Arthur Kopit, a playwright best known for the plays Indians, Wings, and Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, died on April 2. He was 83.
It was 1999. The Lark had just turned 5 years old and was establishing itself as a home for playwrights. We needed more office and studio space. A friend of a friend had found something interesting in the Garment District that was too big for their film production company and they needed a partner on the lease, so I went to take a look. The space wasn’t right, but after the walk-through, my brand new friend Alex said, “John, you’ve really, really got to meet my dad. He will love what you do at the Lark. He’s pretty much the No. 1 fan of ambitious plays. His new show opens in a few weeks and I’m getting you tickets!”
True to his word, Alex arranged opening night tickets to his father’s millennium thriller, Y2K. That is how I met Arthur Kopit.
I knew who Arthur was, of course. Anyone in my generation who had ever taken a drama class took perverse pleasure in speaking aloud, tongue-twister-like, the provocatively lengthy and titillating titles of his plays Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad: A Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition (1963), End of the World With Symposium to Follow (1983), and The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis (1993).
While other playwrights at the time wrote naturalistically, often in the style of contemporary film and television, Arthur exploded reality and threw mud in the face of convention. He named the status quo and tore it down. In Oh Dad, Arthur stretched farce to the very limits of absurdity to describe a moribund world controlled by the rich and powerful. Madame Rosepettle terrorizes the weak, especially those close to her, including her traumatized son and travel companion Jonathan, and her deceased husband, preserved and packed in his casket, whom she transports from one resort destination to another along with numerous trunks, hat boxes, several Venus flytraps, and a diabolical, cat-devouring piranha.
There is a lot to say about Arthur’s body of work—its impact, his triumphs and disappointments, and his collaborations on plays, musicals, and in film. But I want to speak now about another part of Arthur’s legacy that doesn’t get much ink or attention. I want you to know about Arthur the mentor and enthusiast, an accomplished and famous playwright who found his way to the Lark and spent the greater part of the past two decades helping other writers tell their own stories and claim their own voices.
Which brings me back to opening night of Y2K. The show had ended and people were celebrating, but my wife Jennifer and I didn’t know anyone there. I could see Arthur with his friends and family, but they were laughing and hugging each other. Then the actors arrived and the party got underway. It seemed like the wrong time to bother the great man, so we gathered our possessions and headed for the door. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my elbow, and Arthur was there, grinning, eyes twinkling, shaking my hand with both his bearlike hands as if we were old friends, speaking in a voice that combined boisterousness with certainty, “You’re John from the Lark! Let’s have lunch tomorrow! I want to tell you what I think we can do to help playwrights! Come, have a drink!” And we did.
Arthur and I met for lunch later that week, and we took so long I had to excuse myself to telephone the office and cancel my next two appointments; we had to pay the waiter when his shift ended. I told Arthur about the Lark: how we had started out producing plays but soon realized we were rushing the most interesting plays into production, creating undue pressures on the creative team to make the plays “work” in time for opening night, to solve the play’s “problems” as efficiently as possible, usually leaving the playwrights out of the loop because “there wasn’t enough time.” We were propagating a culture of “emergency” and telling ourselves it was okay—but it was not. We could now see that the wrong kind of pressure encouraged participants to scrap the most challenging and innovative ideas in a new play before we gave them a chance. Even the playwrights had begun to accept this practice as unavoidable, as it was so pervasive in the theatre at large. But it had to stop, or every play we made would begin to look like all the others. At this point I stopped and took a breath.
Going to meet Arthur, I remember I had been very nervous; I was worried that it would be hard to convince him our concerns were important because so many others hadn’t taken them seriously. But Arthur listened attentively to my passionate oration, reassuring me with his smiling eyes and punctuating my points with “Wonderful!” and “Marvelous!”
When I finished, Arthur began to speak. He described the frustrations of the playwrights he knew and the students he taught—and what he wanted to do about it, which was to create a playwrights’ workshop where good writers could write what they wanted. It was as simple as that, he said, but that didn’t mean it would be easy. Holding onto one’s vision and sense of truth was a daily battle. He wanted the playwrights in the program to be chosen by fellow playwrights, to bypass the pressures and expectations exerted by producers and other stakeholders. He wanted the playwrights themselves to take charge of how they would use this laboratory, and for them to feel comfortable sharing plays in preliminary form as well as scenes they were unsure of. Most of all, he wanted playwrights to try out plays they would be reluctant to show to the artistic directors of mainstream theatres—not because the plays were unready (which might well be true), but to avoid institutional and economic pressures on their freedom to create works of art in their own way. Even in that moment, we understood the financial challenges this vision posed for playwrights and the Lark, and the critical necessity of finding money to subsidize playwrights through stipends and fellowships.
