May 21, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 174: Don Nigro
Q: Hometown, Current Town:
A: I was born in Canton, Ohio (I think where the hospital used to be there's a theatre now) and now live by the woods just outside Malvern, a small town in east Ohio where my father was born. His parents were Italian immigrants. My mother's family were pioneer folk and I think at least one Delaware or Wyandot lady is also in there somewhere. I hope so, anyway.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've found it's bad luck for me to talk about what I'm writing until I'm almost done. Hemingway said that if you talk about it, you kill it, and that's the case with me, although perhaps it's different with sane people. I'm not superstitious about it, but somehow talking about a play while I'm right in the middle of writing it seems to shut the door that leads to that bizarre subterranean place where all the good stuff comes from. I just finished a play called Mysterium in which Freud and Jung are on a boat in the middle of the ocean at night having an increasingly shrill disagreement about which one of them is hysterical when the Nazis start manning the life boats.
Q: How many plays have you written? If my count is correct, you have 48 plays published by Sam French. Does anyone else come close to that? Is it possible that you have written more plays than anyone else ever has?
A: You're correct that Samuel French has published 48 volumes of my plays so far---but some of these are collections, so the total number of published plays is more like 135, I think. But French has also recently added all the as yet unpublished ones to its online catalogue, so the total number available for leasing through them is now at 322, I think. I know that sounds like a lot, but you have to take into consideration that I have nothing else to do here but watch the squirrels. Lope de Vega wrote about 1800 plays, so I don't think I'm going to catch up. In fact, I don't write all that quickly. It's taken me ten or fifteen years to finish some plays. If they don't feel right I put them aside and pick them up again next week or next year or whenever. It doesn't really matter how much you write, as long as you're completely immersed in it while you're writing it. You just sort of trust the voices and see what comes out. It's the way I investigate the world.
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 wrote about this in a play called The Dark. I'm four years old, helping to dust my books and toys in my room when suddenly my brain just goes to this other place, and I realize, this isn't me, I'm not this child with this name living in this house, I'm actually somebody else entirely. I'm---and then my mother is shaking me and saying, Hey, where were you? and I'm sitting there with the dust rag in my hand trying to remember where I just was, what my real name is, only I can't. I had those experiences, gradually less and less intense, all through my childhood, that sensation of having come from another place, of almost being able to remember who I really was. Some years later, I took a wrong turn in a building and stumbled into an empty theatre, and suddenly had this intensely eerie feeling that I was back there, in that other place before I was born. It still feels like that to me.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I think the American confusion of a thing's value with its ability to generate capital is tragic, and has always crippled and polluted the theatre here. Hit and flop are code words for profit and loss. This is an enormously short-sighted way of looking at art, which is an investigation into possible truths through imagination. The imagination comes first. Everything else in civilization follows from that. Theatre is the imagination made flesh. A society that sees art as trivial makes itself systematically stupid and ultimately destroys itself.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Shakespeare and the Jacobeans, Chekhov, and a lot of British and Irish drama from about 1950: Beckett and Pinter, early Bond and Arden, Peter Barnes, Stoppard. Non-dramatic work that's been important to me: Yeats, Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, T. S. Eliot, Faulkner, Proust, Borges, and that masterpiece of surrealism, the King James Bible. Also Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: You can find sudden, numinous, stunning, riveting theatre in the oddest places, often not where you're expecting it at all. It can happen just about anywhere. And even when it's misguided and inept, there's often something weirdly holy about it, in odd moments, if you just look, and give yourself to it. As Yogi Berra said, You can see a lot if you observe.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Don't take my advice.