Second Acts: Top Philly playwright Bruce Graham talks FUNNYMAN and life in the theater

When you think Philadelphia theater, you think Bruce Graham. The city’s premiere playwright, his plays get dozens of productions across the United States every year. He has won multiple awards for film and theater writing, including six Barrymore nominations and two awards for best new play. His The Outgoing Tide won Chicago’s top award for new play in 2011. In 2013 (a year of Barrymore hiatus), his North of the Boulevard won Phindie’s theater critics award for best new play.

North of the Boulevard was directed by Matt Pfeiffer, who also helms Bruce Graham’s latest production, FUNNYMAN, running this month at the Arden Theatre. Bruce shares his thoughts about his latest play, working with Pfeiffer, theater in Philadelphia, and the art of play-writing. [40 N. 2nd Street] January 14-February 14, 2016; ardentheatre.org.

Carl N. Wallnau as lead character Chick Sherman in FUNNYMAN.  Photo by Mark Garvin

Carl N. Wallnau as lead character Chick Sherman in FUNNYMAN.
Photo by Mark Garvin

FUNNYMAN and a show business trilogy

Phindie: How did you come to write FUNNYMAN?

Bruce Graham: Well, I used to do stand-up, years ago. Even as a little kid I was fascinated by comedians, comic actors, and in the back of my head I’ve always wanted to write something about them, but I didn’t have a story. Then I was reading some biographies of Buster Keaton and I reread a biography of Bert Lahr, Notes on a Cowardly Lion, and I looked at the careers of Jackie Gleason and some other people and saw that nobody takes a comic seriously until they do something serious. Comedy’s like a stepchild.

I realized that both Buster Keaton and Bert Lahr worked with Samuel Beckett. Lahr in Godot and Keaton in a film for him called Film—typical Beckett. Here you have two great clowns, one of the Broadway stage, one from films, working with the father of absurdist playwrights.

Phindie: Yeah, you see that sort of thing today with comics needing to do serious roles to be taken seriously: Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Steve Martin. Does that urge to be taken seriously have a larger meaning to you?

Graham: Well, nothing wears out faster than comedy. Comics and styles of comedy go out of style.

F. Scott Fitzgerald had that really stupid quote that there are no second act in American Life. There are hundreds of second acts in American life. So in Chicago [where FUNNYMAN had its world premiere a few months ago] we talked about how this is a man who’s trying to adapt to the times…

Phindie: Trying to find his second act?

Graham: Yes

Phindie: How to you compare it earlier plays of yours? From the description I see elements of According to Goldman.

Graham: No, it’s very different to that one. I would compare it maybe to Something Intangible.

Phindie: About the Disney brothers.

Graham: Yeah. FUNNYMAN is the second part of my show-business trilogy. This is my look at changing comedy styles, and changes in Broadway in the 1940s. I just started the third part, which is about the McCarthy era.

Phindie: How much do you think about that when you go to write: This is an idea I want to explore more?

Graham: Well, I get bored, you know. This play, and my play White Guy on a Bus, which ran in Chicago last year, are very cinematic. They fade in one scene to another. And before that I had written two plays that were unity of thought, place, and action: North of the Boulevard and Stella and Lou. So I try something and I think “ah I’ve tried that before, let me try something different.” After all these years you do repeat yourself, but I’d get bored writing in the same style.

North of the Boulevard review photo, by Paola Nogueras

Matt Pfeiffer previously directed Bruce Graham’s North of the Boulevard for Theatre Exile. Photo by Paola Nogueras

Directing the director: Working with Matt Pfeiffer

Phindie: How involved were you in rehearsal for the Arden production of FUNNYMAN?

Graham: I’m like working with a dead playwright: I prefer to stay away. I was at a table rehearsal to answer questions; I’ve had the cast over to dinner. I saw a run-through and decided we needed a new scene, but on the whole I stay out of the way.

Phindie: That’s interesting that you’re still rewriting even after it has premiered. When is a play finished for you?

