Athol Fugard On Playwriting IV

November 21, 2012

Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 8

Interviewed by Lloyd Richards

I think every writer has a special relationship with his most recent work. In my case that would be The Road to Mecca. Firstly, the process of writing it, creating it, the traumas or difficulties that you live through in order to get it written—those are close to you still. Also the most recent play says something about where you are in your life. It still needs a certain protection; it is very young. Its life has just been started, and you feel very paternal about it.

My most important tool is my notebook . . . . I jot down random images, thoughts, ideas, speculations, and a little bit of personal misery. It’s a five-finger exercise. Every one of my plays started off a long time before the actual writing took place as an image in those notebooks. There comes a point when one of these images from the past . . . . If it is the right moment, and if . . . there is a coincidence between the external and the internal, the things start happening. First I just free associate. It’s almost as if the seminal image has a certain magnetic power of its own that helps me focus on the things of daily living that relate to it. This is the first step. It usually results in an accumulation of ideas, scraps of dialogue, rough structures for scenes and a mass of paper. I can lift up that paper and feel its weight metaphorically and think, Yeah, there’s enough here now. Next it’s got to be ordered and organized. I never actually start to write a play . . . until I have completely structured the play. I have never started to write a play without knowing with total certainty what my final image is. Other writers work differently, I know. They say, Oh, the material did this to me, I got surprised, it sent me off in a different direction. That has never happened to me. While it may be a flaw, I am absolutely brutal about my disciplining of the material before I write the words page one and get to work.

It’s a very slow and painful process. I’m very conscious of how faltering the first few steps are, how much stalling and drowning in the blankness of paper there is. Nothing flows in my head. There have been occasions when I’ve found my head working away quite energetically with my hand a foot behind, watching in amazement. But there have never been sustained outpourings. If I’ve got three full pages done, longhand, that’s a good day. That’s a damn good day in fact. Sometimes there is nothing, or what I have written goes into the wastepaper basket. I tear up and throw away furiously when I write. I don’t accumulate a lot of paper. For something to stay on paper longer than two days it has to pass some very critical tests. I usually work through three drafts, longhand, in the course of writing a play; it takes about nine months.

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 V of the Athol Fugard series will post next Wednesday.


Sam Shepard On Playwriting II

May 11, 2011

Adapted from: Rhythm & Truths

By Amy Lippman, American Theatre, April 1984

I think for me, every play has its own force, its own momentum, its own rhythm and tempo. That’s the fascination of it. It’s like people who hear music in their heads, or in the air, or wherever. They attract it in a certain way and it begins to speak to them . . . . I think a play is like that. What you’re trying to do, in a way, is have a meeting. You’re trying to have a meeting with this thing that’s already taking place. So, I can’t really say that I have a beginning, middle and end every time I sit down to write a play. Every moment of the play is a beginning, a middle and an end . . . . A play’s like music — ephemeral, elusive, appearing and disappearing all the time. You never reach a final point with it.

It (myth) means a lot to me. One thing it means is a lie. Another thing it means is an ancient formula that is expressed as a means of handing down a very specific knowledge . . . . . The thing that’s powerful about a myth is that it’s the communication of emotions, at the same time ancient and for all time . . . . Well, hopefully in writing a play, you can snare emotions that aren’t just personal emotions, not just catharsis, not just psychological emotions that you’re getting off your chest, but emotions and feelings that are connected with everybody . . . . If you’re only interested in taking a couple of characters, however many, and having them clash for a while, and then resolve their problems, then why not go to group therapy or something?

Catharsis is getting rid of something. I’m not looking to get rid of it; I’m looking to find it. I’m not doing this in order to vent demons. I want to shake hands with them.

I think it’s more like music. If you play an instrument and you meet somebody else who plays an instrument, and the two of you sit down and start to play music, it’s really interesting to see where that music goes between two musicians. It might not go anywhere you thought it would go; it might go in directions that you never even thought of before. You see what I mean? So you take two characters and you set them in motion. It’s very interesting to follow this thing that they’re on. It’s a great adventure — it’s like getting on a wild horse.

If there’s no relationship on stage, there’s not going to be any in the theatre. But that has to be answered first in the writing. If you and I sit down on stage as two actors, and we don’t have a relationship, what’s the point? A relationship’s both invisible and tangible at the same time, and you can see it between actors. You can also see the absence of it. If it’s there, the audience is related immediately.

Well, I’ve always had a problem with endings  . . . But you have to stop at some point just to let people out of the theatre . . . . So True West doesn’t really have an ending; it has a confrontation. A resolution isn’t an ending; it’s a strangulation.

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.


Sam Shepard On Playwriting

April 27, 2011

Adapted from: Silent Tongues

By Carol Rosen, The Village Voice, August 4, 1992

I’m interested in effects only to the extent that they serve some purpose of emotional terrain. Developing a new style of theater is not something I’m interested in.

I don’t see where these distinctions lie, really, between so-called realism and super-realism and naturalism and surrealism and absurd-ism.

The ancient meaning of myth is that it served a purpose in our life. The purpose had to do with being able to trace ourselves back through time and follow our emotional self. Myth served as a story in which people could connect themselves in time to the past. And thereby connect themselves to the present and the future. Because they were hooked up with the lineage of myth. It was so powerful and so strong that it acted as a thread in culture. And that’s been destroyed. Myth in its truest form has been demolished. It doesn’t exist anymore. All we have is fantasies about it. Or ideas that just speak to some lame notions about the past. But they don’t connect with anything. We’ve lost touch with the essence of myth.

I don’t think character really has anything to do with personality. I think character and personality are two entirely different animals . . . . character is something that can’t be helped . . . like destiny. And maybe it includes personality, but personality is something so frivolous compared with character they’re not even in the same ballpark. . . . . Character is an essential tendency. It can be covered up, it can be messed with, it can be screwed around with, but it can’t be ultimately changed. It’s like the structure of our bones, the blood that runs through our veins.

I guess when you start something, you always kind of have a half-baked notion about what you hope it to be. But it may not go in that direction at all. It may go somewhere completely different, which isn’t to say that you failed, it’s just that it turns and becomes something . . . But I think one of the thrills about writing is to remain open to all its possibilities, and not to try to put a bridle on it and squeeze it down into what your notion of it is. Not to say that you lose control, but I think you have to remain open.

Why should we be anchored to these notions of Eugene O’Neill and all this burden of having your character be believable from the outside in terms of the artist saying, well, he really is in a living room serving tea to his mother. And he’s really talking the way he would be talking in real life. What the hell is that? Why doesn’t he pour the tea on her head and start screaming and carrying on, climbing walls, and then come back and sit down and . . . You know what I mean? . . . . And I think a lot back then had to do with incredible frustration, the straitjacket of that kind of theater that we had been told was great theater.

I don’t hang out with playwrights. I can’t say I dislike them, but for the most part theater doesn’t interest me. I like writing plays because they have so much movement, there’s so much possibility of movement, and language moves. But I’m not a theater buff. Most theater bores the hell out of me. But I do like the possibilities. I think of all the forms that we’ve got now, probably theater has more possibilities than anything else. Really. Of real experimentation and real surprise and real emotional contact with an audience.

Writers are isolated individuals, for good reason . . . . That’s what writing is, an act of isolation. You either accept it or you don’t. I don’t think there’s any complaining about it.

I hate endings. You have to end it somehow. I like beginnings. Middles are tough, but endings are just a pain in the ass. It’s very hard to end stuff . . . . Because the temptation always is a sense that you’re supposed to wrap it up somehow. You’re supposed to culminate it in something fruitful. And it always feels so phony when you try to wrap it all up.

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.