I picked up an interesting book at TheatreBooks in Toronto this summer. It’s called The Play That Changed My Life. Published by the America Theatre Wing, edited by Ben Hodges with an introduction by Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive), the book is a collection of essays by, and interviews with, contemporary American playwrights about plays that influenced them.
The title is somewhat misleading. David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) quotes Marsha Norman (The Secret Garden) as saying; “every dramatist has a play that got them hooked on the theater”. This may not be entirely true. In some cases, the writers talk about specific plays that influenced their decision to write or influenced their writing styles. In others, they discuss the experiences with theater that ignited their passion for the medium and their awareness that it could become their life’s work. Both are equally fascinating as we see how these influences would later inform their creative work.
Some do cite a specific plays. David Auburn’s (Proof) father was a Sheridan scholar so he grew up with School For Scandal, Restoration comedies and Shakespeare. He did not consider writing for the theater as a career, however, until he saw a production of The House of Blue Leaves by John Guare.
David Henry Hwang learned about the power of live performance as a child watching rehearsals of Menotti’s operetta The Medium in a church basement but says he knew he wanted to be a playwright when he saw a production of Peter Schaffer’s Equus.
Charles Fuller says his best-know work; A Soldier’s Play; is a riff on the American classic Billy Budd.
David Ives (All In the Timing) said his experiences in the theater in high school made him understand theater on a personal level but he decided to be a playwright during a matinée of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Interestingly, for Albee, that moment was when he saw Jimmy Durante on stage in Jumbo.
For Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House) the life-changing event was seeing Paula Vogel’s play The Baltimore Waltz.
The first play John Patrick Shanley (Doubt) ever saw was The Miracle Worker but the influential experience came in high school while working backstage in a school production of Cyrano de Bergerac.
For Diana Son (Stop Kiss) the moment came during Hamlet; in a production where the title role was played by a female actor.
For Regina Taylor (Os-Bla-Dee, The Drowning Crow) it was Adrienne Kennedy’s play Funnyhouse of a Negro.
Even when they don’t cite a specific play, there seem to be some common threads of influence identified. Two writers said they learned about the power of telling a story through dialog by listening to radio plays. Two writers cited the scenes of Broadway plays and musicals presented on The Ed Sullivan Show as influential in their love of theater.
Few cited ‘the classics’ as an early influence, in fact, many of the writers said their early influences were not plays at all but musicals. I found this surprising since none of the writers are primarily known for their work in musical theater. Christopher Durang in particular cites two very different musical influences; How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Carnival.
Three writers cited as formative, their experience with Cuban-American playwright and teacher Maria Irene Fornes. I confess to being unfamiliar with Ms Fornes’ work but look forward to learning more about her.
Horton Foote (Young Man From Atlanta, Trip to Bountiful; the screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies) was studying to be an actor when he saw two Ibsen plays performed the same day; both starring Eva Le Gallienne; Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder. There is a wonderful quote from Mr. Foote; “Talent was abundant but genius and originality are quite rare.”
Several writers cited experiences they had as children with parents involved in local community theaters on various levels.
Tina Howe (Prides Crossing) became a playwright in college when she was unable to complete an assignment to write a short story. She wrote a play as an alternative to handing in a blank page. The play was well received and presented as a student production; with Jane Alexander in the lead. She was already a playwright when she saw the play that most influenced her; Ionesco’s La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano). Among other things, it showed her what ultimately would not work for her as a writer.
The last essay in the book is by Doug Wright (Quills, I Am My Own Wife) sharing the experience of how West Village avant garde performances colored his experience of life when he arrived in New York City as a graduate student. His memories of Charles Ludlam speak less to their influence on his work as an artist than to their influence on his life as a gay man in the early years of AIDS; and the years that followed.
When asked about the feeling of knowing that his work may now be influential to future generations of writers, John Patrick Shanley said: “..Edmond Rostand writes Cyrano and he dies and then these kids in the Bronx put on this play and I see it, and for me it’s not the past…it’s his past, it Rostand’s past, but it’s my future. And so the work I’ve done is my past, but it is somebody else’s future, along with the thousands and thousands of other strands of literature that they will come upon and that helps humanity go forward.”
It is an interesting book. I’m glad I read it. But as is so often the case when I read something like this, there is homework. I have to dig out and re-read The Baltimore Waltz and The House of Blue Leaves and see what I can learn about Maria Irene Fornes. We have tickets to see a local production of Equus next month.