In the first round of the program, we invited a dozen writers to share work at every weekly session. They were long sessions, but Arthur never tired, no matter how late into the night the session went or how long a writer wanted to talk about their work at a nearby bar. Over the years, the program evolved to support a cohort of five writers annually, who met twice monthly to share work with their peers, read by top-notch actors. Arthur immediately enlisted a number of leading American dramatists as an advisory board, including Edward Albee, Christopher Durang, John Guare, A. R. Gurney, Tina Howe, David Henry Hwang, David Ives, Marsha Norman, and Wendy Wasserstein. Over time, he expanded the group with Katori Hall, Sam Hunter, Rajiv Joseph, Lisa Kron, Tony Kushner, Emily Mann, Terrence McNally, Dominique Morisseau, Lynn Nottage, Theresa Rebeck, Jose Rivera, Mac Wellman, and Doug Wright, among others.
Advisory board members were responsible for naming workshop fellows at the beginning of each season and co-hosting workshop sessions. The idea of “co-hosts” was important to Arthur, who knew the forcefulness of his own personality and wanted to make sure there were always at least two experienced host-playwrights in the room to offer divergent opinions. Arthur shared a story about a time he co-taught a university playwriting course with John Guare, during which they disagreed about everything and argued bitterly. Arthur had believed the class to be a failure until he began running into students from that class who told him how important it had been to them, because it proved that two exceptional playwrights could fervently disagree. It meant there were no easy answers, no right and wrong.
The Playwrights’ Workshop, in the beginning and as it evolved, was neither a classroom nor a professional pressure cooker, but, Arthur insisted earnestly and frequently, “a place where playwrights could feel free to write shit.” Arthur believed that writers had to make radical choices—their own choices—and let the chips fall where they may. He loved to remind writers that their most exciting work often springs from the material they initially doubt.
Participating writers have ranged from those at the beginning of their careers to many who had become well known but wanted to dig deep again into their own creativity. The program has accomplished what it intended, giving writers creative space in a rigorous but supportive community of peers to reflect and try new things. At hundreds of sessions over two decades, the Playwrights’ Workshop has given birth to incredible contemporary theater, often in surprising ways.
I remember when Rajiv Joseph brought in the first scene of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, in which a tiger, played by a man in a cage wearing plain clothes, explains his animal nature and bites off the hand of the soldier attempting to feed him. We roared with laughter, then reeled in shock, then cried for heartbreak. Rajiv was surprised by our reaction. He had written these pages as a stand-alone piece sometime earlier, in response to a news article, and had thrown them into a drawer. It was the workshop that provided a chance for him take a second look.
To date, well over 120 playwrights have taken part in the program. Many have been stunningly prolific, often writing multiple plays during the program’s yearlong cycle and continuing to refine them in other Lark programs as well as at theatres around the U.S. and the world. Hundreds of plays have gone on to productions small and large, many of them earning wide recognition, such as the Pulitzer, awarded most recently to two plays substantially developed in the workshop, Cost of Living by Martyna Majok and Sweat by Lynn Nottage.
Over the years, Arthur and many of the workshop alumni have traveled as part of our global program to Russia, Romania, and elsewhere, connecting writers from the Lark with others from around the world to share and compare cultures. Once, at a lecture in Bucharest, a journalist suggested that writers should “write what they know,” but Arthur disagreed, insisting that writing comes alive when writers tackle subjects about which they know little, particularly the darker corners of their own experience, especially if they want to learn and grow. Some of the most exciting presentations I’ve seen of plays by Lark-affiliated writers have been in other languages, from Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries and Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife in Romanian to Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop and Arthur Kopit’s Wings in Russian.
Many artists have reached out to me recently to share stories about how Arthur changed their lives, how he made them feel seen, heard, and known. They remember conversations with Arthur after a class or work session, meeting for coffee to discuss a roadblock they were experiencing in the writing of a play or joining him at a nearby pub after a performance or event. Arthur had a knack for mobilizing a jovial crowd of artists and transforming any bar or public space into a literary salon and a welcoming space.
Almost always, the group of actors and writers from the workshop would go out together. We were often joined by the co-hosts, like David Henry Hwang or Tina Howe. Circled around several tables, shoved together at Cancun or Smith’s, sipping frozen margaritas or seltzer water and sharing several plates of nachos, we might as well have been at Elaine’s or the Algonquin Round Table. We talked about the scenes we had just heard, or family, or a trip someone had recently taken, sometimes collectively as a large group, often breaking up into smaller conversations. It felt good to be a community both in the formal setting of the workshop itself, but also outside it, where people could indeed feel “seen” and understood. As long as we could hear ourselves over the music, and there was a television somewhere in the bar for Arthur to check on the Yankees, everything was good.
Arthur would tell amazing stories and encourage others to tell theirs. He had an inexhaustible well of stories, like the time he won a bespoke Ferrari at cards, how it exploded into flames while he and his wife Leslie were driving down the highway on one of their first dates, and how it turned out that Kareem Abdul Jabbar had owned the same car.
