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1000 Playwright Interviews The first interview I posted was on June 3, 2009.  It was Jimmy Comtois.  I decided I would start interview...

Aug 28, 2017

I Interview Playwrights Part 975: Jon Robin Baitz

Robbie Baitz

Hometown: Los Angeles.

Current town: Los Angeles.

Somehow, after decades in New York, I have come back west again for a bit. I am equally at home in both cities, though I miss certain kinds of New York nights, fresh snow, the first cold fall days, and the museums, particularly The Neue Gallerie and Café Sabarski (a place to write), and The Met, but LA has reclaimed a kind of freedom, and young artists have decamped for its eastern parts of town, as they are so much cheaper than most of New York including the far reaches of Brooklyn. I like it here, my husband – a born and bred Manhattanite does too - young writers are living here, and its helped that TV  has created opportunities for playwrights to actually give of themselves to the same extent that is required in writing a play. I mean, TV is now really ambitious. And as TV has changed, so has L.A.

Q:  What are you working on now:

A:  I am writing and Executive producing all of Season Two of Ryan Murphy’s Feud, for FX, along with my friend Ned Martel. The first season was about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, I was not involved, and this Feud is the one between Princess Diana and the entire Royal Family, though principally with Prince Charles. A deeply flawed man. The scope is somehow Shakespearian, in that the bitterness of the split between the two dealt a kind of mortal blow to the entire institution of the British monarchy, threatening it’s standing and its lofty altitude high above the British people, something Diana deplored. The monarchy in many ways is a perfect construct of conceptual art; it depends entirely on many suspensions of disbelief, on placing importance on blood lines that go back hundreds of years. It depends on a kind of uber-theatricality with castles and riches, vast holdings and the dispensing of awards and favors, and any disruption in the highly ritualized lives the royals lead, results in dark predictions that the time to do away with the monarchy altogether is finally upon us. As a consequence, the public nature of this feud was sort of like a public flaying for the Windsors. Diana is such a vivid woman; compassionate, contradictory, impulsive, deeply empathetic and generous, profoundly troubled and married when she was still a child to a man whose ambivalence is positively Hamlet-esque.  He out Hamlets Hamlet. I am lost in happiness working on it. I love them all, they are entirely human, heart-breaking, oblivious, even well intentioned mostly though also, of course horrible in equal measure – they’re like everyone I know, including me.

At the indispensable Ojai Playwrights Conference, I just completed and workshopped an epilogue to my last play Vicuña, which is being done at Ari Roth’s theatre in Washington DC, The Mosaic, this Fall. Vicuna concerns the fucked-up election of an autocratic vulgarian real-estate developer named Kurt Seaman, and the play ended with his election. (I wrote it during the last election, but could see the end-game fairly early, given just how much rage there is in this country, from furious white people who feel unaccountably cheated out of their ‘privilege’ and outraged at the new reality of having to actually accept that America is no longer simply their personal lifelong pass to what had been – at least to their thinking – an endless Disneyland E ticket of privilege.  A white middle class furious with everyone else, and another white upper middle class and beyond furious at taxes and black presidents and homosexual hipsters in skinny jeans taking their jobs.  The mood of play, which was done at The Kirk Douglas in LA last Fall, changed totally after November 8th; for the last three weeks of its run. It was no longer funny at all, no longer a joke. It was sickening and way too close to hand. The epilogue picks up many years later, after all the catastrophes have occurred and America is breaking and over, a ruined place and a ruined idea, a failed democracy with a broken economy, and roving mobs.

I have started work on another play, commissioned by Center Theatre Group in L.A., and The Second Stage; an adaptation of Dominick Dunne’s account of the odd swirling gossip currency of LA society during the OJ Simpson trial, called “Another City, Not My Own”, which the Taper will do and then will hopefully go to the Second Stage’s new Broadway theatre, the Helen Hayes. A play about secrets, gossip and whispers. 

Deep in the recesses of my desk are pages of a novel I owe Farrar Strauss Girraux.  About curses.  I am tired a lot. I do nothing a lot. I lie on the sofa a lot. I consider laziness to be the subconscious at work, a lie I am comfortable living with.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  My family moved first to Brazil when I was seven, and then to South Africa during apartheid in 1972 when I was ten. I only came back to the States at eighteen. My father worked for Carnation Milk, which later was bought by the Swiss company, Nestle. A giant multi-national entity. An octopus. He was a vice president. I grew up realizing the corporate, oblique, obscured, giant organization perched as it was on the Fortune 500, was a monolith. Run by men who took pride in milk and profits and all the other stuff they made, pet-food and ice-cream and dog toys and expansion, always.

Living in Brazil and to a larger extent South Africa during apartheid, drastically changed the molecular structure of my family, which was tenuous at best. My dad’s company provided a theatre of appearances to its execs stationed abroad; houses more luxurious than we could have afforded back in LA’s Fairfax neighborhood -- now it was a Potemkin Village of servants, chauffeurs and big homes. Illusions of capital. It blurred and buried a kind of middle-class normalcy. We got ‘fancy’. And we got comfortable with it fast. Well, my folks did. All their aspirational goals where suddenly met. We were people with country club memberships. I learned that you could sign a chit and get a club sandwich and a coke. Just like that.

