Aug 14, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 377: David Grimm
Hometown: Born in Oberlin, Ohio
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Trying to start a new play. Just got back in town from workshopping two new plays: one at Portland Center Stage’s JAW Festival, with director David Esbjornson. It’s called TALES FROM RED VIENNA. The other at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, with director Peter Dubois. That one is about the Hays Production Code in Hollywood in 1934 and its called THEY DON’T MAKE ‘EM LIKE THAT NO MORE. I’ve also been working on my first musical for the past two years with Harry Connick Jr writing the music and George C Wolfe attached to direct. Trying to develop a couple other musical projects. Oh and adapting an old pre-code movie for the stage for drag queen, Varla Jean Merman.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: For six formative years of my upbringing, I lived in Israel. When I was in the third grade, I developed a crush on Karen, one of the popular girls. I desperately wanted to be her friend. To be accepted. To be one of the cool kids. I was terrified of approaching her, for fear of being rejected.
Somehow, I got it into my head that the ideal way to share my feelings with Karen would be through writing her a note, rather than in person. I’m not sure why but I blame my education in classical literature.
Anyway -- I wrote the note and, during recess, slipped it onto her desk. Immediately I ran outside and did my best to act nonchalant and casual. However, I soon became aware that the popular girls had gathered like swarm of buzzing bees, whispering together heatedly and pointing in my direction. Had they all read my note? My face flushed with shame but I kept up the act.
Back in class, Karen had vanished and no one seemed to know where. When the teacher (a particularly sadistic young woman in a mini-skirt, platform shoes, and a beehive) inquired as to Karen’s whereabouts, one of the nastier girls chimed in with sing-song cruelty: “David left a note on her desk and she went home crying.”
Crying? How could that be? Had my words of affection and adulation been so traumatic to her as to bring her to tears? Was the prospect of my friendship so horrible to contemplate? What had I done?
Cruella (I don’t remember the teacher’s name) sent me out to find Karen and bring her back.
Standing at a dusty crossroads in the middle of nowhere (the town was still being built and carved out of the dry desert land), I had no idea in which direction Karen had gone. I returned to the classroom a failure. A shamed failure, at that. But Cruella wasn’t done with me. Having failed to bring Karen back, I was to stand before the whole class (40-45 students) and tell everyone what horrible thing I’d written to her to cause her such distress. I stood there, but wouldn’t speak.
That was the first time I realized the power of the written word. It was also the first time something I’d written got me in trouble. I’ve been doing some version of that ever since.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Only ONE? Well then, I’d change the ticket prices to make it affordable. I hate that theatre in America is the privilege of the upper classes, as opposed to the art of the masses. I hate that it speaks to one socio-economic bracket and ends up saying the same thing over and over to them, preaching to the choir.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Marlowe for putting free verse on the stage; Shakespeare for eclipsing him; Moliere for poking at hypocrisy; Wycherley for doing it in English; Wilde for his wit; Orton for his naughtiness; John Guare for making it American.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Theatre of language and ideas. Theatre of scope and ambition. The collective theatrical imagination gets smaller as the filmic imagination expands. Why is this? Of course, there’s the economic considerations, but is that the complete answer? Have we put a price tag on our imagination? What a shameful turn of events if that is so.
I love theatre that dares. I love theatre that has epic size and consequences and good stories. A feast for the ears as well as the minds and the eyes.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Read plays.
For quite a few years now, I’ve been teaching playwriting. Yale School of Drama, Brown University, Columbia University, and now at the Dramatic Writing Program at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. It continues to amaze me how poorly read so many graduate playwriting students are. This past year, I had a student who had never read a play before being accepted into the program.
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Writing a play is not only a communication between artist and audience, but between the writer and his/her fellow writers. It is a response to what has come before. The more you read, the more you understand what others have tried, and the more there is to respond to. Read plays, dammit.