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Life is a Combo Platter: an Interview with Craig Lucas
It was one of those unexpected 65˚ days in mid-March and I was sitting outside the Cherry Lane Theater in Manhattan, considering the many great playwrights whose work has graced the stage inside, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neil, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, and Sam Shepard. How appropriate, I thought, for Craig Lucas to now be among that historic list. Mr. Lucas’ prolific body of work has been seen on Broadway three times: Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless, and The Light in the Piazza. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and has been nominated for the Tony twice. His new play Ode to Joy, produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, opened at Cherry Lane February 12th and has been extended until April 19th.
Ode to Joy is about addiction. But it is also about unconditional love, forgiveness, making amends, and, as Mr. Lucas writes, “Joy, motherfuckers. Joy.” As someone who has been open about his own battle with addiction, there are plummeting depths in this story that are not for the faint of heart—or stomach. But there is a glimmer of hope, of humor, that shines from the round opening of each character’s [played by Kathryn Erbe, Arliss Howard, and Roxanna Hope] personal oubliette. With heartfelt honesty, Mr. Lucas discussed the process of writing this piece, as well as the influences that drive him forward as a theater artist.
Sarah T. Schwab: “Ode to Joy,” produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, is about addiction. In a recent interview with the New York Times, you said that you had originally suggested that this play was your own “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” but it ended up “changing things for you.” Can you discuss the process of writing this piece, and what changed in your life?
Craig Lucas: When I began writing this play, I was on a sabbatical in Florida for a yearlong Hermitage writer’s residency. I thought, “If I’m going to tackle something scary, then maybe this is the time to do it.” I knew I was going to have plenty of time to steep myself in a certain amount of contemplative preparation and thought. It’s very difficult to write about things that are close to you, because the personal meaning of certain events might outweigh what might be universal; how [Eugene] O’Neill managed to tell a version of his family’s history is a mystery to me. Very soon upon being at the writer’s retreat, I realized I couldn’t do that. I have to make up a number of components to a story in order to be able to enter it. I’ve only ever written one thing that was purely autobiographical, a one-act play called, “What I Meant Was.”
So, I started by writing a seduction scene between a [male] widower and a slightly younger woman and it turned into about an hour-long play. Then I set it aside and I started to write about the woman and her relationship with to another person, which was a female, and I realized I had a play about someone who had been in a heterosexual and a homosexual relationship during a 15-year period. I was thinking a lot about painters and their process, and I was trying to imagine how she might engage with her work and maintain a commitment to it through troubled relationships. The play became funnier and funnier the more I worked on it, and the funnier it got, the truer it seemed to get. I soon realized that I didn’t have anything remotely in the ballpark of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” It appears to be my place in life to write these things that sometimes deal with very shocking, or upsetting, or challenging circumstances, and to see within that the comic potential, along with the more serious aspects. Maybe that’s something with the way I was raised, or the way I experience life. It’s a combo platter: that the farcical and the tragic, the witty and the sorrowful are often intertwined and juxtaposed. Separating them out feels artificial to me.
STS: Some critics have described the play as a “romantic comedy.” Others have called it a “traumatic comedy.” However you decide to define it, I think you can agree that there is a fair amount of suffering in the play. Some artists believe that great suffering is the stuff of great art. Do you believe that to be true?
CL: I think it depends what art and what artists you’re talking about. For instance, I think there are great visual artists, where what’s communicated to me, anyway, is not essentially about suffering. I think it’s possible to be a visual artist and perhaps a composer and to have work that is about serenity and beauty and kindness, whereas with the narrative arts, without conflict, without loss or the threat of suffering, it’s hard to maintain interest in the story. We don’t go to plays to see how young lovers fall in love, meet no obstacles, get married and have rewarding, healthy lives and brilliant children all of whom do wonderfully in the world without ever suffering any losses or setbacks. I don’t think that’s what we look for when we’re looking for narrative. I think if the worst loss one has ever encountered in life is not having gotten on the team for the Ping-Pong tournament, then perhaps you have to imagine greater sufferings to create a compelling narrative. I’d be thrilled to see someone defy that rule, but I don’t know that one could. When we’re watching narrative, we’re viewing it with our perception of suffering. So, you could write a dialogue that went on for 20 minutes in which no one appeared to conflict at all, and we would read into it the subterranean understanding that there was conflict. That’s the nature of how we invest in stories, I suspect.