So overseas, bathed in all this sclerotic privilege, I had a pivotal moment. Not once --  BUT repeated twice: First in Rio, when one of the house-keepers (with some provocation from “The Power Center” at the head of my family), placed a black magic or “Macumba” curse on our home, after some imperious and contradictory demands.  She placed a curse on our household and all who lived in it. (There was an excess of what I would call ‘capricious behavior’ from the parent whose role it was to maintain a home for for entertaining the American business community etc”.) The curse had to be lifted by an entirely other “Macumbera” or witch doctor. So, I watched this disaster, age eight, astonished by the ritual, awe-struck by the entire drama contained therein and felt even then that we had it coming. We where guilty of all sorts of sins. (Okay, maybe not me,I mean I  was all of seven and really skinny and just wanted to sign for my club sandwiches and watch cartoons dubbed into Portuguese. But mom and dad, they definitely where in big trouble soul wise.)

And. This scenario, astonishingly, was repeated a few years later in Durban, after a disgruntled African servant got pissed off by the strange cultural and psychological anthropology that was so vivid in the Baitz home. It happened AGAIN!

(I wrote about this a bit in my play A Fair Country).

Another curse was leveled! More witch doctors.
Rituals. Cleansing ceremonies.

The ‘Power Structure’, (by which I mean my parents), had adapted admirably (or heart-breakingly, depending on your point of view), to White South African Life.  We had assimilated, and anybody could. Anybody might become someone who would go with the flow. Anybody could become basically an asshole.

That was the great anxiety I felt as I realized the thing I was helplessly complicit in even as a kid: Apartheid. Monstrousness, cruelty, slavery, indentured servitude. To be black there, then, was to be very much analogous to being a Jew in 1930’s Germany. This was quite clear to me. I was going to a Jewish day school in the hills above Durban, and the education on the holocaust, was thorough; the endless documentaries, the oral histories, and to me it was pretty clear that apartheid was a stop on the way to Nazism. But. This was an analogy seemingly lost on my teachers and most of my peers.

I came to see myself as a foreigner even within my own home; gay, American, Jewish, irreducibly different, moralizing, too involved in books and stories, ways of escape, too prayerful of some sort of exit from the tensions of my powerlessness. I was a fantasist. I imagined an adulthood of utter independence, one which I could achieve by some kind of expression, some kind of ongoing search for ways to lift this curse that I think has hovered over the Baitzes for our sins, and by extension so many of us who tacitly or not, bolster the status-quo.

Tell a story. Tell it until it makes sense.

I also wanted to be cool. I wanted to be a cool writer but sort of James Coburn in a Mercedes convertible driving up the Pacific Coast Highway – I was so stupid, I thought writers were like fucking movie stars. (To explain, I had, in my exile in Durban, been voracious about American movies -- to try and understand the place I was in love with from afar – I had seen a picture called The Last of Sheila which was about Hollywood movie people on a glamorous yacht in the Mediterranean, and a murder. It was written by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth and gave me the entirely wrong impression of what life was like in the ‘business’. Like, everyone was walking around in cashmere turtlenecks smoking and drinking and fornicating all day and looking like a million bucks.  I could not wait to go back to LA and start my life so I could move to Malibu and join ‘my people’.So. I am no radical, more like some French petit-Bourgeoisie ‘intellectual’, addicted to his comforts, his croissants and pillows and shit, all the while trying to make the world a little better through its cultural life, but mostly trying to make my own life a little better by making things to be shared.  But cursed. I fight these curses by writing, but there are a lot of ghosts whispering, and a lot of spirits hovering. You cannot be comfortable in this life. There is just too much that is wrong with it. And every day I am reminded of that.  So, the story of being cursed made me a writer. It is the subject also of the novel I owe FSG. What does it mean to be cursed?

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

A:  The theatre is changing. Up at the Ojai Playwrights Conference this year, plays by women, young people, young writers of color, more voices, not just people like me – no more plays by brittle gay playwrights of a certain age like me  -  please God, - we who said it all, we fucking said it! We need to go away. I am sort of aiming for a complete erasure of myself, so that all is left is a ghost. The ghost of people like me.

I always nod ‘yes’ when I read the answers of other playwrights to this query on this blog – ‘the money problem’, the accessibility problem. BUT when I see the preponderance of voices whose American, black, Muslim and/or trans experience are being explored on stage in ways that give voice to the spiritual ‘Actual’, I am heartened.

Other perpetual conundrums: How does theatre strike a balance and remain politically engaged without lecturing audiences, most of whom already understand exactly the problems of our time and their role in them.

All MFA’s in playwriting MUST be free, full-ridesPeriod.

You can’t expect a playwright to go out into the world owing seven hundred billion dollars.

