John Guare On Playwriting VI

May 23, 2012

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

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

A TV network gave money and movie cameras to Yale so playwrights could learn how to make movies. Sam Shepard, Ken Brown, who wrote The Brig, Barbara Garson, who wrote MacBird, Megan Terry, and I were the first group. What a remarkable year! Robert Lowell was in residence. Jonathan Miller. Irene Worth. Arnold Weinstein. André Gregory. Ron Leibman. Linda Lavin. Bill Bolcom. I wrote Muzeeka about all those undergraduates I saw around me, so free and happy but wondering what in adult life would allow them to keep their spirit and freedom? How do we keep any ideals in this particular society? Vietnam was starting to become a specter that wouldn’t go away.

The first act (House of Blue Leaves) was written in one sitting, but it took me nearly five years to write the second act. I knew what the events would be, but I lacked the technical skill to handle nine people onstage, to make the material do what I wanted it to do . . . . A friend . . . John Lahr, told me about a director from the Guthrie Theater named Mel Shapiro. I saw his work at Lincoln Center on a Vaclav Havel play; I loved it. We got a wonderful cast, went into rehearsal. Blue Leaves was a success. We won the Obie and the New York Drama Critics prize, and my picture was on the cover of the Saturday Review of Literature. Then Joe Papp asked Mel to direct Two Gentlemen of Verona. The production toured around the city parks on a truck in the summer of 1971. Because of the work we had done on farce structure for Blue Leaves, Mel asked me if I would cut and shape Two Gentlemen into ninety minutes . . . . By the time we opened, we had a musical that became a great success and moved from Central Park to Broadway, where it won the Tony Award. So I had a play and a musical on at the same time in New York. I was asked to do more musicals . . . . I didn’t know quite what to do. I was in a panic.

(A) few of us . . . moved up to Nantucket and started a theater where we did Marco Polo Sings a Solo. I wrote fifteen drafts of that play. Then I realized that I shouldn’t spend so much time trying to make something perfect.

Garson Kanin once said, Isn’t it funny that not many people know how to write a play but everybody knows how to rewrite a play. That’s what you have to be careful about: to whom you listen and whom you close out. And also, strangely, how to keep the radar open just in case somebody, some stranger, does throw something good at you. Answers are easy. Formulating the problem—that’s the art. But finally you have to realize there are certain times when, as Valéry says, a work of art isn’t finished, it’s just abandoned. You have to cut bait and move on to the next work.

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 VII of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.


Arthur Miller On Playwriting IV

January 25, 2012

Adapted from Paris Review: The Art of Theater No. 2

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

The director of a play is nailed to words. He can interpret them a little differently, but he has limits: you can only inflect a sentence in two or three different ways, but you can inflect an image on the screen in an infinite number of ways. You can make one character practically fall out of the frame; you can shoot it where you don’t even see his face. Two people can be talking, and the man talking cannot be seen, so the emphasis is on the reaction to the speech rather than on the speech itself.

I don’t think there is anything that approaches the theater. The sheer presence of a living person is always stronger than his image. But there’s no reason why TV shouldn’t be a terrific medium. The problem is that the audience watching TV shows is always separated. My feeling is that people in a group, en masse, watching something, react differently, and perhaps more profoundly, than they do when they’re alone in their living rooms. Yet it’s not a hurdle that couldn’t be jumped by the right kind of material. Simply, it’s hard to get good movies, it’s hard to get good novels, it’s hard to get good poetry—it’s impossible to get good television because in addition to the indigenous difficulties there’s the whole question of it being a medium that’s controlled by big business. It took TV seventeen years to do Death of a Salesman here. It’s been done on TV in every country in the world at least once, but it’s critical of the business world and the content is downbeat.

We had twenty-eight and a half minutes to tell a whole story in a radio play, and you had to concentrate on the words because you couldn’t see anything. You were playing in a dark closet, in fact. So the economy of words in a good radio play was everything. It drove you more and more to realize what the power of a good sentence was, and the right phrase could save you a page you would otherwise be wasting. I was always sorry radio didn’t last long enough for contemporary poetic movements to take advantage of it, because it’s a natural medium for poets. It’s pure voice, pure words. Words and silence; a marvelous medium.

I often write speeches in verse, and then break them down. Much of Death of a Salesman was originally written in verse, and The Crucible was all written in verse, but I broke it up. I was frightened that the actors would take an attitude toward the material that would destroy its vitality. I didn’t want anyone standing up there making speeches. You see, we have no tradition of verse, and as soon as an American actor sees something printed like verse, he immediately puts one foot in front of the other—or else he mutters.

You see, in The Crucible I was completely freed by the period I was writing about—over three centuries ago. It was a different diction, a different age. I had great joy writing that, more than with almost any other play I’ve written. I learned about how writers felt in the past when they were dealing almost constantly with historical material. A dramatist writing history could finish a play Monday and start another Wednesday, and go right on. Because the stories are all prepared for him. Inventing the story is what takes all the time. It takes a year to invent the story. The historical dramatist doesn’t have to invent anything, except his language, and his characterizations . . . . basically if you’ve got the story, you’re a year ahead.

There’s no country I’ve been to where people, when you come into a room and sit down with them, so often ask you, “What do you do?” And, being American, many’s the time I’ve almost asked that question, then realized it’s good for my soul not to know. For a while! Just to let the evening wear on and see what I think of this person without knowing what he does and how successful he is, or what a failure. We’re ranking everybody every minute of the day.

This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more of 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. (Arthur Miller On Playwriting part V will post next Wednesday.)



Hip Shots

November 12, 2010

Attraction

By Whyndham Standing

(Click images for larger views.)

The “Hip Shots” series of Doodlemeister.com photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise being to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method, the more frames  exposed, the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting—a related series that can be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own pictures, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below. Meanwhile, click on these images for a larger view, and click the “Hip Shots” tag above for more examples. For another post in the series, tune in next Friday.

Copyright © 2010 Whyndham Standing.