With the 2011 edition of the TONY AWARDS almost upon us, I had a chance recently to sit down and discuss a wide ranging array of theatre issues with playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose smash hit "The Motherf**ker With The Hat" is nominated for Best Play.
Mr. Guirgis was in town to see The Road Less Traveled Production's (RLT) highly regarded presentation of his play "THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT " and to attend a writers workshop and a benefit for the theatre.
RLT has succeeded in bringing some big names into town: Alec Baldwin, Eric Bogosian, Edward Albee and others, with A.R. Gurney coming up. But none have been a hotter item than Stephen Guirgis.
On a very wet and stormy Saturday morning in May we met on the stage at RLT's theatre in the Market Arcade. The stage was arranged for that day's performance of JUDAS. The set was a gloomy, brooding affair, an antechamber of Hell, which matched the weather outside well. ( Designer David Butler's set, by the way, just won the Best Set Design Artie award, Buffalo's own version of the Tony's.)
In from the deluge came RLT's Artistic Director Scott Behrend with his guest, Mr. Guirgis, who fairly lumbered up the aisle to the stage to join me. He was dressed all in black ( my favorite color ) and was immediately a warm and inviting presence. Unassuming and equipped with a coca-cola, Mr. Guirgis was ready to talk.
No topic was off the table, and although Mr. Guirgis was at time cautious, mostly he was just thoughtful. One could hear the wheels spinning as he formulated his responses, but they were genuine answers, not at all contrived.
His had been a long road to this pinnacle, and while he was appreciative of the attention, actually somewhat astonished by it all, I learned that his goal was always to remain true to his voice.
We discussed how success effects experimental theatre, how Mr. Guigis came to write and how his writing methodology works, the season on Broadway, a little theological history and some current geo-politics, a perfect rainy day conversation.
NEG (Neil E Garvey): Welcome to Buffalo, may I call you Stephen ?
SAG ( Stephen Adly Guirgis ): Yes, sure.
NEG: There is some question as to how we pronounce your last name... "Gear-Gess " ?
SAG: That's right... but nobody knows how to say my last name.
NEG: And that's Egyptian ?
SAG: Yeah, my dad was from Egypt, my mom Irish-American,
NEG: Well...all that explains it, all the great writers were Irish.
NEG: So, congratulations on all the Tony nominations. Quite an accomplishment.
SAG: Yes, you know, it's a bit surreal. But we're happy to be there, it was unexpected but really cool and I am happy for my friends in the cast.
NEG: There are a lot of connections to your theatre company, Labyrinth, which started back in the early 90's. What was the motivation for starting Labyrinth ?
SAG: I did not put Labyrinth together, but came in the second year. It started in '92, as an all Latin company, Latino Actor's Base, LAB . The genesis of the company was two-faceted, they wanted to start a gym for actors, a place where you could work out and just try stuff, and support each other, Secondly there was a new production of "Death and The Maiden" in NY, it's a South American play but it was cast without any Latino actors. When the producers were asked why there were no Latino actors in the production they said they tried, but could not find any. So LAB was started in part to help them find Latino talent.
It was started by my friend John Ortiz, who I went to college with at Albany State. I was away in New Mexico the year they started LAB and when I came back John asked me to join the company --- but it was all Latino, so John said I had to audition, and he told me it had to be something really good ( laughs ) --- so he kind of helped me through the door.
And it was a blessing in my life, I got there and all the people who I thought were the best actors were all in the one place and had all studied with William Esper. So I threw myself in fully for two and a half years with William Esper and we'd meet at the LAB Wednesday nights. We'd work out and do exercises and that was my life for a couple years.
At some point we decided to produce theatre but it was weird because nobody knew us, so you might get a play you really liked, but the playwright might be, like, "Well I don't know if I want to give you the play..." Or there might be a play you really liked but the director said " Well, I don't know if I can cast within the company ."
Pretty quickly we were thinking, let's just do it ourselves.
And so John Ortiz asked me if I'd write a play, just based on the fact that we were in theatre together, and at some point had taken a playwriting elective in college. So I wrote a little one-act --- and everybody laughed when it was funny and were quiet when it was serious and applauded when it was over, and from there all my friends insisted I keep writing.
NEG: So that was the genesis of your writing career.
