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Eric Simonson

by Beth Herstein

Also see our recent interview with Terence Blanchard

Eric Simonson
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. You don't have to be a basketball fan to know those names, for by now they are part of American lore. For years in the 1970s and 1980s, the pair dominated first college and then professional basketball. On the surface, their personalities were about as different as they could get: Magic was charming, gregarious, a partier who loved the ladies; and Bird was laconic, even unfriendly, his personal life a closed door. Then, too, there was the matter of race, Magic being black and Bird being white during the era of busing and the concomitant racial conflict.

But when you scratch the surface, according to playwright Eric Simonson, whose Magic/Bird has just opened on Broadway, you'll find that the similarities outweigh the differences, and relate to the athletes' inner core, to the qualities and values that matter most. Also, to them, it was talent rather than the color of their skin that mattered. Their mutual respect, as well as their shared sense of competition, the similarities of their backgrounds, and their shared love of the game developed in them a surprising, but deep, friendship. This friendship, and how it came to be, is at the heart of Simonson's new play.

When the play commences, Magic has just learned, in 1991, that he is HIV positive, and it ends with his and Bird's appearance as part of the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics Games. Between, it chronicles the trajectory of both their careers and their friendship—which, as Simonson portrays it, are inextricably intertwined. Recently I spoke with Simonson by phone about the show and his own career.

Beth Herstein:  Can you tell me a little about your relationship with Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, how it's nurtured you and what it means to you?

Eric Simonson:  Being a company member is like being part of a family, except you kind of get taken in and with family you're born into it. So, maybe the best analogy is that it's like being in a tribe. The people you work with there know your strengths and your faults, and a very strong tie [develops between you] ... Every year we have a reunion, where everyone comes in if they can. There's a big fundraising gala and our annual ensemble meeting, and we all see the play that happens to be playing there at the time. You get to see everybody together. For most people, it's like you never left. You just pick up where you left off.

I started out with Steppenwolf in the artistic office, as an associate artistic director. I got to direct a lot of shows in Chicago, and they gave me a lot of really great chances. I learned to direct a show professionally.

BH:  You have talked about segueing from acting and directing into playwriting, indicating that you started writing when you saw that there were shows you wanted to be written. You also said that some of your friends were starting to write plays and that this inspired you.

ES:  One of the first of my friends to write a play was Scott McPherson, who wrote Marvin's Room. I knew other people who'd written plays, but he was the first to write a really good play. [Simonson directed McPherson's first play, Till the Fat Lady Sings, at Chicago's Lifeline Theatre in 1987.] He and I were working on [his first show] together, as he wrote it, scene by scene. It helped solidify my understanding of the playwriting process.

The first play I wrote was an adaptation of Bang the Drum Slowly [which was first produced in Evanston in 1991]. Because I worked from the novel, I already had the dialogue and the arc of the narrative there for me. That taught me a lot about structure.

The turning point for me was working with Ntozake Shange [with whom he and Joseph Shabalala co-authored the play Nomathemba in 1995]. Also, I learned a lot about collaborating with Jeff Hatcher [with whom Simonson wrote the plays Work Song: Three Views of Frank Lloyd Wright, and Louder Faster]. When working with them I might say that a scene is kind of thin, and they return to the table top and write a few lines and give them to me. What I'd thought was that playwrights would go into a room and think about it for a couple of days, do a draft after that. That was a huge part of making playwriting more .. democratic, like maybe I can do this. What I learned in writing plays, sort of by rote, is that the most time consuming part of the writing process comes before you write the first line of dialogue. The research that you do and thinking about the back story and character, what the play might look like—all that happens before I write the play.

BH:  When you write a play about a real person, how you create a balance between the things you can't make up and the things you can?

ES:  There are some things, for example, that Lombardi said, that I had to include, like, "Winning isn't everything, it is the only thing." That's a huge help, it takes away the part of my process—takes the ball out of my hand. Character and back story, I don't have to worry about. But in addition to what's real and documented about who these characters are, I have to give myself permission to invent things that may not have happened, but that capture the essence of the relationship or an event.

Kevin Daniels and Tug Coker
BH:  Having seen and enjoyed Lombardi as well as Magic/Bird, I couldn't help but notice how differently they are structured. Can you talk a bit about why you made the choices you did?

ES:  When I discussed this play with [the producing team of] Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser I said that Lombardi felt like a football game, structurally. I wanted to make this more like a basketball game, structurally—filled with fast breaks and changes of possession. I'd also written at least a couple of plays that are like this, with a bunch of scenes in a short period of time, as short as 20 seconds and as long as 10 minutes. So it's a familiar style for me. I also was very aware that people who saw Lombardi were going to be seeing this, and I wanted to give them something a little different.