STS: You write about two people falling in love while drinking, a topic that you have said is close to your own experience. The narrator of the play, Adele, who is played by Kathryn Erbe, takes a look into her grim past by saying, “This is the story of how the pain goes away.” Has writing this piece been cathartic for you?
CL: No. I think our job as artists is, perhaps, to provide an opportunity for an audience to experience a catharsis, or to at least enter into the work with a certain amount of subjectivity excited by the encounter. But I don’t think it is important that the artist experience a catharsis. I think it’s important that they make a coherent and amusing and engaging story. I think the idea of making art that is in any way therapeutic or palliative for the artist is incorrect, because at least insofar the experiences I’ve had with artists who I consider to be great making the work is costly and it is not about in any way helping the self, it’s about creating a work that has validity. It is difficult to make any kind of work, even a work that looks very simple and is easily construed and shared with a broad audience – that’s hard to do. Making a work that is more challenging than that, that might divide the audience, or happily excite certain people and dismay others, is also hard to do. It’s all a matter of what you consider to be excellent work. A lot of people prefer the kind of painting that allows one to easily identify the figures in the painting. I imagine that’s probably very hard to do. I don’t know; I don’t paint. But then there are painters who don’t do that. They create works that don’t immediately look like anything in the “real world,” and for those to have a deep impact and meaning, both in the history of art but also in the moment of one’s engagement with them, to do that well, I understand is also very hard. To paint the way that Joan Mitchell painted or [Willem] de Kooning painted is by no means easier than painting how Mary Cassatt painted.
STS: What is it about playwriting that you find appealing for your narrative voice?
CL: Well, playwriting is slightly different than narrative fiction told through prose because all you have is the behavior of the characters. You can’t take a 100-page detour onstage to tell the audience about whale hunting. They will go to sleep or leave. You can put a book down. It’s a completely different art form. And plays are largely about human behavior. So that’s what can be evinced through dialogue and the movement of the body. In a novel you can enter that person’s mind and reveal what isn’t being said. You can reveal a panoply of experiences that deal with emotions and thoughts. You can also stand above the characters and speak about them in an omniscient matter, which is generally not done in a play, although it has been; Thornton Wilder did it in “Our Town” with the Stage Manager. Playing with those conventions is interesting and sometimes meaningful. But by and large what playwrights are interested in is the behavior. How do certain human beings act? How do they behave when they’re in a certain situation when they want something? How do they go about trying to achieve their goals? Composing that is a particular and perhaps a peculiar skill.
STS: And an enjoyable skill?
STS: Many of your plays consider the definition of family. How do you define the role of family in your own life?
CL: I was adopted. My mother was an extremely lively, amusing, engaged and unpredictable person. My father and I – it was just the three of us – lived enthralled to her labile conditions. And they were often very delightful and funny. She had an absolutely wicked sense of humor and an ability to cut to the chase and say things in surprising ways. I’ve always been drawn to people like her who can turn a phrase and surprise you between the beginning of a sentence and the ending of the sentence. She was really a life force.
STS: Was she an artist as well?
CL: She was a painter… How interesting. I just realized that – the connection to “Ode to Joy.” My dad was a stalwart, kind, hard-working, conscientious, not-very-imaginative guy who lived to make my mother and me feel safe and taken care of. I was very lucky insofar as family is concerned. What I have experienced since I left home, went to college, and came to New York is that in America people often make families – ad hoc families – that supplant or augment or “correct” their childhood experience of family. I think we’re at a moment in history where people make families that don’t look like the families of yore, the nuclear ones. I went to high school with a girl who left and went to LA and became the third in a ménage between a man and a woman. She’s been with them for 40 years. I think that there are all kinds of families and one meets so many bisexual people that you just have to assume that family structures are all the time being formed. New York is filled with people that come from different places and seem to have in some large number of instances cut themselves off from their origins and started again.
