Neil Simon On Playwriting VIII

August 22, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

I never thought I spoke the lines until my family told me I did. They said they could walk by and tell if it was going well or not by the rhythm of it. I guess I want to see if I’m repeating words and, because I write primarily for the stage, I want to make sure the words won’t be tripping badly over some tongues.

When I wrote the Sergeant Bilko show my father asked me naively, Do you just write Sergeant Bilko’s lines or do you write the other lines too? When you write a play, maybe even a novel, you become everybody. It may seem like I only write the lines spoken by the character who is like Neil Simon, but in Lost in Yonkers I’m also the grandmother—and Bella. And to do that you have to become that person. That’s the adventure, the joy, the release that allows you to escape from your own boundaries. To be Grandma every other line for a couple of pages takes you into another being. It’s interesting how many people ask, Was this your grandmother? I say, No, I didn’t have a grandmother like that, and they say, Then how do you know her? I know what she sounds like. I know what she feels like. The boys describe it when they say, When you kiss her it’s like kissing a cold prune. I describe her in a stage direction as being a very tall, buxom woman. But she doesn’t necessarily have to be tall and buxom. She just has to appear that way to the boys. You can’t really use that as physical description, but it will convey something to the actress.

(W)hen Come Blow Your Horn was playing, the theater doorman, a black man in his sixties, was standing in the back of the theater, laughing his head off. I went over to him after the play and asked, Why were you laughing so much? He said, That’s my family up there. I don’t write social and political plays, because I’ve always thought the family was the microcosm of what goes on in the world. I write about the small wars that eventually become the big wars. It’s also what I’m most comfortable with. I am a middle-class person, I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood. I try now and then to get away from the family play, but it amazes me that I’ve spent the last thirty-one years writing plays primarily about either my family or families very close to it. Maybe the answer is that at some point along the way you discover what it is you do best and writing about the family unit and its extensions is what I do best.

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 Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Neil Simon On Playwriting VII

August 15, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

This will give you an indication of how little I thought my career would amount to. I thought The Odd Couple would probably be the end of my career, so it wouldn’t make any difference that I had used Felix Ungar in Come Blow Your Horn. It was a name that seemed to denote the prissiness of Felix, the perfect contrast to the name of Oscar. Oscar may not sound like a strong name, but it did to me—maybe because of the k sound in it . . . . k cuts through the theater. You say a k-word, and they can hear it.

I have this office. There are four or five rooms in it and no one is here but me. No secretary, no one, and I’ve never once in the many years that I’ve come here ever felt lonely or even alone. I come in and the room is filled with—as corny as it might sound—these characters I’m writing, who are waiting each day for me to arrive and give them life. I’ve also written on airplanes, in dentist’s offices, on subways. I think it’s true for many writers. You blank out whatever is in front of your eyes. That’s why you see writers staring off into space. They’re not looking at “nothing,” they’re visualizing what they’re thinking. I never visualize what a play will look like on stage, I visualize what it looks like in life. I visualize being in that room where the mother is confronting the father.

I wrote my early plays at the typewriter because it was what writers looked like in His Girl Friday . . . . But my back started to get so bad from bending over a typewriter eight hours a day . . . so I started to write in pads. Then a curious thing happened. I was in England and found that they have pads over there with longer pages and thinner spaces between the lines. I liked that because I could get much more on a single page. At a single glance I could see the rhythm of the speeches. If they’re on a smaller page with wide spaces you don’t get a sense of the rhythm. You have to keep turning . . . . Sometimes I write on both sides of the page, but I always leave myself lots of room to make notes and cross things out. I’ll write about three pages, then go to the typewriter and type that out. Then the next day I’ll read those three pages again and maybe not like them and go back to the notebook—write it out, make changes, and then retype it. The typing is boring for me, but I can’t use a word processor. It feels inhuman. It seems to me that every script comes out of a computer looking like it was written by the same person. My typewriter has its own characteristics, its own little foibles. Even there, I black out parts and write marginal notes. I’d like it to be neat, but I don’t like to send it to a professional typist because they invariably correct my purposely made grammatical errors. I try to write the way people speak, not the way people should speak.

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 VIII of the Neil Simon 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.