Looking for a Refill On That Half-Empty Glass: An Interview with David Grimm

David Grimm, author of The Miracle at Naples and long-time collaborator of Huntington Artistic Director Peter DuBois, spoke recently with Brett Marks about his writing process, his theories on love, and how plays set in the far-away-and-long-ago can have meaningful resonances for today’s audiences.

You’ve made a career writing for both stage and film. How do they differ for you?

They use different parts of the brain, and I love both for different reasons. Writing plays, I find, is like uncharted territory where you can just explore. Screenwriting is just a little bit more anesthetizing, you know? And this is just for me, because I know there are plenty of screenwriters and filmmakers who work really hard at it, and I do think it’s a vital art form. Just for me, it’s more…craft. It’s like writing a graphic novel: you have to tell a story with pictures, whereas a play is a more a verbal medium. I love them both, but I approach the material differently.


Do you find that one process is easier than the other?

They are both very difficult. Telling a story sounds so simple: you draw the audience in, make them care about the people involved and what happens to them, take them on a journey from point A to point B, let them learn something about these people and about themselves, and make sure they enjoy themselves at the same time. But that’s actually incredibly challenging to do on stage — you can’t really fake it. You have to account for every second. In the same way, in screenwriting, you have to make your characters engaging and believable. It’s easy to come up with a cool image, but a cool image can’t sustain an evening. So there are challenges in both media. I think that there are a lot of playwrights writing screenplays and who get bogged down in dialogue. You look at the screen, and three words can encompass what, for a play, would be a page-and-a-half of dialogue. Screenwriting is about distillation. Some of the benefits of poetry come in handy in screenwriting, because it’s about boiling it down to what’s necessary.


Regarding the subject of your stories, there often seems to be an underlying theme of emotional, spiritual, or sexual freedom running throughout your work. Does that feel like an accurate assessment?

I’m always envious of writers who can speak well of their own work. I generally don’t like to categorize it or put it in a box. I try to write emotionally honest and forthright work, especially because right now, we live in a very ironic and cynical age — those sort of emotions aren’t usually trusted. I think that we need to have a sense of connecting with each other, whether that’s to a local or national community, or whether that’s oneon- one, in a romantic or a sexual way. We’re a very Puritan country, we’re titillated by things, but we don’t know how to take it seriously. Sex and sexuality are prime motivators of human life. It’s what gets us up in the morning sometimes, or it’s what drives human beings. When we come right down to it, we are animals, like any other animal on this planet, but we have reason. We try to understand our drives, who we are and what we do to each other, but there is still a very Puritan mindset in this country of, “we’ve got to control everyone or the world will run rampant with people doing what they want! And that’s a bad thing!” How? How are we to improve ourselves? How are we to love each other and be a better society if we can’t be who we are?


You tend to find the expression of that in your work mostly through comedy.

Yes, oh yes! You can be a lot more dangerous with comedy. I think you can get right to the point. And I think comedy ultimately is much more humanistic and optimistic. I believe the glass is half-empty, but I’m hoping somebody will top it off. Comedy recognizes the glass is half-empty, but you’re walking around with it saying, “Can I get a refill?” I think it’s a productive point of view, as opposed to sitting and saying, “Oh, you know, the world is shit!” Okay, great, but what do we do about it? “I don’t know, but the world is shit!” Where can you go from there?


You explore many different time periods and theatrical styles in your plays. What draws you to that exploration?

When I wrote Measure for Pleasure, which is set in the 18th century, I really saw a lot of parallels between Restoration society and our own society, in terms of, for instance, their brand of mild debauchery paired with a Puritan point of view. I was drawn to that hypocrisy. My use of different styles in each of my plays seems to enable me to release or to explore certain issues. If I say the play is set in the present, people might put it at arms length, or push away from it, but if I set it at a different time, there’s the joy of the style — it makes what I’m saying slightly more palatable. People can actually look at what the play is discussing without a knee-jerk reaction. They’re forced to deal with the people in it.

It surprises an audience?

Yes, exactly. By distancing them from the play somewhat with the use of style, it actually gets the play closer to them because it catches them unawares, which I really enjoy. Whether it is Measure for Pleasure, or The Miracle at Naples, or The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue [set in 1936 and adapted from Molière], or Kit Marlowe [set in Elizabethan England]. It’s just that they are utilizing these styles to accomplish something. They’re not American in the way that Frank Capra or Normal Rockwell is American, but I think that’s being American means being multi-layered.


The heart of The Miracle at Naples, for all its stylistic turns, is a love story. Would you agree? And why did you decide to set the play in the late 1500s?

