Sep 18, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 259: Gary Garrison
Hometown: Orange, Texas
Current Town: Westport, Connecticut
Q: What are you working on now?
A: For work (at the Dramatists Guild), the first national conference for playwrights scheduled for next June in Fairfax, Virginia. Can’t wait. How cool will that be? Hundreds of playwrights in the same space talking about their art. For my work at NYU, we’re just starting the new semester and I have twenty-four graduate students that I have to pull, kicking and screaming, towards dramatic structure. (Everyone hates dramatic structure. Why? I have a theory . . .)
In my creative writer-life, I’m collaborating on a play with my good friend, Roland Tec, for this really unusual theatre event called Splash. Here's how it works: a play is written in which all characters in the story are meeting each other for the first time. If there are five characters in the play, five different theatre companies with unique casts and directors put the play into rehearsal. A design team designs the production and shares that work with all five theatre companies.
On each day of a public performance, the Production Stage Manager calls one character from each theatre company for the show that night. Actors are kept isolated from each other and meet one another -- like in the play -- for the first time on stage. It's balls-to-the-wall theatre, baby -- not unlike being thrown head-first into the swimming pool (hence, the name, “Splash.”) Everyone involved has to be fearless; I mean, you really have to have actors willing to take a risk few have ever taken. For the audience, it’s a total roller coaster ride; they get to share the excitement, tension and unpredictability of what happens on stage when strangers meet strangers.
The story we’re writing for the event is about the Rubber Rooms in New York City – those ridiculous holding tanks for middle to high school academics who’ve been brought up on disciplinary charges and are waiting trial. I don’t know how much you know about the Rubber Rooms, but they’re rooms spread across the five boroughs that hold hundreds of teachers on full-salary day in and day out. It’s insane! The city’s practically bankrupt, and yet we’re paying for teachers to sit on their asses all day long while the school board is waiting to decide if saying “shit” in class is an educational offense. WHAT? Of course, that’s simplifying it a bit, but not by much.
Q: You are the Executive Director of Creative Affairs of the Dramatists Guild. Why should every playwright join the Guild?
A: If nothing else, for the sense of community – to not feel so isolated as writer, no matter where you live. As I travel out and about meeting playwrights, listening to their concerns, talking to them about issues that effect their day to day writing lives, most everyone shares a common thread: that feeling of stark isolation. I mean, writing is a solo sport anyway. But once you’re written, you need to connect to your people, your tribe, if not for professional reasons, for reasons of the heart and soul. So one thing we do well at the Guild is build and foster community.
Probably most importantly, we protect the authorial rights of writers through contract advice and advocacy. What do you do when a director says to you, “I’ll direct your play, but in exchange for the value I bring to the experience, I’d like you to give me 5% of all future profits of your play”? And it doesn’t stop with 5%, believe me: 15%, 20% 30% and on and on. Well, if the director wants a chunk, and the producer wants a chunk, and the producing theatre wants a chunk, if you’re not careful, you’ll have nothing left over (you’d be surprised how often this happens). If you’re a member of the Guild, you just pick up the phone and call the Business Affairs office. We have a – errr – solid response for anyone asking you for money when you make so little money to begin with.
We also have a great magazine; really interesting with articles about the life of a writer, craft, career, trends, etc. And our website (under construction right now) will host member profiles and the ability to upload/download scripts, resume, etc., message boards (looking for a collaborator anyone?), searchable data base of members, reports from different regions of the country – stuff like that. Really helpful stuff for writers in all stages of their careers.
Q: You are a tireless advocate for and teacher of playwrights. How do you find the energy?
A: That’s an easy question: I like what I do. When you like what you do, it’s not really work. Yeah, sometimes I get a little crazy (particularly when I neglect my own work, and I often do), but I never feel like I should not be doing this. I love all three equally well: artist, educator, administrator. Yeah, seems to fit my heart and soul, and seems to fit my manic personality.
Q: What are playwrights doing right?
A: Writing the stories they want to tell. I know that may sound simple minded, but it’s too easy to be swayed by trends, or a producer’s heavy hand, or a director’s off-handed comment about Act One; it’s too easy to write a play by committee. Writers seem to be driven to tell their own unique stories in the their own unique styles and to allow that work to find the home it needs to live in. Look, a true writer, a real writer just wants to tell his/her stories to an appreciative audience. Who said that had to be Broadway? Or Off-Broadway? Theatre can be made anywhere, and playwrights are finally understanding that plays are only literature until they’re realize by way of some sort of public storytelling. And if that happens to be in a bowling alley, well, so be it.
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 was in a play, Miss Hepplewhite Takes Over, in junior high school. I don’t remember shit about the play, but I do remember that at one point, I had to sneeze into a bowl of cake batter and ruin the proverbial cake. Well, that point came during the performance, and I sneezed a sneeze like no other. Unfortunately, the force of the sneeze was so big that I blew batter up my nose and in my throat, choked and passed out on stage – but not before I heard the audience roaring with laughter. They had to bring the curtain down and call an ambulance. But people talked about me for weeks! That’s all I needed. That’s how I knew I belonged in the theatre.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Health care. I know, I know. But I can dream, can’t I? If not health care, at least government support for artists. We could learn a lot from our friends across the pond. Seriously, we have to find a way to take care of our own.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Really? Oh, God. So many. For inspiration: Ibsen and Williams. For wit and comic artistry: Wilde, Moliere, Faydeau, Durang, Simon. For character: Lillian Hellman, Lanford Wilson, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Peter Shaffer. For balls: Caryl Churchill. For scope: Tony Kushner. If I were going to the theatre tonight, I’d like to see a new play by Doug Wright, Lynn Nottage, Martin McDonaugh, John Logan, Carlos Murillo, Lucy Thurber, Anne Washburn or Gary Sunshine. If I could be anybody, or have their career: Theresa Rebeck. She’s a rock star.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Plays that can only really live in the theatre; plays that demonstrate why theatre is theatre – like Coram Boy, Angels in America, Red or The Pillowman.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Don’t write “what you know.” Write what you don’t know. You’ll be forced to think harder, deeper, be more honest, research, think, think, think . . . And remember, structure is as much for you as it is for the audience. Nobody would strike out to drive to Hallifax, Nova Scotia without a map or some road signs or something that said, “this is the way, and you’re making progress.”