By Jef­frey Sweet, Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 279 pages

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - (The Baby Dance), Cy­cle), (Ru­ined), (Elmina’s Kitchen). (The Kentucky

You’re sit­ting on a wooden bench in the flick­er­ing can­dle­light of London’s Mer­maid Tav­ern, quaffing ale from a pewter tankard and talk­ing theater with Wil­liam Shake­speare and Ben John­son. Or you’re toss­ing down shots and beers at the Lion’s Head or drink­ing black cof­fee late at night in Riker’s in the Vil­lage, dis­cussing play­writ­ing and writer’s block with Lan­ford Wil­son and Sam Shep­ard, as they scat­ter nuggets of wis­dom about the mys­te­ri­ous craft of writ­ing for the stage. Those days and those gath­er­ings are gone, if they ever ex­isted, and even if they weren’t gone, most of us would never find our way to the right places at the right times, never be a part of the heady give and take of those writ­ers’ dis­cus­sions — if, in fact, they talked about writ­ing at all.

“Play­wrights don’t talk about writ­ing with each other much,” Jef­frey Sweet re­veals in the in­tro­duc­tion to his new book, What Play­wrights Talk About When They Talk About Writ­ing. They dish about other things — “di­rec­tors, ac­tors, pro­duc­ers, agents, alimony, and real es­tate.” But the ac­tual craft of writ­ing — the tricks and the pit­falls and the wells of de­spair and the mo­ments of ela­tion — these top­ics don’t get aired much in open con­ver­sa­tion.

They do in this book. Sweet has as­sem­bled a group of suc­cess­ful con­tem­po­rary play­wrights and got­ten them to open up about what they do and how they do it. It’s not a gag­gle of drama­tists talk­ing shop, shout­ing over one an­other and wax­ing philo­soph­i­cal or con­tentious as the hours pass and the liquor flows. It’s a se­ries of one-on-ones, con­ducted by Sweet (who is him­self a play­wright), which orig­i­nated as a way to mark the 10th an­niver­sary of the Yale Drama Se­ries and the David Charles Horn Foun­da­tion Prize, a Yale com­pe­ti­tion for emerg­ing play­wrights.

The par­tic­i­pants in the book were drawn from the com­pe­ti­tion’s panel of judges. Some, like John Guare, Caryl Churchill, and David Mamet, de­clined to par­tic­i­pate. But the list of writ­ers who agreed to sit down with the au­thor and lift the veil on the cre­ative process and the state of con­tem­po­rary theater in­cludes some sto­ried names: griz­zled vet­er­ans like Arthur Ko­pit (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad), car­toon­ist/play­wright Jules Feif­fer (Lit­tle Mur­ders), and A.R. Gur­ney (Sylvia, Love Let­ters); the next wave, writ­ers in­clud­ing Mar­sha Nor­man (’Night, Mother), David Hare (Sky­light), and Christo­pher Du­rang (Vanya and So­nia and Masha and Spike); and some of the newer mod­els like Jane An­der­son

Robert Schenkkan Lynn Not­tage and Kwame KweiArmah

Sweet brack­ets his col­lec­tion with two in­ter­views he con­ducted prior to the launch­ing of this project. He opens with a talk he had in 2010 with Ed­ward Al­bee, a man revered and hon­ored by many of the oth­ers as the fa­ther of mod­ern play­writ­ing. Al­bee died in Septem­ber 2016, as this book was go­ing to press. And Sweet closes with his con­ver­sa­tion with Lan­ford Wil­son three years be­fore Wil­son passed away in 2011 at seventy-three.

The writ­ers talk about what got them started, what and who in­spired them, what they try to avoid, and what they em­brace. Mar­sha Nor­man warns that “if the char­ac­ter de­scrip­tion is more than two sen­tences long, we’re dead,” and that “an­other sign that you’re in trou­ble is a huge, long mono­logue at the be­gin­ning.” She urges as­pir­ing writ­ers to write from “their stuff. ... That means that you know the sub­ject that has been as­signed to you by the uni­verse . ... You know what your sub­ject is and you don’t try to write any­thing else.” Some of her col­leagues take a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. David Hare says, “I’ve rarely writ­ten about my­self. And I’m not re­ally in­ter­ested to.” Jules Feif­fer of­fers this: “My ba­sic thought process to this mo­ment is mak­ing it all up as I go along.”

One of the ma­jor themes elicited by Sweet from his col­lo­cu­tors is the dif­fer­ence be­tween Bri­tish theater and the Amer­i­can stage. Kwame Kwei-Armah, a Bri­tish play­wright born in Eng­land of émi­gré par­ents and who now serves as artis­tic direc­tor of Bal­ti­more’s Cen­ter Stage, ob­serves that “the Bri­tish play­wright has been schooled in the art of state-of-the-na­tion plays. We’re trained by cri­tique, by re­ac­tion, and pro­duc­tion his­tory that the role of the play­wright is to be the per­son who says, ‘This is our coun­try right now — from a po­lit­i­cal as well as a so­cial as well as a so­ci­o­log­i­cal perspective.’ ” He says that the Amer­i­can play­wright has been pushed into work­ing “through the lens of metaphor, and us­ing the fam­ily as metaphor, in a way that we may not be pushed to do in Bri­tain.” It of­ten comes down to a dif­fer­ence in scale. The Bri­tish, with a state-sub­si­dized theater, think big; Amer­i­cans write with an eye on the bud­get. Don­ald Mar­gulies puts it this way: “I like get­ting my plays pro­duced. And the re­al­ity is that plays with smaller casts or man­age­able-sized casts get pro­duced more read­ily than larger, fis­cally un­wieldy plays.”

There’s a lot of pro­fes­sional in­sight in this col­lec­tion of in­ter­views, a lot of good ad­vice, and the in­valu­able perspective of a glimpse into how these writ­ers think. From time to time, Sweet seems, in his ques­tions, to insert him­self into the flow a bit more strongly than nec­es­sary. “I don’t claim to have the pro­file many in this book have,” he writes some­what wist­fully in the in­tro­duc­tion, “but for forty-five years my work has been pro­duced pro­fes­sion­ally on stages large and small.” The jacket flap iden­ti­fies Sweet as an “award-win­ning play­wright and theater his­to­rian,” and he has cer­tainly been around the busi­ness a long time, writ­ing, teach­ing, and en­joy­ing friend­ships with theater folk. If his ques­tions some­times seem to strain a lit­tle to im­press the reader with his in­side bona fides, still he does, as he says, “know the ter­ri­tory.” And this book will help the rest of us to know it bet­ter. — Jonathan Richards

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