Jun 18, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 197: Jeffrey Sweet
Photo: Jeff in green sweater surrounded by New York cast of BLUFF.
Current Town: New York
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m fiddling with re-writes on a play about Lyndon Johnson and how his greatest political accomplishment was accomplished by one of his greatest personal betrayals. It’s called TEXAS BOOT. And I’m researching and writing notes for a play set in Provincetown about two people who can’t be married but can’t not be.
Q: Tell me about Victory Gardens.
A: I had the good luck to stumble into Victory Gardens on a recommendation. I wrote a book about the origins of Second City called SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY. It came out in 1978. I was visiting Chicago to plug the book when one of the producers at Second City, Joyce Sloane, noticed that it said on the cover that I’m a playwright. She said she was on the board of a small theatre and would I like an introduction to the artistic director? I said yes. She got on the phone and said, “I’m sending over a young writer. Be nice to him.” I got on the 22 bus and arrived at Victory Gardens’s then home, a couple of blocks north of the Cubs ballpark. I met Dennis Zacek, the artistic director, and gave him a copy of my play PORCH. He promised to read it.
In the meantime, in NY, I’d become involved with an off-off-Broadway company devoted to opera called the Encompass. For reasons I can’t fathom, they asked me to be a literary manager. Well, I knew little about opera, but I’d always wanted to see a production of Marc Blitzstein’s REGINA, based on Lillian Hellman’s THE LITTLE FOXES. They took my advice (it turned out to be a big hit for them). During rehearsal, I realized that the set for the porch in REGINA could do double duty for my play. The artistic director said I could put it up as long as it didn’t cost her anything. So I got a cast and a director and we rehearsed in the loft of one of the actors. We put the show on as a dark-night project at the Encompass, the first-string critic of the NY TIMES (who turned out to be a fan of SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY) came and gave it something close to a rave. Not long after, Dennis called to say he’d like to do a reading. With a little chutzpah I said, “Hey, it just got a good review out of the TIMES. It’s cheap. Why don’t you just put it on?” And he did. And it was a surprise hit. That was 1979 and I’ve been working with Dennis and Victory Gardens ever since.
I think we’ve done 14 shows together. A lot of different kinds. On one end, there are BLUFF and WITH AND WITHOUT, which are contemporary comedies with a little darkness. On the other end, there are pieces like THE ACTION AGAINST SOL SCHUMANN, FLYOVERS and BERLIN ‘45, which are more dramatic and pretty specifically about people coping with social or political forces. I tend to alternate between working with Dennis and Sandy Shinner. I don’t know how Dennis decides which plays he’s going to direct and which plays he’s going to assign to Sandy, but I have happy working relationships with both of them. Sandy has twice directed sensational New York productions of plays that were first done in Chicago – BLUFF, which she’d directed in Chicago with Tim Grimm and Jon Cryer but was even better in New York (largely because we changed the set and the space made a lot of difference) and FLYOVERS. FLYOVERS was complicated because Dennis directed a pretty perfect production in Chicago with William Petersen, Amy Morton, Marc Vann and Linda Reiter (Gary Cole and Teddi Siddall replaced Billy and Amy later in the run). Dennis was supposed to direct it in New York, but something very serious came up and Sandy found herself in the awkward position of having to sub for him here. Her production was substantially different, but then it would have had to have been given that the cast was so different – Richard Kind, Michele Pawk, Kevin Geer and Donna Bullock. And it was pretty close to perfect, too. So I’m always delighted to work with either of them.
Knowing that I have a theatre-home is hugely helpful. It’s not just that I know my stuff is probably going to be done there, it’s also that there are people associated with the place I look forward to working with again and again. There isn’t a formal acting company there, but Dennis and Sandy and I certainly have strong relationships with particular people, and sometimes I’ll write something with the idea of getting together again with favorite players. I will always want to work with Tim Grimm and Gary Houston, for instance. And Linda Reiter, Melissa Carlson and Kristine Thatcher are special to me. I could name many other actors I’ve enjoyed working with, but these are people who have done multiple projects of mine.
Q: What other Chicago theaters would you recommend?
