Everyone in this group except Lynn Nottage is surprised that they are making their Broadway debut this season.
“This play, in particular, I very specifically did not imagine with a proscenium, so that rules out most Broadway houses,” says Lucas Hnath, whose A Doll’s House Part 2 bows at the Golden Theatre on April 27. “I had to be convinced, actually. I was slow to say yes.”
“I started writing this play six years ago,” says Joshua Harmon of his play Significant Other, which opened at the Booth Theatre on March 2. “I had no agent. It was in a little notebook. It’s a lovely surprise.”
“I had assumed that How I Learned to Drive would have been the one,” adds Paula Vogel, whose Indecent opens at the Cort Theatre on April 18.
“If I said you can put all your chips on one play as the one that will go to Broadway, it would profoundly not have been the three-act, 30-character dark comedy about the Middle East,” says JT Rogers of Oslo, opening April 13 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. “I’m wondering if in the modern era if there’s any playwright that isn’t surprised.”
Well, Nottage isn’t surprised that Sweat, which opens at Studio 54 on March 26, is her Broadway debut. “This is the play that’s the most multicultural and has the least number of African-American actors in it, so it doesn’t surprise me that this would be the one that makes the bigger journey,” she says, adding that it’s an ensemble cast without a central female protagonist, as in Ruined or Intimate Apparel. “But it always surprises me when there’s a wide audience for the work.”
American Theatre sat down with these writers after their photo shoot for this story to talk about what makes a play commercial, taking new plays abroad, training for playwrights, their worst day jobs, and more.
Broadway Was Never the Goal
When Hnath’s marquee went up on 45th Street, he couldn’t help but take a picture. Still, he insists that he thinks of the show as “just another play.” (Out-of-town family members are impressed, though.) Harmon notes that for an aspiring playwright, the career goal is more often an Off-Broadway production. “I came up with a group [of writers] where new plays don’t go to Broadway, so you just don’t think about that, and you’re thrilled to get a production in New York—that’s a dream,” he says. “So it’s not something that I have been gunning for in any way.”
Rogers agrees, though he notes that with five new American plays premiering this spring, there may be a shift happening. “Hopefully we’ll be a harbinger,” he says. “It’s kind of amazing that there’s five of us. It does feel like there could be a change in the water.”
Vogel, for one, is not encouraged: “Thirty years ago, there were 50 to 100!”
One factor that Vogel thinks has contributed to the lack of new American writing on the Main Stem is transfers from abroad. The exchange goes both ways, though: Seeing her work on the London stage changed how she views productions in the U.S., she says.
“It’s odd having had this incredible opportunity to see [How I Learned to Drive] abroad on Broadway-size stages,” Vogel says. “So one of the things that I think is a disconnect is what is considered commercial in this country versus what is considered commercial in other countries. Then what we’re doing is we import literary works to Broadway from London but not our literary works.
“We think of theatre as a marketplace where we actually import plays about race and economics, so that it’s not directly looking at our blemishes,” she continues. “We use Athol Fugard as a way of saying, ‘We’ve done our bit of looking at racial issues by producing a wonderful South African writer.’ But I think we’re doing that instead of addressing the issues directly.”
Rogers posits that another reason new American plays aren’t on Broadway as frequently anymore is because young writers are encouraged to keep things small—in other words, “producible,” whereas government-funded institutions abroad can afford more ambitious works that then might make the journey to Times Square. “Playwrights have been told, ‘You should do only two characters with one set,’ and so we’re constantly writing small plays collectively,” Rogers says. “But everyone actually wants to do larger work. The bitter irony,” he notes, is that American playwrights’ more ambitious work is “going to places where larger works are funded, because we don’t have a larger work at home. Yeah, because you told us not to write one! It’s an odd unforeseen economic flip that I hope is changing.”
The MFA as a Moneymaker
Young people are still entering graduate playwriting programs in large numbers. Rogers suggests that schools are profiting from young people’s ambitions, churning out more writers than the industry can support.
“Universities all over the country realized, ‘Oh, we can make money selling degrees in playwriting,’ so the number of people who are playwrights now is exponentially larger than it was 20 years ago when it started,” says Rogers, who did not get an MFA.
Vogel agrees that graduate school has become a moneymaker, calling the trend “disgusting.” She’s not casting stones from outside the academy, though: She served as head of the playwriting programs at both Brown University and Yale University. But at both, she says, she successfully found funding for all of her students.
“The truth of the matter is that every writer I’ve worked with has had their tuition paid and had a $10,000 to $20,000 stipend plus healthcare, and they’ve taught, so they come out with teaching,” says Vogel. (The first student play she produced at Brown was Nottage’s Circus Animals.) “I’ve kept in touch. I would say at least 50-75 percent of my writers, not a huge amount, have gone on and are actually doing it.”
Vogel, however, does admit she has a hard time encouraging people to become playwrights when the economics of the profession are so difficult, and she admits that the only reason she no longer has a “day job,” which provided her with the healthcare coverage she needs for her asthma, is because now she qualifies for Medicare. “We’re in this marketplace where I don’t think I could, even through film and TV, have enough work where I could get the healthcare,” she says.
