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Stacy Parker Le Melle

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The Playwright at Work: Talking Shop, Success, and Spectacular Failure with America's Top Playwrights

Posted: 09/04/2012 11:45 am

The power of a staged story, of a secret acted out before our eyes...as a kid, I was never one to say "let's put on a play," but as a young adult, I was seared deeply by the 1997 Lyttleton Theatre production of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. I suddenly knew that plays had power. That plays could knock you to the ground. I could barely understand the actors' accents, yet Pinter's visceral, startling story and the life-force that animated those actors will always be with me. How do the best productions carve their initials into our hearts like this?

I gained rich insight into the playwright's way by reading The Playwright at Work, by Rosemarie Tichler and Barry Jay Kaplan, a collection of 13 interviews with top playwrights including John Guare, Lynn Nottage and Tony Kushner. Tichler and Kaplan, with impressive theater and writing credentials of their own, go deep with these writers, talking to them about methods, inspirations, the cruelty of the business, and why it is they do what do.

I was able to ask Tichler and Kaplan questions of my own, and in the following interview they share what they learned by doing this book. They also share some hard-earned wisdom and guidance regarding theater today.

Tell us about your work in the theatre.

RT: I presently teach Audition Technique at NYU's Graduate Acting Program. I am also on the Board of Directors of Classic Stage Company in NYC and a nominator for Broadway's Tony awards and for Off Broadway's Lucille Lortel awards. So I am at the theater three to five nights per week. I was for many years head of casting for the Public Theater under Joe Papp. I started when the legendary musical A Chorus Line was in rehearsal. When Joe died in 1991, I became Artistic Producer of the Public.

BJK: I write plays and musicals and spend a lot of time trying to get them on.

Why write for the stage? Why do you think playwrights are drawn to this form, as opposed to fiction, film, or TV?

RT: I think the playwrights we interviewed went to the theater at a young age and fell in love. And there is great power in a first love. Most playwrights write film scripts, TV scripts, novels, short stories, essays but they always are drawn back to the stage.

BJK: I also write novels and short fiction and the advantage there is that you can hold the finished product in your hand. But there is nothing like the thrill of watching actors as they embody characters you've invented. All that emotion, all that intensity started in the playwright's mind.

Which shows and artists did you first know and love? Do you have to be exposed early to grow up to be a playwright?

BJK: I grew up in New York and in junior high school someone's mother got us tickets to see The Diary of Anne Frank. Afterwards I lingered in the theatre and went up to touch the stage. I saw Music Man on another school trip and sat in a box to see West Side Story. I still have vivid memories of both. I had been writing stories since I was ten and now I added people talking, so that may have been the beginning of becoming a playwright though I still didn't put it together that someone wrote the things I was seeing on the stage. Once I was in high school and college, I was going to the theatre regularly and saw Six Characters in Search of an Author. I started being attracted not necessarily to the avant-garde but to plays that were different: The Physicists, The Homecoming, The Birthday Party. I was also very influenced by certain movies, in particular Vertigo. I had never realized that something so personal could be put out there which helped me because my own stories, the ones I wasn't telling yet, were very odd and made me nervous about exposing them to the world. I was also influenced by the film version of Genet's The Balcony, for the same sorts of reasons.

You interview 13 prominent playwrights. Did you notice any similar secrets of success? Or did each playwright's method and history feel singular?

RT: I think the journey of each playwright is as singular as their work is. Methods of work may be similar: when they write, how they behave at rehearsals, with directors, do they read reviews, etc., but their histories and sensibilities make for different journeys.

Playwright John Guare recounts a story of a playwright, who, after his show bombs, takes to his bed and never gets out again. Did this story strike you as anomalous, or did it feel true? If so, how?

BJK: That was William Inge, who at the time of his greatest successes was considered in the same league as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller with plays like Picnic and Dark at the Top of the Stairs. But then things started going badly for him-- after his early successes his plays were poorly received. He was also an alcoholic and a closeted gay man, which in the fifties was a very difficult thing to be. I think a playwright has to have a pretty thick skin to survive the potential assaults the critics and public can dish out.

