May 18, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 172: Peter Parnell
Hometown: Douglaston, Queens, NY
Current Town: Manhattan
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve been working on two stage musical projects. One is a new book for a musical from the 1960s called “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever”, originally written by Alan Jay Lerner, with music and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane. It’s a project the director Michael Mayer approached me about doing. The other is a new musical, for which I’m writing the book, with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, for Susan Stroman to direct. So, although I’ve never worked on a musical before, I’m starting at the top.
Q: You're the head of the membership committee at the guild. Why should every playwright join the Dramatists Guild?
A: There are many reasons. One of the foremost is that, although we’re not a union, we’re the only organization in the country which advocates for playwrights in concrete ways, including offering free legal advice, as well as informing them of the current standards regarding many types of play contracts. The Guild is also active in rigorously defending copyright, and in protecting playwrights with regards to ownership of their work. There are many areas which, whether you’re a beginning or more experienced playwright, it’s important to know about. What are your basic rights regarding a production? What does it mean to have approvals of production elements? What kind of billing and royalty payments are you entitled to? What does it mean to sign over a portion of your play’s future income to a third party, and how obligated are you to do so? Some of these and other issues are undergoing changes right now, and the Guild is at the forefront of the conversation. And I should add this isn’t only about the so-called Commercial Theater. It’s about the not for profit arena, from the major LORT theatres to the smallest theatres – anywhere, in fact, that you’ve written a play for a paying audience. But—and this is more of an emotional argument, I guess – we all know that playwrighting can be a tough profession, and is also collaborative, in that your allies in getting your vision across are actors, directors, and designers. But who understands best what it’s like to be the person who first faced the blank page? Other playwrights. We’re all part of a community that can offer strength – and understanding, and comfort—in numbers.
Q: You adapted the novel of the Cider House Rules into two stage plays. What is the challenge of adapting someone else's work and how do you decide what to leave in and what to take out?
A: I’ve worked on a couple of projects that involved adapting source material.
Cider House was one, and it came with a fairly specific mandate. Tom Hulce, who loved John Irving’s book, had brought it to Jane Jones, who had founded a theatre company in Seattle called Book-It, which used the complete narrative voice in dramatizing various short fiction for the stage. Book-It had never done a full-length novel before, and knew they needed a writer to help shape, and then dramatize, this enormous, picaresque book. So, I knew from the beginning that I had an acting company, and, once Dan Sullivan at Seattle Rep got excited about the idea, a theatre in which to put the play on. Tom, Jane and I decided early that needed two plays to tell the story. The challenge for me was finding a theatrical style that was faithful to John’s voice, but allowed for dramatic rather than fictive movement. It took me a long time to find it. When I did, it was by starting to dramatize a small section of the book I felt most comfortable with, and dissecting it, doubling back over John’s repetitions and rhythms. I had remembered reading an unfinished Thornton Wilder play, The Emporium, based on a Kafka novel, (but set in an orphanage and a department store!) It was wonderful, and it had a style that felt right for Irving’s novel (not only, but partly, because it, too, is set in an orphanage). This section ultimately became the second act of the first evening (which was in three acts).
I wrote a lot more of Cider House than we could use, but of course we couldn’t dramatize all the characters and events that take place in the book. But we got in a lot. Both evenings combined took eight hours in Seattle. When we went to the Taper, we cut it down to six.
There’s an aspect of mimicry that happens with this kind of adaptation. You have to become so familiar with the original voice, it has to become so a part of your bones, that you feel you can create as if you were the author himself. Something very touching happened after John Irving saw Cider House. There’s a moment in the second play, in Dr. Larch’s death scene, in which he imagines ballroom dancing with some of the many women who he saved (and, most importantly, one he didn’t save, who haunts him throughout the play). John told me that the ballroom dancing surprised him because, though he never put it in the novel, his original notes had contained this characteristic of Larch’s, that he loved to ballroom dance. It was as if I had gone into John’s head, and pulled this image out.
Q: Besides having plays on and off Broadway and in large regional theaters, you have worked extensively in TV drama. How does one navigate between the two worlds and how do you find time to do both?
A: When I was starting out as a playwright, there was still a bit of a stigma attached to writing for TV. I didn’t actually work on a TV script until Aaron Sorkin and John Wells invited me to be a part of The West Wing in 1999. By that time, more and more playwrights were becoming involved in both being on staff and in writing pilots. Now, I think we’ve entered a kind of new golden age in writing for TV, and cable shows especially are finding provocative, exciting ways to tell stories. And it’s important for a playwright to learn the techniques of TV writing, if only to make a living while you’re working on your next play. I find the forms quite different, but that may be more because of the kinds of plays I write. Writing for TV is a job, and highly collaborative, and you’re often not the final arbiter of what gets on the screen (including your credit). But, you learn how to work quickly when you need to, and how to solve creative problems quickly, and you can get paid nicely for your time. These are not necessarily bad things.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was in fifth grade, I wrote and starred in a school play called Captain Goodwill’s Friendship Tour. I don’t remember very much about it, except that at the climax of the show, when everybody was expecting the main character to return to America, and sing “America the Beautiful”, I had him stay in England and sing “For He Is An Englishman” from H.M.S. Pinafore. Even then I was an Anglophile, and even then, though I didn’t know it, I was already gay. But the thing I remember most about it was that, after I got cast as the lead in my own show, my best friend, Jeffrey Cohen, called me up and, trying to disguise his voice, told me that if I accepted the role of Captain Goodwill, I’d be beaten up the next day outside of class. I knew it was Jeffrey who called, and after I told my mom, she called Jeffrey’s mom (who told her for some reason Jeffrey was now crying), and SHE insisted Jeffrey get on the phone and apologize to me. Which he did. What did this teach me? To always be prepared for a bad review from SOMEBODY, I guess. It may also help account for an unhealthy inhibited narcissism (rather than an unhealthy but at least uninhibited narcissism) that has made possessing naked ambition an area of conflict for me my entire life.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Anything that works.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: To write, and not be afraid of rewriting. To try to keep in mind what originally excited you about an idea, and to also be willing to let go of it. To listen to those you really trust, but also stand your ground. In other words, stay flexible. And if somebody invites you somewhere, always say yes.