My new play “Ode To Joy” is about three people who are not identifying themselves as members of their original families. They’re looking for new kinds of families, new kinds of homes. Children change everything, which must be a tremendous amount of what shapes the destiny of people who have them. I haven’t had that experience. I didn’t have them. I wish I had, because I think I would be good at it and could really enjoy it.
STS: Do you enjoy mentoring younger artists? Does that, in some small way, substitute for not having children?
CL: I do. Yes. You know, it was offered to me. A number of powerful artists took me under wing and were really kind and attentive and generous when I needed mentoring. It was freely given, nothing was asked in exchange. And I find that I have that same drive to be there if I can. I mean, sometimes I let people down. I can’t provide what I would like to because of time, or a lack of sympathy aesthetically between their work and mine. And that can be hard. But I’m certainly grateful for those individuals who shared their expertise and love with me when I was coming up through the dark ranks. You’re always making your own way and it’s hard to know how to receive/accept/reject the standards that are in place when you begin as an artist. And then things can change—radically, drastically and rather fast. When I was young Edward Albee’s plays were thought to be “dirty.” He was denied the Pulitzer Prize for supposedly writing this dirty play [Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf]. And then a number of decades later, David Mamet was given the Pulitzer for having written a MUCH dirtier play [Glengarry Glen Ross]. There is no such thing as solid ground in theater, so those families we were talking about before can provide the closest community that we might make.
And of course those families change as well. We let go of friends or our friends let go of us. You have to renegotiate the relationships that do last. I find myself coming back to people I met when I was first starting out who are still there, and are still loving towards me, many of them, and I find myself shocked by the callousness or outright aggression of certain people who I thought were loving colleagues. I guess that’s all part of growing up. I’m a very late bloomer.
STS: Theater is known for its community environment. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the term “theater community” means to you, and why this community is important to someone who is a theater artist.
CL: Not everyone is the same. I know very good writers who do not feel themselves to be part of a community. I have interviewed very good and famous writers, asked them what other writers working today they admire and have been told on no uncertain terms: “No one.” So there are those people out there that do believe it is a dog-eat-dog, self-promoting world, who view the art world as one in which one work of art might supplant another. I don’t particularly believe that. I think that, although it’s helpful to sell tickets and promote oneself, the idea of giving prizes for works of art is silly. And maybe it’s a way to channel that aggression and competitiveness, but I am not very interested in the competitiveness or the aggression frankly. I think there’s room for every kind of possible art and there is an extremely diverse audience.
The theater community, for me, is rather small. It’s a group of people who work in the same field at the same time, and when you find sympathetic artists that are interested in collaborating with you, that does become a community. There are a handful of actors I would go anywhere to work with if they called and said, “I want to take this book and turn it into a movie,” or “I want you to work on this,” or “Can we look at your play from so many years ago? And would you be willing to rework it?” I would do that out of deference to their artistry, but also because I know them to be worth engaging with. The actors in “Ode to Joy” [Erbe, Howard, and Hope] are so good, so unbelievably helpful and their work is of such a high caliber… Why wouldn’t I want to continue that conversation? There are actors and directors that I’ve been in conversations with since my youth and that’s very precious to me.
For instance, there’s an actor that I’ve worked with since I was very young: Campbell Scott, along with his wife, came to see the play in previews, and it was tremendously useful to have them share their experience of the play because certain things go on around the theater. The audience in New York is divided between people who are looking for demanding work and those who wish an easy fix of something that might have easily existed on television 50 years ago. And there’s a critical community that likes the less challenging. Theater lags behind the other arts in certain ways. I’m old enough to remember when Beckett’s plays were completely dismissed by the critical community. I’m old enough to remember when Stephen Sondheim’s works were savaged and now he’s the grand old man of American musical theater. Many people who hail him now will never acknowledge how viscous and small-minded and absurdly dismissive they were. All that informs the audience.
