Tuesday, October 8, 2013

About The Author: John Guare

John Guare is one of America's best known playwrights thanks to his success with Six Degrees of Separation and House of Blue Leaves. A native New Yorker, Guare has been writing plays since his childhood.

Rather than give a bio I thought it would be more informative to read one of Mr. Guare's interviews as he always has interesting things to say.

The interview is from the early 1990s from the Paris Review. The bits that lept out at me are as follows:

INTERVIEWER All right, let’s start with this then: you once told me that you thought of playwriting as simply another job in the theater.
GUARE To stay around any place you love, you have to have a job. In college at Georgetown in the fifties, I got my first theater job checking coats at the National, which was Washington’s main theater. I sold orange drinks there at intermission and felt personally responsible for the entire audience’s receptivity to what was going on onstage. I ushered at the Shubert in New Haven during graduate school when plays en route to Broadway still went out of town to try out. I worked backstage at summer stock doing jobs from garbage man, to strapping on Herbert Marshall’s wooden leg, to fixing Gloria Swanson’s broken plumbing in her dressing room with her yelling at me as I worked the plunger. I ran the light board for her show, which involved bringing up all the stage lights surreptitiously when she came onstage so the audience would subliminally think, Gee, isn’t everything brighter when she’s around? I was supposed to do it very quietly. It was an old light board and very squeaky. I’d bring the lights up one point—and it squeaked. I don’t know what the audience felt when they heard that sound—when she came on and left the stage. It was called a “star bump.” Knowing lore like that made me feel there was a secret freemasonry to the theater. Then I toured as an advance man for a summer stock package, setting up the show each week in a different theater before moving on to the next. Even with Six Degrees of Separation I felt part of my job as playwright was to go backstage two or three times every week during the run to check the backstage temperature—who’s unhappy, who’s not speaking, whose costumes are wearing out. You must keep people happy backstage because that affects what’s onstage. During a run, the playwright feels like the mayor of a small town filled with noble creatures who have to get out there and make it brand new every night. When a production works, it’s unlike any other joy in the world.
INTERVIEWER So you chose the theater life early on.
GUARE My parents started taking me to plays early. Plays have a celebratory nature that no other form has. Theater always meant celebration, a birthday, a reward for good grades. I felt at home in a theater. I loved being part of an audience. All the rules—the audience has to see the play on a certain date at a certain time in a certain place in a certain seat. You watched the stage in unison with strangers. The theater had intermissions where you could smoke cigarettes in the lobby and imagine you were interesting. The theater made everybody in the audience behave better, as if they were all in on the same secret. I found it amazing that what was up on that stage could make these people who didn’t know each other laugh, respond, gasp in exactly the same way at the same time.
INTERVIEWER What was the first play you saw?
GUARE Annie Get Your Gun. Ethel Merman.
INTERVIEWER I have a theory that there are two kinds of people in the theater . . . those who started out because they went to see Annie Get Your Gun or those who went into it because they read Antonin Artaud.
GUARE I was reading Artaud during Annie Get Your Gun. A girl, Jane, in our grammar school class was actually in Annie Get Your Gun, and she’d be off Wednesdays for matinees. On holidays, Sister Donalda, the very stern superior, would come to our class and ask Jane to come forward and sing Sister’s favorite song; Jane would step to the front of the class and belt out “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun.”
INTERVIEWER So you’ve always been stagestruck?
GUARE In the blood. My mother’s family was in show business. Her two uncles toured in vaudeville with a bill of sixteen plays they cobbled together from 1880 to 1917 with titles likePawn Ticket 210, The Old Toll House, and Girl of the Garrison. Lines like the old man coming forward and saying: Twenty five years ago this very night my son left home taking the money he did not know was rightfully his. Oh, if I could only see him again. (Flickering outside the window.) Oh, the same lightning! The same thunder! (Knock knock.) Who can that be!
My grandfather was a cop in Lynn, Massachusetts. In a raid on a Lynn cathouse they found a very small child left by one of the arrested girls. He brought the baby home; he turned out to be five years old and a midget. Little Billy was taken into the act by the uncles for the good reason that he was a great little hoofer and song shouter. The act broke up when little Billy left to join the George M. Cohan Review of 1918; dressed as a tiny soldier, he was one of the cast who introduced “Over There.” My mother’s real brother, who was known in our family as Big Bill, became an agent for stars like W. C. Fields, Al Jolson, and Will Rogers. Big Bill was called “Square Deal” Grady by Damon Runyon for the “creative” contracts he made with his clients. He was head of casting at MGM from 1934 to 1956. I never saw Big Bill much but his presence and power to discover people figured heavily in my dream life. In fact, the monologue that opens the second act of House of Blue Leaves happened exactly as described: Big Bill was on a major MGM talent hunt searching for an unknown child to play Huckleberry Finn. To escape all these kids, he came to see us. I decided fate had sent him to me: I would be Huck. I packed my bags and went mad and auditioned. He quickly left thinking he’d been set up by my parents. My mother cried. It was horrible. I gave up all dreams of acting at age eight. Playwriting seemed a lot safer.

It struck me because much of this reminded me of our current show, Rich and Famous. It's a bit vaudevillian in its telling and was clearly written by a man who's had his up and downs in the theatre business.  I also loved the bit about the act of theatre being a communal celebration. For me, that's the heart of why I do theatre. Unlike film it's happening very much in the moment, every night, and if you do it right the whole audience is there participating with you.

Later in the interview:

GUARE I always liked plays to be funny and early on stumbled upon the truth that farce is tragedy speeded up. Filling up that hunger. Get to Moscow. Get into an adult world. The want becomes a need. The need becomes a hunger and because you’re speeding it up so much . . .
INTERVIEWER . . . it becomes ridiculous.
GUARE Exactly. The intensity puts it on the edge. The top keeps spinning faster until it can only explode, and if you’ve got a stageful of people at that psychic, manic state, and an audience in tune with them, then something dangerous might happen out of that hysteria. You want to move the audience into a new part of themselves.

This basically outlines Rich and Famous in very broad strokes. It's a frenetic, hilarious look at a man whose hopes and dreams come crashing down on him at the moment of his highest high.

In any case, Rich and Famous isn't something that you see very often and it's a challenging work to produce - it requires a few actors to be insanely talented. The technical requirements are pretty extensive. And it's a trippy story for the audience to follow. So strap in for this crazy ride and just enjoy the show!