The following interview was conducted by Walter Bilderback, Dramaturg/Literary Manager of the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
How did you become a writer?
I wrote stories as a young child, but in high school and college I really wasn’t writing creatively. I was acting in plays and studying literature. I felt I was either going to pursue acting professionally or get on a Ph.D track in English. Fortunately, I was attending college in New York City. So I was able to see what an actor’s life is like and decide it wasn’t for me. I interned at an Off-Off-Broadway theatre while I was in college and I sat in on auditions and rehearsals. I found the auditions really frustrating because the actor has such limited control over the process. At the same time, I was watching rehearsals for very new plays. The writers were rewriting a lot and I was very turned on by that—the process by which actors and audiences show the writer what their play is and isn’t. Obviously, you don’t want to be a slave to that kind of feedback, but I’m still really excited by the period of discovery in the rehearsal room. I feel like there are subtexts kind of bubbling under the surfaces in my plays and a lot of times actors see them when I do not.
As a successful writer for both the stage and television, what are the challenges distinct to each medium for you and what are the strongest similarities?
I feel a play has to say something important, or really shift an audience’s consciousness in some important way. I don’t feel that pressure in television, and that’s not to say I take it lightly, but I do think in film and TV it’s enough to entertain and I don’t feel that’s enough in theatre. Partly that’s a function of this cultural moment. Film and TV are increasingly accessible. I have movies on-demand through my cable service that were in theaters last week. The point is… There’s so much great film and TV available in my apartment, so I bring very high expectations to theatre. It’s expensive, it’s uncomfortable. More and more I regard plays as the place you go to hear some truth or ask some question that film and TV can’t or won’t give you.
The challenge I find writing for television is that you don’t have an audience captive from episode one to episode twenty-two (unless your audience is watching the season in order, beginning to end, on DVD, of course—but you can’t count on that). So you really have to be thinking “clarity, clarity, clarity” when you write. You have to make the episode accessible to a new or newish viewer, and I find that obligation somewhat limiting. Of course, the really excellent cable dramas like “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos” assume the audience is committed to watching the whole season, so the writers can get into character arcs and nuance and ambiguity. The shows I’ve written have been police procedurals. That kind of show is designed to be syndication-friendly. The episodes need to stand alone, you can run them out of order… I like those shows a lot, but they don’t accommodate character complexity very well. The goal is entertainment.
In many ways, Becky Shaw seems like your “lightest” play. There’s no serial murderer, no bondage, no voracious reality TV producer. Yet all of your plays are comedies, first and foremost. And while they deal with social issues, it’s probably more accurate to call them “moral comedies” than “satires.” Could you talk a little about the role of comedy in your work and perhaps the interface of morality and comedy?
I think with the first two plays you allude to—U.S. Drag and After Ashley—I was writing about stuff I observed in American culture that seemed absurd to me, so the humor came organically out of that. I think U.S. Drag just gets more and more relevant, unfortunately. I’m thinking of the stunts we’ve seen recently—“Balloon Boy” and the couple who crashed a White House party—by people trying to get noticed, get a reality TV show. In U.S. Drag, I was exploring that “look at me!” drive in our culture, and in After Ashley I was interested in the other bizarre impulse that makes this kind of entertainment profitable—the pleasure of watching other people’s humiliation and misfortune. I think where morality comes in is that I watch a few of these shows and that makes me part of the problem, but I can’t stop. And my fear is that the cumulative effect of, say, laughing at reality show contestants and watching true crime every night may be that our humanity erodes. We’re using other people’s pain to entertain ourselves. I wouldn’t know how to take this on in a non-comic way, just because I think the questions I want to engage are pretty dark and the phenomenon so ridiculous. With Becky Shaw, I was preoccupied with—now that you mention it—the same issues of personal morality. What’s my responsibility to people I don’t know or know slightly? It’s been suggested to me that the Iraq War was what stirred this up for me, and I think that’s probably accurate. There was a period of time when the war just fell off the American radar. The news was all about Britney Spears’ custody battle. It felt very surreal to me and wrong, but I didn’t take any action to change the situation. Again, I think it’s the absurdity that leads to the comedy for me. Obama just announced his plan for the war in Afghanistan and CNN is doing round-the-clock coverage of Tiger Woods’ car accident. That is funny to me. Dark funny.
