Feb 24, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 124: Sharr White
Hometown: I grew up in Orange County, California until I was twelve, then Boulder, Colorado through high school.
Current Town: I now live in Cold Spring, New York, which is an almost unbearably quaint little village on the Hudson River, an hour north of Manhattan.
Q: Tell me about Sunlight, the play going up as a National New Play Network "rolling world premiere." What does that mean? Where are the productions and what is the play about?
A: On the surface Sunlight is about an epic ideological power struggle between a liberal but abusive university president, and his conservative former protégé who is now dean of the university’s law school, and whom performed work during the Bush administration focusing on interrogation policy. The play unfolds in real time, and depicts the last hour and a half of the president’s tenure at the university. Word has come to Matthew (the president) that that Vincent (the protégé) is under investigation by the Defense Department for permissions given in 2002 that inadvertently resulted in the beating death of a teenager in Afghanistan. Matthew has stormed across campus and, in an impotent rage, has destroyed Vincent’s office. This is the last straw for the school faculty who have been abused by Matthew for years, and, on the night of the play, are across campus casting a vote of no confidence against him. The play takes place in Matthew’s residence where his daughter, Charlotte—who is married to Vincent—and Matt’s longtime assistant, Maryanne, are preparing for Matt’s exit from the university. What the play really is, though, is a kind of mourning piece for what we lost on the morning of September 11, both against our will, and willingly. And how the choices we made as a nation marked a tragic turning point for us. It’s really about the fact that nothing will ever be the same for us again.
The National New Play Network is a coalition of theatres who’s goal is to give new plays as wide a premiere as possible. Every year they select a handful of scripts for consideration, each of which comes with a small stipend for any Network theatres interested in producing. It’s a really, really wonderful way to launch a play. You don’t have to fear the property being killed by a New York launch you may not be ready for, and it allows you to modify the script right after its initial production and see how it plays immediately following. Sunlight premiered at Marin Theatre Company, and is in rehearsal at Phoenix Theatre Company in Indianapolis and ArtsWest in Seattle, and will be performed again this summer at New Jersey Rep. All because Marin Theatre Company introduced the play to NNPN.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I’m workshopping a new play in New York called The Other Place, which is about a medical researcher whose sudden appearance of early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease allows her missing daughter to suddenly come back to her. It’s told in the first-person, and as the play unfolds we realize at the same time as the main character that nothing she says can be trusted.
I’m also writing a new play, which is a commission for South Coast Repertory—I’m not yet exactly sure what it’s about.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I grew up in a very chaotic household. I’ve got a brother and four sisters, and my parents divorced when I was twelve, and I was relentlessly bullied when I was in grade school. When my mother moved us to Colorado I was able to reinvent myself, escape the bullying, even fit in a little. I think all my plays have central characters who are both a part of their surroundings and yet because of what they’ve been through, also quite lost. An acquaintance of mine told me a few years ago that my plays are about people who become found by others. And in many ways I think that’s true.
Q: In your opinion, what is the purpose of theater?
A: Human beings have a deep need not just to experience catharsis, but to experience catharsis together. On some level this is what has powered the building of group identity, of societies. Haiti, the China earthquakes, New Orleans, all the way down to local news stories that cause outpourings of emotion. Without minimizing the true depth of the human suffering that is actually happening, there is a reason for this secondary reaction, the reaction of those of us hearing about the news which creates subsets of societal identity. And what theatre does is allow for this catharsis and this identity to be experienced and tapped into without the experience of actual tragedy. For me, privately experiencing catharsis within a group of people, each of whom is privately experiencing exactly the same thing as me, is what makes that rare breathless silence in a good night of theatre so stunning; we’ve all agreed on some profound emotional level to stop breathing at the same time, and it’s glorious. And then someone in the audience chokes on their gum and ruins everything. And that’s life.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I’m really excited by anything experimental, with a lot of risk, a lot of humor and really big stakes. With one caveat, which is that I want to see it work. I’m not saying I won’t like a new piece if it doesn’t work, but I’m mystified by really tough pieces that actually do work. It’s like a really good magic trick; years later I want to be able to say “How did they do that”?
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out.
1. On output: Slow and steady wins the race. It doesn’t matter how much you write in one sitting, it only matters that you write every single day. A page; an hour; a half hour. Don’t bother with saving up your ideas for the few times in a year you can escape for long periods of binge writing; you’ll just procrastinate, and plays take time to develop properly. And I’m not talking about “writing time”, I’m talking about calendar time. You have to live with a play, make it a part of your life, before you begin to understand what it’s really about.
2. On Money: Don’t ever count on making any as a playwright, so find something else to do for money, and let yourself truly understand that you will be doing that something else for a long, long time. Make sure it’s something that lets you live and have a life—a good life—and that also lets you write. In my money life I’m an advertising copywriter. I didn’t think I could do this and be productive, but I’m more productive now than I’ve ever been, plus I can get my teeth cleaned for free. When I landed my first corporate job, my life got better. And my writing got better. I think of it as a sort of personal corporate subsidy of the arts.
3. On the savior myth: I think so many artists operate under a savior myth, which is that one day their lucky break will come—always in the form of some life-changing chunk of money or some incredible benefactor—and that everything in their lives will change. And so we wind up waiting and waiting for our windfall, until our lives are over. Here is the cold truth: There is no savior. There is no cavalry. You are your cavalry. Even when your plays become good enough to get a fantastic agent, or a few very good producer contacts, none of that matters unless you are writing, writing all the time, and writing well. And even then a good play will take years to reach market, and the payoff from a single property will be small, so you must have many, many good properties in order to even flirt with making a living. Which means write, write, write, write, write. This is a fact and must be added into the equation of your life as a playwright.
A: If you’re in New York, plan on seeing Yank!. http://www.yankthemusical.com/
David Zellnik is a genius writer and a wonderful person, and he does deeply imaginative, connected work that I as a writer try to study.