I always wanted to be a novelist. Everyone in my family wrote, but I just wasn’t very good at it. I took all these short story classes in college, but my stories were so bad that in my senior year at Sarah Lawrence, they almost made a rubber stamp for my forehead: “Worst in the class!”
Out of self-defense, I found myself writing this very pompous little one-act play about the end of the world—typical college stuff. My friend Jane Alexander was there. She read it and decided she wanted to direct it (I think if you start out with Jane as your director when you’re twenty, you can’t go downhill). So we put it on, and as luck would have it, the leading lady got sick two days before we opened. So Jane went in, playing this totally ridiculous role. When it was over, everyone applauded wildly. I rushed up to the stage and started blowing kisses in all directions—I thought that was what you were supposed to do. It was outrageous! Someone even came up to me afterwards and said, “I’d love to work with you and turn this into an opera.” The die was cast.
After graduation, my father gave me this choice: “We’ll either send you to graduate school for a year or send you to Europe. Which would you prefer?” Naturally I said, “Europe!” and Jane and I hopped on one of those Netherlands student ocean liners. Jane went to England, supposedly to study mathematics, and I went to the Sorbonne, supposedly to study philosophy. Within two weeks, Jane was acting in the Edinburgh festival, and I was writing plays. It was during that year in Europe that I began to find my voice. I was a living cliché of how you become a writer—the expatriate American in Paris, hanging around with novelists like James Jones and William Burroughs. I had no French friends, though I did manage to act in a French farce written by an American. I never studied playwriting. I never went to Yale. I never did anything the way you’re supposed to.
My theatricality comes from my mother, who was an artist. She was quite good, but she had a wildly antic side. Our house was a trompe l’oeil minefield with pullcords for servants that didn’t exist and curtains on walls where there were no windows. She filled the house with artificial flowers and small animal skeletons. One year, our Christmas tree was made out of dyed chicken feathers. Her rings looked like the real thing, but up close, it was something else. Her favorite was an amber-colored plastic number with a dead ant embalmed in the center. The highest compliment she could give was, “It’s so decorative!” If you have a mother with that sensibility, it’s bound to have a profound effect on you. I’ve always been a sucker for sight gags as a result.
I also grew up three blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which didn’t hurt. When I was little and bored, my mother would say, “Oh, go to the museum and play!” Which I did. It’s where I spent a great deal of my childhood. I didn’t know it was supposed to be a serious place. So I’ve appropriated all this strange baggage into my work.
I think this is a very rough time for playwrights; so rough in fact, there’s something oddly exhilarating about it. When Frank Rich came to Coastal Disturbances a second time, I finally had the courage to thrust out my hand to him. I know you’re not supposed to touch a critic, but he’s been very kind to me, and I wanted to acknowledge that and try and face him without turning into stone. Because I was so nervous and didn’t know what to say, I started talking a mile a minute about the first thing that came into my head. I found myself giving this speech about times being so awful, they somehow give us writers the chance to go for broke.
In a strange way, the stakes are very low right now. The audience wants new voices so badly, I feel it’s a remarkable time to be a writer. There’s a tremendous ache out there for what is daring and heartfelt. I really believe that, even though I know how hard it is to crack through. Whatever anguish any of you are going through in trying to get your work on, I think the theatre needs us now more than ever. And it’s pining for the outrageous part of us, not the cautious part. Audiences long for extravagance. I really believe the climate is going to change. I can feel the stirrings already.
Well, I made this speech, to Frank Rich’s amazement. I’m a lot more relaxed now giving it to you. You see, when the theatre gets as parched as it’s becoming, there’s nowhere to go but up, with characters flying across the stage on tasseled ropes.
Comedy ... ? It’s built on desperation. Chaplin, of course is the master. The more hopeless his situations become, the funnier he gets. What makes comedy so hard to write is that sooner or later you have to face the things that make you desperate. You have to show the dangerous parts of yourself that are insecure and frightened—the hideous pulsing stuff.
I believe my first obligation as a playwright is to find new ways of illuminating the soul. I write very much from the inside...out...starting with my own terrors and fantasies. I sometimes get the sinking feeling that all my plays are about myself. I have this appalling fascination with the subconscious and think nothing is more thrilling than trying to name the unnamable. Of course writers have a social responsibility to speak out against repression, but when it comes to practicing our art, our tools involve language, imagination, and generosity.
The hardest thing for a playwright to find is a director who animates your vision. Most of us have to spend a great deal of time looking for that person. When you find one, hang on for dear life! That collaboration is everything. When a director doesn’t serve the playwright’s vision, you’re both doomed. It’s crucial to find out if you’re on the same wavelength before you go into production, so you both don’t become screaming infants.
The awful thing about theatre, and maybe life in general, is that we assume we’re all a community that has this common concern, but in fact every production is an isolated experience. I may have had my battles with various directors before I met Carole Rothman, but they were my particular battles at a particular time. Whatever battles any of you will have will be under a totally different set of circumstances. One yearns to share one’s wisdom about these things, but it doesn’t always apply. So I would just warn you to listen to your instincts.
As for knowing when your play is ready for the light of day, I’d advise you to hold onto it for as long as you can before going into production. If you sense there may be holes in it, you’re just asking for disaster. You’ve got to feel secure with what you’ve done so at least you have the illusion of control. I don’t like workshops, I don’t like collaborations, and readings make me nervous because I’m so easily seduced by actors. I’ve only had one reading of a play before it was done. Once you hear a wonderful actor, it’s very hard to separate the memory from the problems in the script. But many writers flourish on the give and take of readings and workshops. Everyone is different. The key is being satisfied you’ve created the world you set out to create.