Nope. Doesn’t work.  Juilliard and Yale  are on the right track, giving full rides, damn it; its unethical to saddle young playwrights with debt to that extent.  Once upon a time a playwright could workshop a play regionally and then have a production in say Seattle and then do it in NY. That was how playwrights received a practical education; learning on our feet. But the new play programs regionally have been underfunded for a while, which is starting to change. I want young playwrights to be unburdened by money issues, I want them to be able to live, to have spaghetti dinners and cheap red wine and talk all night and drink and smoke and write in furious bursts without having some ghastly job at some Dickensian law firm in order to pay off ludicrous college loans. I want it be less of a profession and more of an adventure. And one open to people regardless of their ability to pay for it. That goes for actors and playwrights, directors, designers and audiences.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Playwrights: Albee, Stoppard, Churchill, Wally Shawn, David Hare and John Guare. Mr. Pinter. People who married craft to ideas that sailed out over the stage and into the audience, people who write from both passion and intellectual perspective, who dispense with the obvious, whose ambitions remain constant and huge throughout their lives, playwrights who don’t give up.  Those folks have never given up! 

The organizers: Andre Bishop at Lincoln Center for loving the American theatre so much, for loving the sound of playwright’s words, and being a precise critic of those words and the order in which they are placed. Same for Bob Falls in Chicago at the Goodman, as well the late lamented Martha Lavey at Steppenwolf, heroes who worked hard to make plays resonate within their communities. My late friend and mentor Gordon Davidson, who turned the Mark Taper Forum into a kind of mecca for new play development for three decades. My best friend and ex-partner Joe Mantello for remaining rigorously committed to the poetry and musicality of theatre and for still caring about new plays, and stretching them, forming them, and working as hard as he does.  (His work on The Humans by Steven Karam was inseparable from the event of the play.) He pushed me harder than any director had ever done when we did Other Desert Cities together. Mike Nichols for the exquisite manner in which he loved actors, how he knew that the thing they offered was devastatingly intimate, and virtually impossible. He taught me that I wasn’t a complete freak for loving actors as much as I do, and in fact, assured me that it was one of the main things that kept him coming back. 

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

A:  Keep your overhead low and your ambitions impossibly high.  Don’t get an undergraduate degree in theatre, for Christ’s sake, if you must get a degree, get one in art history or the study of leeches and macro-economics. Anything but plays. 

Also start a company with your friends, and don’t look to the establishment to give you permission to make plays. Fuck the gate keepers.

Embrace failure. It’s the best way to learn. I never learn anything from the plays that work. Just that it took a lot of work to make them work.  But failures – crash sites – they teach you so much.  And sometimes the lesson is just ‘do it again the same way but better.’

Q:  When not writing on a computer, what's your go-to paper and writing utensil? When on computer, what's your font?

A:  Font? Why is this even – never mind.

Courier final draft is my font,  and I like these Kaweko sport fountain pens with blue Japanese ink, and these Japanese thin-points felt tips called Le Pen. I buy Smithson journals of various sizes and write and draw stupid things in them, like lists of reasons to live or a drawing of a donkey or doodles of Donald Trump. Lists of books to read. Nine arguments against suicide, that sort of shit.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Up at Ojai, at the playwrights’ conference, I saw thrilling, stunning exciting new plays; J.C Lee’s What You Are, and a new play by the mesmerizing Sam Hunter, called Greater Clements.  J.C. is a vivid, probing and brave playwright with a voracious hunger for truth. He’s funny and dear as well. The play deals in the end-stages of white privilege, working class aspirations and race, all somewhere in the Central Valley of California; Didion country. The reading of that play was terrifying, and left me exhilarated and excited to see the piece mounted fully. Greater Clements is about an abandoned mining town in rural Idaho, but its also is about the same broken dreams that swirl around J.C.’s play. America is dying and changing, evolving, killing, cannibalizing and resurrecting, a cruel place with acts of kindness, an idealistic place whose idealism is at times simply the reflex of a corpse. America as forest fire.  Sam is serious, questioning and something holy lives in him, a kind of grace, coupled with agonizing empathy. Another younger playwright, Korde Tuttle was inspired by the Sandra Bland case in Texas – an African American woman who died in police custody after a routine traffic stop, which was anything but. The play, Graveyard shift, has a burning poetry to it, not earthbound or polemicist but odd and terrifying, living in a place where reality no longer contains theatrical events. I loved these plays in particular, as well as Will Arbery’s workshop production of Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, which also could not be bound by naturalism and seemed to be like a long William Carlos Williams poem set to music, even as it explored jobs being lost and free-floating anxiety destroying people’s lives and the collective unconscious. These are plays that all explore end-stage capitalism and the endless mystery of being human, and one should look out for them. Really. I don’t know where those plays will live but they will live. These are playwrights who care about who and what we are, about why we are what we are, they are generous, and steeped in agony and yearning, I loved their work.

Finally, a plug for myself? My own Vicuna & The American Epilogue opens at The Mosaic Theatre in Washington DC, in early November. It is a deeply flawed play, but an attempt at understanding ‘conditions on the ground’ in our ghoulish political era, and to project what the end-game of all this hell is. It’s a play about how we die by the sword of our own complicity. I still live in apartheid era South Africa and always will, despite wanting to feel like James Coburn in a Mercedes on the PCH in Malibu. The PCH closes frequently due to landslides and earthquakes.

It will of course end up in the Pacific.

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