I wanted to explore why we still think that to love someone, there has to be a degree of suffering involved. These are all parts of our vocabulary, of our Western contemporary vocabulary of what it means to fall in love. And I wonder, is that really useful? Is that even really relevant to us as human beings or is it some big construct that we’ve held onto for all these years that really only serves to damage us? Isn’t real love when you need someone, and you really connect, and there’s a joy, and you don’t know what it is, maybe it’s friendship or whatever, but at some point it evolves beyond that? That was sort of the central dialectic, the central argument that I wanted to explore with this. So I was thinking, “Okay, Renaissance poetry, chivalric poetry… Italy! It has to be set in Italy!” One thing led to another, and then came the idea of theatre as a central organizing factor to the story — in this case, a traveling commedia troupe. The play takes place on the cusp of this sea-change in Italian theatre, just before actual physical theatres were being built for people to go and sit inside and watch plays, as opposed to encountering these traveling commedia dell’arte troupes in the market square who’d build a temporary platform. In commedia, they’d have a storyline and list of bits, but there was no script. No scripts were actually being written, and so I developed the idea of using that as a metaphor for this whole idea of love, that love is improvised. When love gets written, it’s written as chivalrous, but real love is, perhaps, more improvised — real theatre is, perhaps, improvised. The metaphors started to pop, and that’s how the play started to really grow.


How long had this play stewed around in your mind until you put things down on paper?

It was the closing weekend of Measure for Pleasure (directed by Peter DuBois) at The Public Theater, which was a joyous experience. Peter and I met for a drink before one of the final performances, and I told him about some of the ideas that were percolating in my head. I wasn’t sure if they worked, but I wanted to give him another play that we could do together. The idea just kept growing and growing. We did a reading of an early draft about a year ago, and then we had a two-week workshop at New Dramatists. I think over time we’ve developed a certain shorthand. He knows me so well as a writer that he knows how to read my play and say, “Ah. That’s where you want to go. In that case, well look at this thing here because this may be where you’re getting lost or derailed.” I enjoy working with Peter so much. He’s such an amazing director, and it’s just terrific we’re getting a chance to finally do this play.


The setting for the play — Naples — is quite important to the action. Did you know from the start you wanted it set there?

I spent a lot of time in Italy when I was growing up, so I know the country well. I love Milan and Florence, and Venice is one of my favorite cities. I toyed for a while with having the play set in Venice because of their carnival — but Naples really drew me. Especially their tradition of celebrating the annual liquification of San Gennaro’s blood every September 19th, which, when I heard about that, my jaw dropped and I thought, this is just too perfect for words. It felt like the missing key!


Once you had the idea of the story and the setting, how did you get to know your characters?

It always varies from character to character. There are some characters that just walk out fully formed and say, “Listen to me.” And there are some that need coaxing. With The Miracle at Naples, there are some characters that wouldn’t shut up. Then there were some that took my saying to all the other characters, “Okay, be quiet, I need to listen to this person now,” before they’d speak. I prefer to do it that way. If I have to sit down and start constructing a character — well, I don’t know how to explain it in any other way, but it feels wrong. A little artificial. I like just giving the opportunity for this person, to happen, which may sound a little artsyfartsy, but —


I think you can get away with it.

For every single character in Miracle, I can see them, I can smell them, I know how they walk, how they talk. Some took more work, but everyone feels completely real to me. It makes it a joy to write! And that’s the only sad thing about writing a play. I really don’t believe in pushing a play much over two hours. It isn’t often worth that for an audience, but with some of these characters, I could just sit there and spend hours and hours and hours with them. The sad thing is having to say, “All this is lovely, but there’s no room in here for that.”


This will be your Boston debut. How do you feel about it?

I’m very much looking forward to it. I think Boston is a fantastic town when it comes to theatre, and it’s a culturally fascinating town in general. Any town that has, in its past, burning boats and throwing tea into the ocean is interesting to me.


We’re that Puritan town…

Yes, exactly! Exactly, but at the same time, and this is what’s so wonderful about Boston, is that it has this double edge. On the one hand, it may be Puritan, but on the other hand, it’s the seat of the American Revolution. You know, those people would just not put up with stuff. I love the incongruities. I think incongruity is where really exciting stuff can happen. Plus, Boston has Peter. We first met at The Public when George Wolfe was artistic director, and I just thought we were operating on the same wavelength. We share a sense of humor, and our artistic priorities are very similar, and he’s just so much fun being in the room with. He’s a lunatic and a mastermind, and I don’t want to work with someone who isn’t, because as an artist, he’s open. He doesn’t approach the work with an agenda. There aren’t a lot of directors you can say that about — who really trust themselves and the play. To do really stellar work, you have to. And he definitely does.

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