BH:  With both shows, also, you had the benefit of working with strong casts and producing great ensemble work. How was the cast selected? Was it a collaborative process?

ES:  Isn't this cast great? It was all [director] Thomas Kail. He's a very smart guy and he has an instinct for not just picking a person who's talented but figuring out which person would be the best person in this role and the best working with these other people. So, he's looking at a bunch of different things. It was a long casting process. We cast this show pretty much one by one, with long stretches of time between casting one person and the next.

BH:  This is part of a series that Ponturo and Kirmser have envisioned—a series of sports plays. It seems like an exciting project in that it has the potential to draw people who know sports more than they know theater, and to broaden the audience for theater in the process. Do you plan to work on more plays in this series?

ES:  I'm not sure. A good story is a good story. The first play I ever wrote, Bang the Drum Slowly, was set in the world of baseball. I'm a sucker for sports films. The thing about good sports stories and sports films, though, is that they're not only about sports. Sports provides a good template for a story because everyone knows what has happened already. Often, however, the story turns out to be about something completely different than what they expected.

Tug Coker and Peter Scolari
BH:  Magic/Bird is a good example of that. It's not just about sports but about teamwork and friendship and competition. Things to which people can relate in a more general sense. As for the friendship between Magic and Bird, I read the book Magic Johnson wrote after he was diagnosed with HIV ("My Life," with co-author William Novak). He wrote that he and Larry Bird were in a class by themselves in basketball, and there was a bond in part because they were the only two who could understand what they were going through.

ES:  People in a stratosphere all by themselves. They were the only two who'd reached that level of stardom in their profession. They were like twins, in a way, only one was black and one was white. That theme was extremely important to me. You see two people you would expect to be completely different, and you discover that they're completely the same. I wanted to take that idea and extend it to society as a whole.

BH:  Race definitely factors into their story, though the two of them were able to transcend it. I liked the way you addressed the issue of race, without being polemical. Magic Johnson broke a lot of barriers, simply by virtue of his charm and his gifts.

In addition to these plays about sports icons, you have written about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, another iconic figure. What has drawn you to these characters?

ES:  Lombardi and Wright have more in common than Lombardi and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. What drew me to those subjects was Wisconsin, where I grew up. That's where I started from, but ultimately I was interested in what is was about both those personalities that made them iconoclastic. What was it about Frank Lloyd Wright's designs that drew people to him? What was his personality? How did he get to be who he was? The same thing with Lombardi. Both Wright and Lombardi were hated and beloved in equal measure.

BH:  The NFL was a producer of Lombardi and the NBA is a producer of Magic/Bird. Can you talk about the collaboration?

ES:  The NBA and the NFL haven't put money into the projects. But they offer in kind support. Also, we're offered access to the film footage that you see, which is very important in telling the story.

Another important aspect of the NBA's support is that Magic and Bird wouldn't be involved unless the NBA was involved. Their participation was essential. However, people should know that the NBA has not dictated anything to us. They've had readings, but the notes they've given to us, if they give any notes, are things like, "You know, that score wasn't 107-105, it was 109-105." Very nit-picky details about the history. They want us to get the history right. My intention with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson was not to expose them as broken men, the Willy Lomans of the world. I love their story and I admire these people. Also, I have a curiosity about what makes them who they are, and about how these two people who were rivals became best friends. They know that at the start, and they have not been involved artistically at all.

BH:  I'm sure everyone asks you this, but I have to ask. What was it like meeting and working with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird? I know they didn't collaborate artistically, but you were able to call them to ask them for factual details.

ES:  They are really great guys, and really down to earth too. And they are both very, very tall.

BH:  What else should Talkin' Broadway readers know about Magic/Bird?

ES:  We know the sports fans will come and see the play and love it. My feeling is that theater people are used to seeing a certain kind of play on Broadway. I hope they keep an open mind when they come and see this. It doesn't have some of the [elements] that, say Clybourne Park and Other Desert Cities have. I love Lombardi, and I love this project because they make theater more democratic. I'm a huge populist. I want more people to see theater, and I don't want to make it feel like every time you go to see theater you are taking a class at a graduate school. I think it should be as much fun as possible. That's what I try to do with everything.

Magic/Bird by Eric Simonson at the Longacre Theatre with Kevin Daniels, Tug Coker, Deirdre O'Connell, Peter Scolari, Francois Battiste, Robert Manning Jr., Annie-Marie Cusson, Gregory Jones, Anthony Holiday. Ticket and performance information at Telecharge.

Photos: Joan Marcus

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