Graham: Oh never. I mean once it’s published it’s set in stone, but I have plays from thirty years ago I wish I could go back and rewrite. I use one of my plays in my class in Drexel and I bring out everything that’s wrong with it. I wish I could go back and rewrite all of them.

Phindie: What kind of advice, if any, did you give director Matt Pfieffer?

Graham: I gave him some books on comedians. And then I sent him clips of old comedians, and a terrible Milton Berle movie. Stuff like that. But when you work with someday, you develop a shorthand. I had some notes, and Pfieff doesn’t always agree, but he listens.

Phindie: What do you like about working with him?

Graham: He’s actor friendly. I won’t work with a director who doesn’t respect actors. He’s acted in my plays. He’s very open. He finds textures. He’ll run a scene one way and then say “let’s try it this way” and the actor brings that first way with him. He understands my rhythms; he grew up here too. Some directors don’t quite get the Philly patois. I mean, the rhythm here is very different to North of the Boulevard, but he gets it.

Phindie: I’ve always admired his attention to smaller roles. Some directors seem to really focus on the primary relationships of a play, but minor relationships can make or break a work and he pays attention to those.

Graham: You’ve got a good eye. I like coming out of a play and saying, “what a great ensemble”. Just like with North of the Boulevard, we’ve got a great cast for FUNNYMAN. I’ll rely on them all the way. And their characters—the smaller roles and larger rolesthey’re having their moments and they connect together.

Phindie: I really liked Pfeiffer’s work on your North of the Boulevard. Has that seen many other productions.

Graham: A few. It’s funny, I work in theater and academia, and those are two of the most politically correct places out there. When you have this story that addresses racism, but it’s from a white point of view, people say “oh you can’t say that.” I feel like I can say anything in a play.

Phindie: Yes, it’s very important to show that real people are racist, not just a bad guy who learns his lesson or something irritating like that.

Graham: Right, real people who you might live next to.

Scott Greer and Amanda Schoonover  in Bruce Graham's RIZZO from Theatre Exile.  Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Scott Greer and Amanda Schoonover in Bruce Graham’s RIZZO, which got its world premiere by Theatre Exile in 2015.
Photo by Paola Nogueras.

It means more when it’s Philly

Phindie: You’re produced across the country, but you seem to be getting a lot of productions in this area recently. How rewarding is it for you as a Philly native to get that appreciation from Philadelphia?

Graham: It always means more when it’s Philly, though I kinda wish it could be spaced out a bit more. This year’s overdosing. Rizzo [Theatre Exile], Stella and Lou [People's Light], According to Goldman [Act II], there’s a relaunch of Philly Fan coming up. By Spring even I’ll be sick of me.

Phindie: You can tell from your plays how important the city is to you. Many of your plays are very Philly plays. How often do those get done elsewhere?

Graham: Oh, all the time. I think there are about a dozen Outgoing Tides around the country. Any Given Monday is done a lot. There’ll be five or six Stella and Lous next year. I’m very lucky. It seems somewhere every week one of my plays is getting done somewhere.

Phindie: How often do you go to see them?

Graham: Very rarely. All I’d see would be the mistakes.

Phindie: When you do go see them, what do you look for from a director?

Graham: The most important thing for me is telling the story clearly. My plays don’t call for a lot of interpretation, they’re pretty reality based. I don’t want to see Philly Fan set in Louisiana. If you’re one of those directors who has to have a concept for everything, my plays aren’t for you. You have to be a director who understands the story and gets the tone right. The tone of each play is very different.

Phindie: What is the tone of FUNNYMAN?

Graham: I was afraid you’d ask that. I know it when I see it but I’m not sure how to express it. There’s an edge to it. We’re not dealing with the world’s most lovable character. It can’t be too warm at any point, it can’t be too cold.

It has a New York tone for lack of a better word: agents’ offices and the theater. This is the first play that I’ve written that’s about the theater. It straddles two worlds, show business and the family.

Phindie: The character of the daughter is the only female character.

Graham: Yes, White Guy on a Bus was my first play with more women than men, and I’m writing a play now with a female as the major character, but it’s easier for me to write men.

Phindie: What did you want to do with the  daughter character?

