Friday, September 14, 2012

I Interview Playwrights Part 496: Jean-Claude van Itallie

Jean-Claude van Itallie

Hometown: I was born in Brussels, Belgium, raised in Great Neck, New York

Current Town: I live simultaneously in two places: Greenwich Village, NYC and Shantigar in Rowe, Massachusetts.

Q: Tell me about Confessions and Conversation.

A: “Confessions and Conversation,” the one person show (I call it “an intimate evening”) I’m doing at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater Sept 20-23, 2012, is a kind of Mad Hatter tea party. I’ll offer tea from mint in my garden in Massachusetts.

The show is in part a homage to my friend/mentor, the great late Ellen Stewart.

I’ll also reveal all about my own exciting theatre and promiscuous gay sex life in the wild and seminal 60's off-off-Broadway birth time.

A little singin’ and dancin’ too, cause, hey, why not?

Q: What else are you working on?

A: I’m finishing my memoirs – called “War, Sex, and Dreams.”

I’m co-writing the libretto of an opera about the wild Tibetan hermit yogi, Milarepa, of a thousand years ago – “Mila, Great Sorcerer.”

I’m finishing writing an e-book – “Galaxy of Living Alone, a Guide to Delightful Living with Cool Games to Play.”

I’m setting up an advice website – “Write to Leonardo”

I’m editing Part I of a Regency Romance I wrote – “To Be a Duchess”

Q: Tell me about the Playwright's Workbook.

A: When I started teaching play writing, there were no texts about it, or techniques, as there are for acting. I had to slowly invent my own, often using performance techniques but applying them to writing.

In the 80's, as I was teaching play writing at Princeton, I received a postcard from a publisher: “Would you use a play writing text if we published one?” I answered, “Yes, if I wrote it.” The result is “Playwright’s Workbook.”

Q: Tell me about The Shantigar Foundation.

A: I live most of the time on a beautiful old farm in the hills of Western Massachusetts. I’ve known it since I was a kid.

The Open Theater came up there in the 60's to improvise and make plays. My Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam, Trungpa, did a year’s retreat up there, named it “Shantigar,” or "Peaceful Home." The beauty of the woods and fields nourishes both creativity and meditation, which, in my mind, are closely related. So I’ve turned the farm into “Shantigar Foundation for theater, meditation, and healing.”

In a super fast world, we all, especially artists, need intimate contact with nature to breathe, remember ourselves, create. Shantigar provides that. (

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 almost four, the Nazis invaded Brussels where I lived with my Belgian Jewish family. Most of the family survived; we got to America without my seeing a Nazi. But fear was stamped indelibly into my nervous system.

By contrast, Great Neck, New York, where I grew up, in the late 40's and 50's, was a kind of Doris Day facade of pretty azalea hedges with no death or suffering visible (as in the current TV show “Madmen”).

I’ve remained mesmerized always by the contrast between the public mask and what lies underneath, hyper- aware of the lies of politicians, preachers, corporations...

Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A: I wish theater were not money-driven like the rest of society. I wish theater never gave pat answers in order to please.

Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A: Some theatrical heroes: Ellen Stewart, Peter Brook, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Harold Pinter, Stella Adler, Jerzy Grotowski, The Earl of Oxford, Voltaire, Anton Chekhov, Euripedes.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A: I’m passionate about theater of sacred intent – entertaining, funny, musical theater asking, in authentic new ways, the age-old unanswerable questions – Where are we going? What am I here for? Who am I?

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A: I’d tell a playwright just starting out to study acting, to act – not to conceive of himself/herself as merely a walking mind. Writing is not only an intellectual act. Truth, drama, humor and music have their rhythmic source in the body.

Q: Plugs, please:

A: Please come see my one man show, “Confessions and Conversations,” at La MaMa, Sept 20-23, 2012. (

Please take the “Continuum of Performance” workshop I am giving with the amazing Emilie Conrad – at LaMama, NYC: Nov 6-8, 2012 Open to everyone. (

Please check out – come up and see me some time.

Please look out for my upcoming advice website: “Write to Leonardo.”

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