In our era of practically mandatory multitasking – and, for that matter, free-floating financial insecurity — it is probably to be expected that more actors would try their hand at playwriting. In the past few months I’ve reviewed three new plays by established actors, at three of the city’s significant nonprofit theaters. I can’t recall another similar flurry in the more than a dozen years I’ve been reviewing.
There are lots of reasons why actors might want to flex new muscles, trying their hand at creating their own characters instead of interpreting ones created by others. In an interview in American Theater magazine, Bruce Norris, the actor-turned-writer-turned-Pulitzer Prize winner for “Clybourne Park,” pointed to this impulse as the motivation behind his desire to switch tracks: “I wanted to be able to express what I thought, rather than be the vehicle for the expressions of someone else’s thoughts.”
Actors turning to writing is a time-honored tradition, of course. Shakespeare was the most spectacularly successful actor-writer in theater history. Eugene O’Neill made a few halfhearted attempts at following in his actor father’s footsteps before heading off on the long journey that would eventually result in some of the American theater’s greatest plays. Two of the most successful playwrights in 20th-century Britain, Noël Coward and Harold Pinter, began their careers as actors.
In their training, in the rehearsal room and onstage, actors can naturally acquire an instinct for playable dialogue, the convincing flow of dramatic incident and the way action and speech can naturally be combined to reveal a character’s emotional innards. Actors can learn from audience reactions what works and what doesn’t; they know firsthand when a line is overwritten or a bit of business is failing to register because they are the ones who feel the impact in the moment itself. Appearing in plays both good and bad can be a fine apprenticeship in how to write and how not to write a play, at least for actors who can see beyond the limits of their own lines. (And, to be sure, there are many actors who probably never do.)
Recent history also would provide some inspiration: In the past five years the Pulitzer Prize – the most prestigious seal of approval in the theater world – has been awarded to two plays written by former (or current) actors: Mr. Norris’s cleverly bifurcated play about race, class and real estate and Tracy Letts’s rip-roaring family drama “August: Osage County.” An enterprising actor, bored with sitting around the movie set or demoralized from weary rounds of auditions, might easily look to their examples and wonder, hey, why not me?
The three shows I’ve seen recently that have been written by actors would have to be classified as long shots for the Pulitzer Prize, or perhaps any prize. Each had some merit and suggested that the authors may in the future become writing talents worth watching. But I also wondered whether the plays’ flaws might have kept them in the literary manager’s one-more-rewrite pile if their authors had not been actors with some public name value.
Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesJustin Bartha and Krysten Ritter in “All New People.”
Zach Braff’s “All New People,” seen at Second Stage Theater in the late summer, was a concept-driven comedy about a would-be suicide (Justin Bartha) whose attempt to hang himself at a friend’s beach house on the Jersey Shore is rudely interrupted. Mr. Braff presumably learned a lot about the rhythms of comedy during his stint as a performer on the zany-doctors sitcom “Scrubs.” His play was amply stocked in sharp-witted one-liners delivered by characters who might easily turn up on serial television comedy: a daffy British realtor, a fireman with a sideline in selling drugs, a comely call girl.
But while it provided a lot more laughs than many so-called comedies written by established playwrights that I’ve seen in my years as a critic, “All New People” also evinced a common failing of neophyte writers. The peg on which the plot hung – that interrupted suicide – came to seem flimsy as the motivations for the characters’ behavior became less and less logical. Getting people on and offstage for reasons that derive rationally from character and circumstance is harder than it seems, and Mr. Braff’s play eventually felt a little too much like a random chatfest – funny as it was – that predictably evolved into a drink-fueled series of revelations, that classically hoary device.
It’s probably to be expected that actors, when writing, would find themselves drawing on conventional situations and ideas they have come across in their training and careers. It’s equally to be expected that the old axiom “write what you know” would play a role in the first efforts of actors turned writers.
That was certainly the case with Zoe Kazan’s first play, “Absalom,”which I reviewed at the Humana Festival of New American Plays a couple of years ago. Ms. Kazan’s play, among the better at the festival that year, was a Chekhovian comedy-drama about the relationships among an artsy family in the Berkshires. Ms. Kazan is the daughter of screenwriters and the granddaughter of the great stage and film director Elia Kazan. The people in “Absalom,” with their sophisticated interests and high-end neuroses, were the kind of intelligentsia among whom Ms. Kazan has presumably lived much of her life.
That was also the case with her new play, “We Live Here,” finishing its run this weekend in a Manhattan Theater Club production. Also set in a comfortable country house in New England, it too told of the relationships among a well-heeled family of highbrow interests: pater is a professor whose specialty is Aristotle, and one of the daughters is a composer studying at Juilliard.
Yet “We Live Here” featured scenes that dwindled into pointlessness or ended too abruptly, and characters too stridently conceived to come across as convincingly human. The impulse to provide actors with angst-stuffed people to embody might come a little too naturally to actors, who themselves know how delicious it can be to tackle a troubled character.
Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesBetty Gilpin and Oscar Isaac in “We Live Here.”
In “Asuncion,” now at the Cherry Lane Theater in a Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production, Jesse Eisenberg revealed an affinity for creating characters with a more real human blush about them. He seems to have drawn some inspiration for his own character, a hapless slacker named Edgar, from his performance as Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.” The characters share a motor mouth and a jittery intensity, but Edgar’s got no gas in his engine – he can’t get up off the beanbag chair to forge a life for himself.
Mr. Eisenberg’s play, like Mr. Braff’s, benefited from skillfully wrought humor as well as an appealing role for Mr. Bartha (again!) as Edgar’s best friend and semi-unwilling roommate. But as in “All New People,” the central device driving “Asuncion” was forced: the play’s title character, Edgar’s new sister-in-law, was essentially parked in the living room the young men shared for reasons too unlikely to describe, and left there for an implausibly long time to serve as a spark for tensions between Mr. Eisenberg’s and Mr. Bartha’s characters.
The trend, if trend it becomes, of name actors making waves as writers for the New York theater does raise potentially troubling questions. Are producers and artistic directors intentionally (or unconsciously) trying to exploit the authors’ notoriety as actors to attract audiences to plays that they might not produce if they were written by unknowns?
Of the three actor-writers I’ve mentioned, only Mr. Eisenberg appeared in his own play – and, as I noted in my review, he played the most unappealing role. But a play written by a Zach Braff or a Zoe Kazan is probably going to attract more media attention than a similarly scaled effort by an author whose name has never appeared in a gossip column or on a movie theater marquee. Certainly I heard some grumblings among my critical colleagues at the decision by Manhattan Theater Club to give a prime slot in its season, and a first-class production directed by the hot director Sam Gold, to Ms. Kazan’s play, which would probably have benefited from some more diligent dramaturgy and another rewrite or two.
I hope all three of the playwrights I’ve discussed keep writing – and I’ve no objection to seeing any of their brethren join the club – but the commercial theater is already unhappily encumbered by the pressures of celebrity. I would hate to see the not-for-profit theaters, where most new playwrights first get their breaks, start turning their stages over to marginal plays that stand out from the pack only because the playwright’s name might sell a few tickets to fan club members.
by Charles Isherwood
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson