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The Playwright Nobody (and Everybody) Knows

I am continuing here with the second article from American Theatre from April that looked at Wallace Shawn. I know I am taken by him as a subject because I was acting as a dramaturg at Cleveland Public Theatre when they were producing The Designated Mourner, and I was surprised to see a photograph from that production in the American Theatre issue. I have, in fact, posted the piece that I wrote for the program at CPT on this blog.

The request that I write a program piece for the play was something I hadn’t expected and like many other young writers, I suppose, my experience of Wallace Shawn came from other areas of popular culture than through theatre. In fact, until I was asked to do the piece I didn’t even know he was a playwright. I read several critical articles, a book, read The Designated Mourner, Fever, and Aunt Dan and Lemon. I found that Case had a copy of My Dinner with Andre which I found fascinating and actually had an epiphany of sorts when Andre started talking about his “coincidence” experiences with The Little Prince and the hand tracings–for more on this, quite a fascinating talk–go to http://www.cloudnet.com/~jwinder/dinner.htm for a full transcript of My Dinner with Andre and do a browser search for “Saint-Exupéry” to find the section. (I am fascinated with stories of coincidence, which is one reason why I love the Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster, but I digress…)

The main point being that I found myself digging Wallace Shawn pretty hard during that time because he was definitely new and definitely different than where I had come from in the world of playwrighting and these articles in American Theatre really took me back to that experience.

The article on Shawn as a playwright covers a lot of the same ground that I did in my piece, so I’m not going to dwell on it. The only thing that I will point out is a cool radio play version of the Designated Mourner.

I think the two things that struck me most about this article are 1) Shawn’s true sense of disappointment in American theater and the sense, that we all know, that no one is going to it and that there are some things worth seeing and the true challenge of making that connection–of interested, active, passionate people to the theatre that would satisfy them. And for me, this is one of the big marketing challenges I see ahead for convergence-continuum: how do you get at the people who would be most interested in your theater when they have a notion of theatre that is different from what you’re doing; and further, how to connect with people who haven’t been in a theatre in years… 2) deals with something that Shawn says, on page 27:

I’ve always thought the best use of my talent would be as a literary writer. It would be a fantastic thing to have an impact on some specific problem in society–to write a play that whould have an influence on the debate about capital punishment in this country. But I’ve sort of decided I’m not going to organzie my life that way. And I’m going to follow this strange, somewhat old-fashioned belief in the idea of inspiration and that your subject picks you. You don’t pick the subject.”

I find that statement at once fascinating and also confirming for me. I’ve been dealing with this question, with no resolution, for some time. That is, what does it mean to be a playwright? Should I write “the well-made play” about a given topic. Should it be a well-formed, two-act play that deals with an issue–the injustice shown midwives in our society, the injustice shown empirics in the past (as did my play The Empiric), or any number of other issues that any one of us can come up with–always the most popular and glaring being the “abortion” play. That is, do you write plays that address topical themes of your day–relevant in some way to the culture or society–or do you seek some other level in yourself. Some form of expression that “finds you” as Shawn says, not that you choose.

For me, this was the main break between how I was approaching playwriting and how I have been altered since. I wrote The Empiric in 2005-2006 and it is about injustice and outrage; driven by sincere personal anger. Then I wrote A Howl in the Woods, now Lord of the Burgeoning Lumber–and it was authentic, pure–not motivated or consciously driven in any way by the logical mass between my ears. I let it direct me and it direct itself. The result? Something that will be staged, for one. Something that still is unsettling to me–because I don’t have an answer for what it is or what it means. It is from me, a part of me, and yet, the “me” that makes that definition has no way of defining clearly what it is–it is beyond a label.

So, knowing that Wallace Shawn addresses this question frankly in this article in American Theatre has lent me some comfort in a way of proceeding.

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