Theater is also too expensive. The people that you really want to be speaking to – people who are living in a real America and not in one that involves wine cellars and drivers and private planes but rather unemployment, social security as a lifeline, the millions of people who have benefitted from Obamacare – are the ones in your audience. And if those people can’t afford to go to the play, then no rumor of reality is going to reach the stage. And unfortunately the people who write about theater work for bosses who represent the one percent. They’re not necessarily invested in that rumor of reality being on the stage. They’re interested in their jobs and careers and perceptions…
STS: You’re not afraid to make people uncomfortable in order to tell your story. Your writing demands a certain engagement from the audience…
CL: I don’t know why you wouldn’t want that. For me, I come to the theater to greet the play, to meet it at least half way. But I do find a lot of people sitting around me who want to sit back and have the play basically service them, as a prostitute would, and I find that not so interesting or meaningful.
STS: Have you always had the courage to write unapologetically? Or is this something you’ve learned over time?
CL: I’m not so sure it has anything to do with courage, because I’m a relatively fearful person. I would much prefer everyone to love me and like me and laugh. But I don’t have the ability to censor myself. In other words, if I see a landscape and there are the colors blue, red, yellow and orange, I don’t know how to show that landscape without showing the blue, the red, the yellow and the orange. If people start saying, “That’s too much color for me. Can you just stick to the cool colors?” I can’t. I don’t know how to do that in a way that feels respectable. At the end of the day, I need to look at myself in the mirror when I get home. I have to answer to the people who love me – my community, my family – who would say to me, “Why did you lie about that? Why did you clean that up? Why did you try so hard to find a way to make your work align with popular beliefs?” In my lifetime, popular beliefs have included rampant racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia… I have often been told by artistic directors, “I don’t know why you wrote a bisexual person, because I don’t know any bisexuals. I can’t sell this, so give me another play.” That’s where I get stuck, because I only have lived experience as the clay of what I’m going to shape. And if my lived experience tells me that there are bisexuals everywhere around me, and that sorrow and joy are inextricably bound together, I don’t know how to tell a story that amputates part of the whole body. It will lack integrity.
I wrote a play some years back, A Prayer For My Enemy, and an artistic director said, “This is about too many things.” Well, I pray every morning that I will write a play about too many things. The plays that I love the most – a play like Three Sisters [by Anton Chekhov], or a play like As You Like It [by William Shakespeare], or a play like Oedipus Rex [by Sophocles] – have no limit to the number of things they are about. They are capacious and multifaceted. There is no correct interpretation of them. And on first encountering a work like that, one is often flummoxed and at a loss for how to synthesize the experience, which I suppose is why so many great works of art are laughed at when they’re first shown. You know? The Armory Show of a hundred years ago? People were just bursting out laughing at paintings that none of us now would ever be able to touch, much less buy. It’s an interesting process, that people first ridicule what they don’t understand, or what makes them feel things that they might not want to feel. I like to go to the theater to be surprised. I like to see the mess of life, the work that reflects life’s messiness.
STS: Have you had moments of doubt in your writing? And if so, how did you get through those difficult times?
CL: Doubt is an important component to sanity. People always talk about self-esteem, self-worth. The only people who have complete self-esteem are lunatics. Doubt is necessary for the process. That’s why we proof a document: I doubt I spelled every word correctly, I doubt solecisms, I doubt I made myself entirely clear, or did I make myself too clear? An awful lot of playwriting is about cutting away what’s unnecessary. It’s a constant process of asking questions, which is what doubt is. I think you want the time and the skill to weigh all the considerations. Plato said, “No good decisions are made in haste.” Now we live in a culture where things are forgotten within seconds and everything must be expressed in 140 characters. Max.
Craig Lucas has written and directed numerous productions for stage and film, including Prelude to a Kiss, The Dying Gaul, Reckless, Missing Persons, and many others. He has written libretti for such works as The Light in the Piazza and Two Boys. In addition to being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and two Tony nominations, he has been awarded three Obie awards and NEA, Rockefeller, and Guggenheim fellowships.
Sarah T. Schwab is a fiction writer and playwright living in Manhattan. Her work has been published in The Missouri Review, The Evergreen Review, Writer’s Digest Magazine, The Buffalo News and Nerve.