Monday, October 26, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 83: Stephen Adly Guirgis
Stephen Adly Guirgis
Current Town: NYC
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m living in Adam Rapp land -- where it’s possible to do 85 million things and do them all really fucking well -- except I’m not Adam, so I’m more or less fully expecting my whole world to come crashing down any minute now. But I’m trying. I got a new play for LAByrinth that’s in second draft. Another new play that’s big and crazy that’s at about page 40. A screenplay draft of a boxing film that needs to get turned in to the producers pretty much yesterday. A new play that I’m directing for InViolet Rep called Kiss Me on the Mouth by Melanie Maras that goes into tech this week. I’m one of the new artistic directors of LAByrinth, so I’m helping to run my theater company. I’m also taking care of my dad. And maybe pitching a pilot. And I’m acting in a short film. And trying to get in shape and maybe quit smoking. And I’m rehabbing my back which is a major undertaking that I should be taking more seriously. And I teach sometimes. And I’m learning how to produce. And I have another new play I wanna get started on. Now, if I was Adam Rapp, I could do all that in a weekend plus front a rock and roll band, write a novel, get drunk, end poverty, and make love with my girlfriend. But I got no girlfriend. And I got about 8 brain cells left. I ought to have my head examined. Again. But these are all luxury problems. Other than hanging out on a beach for the rest of my life smoking weed and maybe learning to surf, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. So I guess -- shut up and do it. I admire Adam a great deal, not just for his talent, but for his willingness to give himself to it. There’s a great quote from Shaw in the lobby of New York Theater Workshop. And there are certain artists working today who really seem to embody that quote. There are many. Adam is one of them. Phil Hoffman is another. Tony Kushner. They do the work.
Q: You are now one of the three Artistic Directors of LAByrinth. There aren't many playwrights who are also ADs. How are you liking it so far? What are the main challenges?
A: Yeah. I’m one of the new AD’s at LAByrinth along with Mimi O’Donnell and Yul Vazquez. It’s one of those jobs where you really got no idea how much of yourself has to go into it until you actually start doing it. It’s endless, totally challenging, and very time consuming if you wanna try and do it really well. The LAByrinth is a family, and it’s my family -- so I definitely feel the pressure to wanna serve it as well as I possibly can. It’s funny, we’re just getting started, and I already and often feel overwhelmed by the scope of the task and the amount of personal responsibility that it entails -- but then I think about Barack Obama and my brain just explodes! Running a non-profit theater company in NYC is like a joke compared to the tremendous, mind blowing, epic, and relentlessly complex and multi-facted responsibilities and pressures that our President is entrusted to manage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The man came into office resembling a young Sidney Poitier, and I’m pretty sure if he serves 8 years he’s gonna leave looking like Redd Foxx. I admire him so much for even getting out of bed in the morning... I don’t know how it will go trying to be the best writer I can be while also trying to be a capable artistic director. I think it helps to have heroes and models and to aim high. As a writer, Tennessee Williams is a hero to me. I’ll never be Tennessee Williams, but I can aspire to that thing in his work that is sublime and that serves to move and inspire me. As Artistic directors, John Ortiz and Phil Hoffman served our company in ways most company members don’t even know about. They were tremendous and selfless leaders. The Group Theater is an obvious and lofty theatrical model to aspire to. The Public Theater. The Donmar Warehouse. The old Circle Rep. LAByrinth is a kind of constantly evolving entity made up of a family of multi-disciplinary artists. I see the job of Mimi, Yul, and myself as being one of sustaining and maintaining the company’s foundation while also acting as facilitators in the growth and nurturing of new voices, new audiences, and new work. Thankfully, we don’t have to do it alone. We have a 115 members and a great board and audience base to lean on. We’ll need all the help we can get.
Q: Can you tell me a little about how you got started with LAByrinth? Did you write beforehand or did you join as an actor and start writing while there?