RT: Every playwright faces the probability of rejection. First, in no one wanting to produce the play and then if it is produced having to deal with critical response which, if negative, is not only a personal assault, but also will result in the closing down of the play's production. Actors face this rejection, I think even more powerfully. It is their being that is rejected in an audition or if they are performing, by the critics. Yet both these theater artists, the actor and the playwright, as artists need to have vulnerability. So how do you shield yourself from negative assessments of yourself and your work and yet keep yourself open and creative. Some artists are more successful than others in solving this dilemma. Joe Papp used to tell playwrights, that while their play was in rehearsal, before it opened, to start another play so if the review was negative they could go on. I used to tell playwrights that the New York Times with the review of their work would be stepped on in the street in the rain, the next day.

The title does not lie: these interviews illuminate playwrights at work. We learn much about each person's process, from first inspiration to opening night. Did any of your playwrights reveal challenges, or epiphanies, that you found surprising?

BJK: All of their work habits made me feel I wasn't working hard enough.

Did anyone's methods startle you?

RT: No, but I'm not easily startled by peoples rituals or activities.

BJK: Wally Shawn takes years to write a play, dictated for the most part by his unconscious. He is very true to himself in this and it's very impressive that he would stick to it.

Does a playwright need to be in New York City in order to be successful?

BJK: There are thriving theatre scenes in Chicago and Minneapolis and San Francisco and Philadelphia and Los Angeles, so if a writer wants to see work performed, those are places where new work is done, and often by first class directors and actors. For some playwrights, New York is the seen as the apotheosis of success but if you have a play done in New York, the pressure to have a hit is enormous. New plays are done at theatres all over the country, though. New York is tempting but it's not the only place.

RT: I agree and I would add Seattle, D.C., Atlanta and Louisville. New York City is what gets most attention in the press, but a playwright can have his work done in many other cities and get done well.

Given the cost of Broadway and Off-Broadway tickets, what advice would you give the enthusiast who wants to see more theatre, but feels she can't afford it?

BJK: Broadway ticket prices have gone over the top and there's a kind of amusement park quality to a lot of the shows, which are mostly musicals. The only way a straight play gets on Broadway is if there's a star attached and even that doesn't guarantee success. The expense of the production is visited upon the ticket price which can reach upwards of $200. But a person can go to a preview, which is cheaper but not much, or go to the TKTS booth in Times Square the day of the performance. A person can join the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) or Audience Extras and get discount or even free tickets. Off Broadway costs about half what a Broadway play does, and off off Broadway maybe half of that. There are of course exceptions to everything I just said.

RT: A few ideas. If there is a not-for-profit theater whose work you like, get a subscription. Many theaters have rush tickets which they sell inexpensively an hour or two before curtain. Join Theater Mania for discounts. Join TDF for discounts. Befriend an actor who often gets comps from their union in early previews of a show or if a show is not selling well.

Your first collaboration was Actors at Work. How different did it feel to interview playwrights?

BJK: At the risk of offending an entire category of theatre artist, I would say that it was more fun to interview the actors but that the playwrights were more articulate and thoughtful in expressing themselves. We also had to bone up on their work, or refresh our memories of plays we had seen years, even decades, ago, but that was an education and well worth it.

RT: Well, actors more easily express themselves verbally. After all, it is their work, their life's blood. I sometimes thought we should have asked writers to write their responses rather than speak them, but we did very much want the spontaneity of a conversation which I think we mostly achieved. Simply put, actors are very comfortable, more than writers are, in speaking spontaneously.

Name a playwright, living or dead, that you wish you could interview. What would you ask?

BJK: I would ask Harold Pinter how he knew that silence would be so powerful. I would ask Tennessee Williams where he got the nerve to write so nakedly about his own life.

RT: Anton Checkhov. What would his next project have been?

In your book, William Inge is quoted asking: "Isn't helping new dramatists a little like helping people to hell?" Do you agree with this sentiment? And even if you do agree, any parting advice for the aspiring playwright?

RT: I used to say there was a rung in Dante's hell for me for teaching acting. And I was only half kidding. I think that actors and playwrights should continue to write and act only if they don't want to get up in the morning unless they can write or act. It's a very difficult life and if you can be content doing something else, then do that.

BJK: I knew a playwright once who had been accepted as a member of New Dramatists, an organization that helps playwrights with readings, workshops, travel. It has a rotating membership, seven years and you're out. This playwright said that getting into New Dramatists was the worst thing that ever happened to him because it made him believe he had a chance to make it as a playwright. Personally, I would say that my heart has been broken many times in my attempts to have my plays done but if it couldn't be broken, what kind of playwright would I be?

 

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