By Justin Sanders
“To act, someone needs to give you a great role. To direct, you need a great play. To design, you need a production. But to write, all you need is an idea and a pen and some blank paper and you can command your own future.”
It’s as stirring a testament to the noble pursuit of playwriting as one could imagine – the kind of inspirational aphorism that might be etched in the halls of our finest theatrical institutions. And, in his recent interview with CreativeFuture, it was but one of many hyper-eloquent turns of phrase dropped as casually as a pair of jeans by the endlessly engaging playwright, screenwriter, and librettist Doug Wright.
The future Wright would subsequently command is very much still in progress, a decades-long career of astonishing scope and prowess that has ranged from a dramatic reimagining of the final days of the Marquis de Sade (Quills) to the Tony®- and Pulitzer-winning I Am My Own Wife, which tells the true story of a transgender woman who survived the Nazi and Communist regimes in East Berlin.
Along the way, Wright has written the books for hit Broadway musicals such as The Little Mermaid and War Paint, earned a Golden Globe® nomination for the screenplay adaptation of Quills, and served as president of the Dramatists Guild of America.
As insightful and engaging an interviewee as we could ever hope to talk to, Wright spoke to us about his own struggles to establish himself in the business, why he disagrees with the phrase “write what you know”, and what it was like to work under the wing of legendary television producer Norman Lear.
“The things we worked on together did not move forward,” Wright remembered. “But in the same breath, it was a mentorship with one of the great comic minds of our age, and one of the most politically astute and engaged minds that I had ever encountered.”
Clearly, as evidenced by the following conversation, Doug Wright was taking notes.
JUSTIN SANDERS: Where are you from originally, Doug, and how did you get into playwriting?
DOUG WRIGHT: I grew up in Dallas, Texas. My parents had both minored in theater in college, so they were big fans, and they took us to see a lot of productions when I was young. I became smitten with it and started to take local theater classes and mow lawns in the summer so I could pay for a subscription at the local resident theater.
As I got older, I realized I had to focus on a single discipline if I was going to pursue theater as a career. This dismayed me at first because I’d spent my high school years acting in plays and directing plays and making sets and costumes – and the idea of only doing one thing was somewhat upsetting to me. But I finally realized that to act, someone needs to give you a great role. To direct, you need a great play. To design, you need a production. But to write, all you need is an idea and a pen and some blank paper and you can command your own future.
So, I sort of narrowed it down in that pragmatic way and did an undergraduate major in theater and art history and then got an MFA in playwriting at New York University.
JS: After completing your education, how did you get your start in the business?
DW: I was very fortunate in that my graduate school thesis was also my first full-length play – Interrogating the Nude – and that play went on to the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, and then was subsequently produced by the Yale Repertory Theater. I was by no means earning a living yet, but it told me I wasn’t crazy to pursue this as a profession.
From there, I would teach English courses and I would temp at law firms and cobble together the usual medley of jobs to get by in New York City. Then my second full-length play, Dinosaurs, was also picked up and done by the Yale Repertory Theater, and it caught the attention of a renowned television producer and a remarkable man named Norman Lear, who brought me out to Los Angeles for about three years to work on developing new television projects with him.
And suddenly, I was a solvent writer.
JS: I am certainly familiar with Norman Lear, one of the seminal television creators. What did you work on for those three years under his umbrella?
DW: Let’s see, we wrote an episode of a show set in a futuristic high school. I briefly worked on an All in the Family reunion special. And we wrote what I felt was a very funny series about a sporting goods manufacturing company in the 1800s based loosely on the Spaulding family.
JS: That sounds amazing!
DW: [Laughs.] It was pretty charming, and it was going to be the first period sitcom!
It was all enormous fun, but it was also a frustrating time. It was the late ’80s and early ’90s and The Simpsons and cable were just starting to erupt. The shows that Norman had created that were such bell-weathers in the ’70s, like One Day at a Time and The Jeffersons, had sort of given way to a new kind of American satire, and so the things we worked on together did not move forward.
But in the same breath, it was a mentorship with one of the great comic minds of our age, and one of the most politically astute and engaged minds that I had ever encountered – and it forged a friendship that I’m grateful to still enjoy today.
JS: Seeing as you went on become a seasoned New York playwright, I have to assume your career as a television writer in Los Angeles didn’t pan out. What happened?