SAG: Yeah, and then a few years later there was a play called "In Arabia We'd All Be Kings " and at that point Phil Hoffman ( Philip Seymour Hoffman ) had joined the company and he directed that. And we started to come into it a little bit. Then, the next play, "Jesus Hopped The 'A' Train", put a stamp on us.
NEG: As I was looking at the Labyrinth web-site, it kind of identifies itself as a multi-cultural group, with a really impressive roster of members. It seemed the beginning was a kind of an "out-sider " thing, and now, with the Tonys, the ultimate "insider " thing, I wonder, other than just the irony of that, is that the goal? Is that where all experimental theatre will eventually end up if it's good enough?
( One of those thoughtful pauses )
SAG: I think that we have, and that we probably always are, going to have and produce work that is a little bit off the mainstream... I mean our play is nominated for Tonys and is seen as a success, but that's not how it was seen a month ago...there was a big deal about the title and a lot of rumors we were going to close and all this stuff.
NEG: Ha ! I just re-read critic Ben Brantley's review of M-F in the New York Times, I can see the dilemma (about the title.)
SAG: So, of course you want to be successful, and when we started previews we had full houses every night, but a lot of them were heavily discounted and what we saw was that we were getting an audience we had never seen on Broadway before, it was like a real New York audience --- because we had Chris Rock in the play, and because of us, we had an audience from Park Avenue to Brooklyn - truly exciting -- people of all stripes sitting in the theater having an experience together and we all felt that if it had opened to bad reviews and closed on Sunday we would have been disappointed but we would have known that it was worth doing.
Honestly, I felt that way, even though I would have been crushed if it closed... so I guess to answer the question is that we want to try and do good work and this just happened. It wasn't written to go to Broadway. But Scott Rudin (a well known NY theatrical producer) called and said he thought this could have a larger audience, and we said "all right."
But the thing is that the rehearsal process, while you can't ignore in your head that you're going to Broadway, and when you're actually there you can't ignore it, but it's just like in the film " Hoosiers" when the basketball team is at the state championships and Gene Hackman has a tape measure to measure the height of the basketball hoop and the length of the foul line, and it's just like the gym back home --- and so were we in our rehearsal space. Rehearsal was just like any one of our other plays. The same problems to avoid and the same achievements to gain, remarkably the same process, but when you get to the theatre,(The Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre) it's a huge theatre and there's a lot more attention --- but if these actors didn't do the same thing they did in rehearsal downtown, the play would bomb. If I didn't try to do the same thing with the writing, it would bomb.
NEG: Well, maybe it speaks a little bit about the evolution of Broadway.
SAG: Maybe, I think it's a really exciting season, I saw "Jerusalem" I loved it, saw "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo", good people. Tony Kuschner's play and a lot of good plays were produced this year, so it's not lost on me that it is exciting to be a part of that year.
I did an interview with myself and Jez ( Jez Butterworth ) who wrote "Jerusalem" and Rajiv Joseph who wrote "Bengal Tiger" and they interviewed us together, we had never met each other. They had us meet at the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, it was cool to be there. All of us on Broadway for the first time. So when you're not staying up all night and wracking your head, it's kinda fun.
NEG: You started out with a humble beginning, writing a one-act, and JUDAS is anything but a one-act, and M-F runs about ninety minutes without an intermission. I have seen seven or eight plays this season with no intermission, I wonder, is that a new production paradigm ?
SAG: It just worked out that it was right for this production, At first we had an intermission, but then I cut a scene and we realized were at ninety minutes, and it worked. I know that audiences like the 90 minute play because they can get in and out, get dinner and so on, but I love a long play, "Jerusalem" had two intermissions and I loved it
NEG: This production of "JUDAS" runs two hours-forty-five with intermission, but there was nobody in the audience who mentioned the time, it moves right along.
SAG: That's an accomplishment. When we started "JUDAS" in rehearsal it was three hours and thirty minutes long, and we finally got it down to two-forty five, but this is a play that, when we did it, the reviews were very mixed, and I felt like I had failed my company and the public. I was in a real depression, and only when I was in the theatre around the actors would I try to act normal, I stopped leaving the house...
NEG: Really ? Based on the reviews ?
SAG: In part, but also we were rehearsing the play up until the night of the critics, so I was kind of burnt out. At least for me, I guess I had worked really hard and kinda crashed when the show opened and when it was smacked around, you kinda crash further, but also because I did so much of the writing in the home stretch that I felt I hadn't done justice to anything.
