This story is part of a larger special issue on playwriting training.
“Molly, I just ran into John Guare on the street. He is looking for an assistant. I gave him your name and he said for you to come interview tomorrow morning.”
When a friend calls in the middle of the day, you’re liable to think someone has died. But this message was somehow even more unbelievable. Without remembering that I was scheduled to work a double shift at my bar the next day, I immediately responded, “I’ll be there.”
This is how I came to interview for a position with John Guare in full cocktail-waitress blacks, black apron in my bag.
“You’re not a writer?” he asks.
“No, I’m a director.”
“Do you have a driver’s license?”
“Okay. Let’s get to work.”
I had never seen a writer construct a play before. John was working on Are You There, McPhee?, a play that eventually became Nantucket Sleigh Ride (premiered at Lincoln Center Theater earlier this year). My first job was to dig into the play’s paper files, which John kept in a set of bankers boxes, to search for a piece of text he thought might be in a draft dated 1998.
I worked for John in this capacity off and on for nearly six years. During this time, as I was pursuing a directing career, I also worked as a freight elevator operator, lost my father, and waited tables at a Midtown bar called the Galway Hooker, answering “Are you the hooker?” at least once a shift. And ever so slowly, I learned by observing John’s daily work how to build a play.
Sometimes training is a slow bake. Yes, it can be charts of rising and falling action; it can be concentrated time away from the world where you dig deep and explore. But it can also be tiny, delicate lessons you learn over a lifetime.
Inspired by John, I slowly began to make my own plays at the Incubator Arts Project. I eventually wrote full-length pieces, had the great fortune of being taken in by Page 73 Productions, and had the even more miraculous fortune of meeting the collaborators I make musicals with now.
I recently sat down with John to ask about his mentors, how the craft can be passed between people, and how theatre artists can best mentor younger generations.
MOLLY BEACH MURPHY: My training as a playwright has been so zig-zaggy so far. So when I think about how we train the next generation of playwrights, I sort of feel like…
JOHN GUARE: You don’t.
I went to Yale Drama School, and it was wonderful to have the time where you’re just concentrating on learning how to write and learning what the life of a writer is. The formal classes themselves were—I mean, John Gassner would say things like, “Zoo Story is not a new play. It’s a classic Ibsen play. You have to study Ibsen.” But I didn’t want to. I wanted to learn a new way to make things. So the greatest thing that happened to me at Yale was, I decided to read every play ever written. I went to the library and I went through every play I could find to figure out, not how they were written, but where the characters went when they went offstage. Where they were coming from when they came onstage. What the life was of a play. Not just what’s happening onstage, but what’s happening in that world. So that to me was the greatest revelation.
You were active at Caffe Cino in the ’60s. What did you take from that community?
Off-Off-Broadway was just beginning with the Caffe Cino. My mentors were the other plays that I saw. It was the world I was in, what people were talking about. The people who I became friends with, who I saw all the time because they were doing plays at La MaMa and Cino—Lanford Wilson, Maria Irene Fornés, Sam Shepard, and a lot of people who nobody knows their name—these are people whose work was alive and new. If I see something that I love, I have to say, “Why do I love that? What is it telling me? What do I want to take from it?” I want to own it. I want to possess it. I want to make it part of me. To really make that act of admiration or adoration not passive but active. At the same time, if I hate it I must say, “Why do I hate it?” We have so much more vocabulary for that which we hate, but for that which we love we have so little vocabulary.
I felt that recently! I’m still working on how to say I love something other than just being moved by it.
Well, then it just lays there.
If your admiration is active then you are really learning.
Had you thought about being a writer when you came to me?
No. It was very mystifying to me. I still thought of plays as things that fell from the sky and then it was my job as a director to put this finished thing onto the stage. Sitting there with you while you worked on these plays, seeing what you cut, where you moved things, how you went through a book of research and the kinds of things you took from it, how you watched your work and made sense of it—it was the first time I saw how these magical play things were made. And it made me want to make them too. It takes so much fortitude to do that. I watched you be very resilient.
But that’s the work of being a playwright. That’s the joy of it. That’s why we can’t officially teach playwriting. I mean, formally we say this is the way we do it, these are the rules of playwriting. But what we learn on the last play doesn’t apply on the next play. If I do something well, the rule is that I can’t do it again. You just want to keep it fresh. For me, the role of playwriting is, you paint yourself in a corner and you have to figure out new ways to get out. That’s what the craft is, the more plays we read and the more plays we see. I never understand playwrights who say they don’t go to theatre. That’s where we learn from what our fellows are doing.
My first day working for you, I came to your house at 8 in the morning and we drove up to Williamstown Theatre Festival to see a matinee of David Cromer’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire that Jessica Hecht and Sam Rockwell were in, and then we drove right back.
I remember that day.
And we stopped at the Clark Art Institute to see some paintings on the way back and I thought, “Wow. This is what I want to do. I want to be the kind of person who gets up to Western Massachusetts to see a matinee, stops at the Clark, and comes home.”
It took me a long time to learn how to talk to set designers. I didn’t know what my world should look like, and I had no vocabulary to share. So I just started to autodidact. I went to museums and studied paintings. What do I like about these colors? Treating paintings like they were plays, asking, why do I respond to this? You have to develop a visual vocabulary to be able to talk to directors, costume designers, and set designers.
Right, because you’re building a vocabulary with your collaborators from scratch.
So have you had any mentees yet? How are you passing it on?
I don’t know what to say to people. I have dumb advice, I feel.
Why is it dumb?
When I came here I didn’t know the names of the theatres, I didn’t know anything. So I went on the New York Times website and looked up what was playing; they list the names of the theatres, and I went to all those theatres’ websites and put my name on all their mailing lists. So I would get sent all their emails and I would learn what plays the theatres were doing and how to get cheap tickets to them.
Well, that’s good advice!
What kind of plays each theatre does, who’s running them, who the playwrights are that are making work that’s interesting to me—
Also, what theatre do I want to work at? What theatre does work that I would like to be a part of? Because there are some theatres that I have no interest at all in doing something there.
I remember you applied to Yale at one point.
I wanted to go for directing. I interviewed twice. I didn’t get in. I was pretty devastated because I thought, “Well, if I can go to school, then I can learn what kind of artist I want to be.” But I needed to figure that out on my own.
That’s what I was most impressed by, your indestructibility. You were rejected and you said, “Well, that’s what it is.” In a sense you got a better education, as valuable an education, maybe more valuable, as if you had gone to Yale. It was completely practical, and you had no debt.
Avoiding debt is another guiding principle. And if I had gone to Yale, I may have never started writing plays.
I was also judging the Yale Drama Series at that time. We had hundreds of plays, almost a thousand plays.
I loved reading those.
You were a good reader. You have a great gift. You are looking for what you don’t know and you’re looking to solve it. Rather than saying, “Yeah, I know that. I’ve read about it,” you have the humility of saying, “I don’t know that.” That’s always the question of doing a play. What is the question?
When Gertrude Stein was on her deathbed, Alice Toklas asked, “What’s the answer, what’s the answer?” Gertrude Stein looked up and said, “In that case, what is the question?” Learning how to write is to learn the humility to ask a question. It takes humility to look at your own work and ask, What the hell is wrong with this? Why isn’t this working? What do I need to do? Where do I need to go?
Molly Beach Murphy is a playwright from Galveston, Texas, currently working in New York City.