Graham: It’s tough to be the child of a performer. I didn’t want to make her a victim, I wanted to make her an independent young women.

Phindie: And the comic is trying to create a second act with her too?

Graham: That’s a really good way of putting it. There’s a professional second act and an emotional, personal second act too.

Phindie: You have a daughter. Did you derive anything from your own life and relationships?

Graham: I took from everywhere. No matter how good a relationship you have with your kid there’s always going to be difficulties, and hopefully you work your way out of it. Is it autobiographical? I do know what it’s like to have a daughter, let’s put it that way.

Bruce Graham.

Bruce Graham.

Theater in Philadelphia

Phindie: The Arden has done quite a few of your plays. What do you like about working with them?

Graham: Oh, the production values are terrific. And with new plays, they give you an extra week of rehearsal. That is valuable. It’s tough enough to rehearse a play in three weeks, but to rehearse a new play! Five weeks is unheard of; it makes the play so much better. 

Phindie: How do you think theater in Philadelphia compares to other cities?

Graham: Well having lived here my whole life, when I started out here we didn’t have all these theaters. There was no Arden, there was no Wilma, no InterAct or Exile. We had Drama Guild, which is out of business, and the Walnut Street, and then you basically had touring companies. Our actors, our designers, our directors, had to come down from New York.

Having watched Philadelphia grow up, I’m thrilled about it. I’d compare it to Chicago, which is one of the best theater cities for doing new plays. I think it’d be great if Philly became a hub for new plays. We need new plays. Death of a Salesman is a great play, but how many revivals do we need each year?

Phindie: What steps do you think that would require?

Graham: Well, some steps have already been taken. You have PlayPenn, and you have Orbiter 3. I just saw their new play [A Knee That Can Bend]. I loved it. And there’s this great thing called the Foundry that Michael Hollinger and Quinn Eli and Jackie Goldfinger started. It supports playwrights. And the Arden will do new plays. And Azuka will do new plays. Theatre Exile will do new plays.

So what we need is a new development system. Even my plays go through a series of readings. And more people need to take a chance. It’s a lot easier to sell tickets to a play that just ran in New York than a play you’ve never heard of. I wish we had the Festival Theatre again, that was a really brilliant thing just doing new American plays [Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays ran 1981-1997]. If I had more organizational skills I’d try to get it started again. But I don’t.

Phindie: What advice do you have for young playwrights?

Graham: Just keep writing. There’s nothing worse than talking about writing, you have to do it. Also, you have to immerse yourself in plays. I didn’t take a play-writing class until I’d already had two plays produced. I taught myself by being in plays. If you do ten weeks of Harvey and think “why did Harvey work?” you’re learning something. I also read every play I could get my hands on. I went to the theater.

I ask my students, “Did anyone see a play this week?” No hands. You’re in a play-writing class. You’re in a great theater city, you could walk round the corner see three shows any night and you’re not doing it. You’d rather social network. I sound like an old guy. But if you want to take it seriously you have to be obsessed with it. I was. Not so much any more, but I still go to the theater a lot. That’s going to teach you about it. That’s how I learned.

Phindie: Why do you think this is your first play about the theater?

Graham: I’m always wary of writing about the theater. It’s too easy. I could do the Sondheim jokes if I wanted to. I wanted to write about something that talked about a change; that talked about a different time. I had a great character that hopefully we haven’t seen a play. So, that’s why I wrote a play about the theater. And I’ll never write another one again. I’m done.

Phindie: What excites you about the theater though?

Graham: There’s nothing more exciting for an actor or a playwright than to feel the hum of an audience, their responses, the murmurs. There’s an adrenaline rush.

Phindie: I think that’s a nice place to end. Are you going to see FUNNYMAN a few more times?

Graham: Oh sure, you learn from an audience and how they react about what works and what doesn’t.

Phindie: If your past work is any guide, I think they’ll find a lot that works. Thank you very much for talking to us.

FUNNYMAN runs January 14-February 14, 2016, at the Arden Theatre Company [40 N. 2nd Street], ardentheatre.org.

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.