Neil Simon On Playwriting XII

September 19, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

In the first production (of Jake’s Women), a couple of years ago, there were a lot of things wrong. It was miscast, I had a director I was unfamiliar with who didn’t really understand my process. We opened with a play that was about a sixty-two on a possible grade of a hundred. I brought the play up to about a seventy-eight. As we got toward the end of the run, just prior to going to New York, I thought, you can’t get by in New York with a seventy-eight. You need at least a ninety-six or ninety-seven. So, I said to everyone, Let’s just pull it. And we did. I thought it was dead forever, because I’d put so much into it and wasn’t able to save it. Two years later I took another crack at it and did a major rewrite in which . . . I had Jake speak to the audience. The play took a whole new turn. I thought it was finally up in the ninety-percent bracket.

(I)n the case of  . . . The Gingerbread Lady, which was a flawed play, the producer was going to put up a closing notice in Boston. Maureen Stapleton, who was starring in the play, came to me and said, If you close this play I’ll never speak to you again . . . . It needs work but don’t walk away from it! I thought, What a reasonable thing to say, because all it amounted to was more of my time. The producer said he wanted to close, to save me “from the slings and arrows of the critics in New York.” I said, I can take the slings and arrows. I’ve had enough success up to now. I’ll learn from this one. What finally made up my mind after reading three terrible reviews in Boston was that while waiting at the airport for my plane, I picked up The Christian Science Monitorand the review was a letter addressed to me. It said, Dear Neil Simon, I know you’re probably going to want to close this play, but I beg of you, don’t do it. This is potentially the best play you have written. You’re going into a whole new genre, a whole new mode of writing. Don’t abandon it. So, I called the producer and said, Please don’t close the play. Let’s run in Boston and see what happens. Then I didn’t want to get on a plane and arrive in New York an hour later; I wanted a four-hour trip on a train so I could start the rewrite. By the time I got to New York I had rewritten fifteen pages of the play. I stayed in New York for a week and came back with about thirty-five new pages. And we went to work. The play was never a major success, but we did have a year’s run and sold it to the movies. Maureen Stapleton won the Tony Award, and Marsha Mason, who played the lead in the film version, got an Oscar nomination.

Maybe the plays matured because I matured. I do want to be taken more seriously, yet I want to hear the laughter in the theater. The laughs are very often the same gratification to the audience as letting themselves cry. They’re interchangeable emotions.

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 XIII of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.

John Guare On Playwriting IX

June 13, 2012

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

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

I deal with reviews by not reading reviews, and that’s a truth. My wife reads them and gives me the gist of them so I know what the quality of my life will be the next year. Get that teaching job.

In the theater, the playwright holds the copyright—actually owns the play and only leases the right to its use for a specific length of time to the producer. In the movies, the producer holds the copyright. The writer is always only a hired hand. In the movies, the writer is paid up front. In the theater, the writer takes his or her chances.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked only with people I admired. When the producers of Atlantic City balked at my being on the set every day, Louis Malle gave the classic answer: If you have someone here for the hair, why not somebody for the words? Writing for the movies is like working on a musical. You have to recognize and accept the collaborative aspects before you start. You have to recognize what work the camera will do, what work you must not do. You underwrite a scene in the movies. The camera will pick up textures of reality that in a play would be the business of words.

Theater poetry is not just highfalutin language . . . . Theater poetry is response to the large event, events that force the poetry. It took me a very long time to realize the mythic size of Ibsen, to see that the mechanics of plot in an Ibsen play function the same way that fate does in Greek tragedy. Truth does not exist merely in the actor feeling the heat of the teacup. Behavioral naturalism belongs to television acting and movie acting. Theater acting should be closer to Cyrano de Bergerac or Falstaff or Edmund the Bastard. Or Ethel Merman. It’s about finding truth on the large scale with the recognition of the actor as performer. In real life we’re all such performers. Naturalism wants to reduce us. Naturalism always seems to be the most unnatural thing.

A novelist writes a manuscript, gives it to the agent or the editor, who sends it back and forth until the publisher accepts it, and one day the author finds the book in stores. But a play—a playwright has not only that wonderful, brutal period of solitude writing the play, but then the day comes when you’re ready to show your work to the theater’s equivalent of a publisher, the producer, and the theater’s equivalent of an editor, the director. You begin working with the designers who will provide the visual entry that introduces the audience to the world you’ve made. You start casting and choosing actors—a process much like the painter choosing the necessary tubes of paint and what consistency and what color they should be. Ahh! With a new shade an entire world opens up.

Each play is a part of the one long play that is a playwright’s life. I know the way each play came out of the previous play. People don’t have radical shifts of consciousness in the course of their lifetimes. I can look at a play I wrote at two a.m. in 1963 the night before I went into the Air Force—The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year—and say, Isn’t that funny. I’m still dealing with the issues in that play—identity, faith, the desperation it takes people to get through their lives, the lunatic order we try to put on the chaos of life and, technically, how to get the play out of the kitchen sink and hurl it into the Niagara Falls of life.

This is the last installment of the John Guare series. 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.