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.


David Mamet On Playwriting II

December 21, 2011

Adapted from: Paris Review, The Art of Theater, No. 11

Interviewed by John Lahr

I wrote this play called Bobby Gould in Hell . . . . Bobby Gould is consigned to Hell, and he has to be interviewed to find out how long he’s going to spend there. The Devil is called back from a fishing trip to interview Bobby Gould. And so the Devil is there, the Assistant Devil is there and Bobby Gould. And the Devil finally says to Bobby Gould, “You’re a very bad man.” And Bobby Gould says, “Nothing’s black and white.” And the Devil says, “Nothing’s black and white, nothing’s black and white—what about a panda? What about a panda, you dumb fuck! What about a fucking panda!” And (the director) had the assistant hold up a picture of a panda, kind of pan it a hundred and eighty degrees to the audience  . . . . That was the best moment I’ve ever seen in any of my plays.

I’ve actually been vehemently deluding myself, thinking that I have no set habits whatever. I know that I have very good habits of thought, and I’m trying to make them better. But as for where I go, what I do and who’s around when I work—those things are never important to me.

It’s really not an intellectual process . . . . but finally in playwriting, you’ve got to be able to write dialogue. And if you write enough of it and let it flow enough, you’ll probably come across something that will give you a key as to structure. I think the process of writing a play is working back and forth between the moment and the whole. The moment and the whole, the fluidity of the dialogue and the necessity of a strict construction. Letting one predominate for a while and coming back and fixing it so that eventually what you do, like a pastry chef, is frost your mistakes, if you can.

Pad and pencil. I want to see it, I want to see them all out in front of me, each one of the pencil adaptations, the pencil notations, and the pencil notations crossed out, and the pen on top of the pencil, and the pages . . . . Theoretically, one should be able to keep the whole play in one’s mind. The main thing is, I want to know that they’re there.

The most challenging dramatic form, for me, is the tragedy. I think I’m proudest of the craft in the tragedies I’ve written—The Cryptogram, Oleanna, American Buffalo, and The Woods. They are classically structured tragedies.

It’s kind of exhilarating not to have to cut to the bone constantly. Oh, well I can go over here for a moment. I can say what I think the guy was thinking or what the day looked like or what the bird was doing. If you do that as a playwright, you’re dead.

When you write stage directions—unless they’re absolutely essential for the understanding of the action of the play (He leaves. She shoots him.)—something else is going to happen when the actors and directors get them on the stage.

I like (film). I think it’s a fascinating medium. It’s so similar to the theater in many ways, and yet so very different. It’s great: it takes place with a huge number of people, which is fine; it’s very technical in ways that the theater isn’t; it calls for a lot of different ways of thinking, purely mechanical ways of thinking—that I find fascinating.

(If not a playwright) I think it’s very likely I would have been a criminal. It seems to me to be another profession that subsumes outsiders, or perhaps more to the point, accepts people with a not very well-formed ego and rewards the ability to improvise.

But the actual point of being a writer, and doing something every once in a while mechanically, I just don’t see the point in it, and it wouldn’t be good for me. I’ve got to do it anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams

This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people such as David Mamet, Sam Shepard, 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 second installment of a three-part post adapted from the David Mamet interview in Paris Review.)


Tom Stoppard On Playwriting II

July 20, 2011

Adapted from: The Real Tom Stoppard

By Mel Gussow, The New York Times Magazine, May 1, 1981

I’m not really a very exploratory writer. I don’t pick up a pen and see how things will go. By the time I pick up a pen, I’ve gone through so much work. Once I have the vague idea of a structure, landmark moments occur which fit into the structure. I have an idea of how a scene will end, but I don’t know how to get there. In “The Real Thing,” one of the stimuli has to do with the situation being repeated three times. That gave me two landmarks to head for. One of the comforting things about being a playwright is that a full-length play is not many words. If you run them all together and take out the stage directions, it’s 90 pages at the outside. That’s a short story.

I don’t know if (“The Real Thing”) is autobiographical, but a lot of it is auto-something.

The more you like another writer the more you shy away from using him as a model — because it’s a fatal attraction. I was passionate about Hemingway when I started writing, and the first short stories I wrote were bad Hemingway stories. I think he’s still my favorite American writer. He got his effects by simple statements. The egregious word in Hemingway is very rare. “Egregious” is a word he wouldn’t have used in his life.

“Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight.” (A line from “The Real Thing.”) Shift your weight. That’s quite sound. Equilibrium is pragmatic. You have to get everything into proportion. You compensate, re-balance yourself so that you maintain your angle to your world. When the world shifts, you shift.

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.