And then I was home one night and my phone rang around eleven o'clock and it was Playwright John Gaure (The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation). He looked my number up and called me. He'd just seen the play (JUDAS) and said some really nice things.
Slowly I started allow myself to go to the theatre and listen to people I respected say good things. I really feel that every time you write, you try to do the best you can, and I wanted to do the best I could, and I didn't think that I did.
It took a while, but because this play has generated more mail, more e-mail, more Facebook, more packages people send me, drawings, renderings production photos, music and letters, I learned something I had actually learned in the writing process but chose to forget. That's the fact that this play is out in the world and that's a good thing. Is it perfect ? No. Could I have done better ? Maybe. Every time I see the play I think, there's stuff... I wish I could take another whack at it. But what came back to me is that the play is good, and good that it's here and they do it all over the place.
NEG: Yes it is done all over, I suppose it should not be a surprise that you would get some pretty whacky responses, because of the religious content.
SAG: The religious people tend to really like this play. When it was done in London I got a call. "Would you do this radio program ?" I said sure. "It's tomorrow morning, you'll be debating the Bishop of .. subububbah. " I thought...oh I can't...but we got on the phone and the Bishop was, like ( spoken in a pretty good British accent): " I loved the play...quite lovely. " So there really wasn't any debate.
What I find is that people who are less open to religion or to even see these characters or this story as a metaphor for the discussion of something else ... those people who are less open are, not coincidentally, the ones who are less forgiving, less open to the material.
NEG: It's interesting you would say that. The night I attended JUDAS last week, it was a "talk-back" performance, and there was a priest in the audience who loved the play. The audience was overwhelming Catholic and the theological end of the play was really well received.
Ben Brantley makes reference to Mamet and even Shakespeare in your style of writing ( Stephen demurs ) --- yeah I know --- but really that's what I was thinking while watching JUDAS, the patter you had down was so much like Shakespeare. I am wondering though, at the length of the piece, even as it flies by, how does the editing process work for you? I saw an interview you did on You-Tube, about finding the voice of the characters, an opportunity to represent people that you could never be. How do the words come to you, and how do you decide what's wheat, what's chafe ?
SAG: That's kind of the whole thing right there.
NEG: It is, but you end up with a ninety minute piece or a two hour and fifty minute piece....
SAG: Yes. Well, I guess the first part of the answer is that the plays are stories where my writing always starts from the dialogue and the dialogue always comes from something inside of me --- whatever is keeping me up at night ---whatever is messing with me and I try to put that down on the page so I can work it out, so I can understand it. And the dialogue, if you're fortunate, you begin to overhear things in your head, and you write it down and follow it along. Where does that come from? I don't know. I think it's a communion, I don't think writing is something self-contained, it's a communion between you and something else.
As a kid I went to kindergarten up in Harlem, a white kid, not particularly tough or handsome, so finding a way to fit in was vital. And I ended up doing it, but by being funny, always trained myself to listen to what everyone else was saying and how they were saying it, so I could say it .... You know what I'm saying ?
And I think that's what happened, a child's survival mechanism gave me an ear for dialogue.
NEG: That's really interesting. Sorry to keep referencing Ben Brantley, but he wrote that whichever character has the best patter, is also the character who has the power. And JUDAS is a case study for that. It makes me wonder sometimes where those lines come from. It reminds me of the film "Shakespeare in Love" when young Shakespeare walks in the streets and overhears snippets of dialogue " A house divided against itself ..." But it seems to me that your material is more of an internal mechanism.
SAG: It is, but something of that kid's ear stays with you, every once in a while when you hear something interesting, it may come out in a script. But I think more than when I hear an interesting choice of words, I absorb, not the literal words, but the emotions underneath them. I absorb the emotion of people, which is the thing that gets filtered away and all of the sudden you're finding scenes and a character....and you think, where is that coming from ? And it's like, yeah that's me but that's filtered in from that guy on the subway six months ago.
But that's just the process of writing.
Then what goes ...
NEG: I'd love to see the stuff you cut out of JUDAS .
SAG: I think I posted one discarded scene on Facebook, it was called "Boaz The Assyrian Thief". You'd recognize the actor who did the part, and it was fall down funny every time he did it, but it did not further anything, so we had to cut it.