DW: I always had a great passion for the theater and that’s where I really wanted to succeed. The opportunity to work for Norman was quite unexpected – but really thrilling and so, of course, I took it. But I learned that TV wasn’t the best medium for me. I think of myself, for better or worse, as a kind of wordsmith. I love wrestling with language on the page and I love living inside my own imagination. I don’t love sitting around a table pitching jokes to other incredibly clever people. I’m intimidated by that. I just felt like the atmosphere in a TV writers’ room didn’t let me do my best work.
I didn’t get another job in television, and when I came back to New York after those three years with Norman, I really redoubled my effort to write plays – [laughs] which, of course, is the least remunerative thing you can do in the writing world. I was making calls to a – fortunately – very supportive dad, saying, “you gotta help me out with the rent,” and I was deeply discouraged.
I went back to teaching and had some tough years until I got a fellowship at Princeton University where I could just take the year off and write. That was a remarkable year because I was able to complete my play, Quills, which went on to a successful production and we sold it as a movie to Fox Searchlight. I was hired to adapt the screenplay and that made me eligible for other screen jobs.
Since Quills was produced at the New York Theater Workshop in 1995, I’ve been able to earn a full-time living as a writer. But I was in my early 30s before that happened.
JS: Quills recounts the imagined final days in the life of the French revolutionary, Marquis de Sade, whose writings were, to put it mildly, controversial. In fact, the word “sadist” was coined in reference to his distinctive brand of literary sexual cruelty. What compelled you to take on this intensely polarizing individual in a dramatic work?
DW: At the time I wrote that play, the country was engaged in a really ugly battle over the National Endowment for the Arts. North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms wanted to shut down that branch of the government entirely, because he thought they were contributing to provocative and offensive art.
Our culture has always had this art versus pornography debate. There are certain people, from Mark Twain to Sylvia Plath, who have fallen afoul of the right wing in their work and been persecuted for it. I got really engaged by that and I wanted to write a play about it – but it’s easy to defend maligned artists of significant merit. I thought that if I could write a play that, in its defense of free speech, used as its subject probably the most toxic, malicious, demented, and rage-filled author who ever lived, then I would have really done something.
JS: Talk about adapting your own play to a screenplay – because it can be much more complicated than meets the eye.
DW: It can! Quills the play had an arch theatricality that was really thrilling onstage, but which could have curdled on film if we didn’t handle it just right. People are sometimes surprised to hear that the play is actually much more explicit and violent than the movie. To silence a writer in a play, you could cut off his hands and everyone would understand it as a metaphor symbolizing censure. But when you go to the movies, there is a literalism that is overwhelming and if something horrible happens to a character they’re maimed and injured for all time.
So, I had to make sure that the metaphors landed in a new way in the movie, and it was challenging. But it was great because I had never written a screenplay before and I got paid to learn the craft of screenwriting. And then when the director Phil Kauffman came on board, and I started to rewrite the script from his notes, it was just that much more of a tremendous education with a really veteran, brilliant filmmaker. I was so lucky.
JS: I have to also ask you about your groundbreaking one-person play, I Am My Own Wife. When it debuted on Broadway in 2004, the New York Times described it as a “quiet, dramatic tale about an East German transvestite played by an unknown male actor speaking in heavily accented English and wearing a black dress and a string of pearls.” How did this unusual production come about?
DW: A friend of mine from childhood was working as a correspondent for U.S. News and World Report in Berlin around the time that the Berlin Wall fell in the late ’80s/early ’90s. He alerted me to the existence of a really singular character who had been living in Eastern Berlin during the Cold War years: A trans person who was born a cis male but identified culturally and personally as a woman, had rechristened themselves Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, and had lived presenting as a woman under both the Nazis and the communists.
I thought, “How remarkable to lead such an unconventional life in the face of two of the most impressive regimes that western culture has ever produced.” As a gay guy from Texas, I had my own feelings about what it meant to grow up different in a hostile environment, and I thought, “Man, if Charlotte can do it in the face of Nazis and communists, it shouldn’t be so hard to do it in front of a few born-again Christians.”
I was desperately curious to learn how she had navigated those waters and couldn’t imagine such a radical life lived in such oppressive times. That’s how I knew I had to write about her. I visited with her on and off for about three years and amassed about 25 cassette tapes of interviews as material for the basis of the play.
JS: Did you always know that I Am My Own Wife would be a one-person show?
