review, Interviewed by Laurie Winer

I always finish a draft before I show it to anybody. I’ll rewrite a scene thirty-seven times before I show it to anyone . . . . I enjoy the process of polishing until finally I set a deadline and meet it. I finished both Heidi and The Rosensweigs by my birthday . . . . I said to myself, I will put this in the mail . . . today; I’m so sick of it.

I was home and . . . the press agent for The Heidi Chronicles, called up and said, You won the Pulitzer. I said, That’s not funny. He said, No, no, I’m serious. You won the Pulitzer Prize. I kept saying, You’re the queen of Romania . . . . He told me to call my mother, so I did, because I thought, This woman’s going to hear my name on the radio and think I died or something. I called her. She asked me, Is that as good as a Tony? . . . .  Then I went to the theater. Edward Albee was there. He told me to go on stage and take a bow . . . . He said that I never knew when it was going to happen again. So I did it.

 Winning the Pulitzer was never a goal of mine but it meant a great deal to me in terms of self-esteem. Getting the Tony was quite different because I knew that for the sake of the play and its commercial life that it was very important. I remember sitting in the audience with André Bishop thinking, Should I go up with the scarf, without the scarf? . . . . I was the first woman to win the Tony for best play alone, and I felt the need to dignify the occasion in some way.

I am most interested in how people talk. If I went to a movie studio and said I wanted to do a movie about three sisters over forty with a romantic lead who is fifty-four, they’d ask me to rewrite it for Geena Davis, and then they’d probably hire Beth Henley to make them all Southern.

There is a part of me that thinks that playwrights deserve as much recognition as novelists or screenwriters. I also know that if you want people to come to your plays, it helps to go on David Letterman’s show. One creates a persona. I’m actually a shy person. Michael Kinsley is also a shy person, and there he is on TV every night. I was talking to him about this, that fame is not about getting a restaurant reservation. It’s about walking up Madison Avenue on the way to your therapist, and you’re thinking, My God, I’m worthless, what am I doing with my life? . . . . Then some woman comes up to you and says . . . . I can’t tell you how much you mean to me.

 I like to think that those are the people who I write for—the matinee ladies at The Sisters Rosensweig. I guess it is something of a release from being alone and working. It’s odd for me to have chosen this profession because I’m not very good at being alone and I’m not very good at sitting still. But at the same time, I find my work very comforting.

What I hate about myself and would like to change is that . . . . I’m too vulnerable and always have been. I don’t look vulnerable . . . . I admire aggressiveness in women. I try to be accommodating and entertaining, and some say that’s what’s wrong with my plays. But I think there are very good things about being a woman that have not been taught to men— not bullshit manners but true graciousness. I think there is real anger in life to be expressed, there is great injustice, but I also think there is dignity. That is interesting, and part of the plays I want to write.

I grew up reading the Arts and Leisure section, thinking that I would be like Celeste Holm in All About Eve and that it would be the husband who was the playwright and I would be the well-educated person who loved the theater. In those four years all of that changed—a transitional generation. The fact that I am the playwright has to do with that time.

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 last installment of a three-part post adapted from the Wendy Wasserstein interview in Paris Review.)


Edward Albee on Directing

August 3, 2011

Adapted from: Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee?

Joe Levine, Johns Hopkins Magazine, June, 1984

I work in the practical areas of theater because a play is not a theoretical thing — it must be rehearsed, acted, and seen.

I realized there was something to be studied in the craft of directing, so I watched others around the world direct my plays. I learned by osmosis. My teachers were Peter Hall, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Louis Berreault, and Franco Zefirelli — it was a pretty good faculty. They didn’t mind my sitting in. They didn’t know I was going to take their jobs away.

There are only naturalistic plays — even Ionesco is naturalistic, though he may give the impression of being different. If a play does not admit of subtext, then it is either too superficial or too much at odds with itself.

The actor should create subtext. But the director needs to inquire about the actor’s sub-textual choices only if he suspects they may be at cross-purposes with the author’s intentions, and, therefore, hurting the play.

I once declined an offer to direct a revival of Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth because the second act is atrocious. If I had directed it, I would have had to sit down and have a long talk with Tennessee, and say, “Look here, Tenn . . . ” Well, you just don’t talk that way to the dean of American playwrights.

First of all, I only cut and clarify. I don’t ask anyone to change the nature of a play, although I do sometimes prod them to write about what they really mean to write about, instead of what they they think they mean to write about. Besides, I’m only doing to their plays what I do to one of own when I’m thinking it out in my head. I carry a play around for a long while before I trust it to paper, and at this point, when I bring one into the rehearsal period, it doesn’t need much rewriting. Too many young playwrights rush into print too soon.

When you’re writing a play, you’re attempting the impossible. When You’re directing it, you must do only what is possible, and the impossible must vanish.

As a director I have a rather strong authorial personality. I want to do to others’ plays what I would not permit anyone to do to mine.

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 playwrights (also some not so famous), 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.


Edward Albee on Playwriting

July 27, 2011

Adapted from: Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee?

Joe Levine, Johns Hopkins Magazine, June, 1984

The action is the subject of the play. When people ask me what my plays are about, I say, “Well, it’s about what happens from the beginning to the end.” Symbolism, metaphor, and meaning are not my concern — they should be inevitable results of the action, not something that is put in or layered on . . . I said that to someone a long time ago, when I had been asked once too often why I chose the names George and Martha (as in Washington), and so now I hear it coming back at me. Well, it’s a perfectly sensible explanation, if you think about it, but the point is that I made the implications up afterward. I also discovered after I wrote the play that it examines humanism and totalitarianism, but I would have failed utterly if, during the course of a performance, someone in the audience nudged their buddy and whispered, “Hey, this play examines humanism and totalitarianism.”

People have such different vocabularies and rhythms. Particularly rhythm: Rhythm almost by itself is the basis for regionalism in speaking style. But if you cover the names of the characters in an O’Neill play, you can’t tell who’s talking.

You hear a play, even when you read it on the page.

Dialogue, like music, consists of sound and silence.

Subtext . . . is everything about the life of your character which is not revealed in the play — and you create it because God knows when you’ll need to use it .

All creative people are schizophrenic. We see ourselves doing things at the same time that we are actually doing them. If you’re making love, you back off and see it as a play. It can be kind of unnerving at first — you wonder, “Can I get back?” Well, you can. It’s a healthy kind of schizophrenia.

If you limit yourself to what you know you can do, you’ll never grow. The very best plays, apart from the exceedingly rare absolute masterpieces, are wonderful failures.

When you sit down to write, you’re writing the first play ever written by anyone. At that point, clear everything out of your head, be alone, and hear your own voice.

Know the competition from the beginning of history (and) steal shrewdly. If you steal well, they’ll say you were “influenced.” If you do it badly, they’ll call it plagiarism. But it should never really be plagiarism, because the natural playwright, by some process of alchemy, will synthesize his influence into his own voice.

Never trust anyone who tells you, “That’s too complex, simplify that.” Listen if they tell you it’s unclear. But if they say it’s too complex, then you’ve probably got something good, and you should fight to keep it. They’re just trying to make it safe and easy.

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.