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.)


Wendy Wasserstein On Playwriting II

November 30, 2011

Adapted from: The Art of Theater No. 13

The Paris Review, Interviewed by Laurie Winer

My mother was walking down the street and she ran into the receptionist from the June Taylor School of Dance, where I went as a child. The receptionist asked, How’s Wendy? My mother said, Well, I don’t know. She’s not going to law school, she’s not dating a lawyer; now she’s writing plays. She’s cuckoo.

I thought writing a full-length play was something I didn’t want to do and didn’t know how to do. It seemed old fogyish. But I was on a committee to evaluate the Yale School of Drama, and there was this young woman, a directing student, who told me that what she wanted to do was explode text. I thought of Miss Julie exploding over the Yale School of Drama saying, There goes The Sea Gull! I thought, Well, before you explode it you should know how to do it. I thought, I would just like to try to do this. If in fact playwriting is like stained glass, if it becomes more and more this obscure craft, then it would be interesting to know how to do that craft.

When you write in an episodic mode, you know that the scene will be over. The hardest part, what’s really boring, is getting people on and off the stage. You can’t just bring the lights down and bring them up again. Someone has to say, I’m leaving now . . . . That’s very hard to do. I always think structurally. But for The Sisters Rosensweig it was very hard going. In that play there are four scenes in the first act and three in the second. I should have combined the first two scenes.

I was very sad when The Sisters Rosensweig opened the first time. People like Merv and Gorgeous are fun to write; they’re nice to have in your apartment. They’re really good company. So when you discover those people, they’re talking and you’re not talking anymore. I remember the day I wrote the line for Gorgeous about Benjamin Disraeli being a Jewish philanthropist: I started laughing because I thought, That’s Gorgeous, there you go. The character, not my sister. If you stay with the actual people in your real life, it won’t work. It’s too constraining.

I learn things from watching and listening to people. I’m not much of a reader; I’m slightly dyslexic. Take Merv—he is someone I knew when I was eight years old . . . I remember going to someone’s bar mitzvah in Brooklyn with my mother and young niece. And you know when they take the Torah out? My mother said to Samantha, Quick, kiss the Torah before the rabbi takes it out for cookies and lunch. It was such a crazy image to me.

My plays start with a feeling. The Sisters Rosensweig started when I was living in London writing The Heidi Chronicles. I thought about Americans abroad, and somebody said to me, You’re terribly Jewish, just like my brother-in-law. It was that same feeling I had at Mount Holyoke, a little bit uncomfortable with myself. Like wherever I went I was always wearing a tiara with chinchilla.

I always think of new plays when I’m finishing one . . . . This is a darker play than The Sisters Rosensweig. My plays tend to skip a generation; this one is closer to The Heidi Chronicles, though it is also darker than that play.

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 second of a three-part post adapted from the Wendy Wasserstein interview in Paris Review. Part three will post next Wednesday.)