You learn that you have a finite amount of time to tell a story and some stories, like the story of Judas is much bigger than the story of Motherfucker, so it can be a little bit longer, but whatever it is, you have a finite amount of time to tell that story.
So that every minute on stage ultimately counts, because even if the audience is enjoying, enjoying and enjoying but they are enjoying bullshit, they don't get "Oh I'm enjoying bullshit, I'm going to pay for this later." But forty minutes later, when they're checking their watches and their ass starts to hurt a little bit, they don't even know, but you know, because you have to be moving the story forward at all times, and there has to be a story that you're telling and it has to go somewhere, and every scene you have is a piece of that puzzle.
This is stuff you learn as you go, you try to be as ruthless about taking out what doesn't move in that direction --- which doesn't mean you can't have some room for digression, but it has to move forward.
NEG: So would you do a lot of workshops ?
SAG: Usually a lot of readings, I'll listen to anybody if there's feedback, --- and if what you say is stupid I'll say "Yes, thank you". And if if what you say is smart I'll say "Yes, thank you." And I take what's good. I try to have readings every so often just to keep me energized, because I am the kind of person who, if I don't have to do something, if there's a way to avoid....but then I do a reading, actors get excited, audiences get excited and it reminds you that writing process is part of a community, but the act of writing is a solo venture.
NEG: One of the things that was interesting about JUDAS was, as much as the process was solitary, and there a spiritual component, thoughts which keep you up at night and so on, I was impressed with the theological basis and the historical research that was a part of JUDAS, things that I had never known before that I learned through the play. How do you find that process and how do you incorporate that into the dramatic work.
SAG: That was an ultimately rewarding process for me that was initially tortuous, I thought I would write this play because the story of Judas was where I started to part ways with the Catholic Church, I was about eight years old, and I didn't know it was OK to have different ideas. It messes with me.
So I thought I'd write a play about Judas, I thought, no one really writes a play about Judas...so I googled Judas and came up with twelve billion hits. Everybody and their mother and every art form has someone doing Judas. I was paralyzed and I knew I had to do research. I went on Amazon, bought every movie on Jesus. I even went back to my old parish and asked the pastor if we could talk. He recommended a younger priest, a Jesuit who might be better suited to this and that's how I met Father Jim Martin, who became the theological advisor and invaluable.
At first I went to see James Forbes, (Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr.) Pastor of Riverside Church, which is a big church, and pastor is a big position, and he gave me about an hour of his time. He was stunningly brilliant and I learned so much. I would ask him about stuff that always used to bother me, like Jesus said it's easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than to get into the kingdom of heaven - Why can't you be rich and go to heaven? And the pastor responded, "Do you know what the eye of the needle was? It was actually the name of an entrance to Jerusalem and it was narrow. The reason it was harder for a rich person to get through was that they had so much stuff, they had to dismount from the horses and hand carry stuff through. It's not that they can't get into heaven, but because he has so much stuff, it's harder for a rich man to negotiate."
Part of the process was clarify those things, emotional things that can disconnect you from the story and the church. Along the way I got to learn a lot of stuff, the stuff which was applicable to the story got thrown in.
NEG: I thought the take on Pilate was especially interesting . I never had seen anything remotely like that before.
SAG: My feeling always was Pilate kind of gets a pass on the whole thing, Father Jim recommended a book on Pilate and the Roman Empire, which cleared up a lot. I learned what it meant to be in the Empire. Being assigned to Judea is like getting Cleveland, when you want to be in San Francisco. And for someone like me, who didn't have a very good career in academics, when you actually apply yourself and learn something about academics it's fascinating and there nothing, as they say, more interesting dramatically than the literal truth.
NEG: The history is synthesized so well into the story of JUDAS, the audience isn't even aware there has been a history lesson in there.
SAG: So when you have a little bit of raw information then you can make things up with more authority. Stephen King wrote a book on writing, he talks about the difference between a civilian and a writer who hear the same amazing story. The civilian will repeat the story verbatim, but the writer, repeating the same story, will say, "That's true, but if she'd bought a red dress... " and the writer will tell the story a little bit differently.
