What's New on the Rialto
By Jonathan Frank
Craig Lucas is a man of many hats: a playwright who recently won an Obie
for Small Tragedy and whose play Reckless recently opened on
Broadway, screenwriter, director for both stage and screen, Associate
Artistic Director of a major regional theater, and most recently editor
for an anthology of short plays.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Craig ...
Craig: Thanks... [phone rings] I'm sorry, the phone is ringing off the hook for reasons I'll share in a moment [takes other call]
I elected to emigrate to Canada, which I have been planning to do for some time ...
JF: I was going to jokingly ask you about that, as I read in another interview that you were going to emigrate to Canada if Bush got re-elected.
CL: Well, somebody picked up on the matter in Toronto and it appeared in an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail. So I have been getting phone calls and e-mails from every possible news source in Canada. You would think that I was ...
JF: ... Alec Baldwin finally fulfilling his promise, perhaps?
CL: (Laughs) Yes. It's strange. I've been planning it for some time and hired an emigration lawyer two years ago, but I was waiting to see if my fellow citizens would rouse themselves from their delusion. But they didn't! And as a gay person I feel endangered. I feel that if the laws that are proposed to discriminate against gays are enacted and if the economy collapses to the degree that it did in Germany after World War I, which the reckless economic policies of George Bush could engender, that gay people are in deep shit. Also, I want to go somewhere where I can marry and have universal health care.
JF: Is the current political climate what influenced your latest play, Singing Forest, which combines such disparate elements as psychoanalysis, Nazism, consumerism, gay culture, celebrity, phone sex and Starbucks?
CL: You know, I'm an autodidact and I immerse myself in material that interests me. I started reading the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein and I became very interested in what happened to the artists and intellectuals in Vienna during the Nazi reign, when they experienced a kind of 'brain drain.' As a result, Hollywood became overrun with immigrating artists like Billy Wilder and Brecht and Weill, and the sciences saw the immigration of Einstein and a raft of scientists fleeing the Nazis, which I fear is what is going to happen to this country, only this time in reverse.
JF: Do you have a timeline for your emigration?
CL: It's a long process that involves several years of residence there. I have many commitments here for the next six months: Singing Forest opens in New Haven in January, then I'm going to a film festival for the opening of the movie version of The Dying Gaul, then I come back to New York for The Light In The Piazza's opening at Lincoln Center, after which I may be directing a play Off-Broadway. So it wouldn't be until next summer before my boyfriend and I could sell our house, find a place to live in Canada, and begin the qualification process for residency.
JF: And other than that, this has been a great year for you. You won an Obie for Small Tragedy and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Screenplay for The Secret Lives of Dentists, and Reckless just opened on Broadway.
CL: I don't quite know how to enjoy it. You know, I've always experienced life as a mixture of great joy and great sorrow. I was just talking to somebody about Reckless and I remembered that I was writing it while the first of my friends were dying of AIDS. Prelude to a Kiss, which is really the only commercial success I have had until now, opened when my friend and lover Peter Evans was dying in California. I left the day after it opened to be with him when he died.
JF: Singing Forest is going to be produced at Long Wharf Theater, correct?
CL: Yes: January 5th through February 6th of next year, and Bart Sher [Intiman's Artistic Director] is going to direct it. We had the premier in Seattle at Intiman Theater over the summer the things that worked we were very happy with and what didn't ... was very clear! (Laughs)
JF: I'm curious about your experience making the film version of The Dying Gaul, given the fact that it involves a gay writer battling a Hollywood producer who wants him to 'straighten up' his work for mainstream audiences. Did life imitate art at all during the making of it?
CL: When I wrote the stage version of The Dying Gaul, it was during a period for me of great angst, when I was dealing with Hollywood studios: they didn't like me because I didn't fit into their 'square hole' and I had too much of a mind of my own. I couldn't give them the kind of material they wanted - I wish I could have, but I wasn't their kind of writer. (Laughs) But making the film version of The Dying Gaul was the probably the most joyful experience I ever had. I loved it! I found that I had a talent I didn't know I had: taking care of all those actors and editors and sound editors and everybody on the crew. It was like being ... it was like being let out of prison!
JF: Was it the first time you had ever directed a movie?
CL: It was. I had been on the shoot of many movies and Norman René [who directed Longtime Companion, Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless and Blue Window] liked to have me on set and in the editing room sometimes, so I was familiar with the nuts and bolts of movie making. Then in 1999, I started directing theater and discovered I liked it. I love actors and nothing makes me happier than being in a rehearsal room with actors. (Laughs) I told my boyfriend once that it was the closest one could get to being in an orgy while remaining clothed, because you are in a room with all these interesting, sexy, smart, talented people and you are all collectively sharing intimacy and creating something that is a consensual act (laughs). And making a movie is essentially being in a state of constant rehearsal! You get up in the morning with a scene you have to capture. You rehearse it, and filming is part of the rehearsal process, because you are constantly changing it and rethinking and reshooting it and adjusting it. I loved doing it so much.
JF: Who's in the movie?
CL: Campbell Scott is playing Jeffrey the producer, Patricia Clarkson plays his wife Elaine, Peter Sarsgaard plays the screenwriter Robert, and then there is a whole array of wonderful New York actors playing the smaller roles: Robin Bartlett is in it, Linda Emond, Elizabeth Marvel, Bill Camp, Kelli O'Hara, Thomas Jay Ryan ... lots of really great actors.
JF: I just heard that Kelli O'Hara has been upgraded to the lead in The Light In The Piazza.