A: I went to college with John Ortiz and Liza Colon-Zayas. I wrote a little, but not seriously. I was an actor and still am. After college, John formed LAB and asked me to audition. I’m not sure I passed the audition, but I think John talked them into it. At some point, John encouraged me to write something. I wrote a little one act that David Zayas and Dave Anzuelo acted in that was directed by Charles Goforth and produced by LAB in any evening of one-acts down on Franklin street. I guess it went well, so guys like John and Dave Deblinger and Charles and Paul Calderon kinda pushed me to keep writing, so I did. Phil Hoffman acted in an early play of mine and we got close. Eventually, Phil directed a play of mine, and Mike Batistick wrote an article about us in Time Out magazine, and a lot of people came to see it. After that, I was more or less branded a writer. The process of accepting that I was a writer continues to be ongoing, daunting -- and I’m embarrassed to say -- sometimes painful.. Acting is a tremendously difficult thing to do really well, but I find the pursuit and the practice to be thrilling. When I’m acting, I know who I am and I’m okay with it. Writing is more difficult, less thrilling, and way lonelier. And in order for me to write, I find I have to engage in behavior that matches up pretty exactly with the symptoms of major depression. And when that’s happening, I don’t think my brain can tell the difference. And that sucks a lot sometimes. The upside of writing is that it is a tremendous outlet for a barrage of feelings, emotions, struggles, and inner debate, and, when it is rendered well, it can be a worthy form of service and occasionally even a source of fleeting moments of satisfaction and joy... I think my take on the whole writing thing is probably intrinsically tied to my early childhood as a first born son and to my religious upbringing as a Catholic. Jesus Christ and John the Baptist are pretty much the coolest guys in the New Testament: a pair of relentlessly selfless idealists -- one of whom got beheaded, the other merely nailed to a cross to save all of mankind. Tough acts to follow. Not much room for improvement. But spacious accommodation for shame and guilt. Somewhere in my journey, I became aware that I was given some aptitude for writing, so I felt and feel an obligation to use it as well as I can until it goes away. And I always fail. Or think I fail. I know this sounds retarded. Someday I’ll learn the distinction between humility and humiliation. I’m guilty and innocent of both. But perhaps this is a subject of real interest only to me... and a qualified professional. Next question, please.
Q: I know you're in the middle of a whole slew of readings right now at the Public. You want to plug that?
A: Why, yes! Barn Series and Live Nude plays at the Public Theater thru November 5th. Free! Www.labtheater.org
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: My mother always told me she didn’t care if I grew up to be a garbage man or the President -- as long as I was a loving and decent person. I found her words to be genuine and beautifully well intentioned -- but who knew that being a loving and decent person would take so much work!
Another time, I had to go to my survival job and I didn’t want to go, and I was having real trouble forcing myself into going, so I called my mom because I knew she would be able to talk sense into me and get me to go in to work. I told her what was going on, she paused, and then said; “Honey, quit that damn job and follow your star”. So I did. And I have never worked a straight job since.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I favor tremendous heart over tremendous skill -- though it’s preferable to have both. True heart, true risk, and true commitment reduces me to tears, and inspires the hell out of me when I see it on a stage. I think that to do anything well, it should cost you something. It’s like that James Brown song; “Paid the Cost to be the Boss”. Great actors, great writers, great artists -- the great ones -- one way or the other, they paid the cost to be the boss. And maybe they don’t get to be boss for a life time, but on that night, or that one show, or when they wrote that play, they were the boss. On any given night in NYC, there are actors and playwrights paying the cost to be boss. There are too many examples to cite, and plenty we don’t even know of cuz we weren’t there. And it’s easy to tell who paid the cost from who’s out there trying to ride for free -- or at a discount. Or who’s pretending to pay the cost. When we go to the theater we are always paying full price because we, as audience, are giving away two hours of our lives that we are never, ever, going to get back. So when we are engaged in our work as practitioners, then what cost is the fair one to pay other than the full one? Straight play, comedy, “experimental”, musical, tragedy, puppet show, farce -- it’s all the same thing. Try to do it great. Pay the cost. It’s important. And the world will thank you.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Work begets work.... Put it up in your living room if you have to... Schedule actors and a reading, and then write some scenes or the play. If you know they’re showing up no matter what, then you’ll feel like an idiot if you got nothing for them to read... You can be as fucked up, self-doubting, self-hating, and self-deprecating as you want, BUT IF THERE’S NOT SOMETHING inside of you that honestly believes in yourself as a writer -- however small that something may be -- if it not there, then, it’s gonna be tough -- and maybe tougher for your audience than it is for you....What else?... Sit down. Stay down. If you do those two things, something will happen.... Lastly, Believe. Because why the fuck not?
Q: Any other plugs?
A: LAByrinth’s 18 Appeal. Donate 18 bucks to LAB. Please.
LAByrinth’s Annual Benefit. Celebrity Charades. 12/7/09. Www.labtheater.org
Kiss Me On the Mouth
by Melanie Angelina Maras
Directed by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Performances: Nov 5th - Nov 21st
InViolet Rep @ Center Stage NY
48 West 21st St, 4th Floor
or call (212)-352-3101
I got a new play I’m working on, and it may have a couple of public readings in December during Play Time at New Dramatists.
424 west 44th
(212) 757 6960