RICHARD NELSON: An American Iconoclast

Richard Nelson is one of a small number of playwrights who has made his living almost solely by writing plays (and occasionally directing), beginning in 1975 with his first professionally produced play, The Killing of Yablonski, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. In 2005, Nelson took his first academic appointment, assuming the chairmanship of the playwriting program at Yale School of Drama — a position he held until 2008. “It’s weird,” he said of working for someone other than himself. “I didn’t know what direct deposit was. I haven’t received a [regular] paycheck since 1981.”

As an emerging playwright in the early 1980s, Nelson worked as a dramaturg with internationally acclaimed directors David Jones of Britain and Liviu Ciulei of Romania at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. European and other contemporary influences are evidenced in many of Nelson’s plays. In a co-authored book with Jones, Making Plays: The Writer-Director Relationship in the Theatre Today (1995), Nelson stated, “the relationship between the director and the playwright is the most life-giving for the playwright. You’re dealing with people who are very smart and articulate and manipulative. Your challenge is great in dealing with that very live force.”

His work has seen success on Broadway, Off Broadway, in the regional theatres, and abroad — especially in London’s West End and Royal National Theatre, where he made his artistic home for many years. His plays and awards are numerous: James Joyce’s The Dead — Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, which he also directed (seen at the Huntington in the 2001 - 2002 season); Goodnight Children Everywhere — Olivier Award for Best Play (London); The Vienna Notes — OBIE Award for Playwriting; Principia Scriptoriae — London Time Out Award; Two Shakespearean Actors — Tony Award nomination for Best Play; Some Americans Abroad — Olivier Award nomination for Best Comedy; and Franny’s Way — Drama Desk Award nomination for Best Play. Nelson also won a special OBIE Award for his contributions as literary manager to the innovative programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Theatre Company (1979-1980 season).

Nelson’s themes often tend toward revelations of culture shock or social clashes, whether in his comedies such as How Shakespeare Won the West and Some Americans Abroad, or in the more quietly serious plays such as Goodnight Children Everywhere and Franny’s Way. With so many plays produced in the United Kingdom, Nelson’s droll humor often showcases British/American culture and class differences, often to hilarious effect. “Having lived both in America and in England, he has acquired a sort of mid-Atlantic accent in his writing,” wrote John Simon in New York Magazine. “This equips him with both dryly English quips and juicy American humor.” The Royal Shakespeare Company named Nelson an honorary associate artist and has produced a number of his plays in Stratford-upon-Avon and London. In the U.S., he has received the PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Master Playwright Award, a Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Writing Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and National Endowment for the Arts playwriting fellowships.

When Nelson received the Pels Award in 2007, he used the forum for his keynote address as a pulpit, declaring, “I am arguing for a theatre where the mindset is not to fix new plays, but to solve them.” Except for specific or well-defined reasons, Nelson decries the idea that playwrights or their plays require “help.” He wants theatre professionals to grapple with plays’ inconsistencies, not try to fix them, smoothing out dramatic tension and causing authorial intention to become unrecognizable. It’s a viewpoint that has brought no small measure of controversy to Nelson in play-development circles, but he has never been an artist to shy away from strong opinions. His bold stances in regard to his own work, and the work of the American theatre in general, have helped to make Nelson one of this country’s strongest advocates for the power of the playwright in the rehearsal and production process.

In addition to his excellent original plays, Nelson has a deft hand with adaptations of classics. These include August Strindberg’s Miss Julie and The Father; Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard (seen at the Huntington in 2007), and The Wood Demon; and many others over the past 30 years. The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood called Nelson’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, “brisk, unfussily funny and steeped in just enough emotion to give it a gloss of tender feeling without drowning it in teardrops.” Nelson is currently working on a new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which will premiere in early 2009 at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art as the inaugural production of the Court Theatre’s commissioning program for new classics.

Richard Nelson’s work for film and television includes the screenplay for Ethan Frome (Miramax Films), and Sensibility and Sense and The End of a Sentence (both for American Playhouse). He also has written numerous radio plays for the BBC.

– Kristen Gandrow

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