Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Interview with Playwright Donald Margulies

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies' Coney Island Christmas started previews at the Geffen November 20 with a scheduled opening set for November 28. This work, commissioned by the Geffen, will honor  past artistic director Gilbert Cates, who passed away last year, and promises to be very special. Margulies, who is renowned for Dinner with Friends, Time Stands Still, Collected Stories, Sight Unseen and Brooklyn Boy among other plays, recently sat down to chat about the play, playwriting and the writers who have influenced his work. Margulies most definitely agrees that with the recent devastation to Coney Island by hurricane Sandy, audiences will look at his new play from a slightly different angle.

Tell me about Coney Island Christmas.

It's a huge cast, which is so delightful, ranging in age from 10 to 82. There's a great grandmother...well, you'll see it. The origin of this play began as a conversation I had with Gil Cates, my late friend...I guess it was about three years ago. He called me at home in Connecticut and said, "How'd you like to write us a Christmas show?" I was kind of bemused by such an offer. I thought I was a curious choice for such a thing. I think he did it because he knew I would not write your typical Christmas show, and that's what his intention was. He wanted something that would be more surprising, not at all along the canon of Christmas Carols and the like...which I took as a very interesting challenge. I said to Gil, "If I'm going to write you a Christmas play, you know it's going to be a Jewish Christmas play." And he said, "Great!" I had no idea what I was going to do along the lines of a Jewish Christmas play or even any Christmas play. Thankfully, I remembered a story by the great short story writer Grace Paley that I had read in high school 40 years ago called The Loudest Voice, which is about a Jewish girl named Shirley Abromowitz in Depression era Brooklyn. She's chosen by her teacher to be Jesus in the school play...this nice Jewish girl. It's really about that, that is the event of the play. Once I remembered that short story, I figured out how to do it onstage that seemed very right.

So you've changed the story a lot.

I've changed it considerably, because it's a very short story. It's about 8 pages long. And there's no real conflict in the story. It's a wonderful premise that I have taken from the story. I was inspired by Grace Paley and I've opened it up considerably.

Can you tell us a little of the conflict you've created? Give us a little preview.

 I will tell you this, within the play there are two school pageants that are performed...that are major set pieces of the play, but I don't want to spoil it too much by revealing too much.

This idea came about as a result of a request. Where do most of the ideas come from for your plays?

You know, it's very mysterious. There's no one way that inspiration strikes me. My plays, my original plays, not plays that are even loosely based on something,  tend to emanate from a very personal kind of visceral place, which is not to say that the others, the ones that are adaptations, don't become that. But that's not where they start out. So Dinner with Friends came out of the phenomenon of seeing so many friends' marriages break up. The Model Apartment came out of fascination with second generation Holocaust survivors. They come out of certain obsessions that won't go away, that can only find their way out through exploration in a play.

Do you use autobiographical elements?

Oh no. Increasingly less. As I get older, I have frankly less to draw from.

So the married couple that stayed together in Dinner with Friends was not you and your wife?

It reflected me and my wife and our position at that time, but the circumstances were different. The couple that breaks up is an amalgam of several friends who went through that. So, no, it's never as bold as that, putting myself onstage. I wouldn't do that. I don't recommend it. You always have to reinvent what you know, make it something else.

You had a flashback scene in Dinner with Friends. It went from present to past and then back to present again, interrupting the through line. Why did you employ that?

Sight Unseen plays around with time more than Dinner with Friends does. Dinner with Friends is pretty linear. When I finished the play, I realized the way that I had structured it hadn't permitted a scene in which all four characters appeared. And I felt that in order to really complete the story of these two couples, these friendships, I needed to create a scene in which the four of them were together. That became the first scene of the second act that begins twelve years earlier, when Gabe and Karen introduce Tom and Beth, which becomes obviously a fateful meeting.

Talk a little bit about conflict and emotional tension in a play, which you handle so well.

I've always been interested in behavior and in subtext, in things that are not said, that are expressed through behavior...and through language. In order for there to be drama, there's got to be conflict. And in order for there to be conflict, the stakes have got to be very high for the characters. Even if things are not exceedingly high in our eyes, we are seeing how important it is to those characters, and in seeing that, we identify. We can all replace equivalents for people's different experiences that we see onstage and plug in our own autobiography. So in order for there to be drama there's got to be conflict...and there was no conflict incidentally in Grace Paley's short story. It was all very benign. I created conflict.
You empathize with both sides of an issue. As in Collected Stories, neither woman is an angel. It is up to the audience to make up their own minds as to what is right. Is that correct?

That's true of everything I write. And this may be parenthetical, but I give an assignment in my playwriting class at Yale, after they read the play Aunt Dan and Lemon by Wallace Shawn, which has at its center a really shocking monologue essentially about fascism. I have my students write a monologue from the point of view of someone they find reprehensible. But they're charged with: Do not condescend to these people. Do not turn them into a joke. Really get inside the head of somebody who is not like you. Try to figure out why do they maintain that point of view? Do it with as much integrity and dignity for the character as possible. That is something I live by. In creating arguments onstage you really have to totally empathize with people who you may not agree with. As in Collected Stories, in a balanced argument in its presentation, the audience's sympathies will shift from moment to moment and from statement to statement. "She's right. Oh no, she's right". That's the way it should be. No one is a villain. There is no Eve Harrington in Collected Stories. That's a misrepresentation of the play. It's not that. It's really a love story about these platonic women. Platonic mother/daughter surrogates.

Screenplays that you have written, do you keep them pretty much the same as the plays?

I've written three adaptations of my plays, two of which have been made into movies. Dinner with Friends was made into an HBO movie and Collected Stories was made into a PBS movie. I also wrote Sight Unseen as a screenplay. That play was my breakthrough in 1991. I tend not to completely reconceive the plays...there are fewer lines of dialogue only because film, the camera doesn't tolerate language as much as you can use it onstage. Sight Unseen, because it has so many different time elements gave me the freedom to jump around a lot, which is something you can readily do on film. The structure of Sight Unseen is probably the most different from a play that I have adapted.

What else have you been working on besides Coney Island Christmas?

I always have several things going on at once in addition to teaching, which takes up a lot of time and energy. I do love it. I'm working on another new play called The Country House for the Manhattan Theatre Club, a commission also. I'm working on the book of a musical, which I'm not at liberty to discuss. I'm also working on a screenplay for an independent feature about the writer David Foster Wallace. That's pretty much what I have on my plate right now. There are also a couple of revivals that are being talked about. It's a very nice thing to live to see. Even though I'm still relatively young, I've been around a long time (he laughs) and it's very nice to see the work being rediscovered.

Do you have any mentors? What writers inspired you?

I would say Thornton Wilder, specifically Our Town and Chekhov inspired me. I've always admired his interest in psychology. His plays are kind of deceptive in that way, because it seems like there's not much that happens in them. But there are all these subterranean turmoils that are dealt with in Chekhov that I really identify with and draw inspiration from. My new play The Country House is a kind of homage to Chekhov.
I'm drawn to real identifiable behaviors...Pinter's Betrayal is a great play. What an example of economy in writing! It's exquisitely written.

Many would agree that Donald Margulies is an exquisite writer as well. See his Coney Island Christmas now previewing at the Geffen and opening on Wednesday November 28. It will play through December 30.

(photo credit: Don Grigware)

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