What’s the first hook that gets a new play started for you? Is it an image, a theme, a character?
For me, it’s a question I can’t answer. Usually it’s a moral or ethical question I’m wrestling with.
You seem to draw ideas from eclectic sources. I’ve read that some of the inspiration for Becky Shaw came from reading an interview with film director Mira Nair about her adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and from an obituary of the controversial American psychologist Albert Ellis.
Yes. That Mira Nair interview really imprinted itself on me. It was a one-page interview and she made a couple of comments about Americans’ attitudes about class and class-consciousness. The character Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair is kind of like Angela and Allison in my play U.S. Drag—disarmingly blunt about her aspirations to wealth. And I think these people make us uncomfortable. I think Americans talk about their sex lives more freely than their financial lives and that intrigues me. Albert Ellis intrigued me because, like these characters, he’s very blunt and practical in his approach to therapy. I think he’s controversial because his model is prefaced on the idea that Freudian talk-therapy doesn’t work. And Americans like to talk about their problems and figure out who they can blame. Ellis is a bit of an unforgiving drill sergeant by comparison. But I personally lean towards his methods.
Listening to the first read-through of the play I became very aware of the way class is layered into the script. Class is sort of artificially invisible in this country, and often conflated with race. Without giving away too much of the plot, what is the significance of class on the characters’ attitudes, beliefs, and behavior in the play?
I think poverty is kind of like illness in this country. Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote Nickel and Dimed, has a new book [Bright-Sided] about how oppressive the THINK POSITIVE! movement is in this country. Look at the astronomical sales of the book The Secret, for example. The message they’re selling is this “law of attraction” idea that your thoughts determine your fortune. So if you think you’re going to get out of debt you will, and if you think negative thoughts... you draw in misfortune. Ehrenreich survived cancer and was shocked/fascinated by how aggressively this paradigm was pushed on her. And she got angry about it, as would I, because the underlying message is that illness is a personal failing because you courted negative energy. It’s really the same beast she took on in Nickel and Dimed. Americans are obsessed with self-determinism and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mythology. It’s a scary, unpopular idea in America that some kinds of poverty and illness cannot be overcome. As far as the role of class in the play, I think we see the collision of people who have never had to worry about money and someone who has really struggled. I wanted to look at how that dynamic might work. What assumptions about the haves and have nots would be brought to bear on the conflicts at hand? And I wanted to explore how money--who has it/who doesn’t--comes to bear on romantic relationships. Marriage used to be a business transaction--dowries and such. Now we’ve swung the other way and we use terms like “gold digger” to characterize people who use romance to upgrade their class status. I wanted to see what would happen if class was laid bare, or at least introduced into the discussion, in a dating situation. Because as I’ve said, I feel like most people I know will tell you their sexual history before they’ll tell you they grew up poor.
Who are some current playwrights you follow and think should get more attention? What do you think are the main obstacles they face to getting wider recognition?
I suppose the best way to answer this is to think about the plays I’ve seen or read in the last few years that I wish I’d written! By that criterion, I would call attention to Neena Beber, Julie-Marie Myatt, Annie Baker, and Kirsten Greenidge. Each of these writers has written a play that—to me—really engaged the messy grey zone of right/wrong good/bad. I think that can be an obstacle to production because “classic” dramaturgy wants questions posed and answered, fortunes altered, characters changed. And that model just isn’t gonna work for some subjects. It’s something I really wrestle with. I think part of the reason a writer like Neil LaBute is so successful is that his plays tend to have a big catalyzing action that forces change in the characters’ lives. I think this structure is very satisfying in a deep, primal way. Catharsis feels cleansing, etc. But I think we need to see stories about lives that stagnate, people who get stuck. That stuff is very hard to dramatize and I think the people who do it— male and female—have a hard time getting their work done.