Rogers is very curious about his colleagues’ creative routine. “I’m trying to change mine, because I’m a binge writer,” Vogel admits, explaining that she designed her boot camp “bakeoff” approach as a way to teach someone to write a play in two days—a strategy she would use in her own writing so she could “catch the flu at work” and have two days off to finish a project. Nottage admits she’s also a binger. Hnath is not.
“I max out at three hours of writing a day,” he says. “I have to go to the gym at some point during the writing day and then come back, so it’s kind of split by that. I have to have coffee, and I just write in little fragments. I write little bits and pieces of plays over and over. I’m rehearsing the moment that I’m going to write the play, so I try to imagine that the writing process is just rehearsing these moments and each day they come out a little bit different. Then at a certain point, I just title all these fragments, put them into a large document, read through it very quickly, cross out the pieces I don’t like, and then put all of it into another document and then write it again from memory. And then I have a play.”
Hnath adds that he becomes very suspicious of anything that becomes a routine. Harmon echoes him, saying that he works very hard not to get stuck in a routine. “I am a binger, and it is fragmented, and there are moments where there will be a lot,” he says. “I do a lot of journaling. I kind of have an Internet addiction. I find the computer is not always a safe space for me, so it is helpful actually [to journal]. You use your mind differently—especially in rewriting.”
Not in New York
Both Rogers and Vogel got their professional start outside of New York. Some of Rogers’s first professional productions were at Salt Lake Acting Company, while Vogel holds her time at Perseverance Theatre in Juno, Alaska, near and dear.
“I remember being at a New Dramatists function, in which someone got an emerging playwright grant, and people said she’s worked at Perseverance Theatre in Alaska and the New York audience laughed,” Vogel recalls. “And I stood up and I yelled, ‘I’ve seen better theatre at Perseverence Theater than I’ve seen a lot of times in New York.’ I was just furious. There is an assumption that sophisticated audiences are only in New York.”
But even for playwrights getting their start in New York, like Hnath, the model has changed. Hnath bemoans the way that New York real estate prohibits artists from making art on their own in the city, recalling that when he was finishing up his MFA at New York University, he would make a play with things he bought at the dollar store at smaller spaces downtown that no longer exist.
“What I’m going to take to my grave with happiness and delirium is going to be something that cost $100 by Dan LeFranc or Nilo Cruz,” says Vogel. “And it’s only going to run for two weeks, but you feel like you’ve seen the face of God.”
Most playwrights—including all five of the ones in this group—had to have day jobs at some point in their carrer to make ends meet. Hnath spent several years running a nonprofit that taught law students how to represent unemployment insurance cases.
“It was actually amazing training for writing plays,” he says. “All my plays are built like legal arguments. It’s from editing student briefs. It was an amazing experience—I wouldn’t take it back.”
Vogel wants to hear about everyone’s worst experience at a day job.
“I spent my 20s working as an assistant, and some bosses were good and some were horrible,” says Harmon. “I remember I finished one job and went home and watched Working Girl and got to the end where [Melanie Griffith] bumps into Sigourney Weaver and goes, ‘Do not ever speak to me again like we don’t know what really happened, you got me?’”
In fact, Harmon was the assistant to Nottage’s agent (one of the good bosses) for a while, and Nottage was “sorry to see him go.” She adds, “That’s why you should always be nice to the assistants!”
Nottage, who works as a professor at Columbia University, talks about a time when she worked as a secretary at Paine Webber, a stock and asset management firm. “I was one of the few secretaries who actually knew how to word process, which meant I could go into the computer and look at all of the records, and what I discovered is that all of the female executives were making exactly half of what the male executives were on my floor,” she says. “I shared that information, and then the next day a woman from HR, who was my friend, called me up and said, ‘Don’t come in tomorrow. They’re going to fire you and they’re going to make a big deal of it.'”
Vogel also got fired, in her case from a job as a gynecologist’s assistant in Washington, D.C.’s red light district in 1970 for entertaining the patients. “I wrote a little song called ‘I’m Doing the Last Pap Smear of the Day’ just to entertain them,” she says. “The doctor came in and heard my little rendition and the women and I were laughing, and he was like, ‘You don’t have the right attitude for the medical business,’ and fired me. I really thank him for that.”
For the first time in her career, she says, Vogel doesn’t have a day job. At 65, she’s showing no signs of stopping and says she can’t wait for the future.
“This is the first time I’ve actually been able to travel with a play, which means every play that I’ve written I only got one shot at. So I feel kind of like a kid finally let into the candy show with this,” she says. “The other thing that I’m feeling and recognizing and I’m hungry for is at my age, I probably have 10 years ahead of me and that’s possibly it, unless I’m fortunate and become the Grandma Moses of playwriting. That means I have 10 years of actually having the process that a play needs that was funded by my day job. So I’m hungry. Whatever happens, whatever anyone asks me, I’m going to say yes, because I actually have the time to do it.”