Once you get into that dance of letting other people write the play for you, things get blurred and very dangerous. Then you’re truly in a dilemma about when to follow your instincts and when to keep listening to advice. I think dramaturgs understand what a well-made play is. The best ones have had experience both academically with the classics and in real workshop situations. But they do scare me. There was a dramaturg at the Second Stage whom I respected a lot, but I tended to shy away from her. When she first read Coastal Disturbances she called me up to say how much she loved it, but by the time we were in production, which entailed an arduous three-week preview that involved a lot of rewriting and work on everybody’s part, I found I didn't want to be alone in a room with her. I was very resistant to more input. I cleaved more to the opinion of Carole, because she was the one who had to animate the thing.
I don’t particularly want to direct my own work. As a high school English teacher, I used to direct my little one-acts. It was a lot of fun. But I’m too in awe of actors. I wouldn’t be able to bring out the best in them. To be a good director, you really have to understand about acting and know how to give notes that are useful. During rehearsals at the Second Stage, I seldom interrupt something in progress, and I seldom talk directly with the actors. I go to Carole if there is some problem in the acting, because I feel I don’t always have the best words. When I talk to actors, I tend to speak too much in images and find their eyes glazing over. My years at the Public Theater taught me never to talk to actors, but Carole is trying to break me of that. She’s the only director I’ve ever worked with who actively encourages me to talk.
In terms of rehearsing a play, Carole’s one caveat is that she wants that first week alone with the actors so they can explore the text and make mistakes without feeling scrutinized. She’s a very thorough director. We go over the script together far in advance, discussing all the nuances. She’s really committed to serving the play, which I find very rare. It’s something of an astonishment in this age of auteur directors. So I give her her time and do what I need to in the following weeks.
After mounting Painting Churches at the Second Stage, I was eager to work with Carole again. Mercifully, the feeling was mutual. I got the idea of doing a love story on the beach and asked her, “Can you build me a beach? Can you give me sand, an endless horizon, and an ocean?” She blithely said. “Yes!” So I went off and spent about eight months writing it, which is very fast for me. I gave Carole the first draft, and she had certain very helpful remarks to make. I did another draft, got more helpful remarks, and finally did a third. Because of having worked together on Painting Churches, we had a shorthand with each other, a real understanding of how the other worked. So it was an astonishingly fast process.
Coastal Disturbances was unlike anything I’d written before, and I’ll tell you where the style came from. I’ve been teaching playwriting at New York University and have noticed that many of my students write plays with lots of scenes in them. It took me a long time to figure out the beauty and point of this style which seemed more suited to film than to the stage. I kept criticizing them, saying, “You’re not building anything dramatic, you’re not stacking up emotion. It’s all fragmentary moments with delicious fades—another moment and another fade.” And they would say, “But we grew up watching television, that’s how we tell our stories. In little bursts.” Finally, one of them had a reading, and I saw the accumulated effect with my own eyes. It was wonderful, really mind-expanding! I immediately wanted to try it too. So, Coastal Disturbances was a case of the teacher attempting to imitate her students.
I also wanted to write a love story. Since falling in love is all about moments of passion and the beating of wings, I knew I’d have to do it in an episodic way. I deliberately strung it on a very slack thread. Each play dictates its own structure. The next one will be much more intense, densely packed in two long acts. No more fleeting little scenes. Each play is an antidote to the one that went before, an attempt to encompass more. Having just done a lyrical love story, I’m desperate to do a whacko domestic comedy filled with sight gags, vulgarity, and pies in the face—the tackiest kinds of excess. Real farce.
I love the absurdists. Because I grew up watching the Marx Brothers, I’ve always been in a weird time warp. I love Ionesco, Beckett, and Pirandello. When I saw The Bald Soprano in Paris in 1960, it was an epiphany—finally someone had put life on the stage the way it really is. I also love Greek tragedy.
I write every day. Badly, often, but every day. I still don’t feel I’ve gone deep enough. I try to go for strong act endings, sculpting events into some kind of big bang. And I’m firmly wedded to monologues. I try to have at least one killer monologue in every play. Even though I delight in putting as much action on the stage as I can, there’s something about a monologue that allows you to get into the darker, spongier places of the soul. Finally, theatre has to do with language. The trick, of course, is not writing on the money, but around the intent of the play. Nuance is all.
If you’re starting out, don’t send your scripts to famous agents or big theatres. It’s a waste of time. You should begin with the circle of friends you have—that’s always my advice. Begin where you are, with whatever crazy actors, directors, and designers you know. Work in the immediate circle of your contemporaries. I began by giving my plays to Richard Jordan, the actor. We were two lunatics starting out together.
I’ve been married for a hundred years. It really helps to have an adoring spouse. My husband and I take turns supporting each other. I’ve been a sales lady in a department store, a high school English teacher, a newspaper reporter, and an editor at Scott, Foresman. In my dark hours, it’s comforting to know I can always fall back on these skills. You never know how your next play will do.
The best training for a playwright is life itself. I got married and had kids in my twenties. The key is being in touch with the way you feel and having a sense of what it is you want to put on the stage. And that comes from living—not dreaming at the typewriter. ●