COLLECTED STORIES, one of the most widely performed American plays, just celebrated its 22nd anniversary in October. Donald Margulies, prolific playwright, professor of drama at Yale, winner of numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Dinner With Friends (2000), and writer of television plots, gave this interview on his work, especially his way of writing and his views on the reception of COLLECTED STORIES.
[Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, Ambler, PA} October 23-November 18, 2018; act2.org
Henrik Eger: As a dramatist who teaches playwriting at Yale, you wrote, “What I most often am confronted with in young writers is a great passion for writing, the romance of writing. But what I rarely see is a compelling sense of the stories they wish to tell. That compulsion to tell a story is the mark of real talent. You can’t teach that, but you can teach ways to recognize when something is not simply a clever idea, but a story which you’re passionate about and need to tell.”
Could you give an example or two of what you have done to create that awareness and perhaps foster in young playwrights the compulsion to tell a story?
Donald Margulies: I find I am most effective as a teacher when I can dissect plays and point out what’s exciting about them. I stress the basic tenets of playwriting: event, conflict, high stakes, subtext, high-context dialogue vs. low-context dialogue—e.g., a couple that’s been together for decades share a high context of experience which will be reflected in the way they talk and the things they talk about; likewise, a couple out on their first date share none of that history, meaning their conversation would be low-context and therefore more persuasively expository.
By “event,” I employ the Passover question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” In other words, why is the story that’s being told happening tonight? What was happening yesterday? How would it differ if it began the day after? The stakes must be high for the characters in the play for sparks to fly.
Eger: Which plays that show characters with “sparks flying” inspired you the most?
Margulies: My playwriting curriculum contains plays I read and was inspired by when I was becoming a playwright—plays like Betrayal, Glengarry Glen Ross, Top Girls, Mad Forest, Six Degrees of Separation, Fires in the Mirror, Aunt Dan and Lemon, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Our Town.
Eger: I have seen many performances of COLLECTED STORIES over the years. Two of the most powerful ones featured the late Lynn Redgrave as Professor Ruth Steiner and Karina Mackenzie as her protégée (at the Grand Opera in Wilmington, DE). I also witnessed an even more brutal performance by Renee Weisband as the aging professor and Kirsten Quinn as her enthusiastic graduate student and assistant at Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 5.
Just now, those sparks are flying again at Ambler’s Act II production with Susan Riley Stevens as the formidable Ruth Steiner and Sarah Paton as her intern.
Could you describe some of the most striking and creative productions of COLLECTED STORIES that you have seen?
Margulies: I regret that I didn’t get to see Lynn Redgrave’s performance. I met her only once, a short time before her death, and she told me that playing Ruth was one of the highlights of her career.
I have been honored by the great actresses who have taken Ruth on, starting with Kandis Chappell, who was present at the play’s creation at the Sundance Playwrights’ Institute in 1995, and later did the premiere at South Coast Rep (SCR), and at least two other regional productions before returning to SCR for the 20th anniversary production; Maria Tucci (opposite Debra Messing) and Uta Hagen, who starred in off-Broadway productions; Helen Mirren was in it on the West End with Anne-Marie Duff; Stockard Channing and Laura Benanti did a marvelous one-night benefit reading in New York; and Linda Lavin first played Ruth at the Geffen, on PBS, at a small theater in North Carolina, and finally on Broadway, in 2010, opposite Sarah Paulson.
Eger: Do you try to see all productions of COLLECTED STORIES?
Margulies: I don’t make a habit of seeing productions of my plays beyond their premieres, so aside from the ones listed above, I haven’t seen too many of them. I was intrigued when I learned that a Berlin production was performed in someone’s living room, and that a recent reading in New York took place in the Rare Books Room at the Strand Book Store—those I would have liked to have seen.
Eger: You once wrote, “I think COLLECTED STORIES has traveled well because its themes cross cultures. Mentors and protégés exist everywhere.” Into how many languages has your extraordinary drama been translated, and how was it received overseas? Similarly, how many productions have taken place in North America and overseas?
Margulies: I don’t know the exact number of productions in regional and nonprofessional theaters across the United States, but I would guess dozens—over a hundred in the U.S. in the past eight years. I am aware of foreign-language productions taking place in France, Germany, Denmark, Japan, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, Israel, Brazil, Belgium, and Spain. It’s also been done in Australia, Canada, and the U.K.
Eger: What do you think is the ultimate secret of the success of this shocking, yet profoundly moving play?
Margulies: Ruth and Lisa may be teacher and student, but theirs is also an intense surrogate mother-daughter relationship; parents get old as children grow and succeed them. It’s a timeless story, really.
Eger: In spite of any social restraints—real or perceived—have you found that over the course of time you have become increasingly willing to tackle sensitive subjects?
Margulies: Readers and observers of my work may be better equipped to make that judgment because I’m not aware of approaching my work any differently. I don’t set out to write political plays, but am often told that my plays are political. I just try to tell the truth. If that’s political, then I’m a political writer.
Eger: With more experience and plays under your belt, has writing become any easier? Have audiences and critics impacted your way of writing and seeing your work?
Margulies: When I was just starting out as a writer, I used to imagine that time and experience would make writing come more naturally, that it wouldn’t always feel like, well, work. Instead, I’ve discovered that it hasn’t gotten any easier; the expectations that accompany honors and a growing audience make writing more difficult. There are more eyes on you. People are eager to see what you come up with next. Critics compare your work and rank them.
Eger: I loved your admission, “My writing process is fitful.”
Margulies: It can take me four years between plays, during which I’m busy with teaching, productions, and film projects, even if I don’t immediately have a new play in the works. I’m not the kind of playwright who has ten play ideas sitting in a file. My inspiration comes one play at a time; I know it when I feel it, and I can’t fake it.
When my latest play, The Country House, was on Broadway, I accepted a fellowship from Nashville Repertory’s Ingram New Works Festival because I thought it would give me the impetus to start a new play. It did. I began exploring the relationship between estranged adult brothers, in Long Lost.
Like most of my work, it began with snippets of dialogue, chunks of monologues, and over-writing. I don’t know where I’m going when I start out, only that I have a visceral feeling that something is indeed there and I have to locate it. I can only find it by writing; sometimes the writing isn’t toward it but around it or nowhere near it.
Eger: What are you working on these days—fitfully or otherwise?
Margulies: I don’t always start at the beginning. I start wherever I think my characters will have the most interesting things to say. A structure begins to emerge from the pages; I rarely know how a play is shaped when I’m starting out. I like staying busy, so I always have more than one project in the works, each at a different stage of development.
While doing press for the film, The End of the Tour—which I adapted from Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky—it’s difficult to concentrate on much else.
Long Lost has been dormant for weeks but tugs at me incessantly; I’m writing the book for a musical based on Father of the Bride, for Disney Theatricals, while researching a new screenplay, this one based on Kevin Birmingham’s book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle For James Joyce’s Ulysses, and I will soon begin research for a historical miniseries.
Now I’m getting anxious thinking about all the work I have to do.
Eger: I’m sure I’m not the only one who can’t wait for your next play—anxious or non-anxious.
COLLECTED STORIES by Donald Margulies, directed by Jessica Bedford, runs through November 18, 2018, at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. 215-654-0200 or www.act2.org