He told a lot of stories about the theatre, of course. I loved the one about a London production of his play that wasn’t going well. The theatre was practically empty; the front of house staff was so depressed that there was dust all over and trash in the aisles. During the first act, he noticed a mouse sitting a few rows ahead of him on the arm of an aisle seat, watching the show in rapt attention. When the mouse didn’t come back after intermission, he knew the production was beyond hope. Another time, he told us how much fun he’d had waiting in the lobby outside a theatre where they were producing his Road to Nirvana, from which theatregoers were walking out angrily in droves. He pretended to be a journalist looking for audience responses to the play, and seemed delighted that his play could get people so upset.
Playwright Rogelio Martinez reminded me several days ago that he often told Arthur how much he loved Road to Nirvana. Rogelio also shared with me several recent email exchanges with Arthur, punctuated by an excessive (and fun) use of italics, capitalizations, strange symbols, exclamation points, and paragraph spacings. It made my eyes fill with tears. Arthur would often use every tool the keyboard provided to make the text specific in his plays. He also did this in the letters of recommendation he wrote for playwrights, and in emails he’d send to my children, like the ones he sent after seeing my son Jake in a piano concert or visiting an art installation curated by my daughter Hannah. Arthur engaged the world and the people in it with such enthusiasm and nuance it could startle you.
I was on a Zoom call the other day with another close friend, a playwright who’d participated in the workshop several years ago. She extended condolences and we took a few earnest moments to consider what Arthur had meant to both of us, what he had meant to her as an advocate for her writing. Suddenly, she burst out laughing.
“Arthur didn’t really practice Liz Lerman’s critical response technique,” my friend said wryly, referring to Lerman’s gentle and carefully curated practice of giving feedback to artists. “He said what he thought. Not usually in front of other people, but he would ask if he could suggest how to rewrite a scene, and I would say okay. I don’t know if I ever took his particular advice, but the engagement was valuable to me. And you knew how much he cared about you and respected you, and how excited he got about your ideas. His generosity was real.”
Arthur was part of an earlier generation of American theatre artists, but he continued to be a rebel and to lean forward as an artist. He had spent his entire career writing about abuses of power and marginalization, from Oh Dad and Indians to Wings and everything else in his canon, including his most recent work. When he wrote plays in his inimitable way, he became an active part of dismantling the system. He used every tool he knew, including satire, provocation, humor, and a thoughtful understanding of history and historical narrative. And he engaged with people to learn where they stood, telling them where he stood, holding firm to his curiosity, not wavering even during awkward encounters, seeking to be kind and generous but also relentless in pursuit of answers.
He was such a rebel as a playwright, in fact, that none of his plays look or feel very much like each other. That is rare in the theatre, where I can often discern a playwright’s signature across an entire body of work. But Arthur would lose himself in the process of writing, and the characters—voices from his subconscious—told him where to go. Most of us learn our professions by building a skill set and repeating it each time we take on a new job. On one level, Arthur was a brilliant structuralist who could tell you why a scene worked technically. In practice, however, Arthur defied what was easy—what he already knew how to do—and found new pathways into his own consciousness with each play and every project he undertook.
Reinvention is perhaps the ultimate act of creativity. When we approach a new problem with an open mind, we make no assumptions that what we may have learned in the past is still true. This is how Arthur’s mind worked, I think; why his plays are so different from one another, and so wonderfully complex; and why, during the last chapter of his life, he turned his attention and his heart toward mentoring a new generation of playwrights, encouraging them to plunge into their own unconscious minds and trust that what they found would be right and true and good. In a sense, I could say that one of his masterworks, created over the past 20 years, has been a unique brand of mentoring that is inquisitive yet kind, supportive yet rigorous, relentless yet affirming, honest yet respectful, and above all generous. Like so many of his other creations, this one has also changed peoples’ lives in extraordinary ways.
Arthur’s robust commitment to mentoring playwrights did not come at the expense of his own creative life as a writer. He continued to write rich and resonant plays throughout our friendship and his time at the Lark. David Henry Hwang once stepped in as director of the Playwrights’ Workshop so Arthur could serve as writer in residence, sharing work for a yearlong session with the other members of the program. We worked for several years on his musical about Lewis and Clark, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts. He wrote at least three beautiful new full-length plays in recent years, which have yet to be produced, and numerous short plays. He traveled frequently to work on translations of his work and used the Lark space and community to revisit several of his earlier plays for revivals. As always, Arthur continued to see the world in new and exciting ways. A month after he was confined to a wheelchair, he said to me, “John, people say I should be depressed, but what I’m going through right now is so interesting! I see everything in a whole new way. I want to write about it!”
Arthur led a full life. His legacy is rich and includes many extraordinary plays and profound relationships. Arthur was certainly a disrupter and a provocateur, curious about new possibilities and skeptical of rules. But he was also an astute observer and an eager listener. He knew something that I often find hard to accept: that good things take time to grow.
If it weren’t for the pandemic, I would be at a bar right now with friends, sharing stories about Arthur and laughing, trying to remember some of the great stories he told me. But the bars will be open again soon enough, and the stories will keep till then.
John Clinton Eisner (he/him) is a director, producer, writer, and consultant as well as artistic director emeritus of the Lark Play Development Center, which he co-founded in 1994.
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