Each month Brian James Polak talks to playwrights about the things usually left unsaid. In conversations that dive into life’s muck, we learn what irks, agitates, motivates, inspires and—ultimately—what makes writers tick.
This month, Brian talks to actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, who starts out describes how, at age 10, he was dubbed a class clown (alongside classmate Chevy Chase). His teacher decided to subvert this tendency by assigning him to write a play based on a biography of Socrates, which he did—and, in a foreshadowing of his later preoccupations, Shawn focused on the philosopher’s hemlock-induced execution and performed the lead role himself. But it was what he calls a “perverse” production of Peter Pan featuring Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff that opened his eyes to what the theatre could be.
He began his theatre life in André Gregory’s company of actors, and in his mid-20s, after years of making puppet theatre and thinking the civil service or politics might he his future career, he decided he wanted to dedicate his life to being a playwright. His father, recognizing his ambition, and knowing that making a career in another field might distract him from that ambition, told him, “If you want to be a writer, don’t get a good job.”
Fortuitously, it was shortly after deciding that writing plays was his life’s focus that Shawn was offered an acting job, after which he realized that acting could pay his bills. So, as he puts it, “I was never faced with the choice of leading a sub-bourgeois life.” Indeed, Wallace acknowledges the good fortune he’s had in life and welcomes the recognition he receives for his acting. Sometimes, though, he wishes he lived in a world where people would recognize him more for his form-breaking plays than for his acting work—he’d like to be part of the national conversation, and “to be known as one of the American writers.”
Ultimately, he says, he made new audio dramas of The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which will be released this week, because he still wants to be seen and accepted as an American writer “who should be taken seriously.”
The episode can be found here.
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