DW: No, I didn’t. I was invited by the Sundance Theater Lab to work on the play one summer, and they told me I could bring a cast and a director. I had conscripted my dear friend Moisés Kaufman to direct, but I hadn’t written anything yet. All I had were these tapes and a transcript, and I thought that to take a whole cast would be greedy.
So, I called my dear friend Jefferson Mays, an actor who I had worked with for years, and said, “Do you want to go to Utah with me and Moisés and work on this crazy play?” And Jefferson said, “Sure!”
On the very first day at Sundance, we got the transcript out and Moisés and I sat behind our music stands and told Jefferson to just read the transcript and we would wait and see if it started sounding dramatic. And Jefferson started sort of aping my voice. He would say, “So, Charlotte, what were you like when you were a small child?” And then he would read the next line as Charlotte and say [adopts a heavy German accent], “Vell, Doug when I was a small child…”
And Moisés and I got completely engaged. We thought, “Gosh, we don’t need a cast. We have the nimblest actor in the known world. Let’s just make it a one-person piece,” And suddenly the play just started pouring out of me. We worked on it all summer long and by the end of the summer, we had finished the first act and Jefferson was playing 30 different characters, and it just seemed to be firing on all cylinders.
JS: That’s a wonderful story about the collaborative nature of theater. The play went on to be a huge success, winning not only the Tony® Awards for Best Play and Best Actor, but the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. What was it like winning the Pulitzer Prize?
DW: It really makes for a hell of an exciting day. You don’t want to underestimate its value in your career and personal life and, at the same time, you can’t overestimate it either. I would say that the extraordinary gift of the Pulitzer Prize is on your darkest days, it reminds you that there was one fleeting moment in time when the world actually thought you could write. On those inevitable days when the writing is not going well that can be a real shot in the arm.
It also had certain political implications because it suggested that Charlotte’s life was one that merited public attention and deserved full-throttle exploration, and, in that sense, it felt like an endorsement of LGBTQ+ experience – and that felt really, really powerful.
JS: We have come a long way in terms of representation in our cultural works – but I have to think that at the time, more than 20 years ago, it must have felt a little risky to dive so boldly into the story of a trans person.
DW: It did! And since then, the trans community has really stepped forward and announced itself and made its needs known in a really admirable way. The play has brought me in touch with that community regularly now, because trans actors have played the role, trans theater companies have produced the play, and trans critics have written about the play. And now they are educating me, for there are certain aspects of the play that already feel quite dated in its vision of the trans experience. We even made some slight adjustments to the text in the last major production because some of my nomenclature had fallen out of favor with their community.
But yes, I Am My Own Wife was relatively transgressive 20 years ago. It was about as distinctive a project that you could ever embark on at the time when I chose to undertake it.
JS: In your long and impressively diverse career, you have tackled stories ranging from the life and times of the Marquis de Sade to a country-rock musical cowritten with the lead singer of Phish. It seems as though you have studiously avoided easy categorization and yet you remain an in-demand playwright, screenwriter, and librettist. A “full-throttle” commitment to “distinctive” projects seems like your stock-in-trade at this point.
DW: I love that you observe that – because sometimes I feel like the diverse subjects that I’ve undertaken throughout my career have been a kind of liability. You hear a few poetic phrases of a Tennessee Williams play and you immediately recognize it as Tennessee Williams. You hear some really vivid, staccato cursing and you know it’s David Mamet. But I think my writing voice might be somewhat elusive because the works I have chosen are pretty autonomous and distinct from one another.
But I really disagree with the notion, “write what you know,” and when I have occasion to teach, I always tell students to write into the gritty heart of something that confuses you profoundly. Don’t write for a perceived marketplace. Don’t write what you think will be commercial. If you sit down and open a vein and tell the world something so precious and so secret that you have never even verbalized it before, then you will break through the marketplace.
I think that’s the noblest thing to do as a playwright, and the hardest thing to do – but if you can do that then you’re almost guaranteed to break through.
JS: It’s been a long, hard year for all of us, but theater practitioners in particular have seen their livelihoods decimated by the pandemic. Are you feeling hopeful about the future now that we are seeing some flickers of light at the end of this long, dark tunnel?
DW: I am. People have been predicting the end of the theater for centuries, and it’s always survived wars and plagues and every other natural phenomenon you can think of. I think it will come back a little hesitantly at first, because it’s going to take people a long time to get comfortable in crowds again.
But then it’s going to come roaring back – because people need it, and people miss it.