The source material was historical for JUDAS, I did not want to betray what I thought was the truth of the situation, but to exaggerate for effect or to render in a way to make the story interesting or accessible to the people I was more specifically interested in bringing into the story, kids, teenagers, people like myself who were not immediately interested in a play about religion, I tried to come from where the truth of the story was.
NEG: The dialogue in JUDAS is brilliant, St, Monica's monologue and most of Satan's lines are hysterical. How did that go over?
SAG: Well it's funny. So much was written about the "foul mouthed saints" but really only Monica is foul mouthed, she does curse, but all the other saints in the play don't curse. Matthew, Peter, Thomas, I tried to observe some decorum. We thought the play would get a lot more controversy, but, as someone noted nobody's shooting up, Judas is not fucking Jesus...as long as no one is fucking, I guess it's ok.
NEG: It is funny, we had that talk-back the night I was here to see JUDAS, and there were a couple of grandmothers sitting in the back row. When asked if they were offended by the language they both said no. "If you are bothered by this language, then don't go to the theatre, in fact, if the language bothers you, don't watch television, which has much worse language." I guess times are changing.
I have one last thing I thought might be interesting. I see on your FaceBook page you have Anwar Sadat down as one of the people who have influenced you. I was wondering what you thought his take might be on the Arab Spring and the overthrow of Mubarek. Do you still have relatives in Egypt ?
SAG: I do, I still have a lot of relatives there, My dad had thirteen brothers and sisters, so I got relatives for days.
That is an interesting question, I think Sadat would have thought "That had to happen." Even though Mubarak was his guy. There are many people in Egypt who condemn Sadat as well, that he was oppressive, and he was.
But what I love about Sadat, first of all, is that I see him as a martyr, literally, a martyr for peace. There's no intelligent person on earth who doesn't recognize that the day Sadat went to Israel to shake hands with Begin, and the pictures appeared in the paper, Sadat was done. It was just a matter of time.
The thing I would have loved to see, when that treaty was signed, which was a big pay-day for both Israel and Egypt, billions of dollars in aid just not to fight, but with Mubarak that money never trickled down, there was a lot of corruption. I would have liked to see what Sadat would have done, but he was gone too soon. Sadat came from the farm, came from that poverty, and it would have been interesting to see what Sadat would have done.
NEG: If that money had gone into Egypt's infrastructure ?
SAG: Yeah, because Egypt is a Third World country and it shouldn't be, so that (revolution) needed to happen. Even my relatives, who are Coptic Christians, a minority, said that it needed to happen, and the people in the streets are not all Islamic, there are all kinds of people out there, but you still don't know what will happen.
NEG: Yeah, because, obviously, it's not just Egypt, The whole of North Africa, Tunisia, and Syria, Yemen, now even Libya is involved, tough stuff.
SAG: I think the way the First World countries used deal with Third World countries does not work anymore. I was just watching FRONTLINE on PBS, with a post -bin Laden death report, how the (NATO) strikes are perceived. As soon as you go into their house to search, you have disgraced them, and they're ready to join the other side. What are you going to do ?
NEG: It is an unwinnable mindset.
SAG: But for Sadat I have a soft spot. He was one of the few great accomplishments for modern Egypt. Egypt's best known accomplishments are from 2,000 years ago. Sadat was a statesman, I remember reading his book, he was a terrorist before becoming an elected official ....they were all terrorists, Begin was a terrorist at first.
NEG: That's interesting, It was a heroic thing Sadat did, and The Camp David Accord has kept the peace for what ? Thirty-five years ?
SAG: I want to write a play about it, it would be a little more research to do, but it's been on my mind for years, especially because what I heard was that Jimmy Carter didn't get the credit he deserved. That essentially what made that agreement happen was that Carter brought them up to Camp David where the itinerary contained no entertainments, and basically that Carter, who was not the most charismatic fellow, bored them into submission so that they could do nothing but talk to each other. The dynamics could be very interesting.
NEG: I look forward to that one, meanwhile, I hope you enjoy your visit and I wish you good luck at the Tonys.
SAG: Thanks. The visit has been good so far. We'll have to wait for the Tony's.
Whereupon, we adjourned and went to lunch, where we dined on, what else? Chicken Wings.
On June 12, 2011, the live webcast begins at 6:00 p.m. at Tony Awards.com
Tony Awards Telecast : CBS at 8:00 p.m. ET/7:00 p.m. CT