CL: Yes, she's going to play Clara. This time around, Adam Guettel was very keen on having Clara appear to be a picture perfect, magazine idealization of an American girl abroad in 1963. Kelli came in and read the whole part and sang the whole score and was incredible. She plays the part in a very different way from her predecessor, who was equally astonishing and captivating, but in different ways.
JF: If memory serves, that more closely matches the movie.
CL: I've never seen the movie, believe it or not. I had heard mixed things about it and I decided I did not want someone else's interpretation of the material running through my head. I didn't even know there was a movie, actually, when I started working on the show. Adam came to me and said that he had these songs, but had painted himself into a corner and wanted my feedback. He played me some of the score, which didn't have any lyrics except for one song, and I was bowled over by it! I told him he couldn't abandon the project because the music was heartbreaking ... it was some of the best theater music I had heard in a decade. So he invited me to work with him on the project and I helped clarify and adjust some problems with structure and point of view. When I suggested that the show was, among other things, a comedy of manners, it started to catch fire for me.
Adam is ideal as a colleague and collaborator ... he knows so much about the musical form, and I've learned so much working with him. He loves the process of collaborating, which is funny because Stephen Sondheim had said for years what a great joy collaborating on a musical can be. And I couldn't quite picture it being so to this incredible extent until this happened. It's kind of like having sex (laughs).
JF: So we're back to that, eh?
CL: Well, I kind of see the world in those terms. It's a good reason to go on living ... Anyway, Adam and I are currently looking for another project to work on.
JF: The Light In The Piazza opens in April, right?
CL: Yes. April 14th at Lincoln Center.
JF: It's about time that you are returning to the musical genre, since you got your start acting in the original production of Sweeney Todd as well as writing and performing in Marry Me A Little. You haven't you worked on any musicals since then, have you?
CL: No I haven't. I grew up on them and loved them. Then I became a musical snob towards the genre (laughs) The thing is, I'm not terribly interested in writing the type of musical that has been heralded lately. I love everything, no matter how silly, but I don't want to write a musical that is essentially a series of sketches: a Hasty Pudding Show like The Producers. I don't think it would play to my strong suit; I'm not funny that way ... my humor comes from a different vein.
JF: Do you miss performing?
CL: I don't. I was always very nervous on stage and not a terribly natural performer. I had a big brash voice but it wasn't particularly in tune.
And I'm a big girl ...
JF: No, not you!
CL: I am a big girl, sir. Not that big girls shouldn't be on stage ... I love big girls (laughs). But I was extremely self-conscious. I would love someone to invite me to sing for a one-night show, or ask me to do a number in a tribute ... I think it would be fun to do something like that before my voice completely vanishes. But right now I think my strongest contributions are writing and directing.
JF: You're also an Associate Artistic Director at Intiman Theatre in Seattle.
CL: Yeah, and I'm doing that largely because of Bart Sher. He's a world-class artist and one of the few American directors who asks the question "what do I want to express with this play?"
JF: What exactly is your job as Associate Artistic Director?
CL: I feel that my job is mainly to make sure that Bart Sher has enough juicy material to challenge him and to help pick out the rest of Intiman's season. I'm in the midst of writing an adaptation of The Three Sisters for Bart to direct next summer. I've also directed some shows there: The Light In The Piazza and Loot.
CL: No. Mark Glubke [senior editor for the book] approached the various agents and schools for playwrights seeking submissions for an anthology of one act plays and got about 140 submissions, all of which I read. It was thrilling! I took a month off after Small Tragedy opened Off-Broadway and went to Belize, sat on the beach outside a friend's house, and read the plays. And it was so heartening to find that there are so many good writers out there! It was like, "My God! Who are all these people?!?" The plays that I chose ended up covering a variety of topics. Some are intensely political, some are silly and whimsical, but all have a lot of meat to them.
JF: I love the fact that the twenty plays that you included in the anthology cover such a wide spectrum. There's everything from intense psychological realism to plays whose meaning will change upon every reading, depending on one's mood. My favorite was All We Can Handle by Andrew Dainoff, which is essentially a 34-page monologue.
CL: Isn't that one absolutely shattering?
JF: It didn't go where I was expecting it to, and in fact I was a bit turned off by it at first as I didn't think I liked the mindset or the journey on which it seemed to be taking me. But it ended up being one of the best plays I've read in a long time.
CL: I read it on the beach and I found it so truthful and the kind of a narrative that you rarely see. I don't know who Andrew Dainoff is but man-oh-man is he talented. I read it to my boyfriend because I was concerned about its length and just what you said. I read it out loud to him and he couldn't speak: he was crying too hard. So I knew that I had to include it.
JF: This anthology is the first in a proposed series, correct?
CL: Yes. I think they want to do one a year, with a different playwright editing each volume. I'm so glad, because finding those unpublished writers was such an incredible experience. I was blown away by anotn dudley [who wrote Davy and Stu]. There were people that I knew before, like Neena Beber [who contributed two plays: A Body of Water and Help] and Scott Organ [China and The Mulligan]. I just love them, and their plays are so well crafted. Joan Ackermann is someone whose work I have always found to be completely delightful. I love her play The Batting Cage and think it is one of the finest American plays. And that play she contributed for the book about auditions [The Second Beam] made me so happy! It was just heartening to find so many writers creating work of that quality.
JF: I was surprised that you didn't include one of your plays in the anthology. Have you ever written short plays?
CL: A couple of my short plays are included in an anthology called What I Meant Was, but that style of writing has not been a focus for me. I have written perhaps ten one act plays ... and some of them are better than others (laughs).
JF: Well, I can't wait to see what this year brings to you.
CL: You and me both!
Back Stage Book of New American Short Plays 2005:
New American Short Plays 2005: 12 Plays, 12 Fresh New Voices
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