A: The Chicago theatre movement happened largely because Paul Sills pioneered improvisational theatre there. In order to understand Chicago theatre – including many Chicago playwrights – you need to visit the key improv-based theatres: Second City, iO (yes, that’s a real name) and the Annoyance Theatre. There's a direct relationship between improvisational theory and playwriting theory.
The theatres that won Tony Awards in Chicago – Victory Gardens, the Goodman, Steppenwolf and Chicago Shakespeare – all deserve them and deserve visits. You also can’t go wrong at the Writers Theatre, the Eclipse, American Blues Theatre and Shattered Globe. You’re not terribly likely to break in as a writer at any of these places though. There are other, scrappy theatres with smaller budgets that are constantly popping up in storefronts and back rooms. Some of these outfits are actually looking for new plays and new writers. Another tip: non-Equity theatre in Chicago is taken very seriously, so don’t be put up off from going to or submitting to a theatre just because the company may not be Equity. The long-running, critically-lauded off-Broadway revival of OUR TOWN started as a non-Equity project.
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’m told that when I was a toddler someone asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I replied, “A typewriter.” This wasn’t quite the Davy Crockett hat they had expected as the answer. Why did I want a typewriter? “To write my dissertation.” Of course, I had no idea what a dissertation was, but my dad was working on his, and that probably meant that it was a fine thing to work on. My dad dreamed of being a writer, but he couldn’t see how to support a family while trying to be the 1950's answer to Ernest Hemingway, so he wrote public relations for universities instead and put food on the table. I always felt that my choosing a writing career in some way was me picking up and fulfilling his unrealized desire. I never risked embarrassing him by asking him that question directly, but I knew he was a steady ally and I loved him dearly. He was trained as a historian, and I don’t think it’s an accident that I’ve written so many plays that have touched on historical or political subjects. He brought me up with stories about the past and how they related to the present, and a couple of times was able to feed me some research on projects I was working on. My mother? She was a professional violinist, and my enthusiasm for music was probably fed by that. It’s not surprising that with this background I’ve written some musicals.
Q; If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: To provide real residencies for playwrights. We’re always treated as guest artists rather than having real homes in the companies – our own desks in the building, our own health plans, responsibilities outside of work on our own stuff. I find it particularly upsetting that more literary managers make livings in the theatre (and are covered by insurance through their theatre employment) than playwrights.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Plays and productions that collaborate with the imagination of the audience. The audience is there as a partner; it mostly doesn’t need a lot of elaborate sets and technical tricks. This partially draws from my enthusiasm for Second City, which is based on actors working with little more than a stage and some chairs. I also love good musicals, though these days they only pop up once every couple of years.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Don’t be passive. Don’t wait for permission from someone else to be a playwright. Start off writing stuff easy to produce for younger actors so that if it's good there's no reason for someone not to produce it. Court talented directors on the way up; directors generate more productions for writers than agents do. Take acting classes, especially improvisation, so you know how a scene works from the player's perspective. Understand that only half the playwright’s job is facing a blank page. The other half is social. Theatre is a social profession, and if you want to be a part of it you have to be an active part of the community. People tend to want to work with people they know. Volunteer to help small theatre companies and learn how they work. Visit the O’Neill Center in the summer and grab lunch in their dining hall; you'll meet very cool people. Attend readings and begin making lists of actors and directors you want to work with, and don’t be shy about approaching them and inviting them out for coffee. Learn how to produce yourself if necessary. Be useful to other writers. Don’t put off joining the Dramatists Guild; you want to be a member before you need their help.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Books: THE VALUE OF NAMES AND OTHER PLAYS (anthology from Northwestern University Press), SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (oral history of Second City from Limelight Editions), THE DRAMATIST’S TOOLKIT and SOLVING YOUR SCRIPT (texts on playwriting from Heinemann). Available to consult and run workshops through Facebook. Teach in New York through HB Studios (http://www.hbstudio.org/), the Magnet Theatre (http://www.magnettheater.com/), and Artistic New Directions (http://www.artisticnewdirections.org/retreats.html). Also, FLYOVERS (with William Petersen and Amy Morton) has just been released on CD.