Bruce Graham on the set of Dex and Julie Sittin' in a Tree, which had its world premiere at the Arden in 2007
Interview with Playwright Bruce Graham
Arden associate artistic director Amy Dugas Brown interviews Something Intangible playwright Bruce Graham.
Amy Dugas Brown: What was the seed for Something Intangible?
Bruce Graham: It was 15 years ago. It was going to be a play about the Van Gogh brothers. I made notes on it. I had Lautrec and Gauguin and all those guys in it. That seemed like too much work! And, also, it was too diverse; too many characters, too many stories to follow. And so I boiled it down to these guys. I started to work on it while I was fishing in Alaska, thinking I'd get a few pages done and I had so much time on my hands I wrote the whole first act! Once it started, after being up (in my head) for so long, it just kind of thaws out. So it was really easy. I guess it was 15 years so it wasn't that easy... But once it comes out, it's a breeze.
ADB: Too many characters, too many stories. Any other reason you made the switch from the Van Goghs to the Wistons?
BG: Yeah, that, and, you know I'm a film historian, I teach it. Look, I was in the 6th grade reading Hollywood in the '30s. Staying up late at night and watching these old movies on the weekends. I saw every Universal horror movie ever made. My daughter didn't know movies came in color until she was like 6. The nice thing is that she can watch a black and white movie, most kids roll their eyes. It's something I've always studied and been passionate about, I know the language, know the lingo, so there weren't going to be anachronisms in (the script) the way there would have been if I'd have tried to write a play about Van Gogh. It's tough enough for me to step out of 2009, let alone go back that far. I feel very comfortable in (this play's) time period.
ADB: And do you think Tony, like Van Gogh, would cut off his ear for someone?
BG: Yes! Not for someone, but for his project. Absolutely. I think real artists would do anything... I think William Wilder said, or one of those famous directors of the 40s and 50s, when they heard about Sam Peckinpah being such a bastard on the set, said, "Hm, sounds like he's trying to make a good movie. It was Wilder who said, the first thing a director has to do is repress the urge to be a nice person. When he was off the set he was the nicest guy in the world, but when he got on the set he was a bastard and would make you do it 45 times. He didn't mind staying there until 10 o'clock at night, and the guy's track record is pretty impressive. I really think artists do that. Me, I'm too lazy to be an artist.
ADB: Yeah, yeah. Bruce, what excites you about this play?
BG: Well, the first-time audience always excites me! And because it's something different. It's the first play I've ever written that costumes were important. My plays, traditionally, are not costumers' delights. You can pretty much go into someone's closet and pull stuff out. This one is really, really different. The time period (excites me). And, it's been something I've wanted to say for a long time. I always hate, you know, "the author's message," and the, what, the "Aristotelian thought," and all that, but the whole left brain/right brain. Those of us in the arts often look down our noses at "civilians" – who are out there raising the money, balancing the books. There has to be a real partnership. Even in the best marriages, if anyone is too much alike, forget it. You got to have balance. Tony couldn't create these things without Dale. And yet these people are often overlooked. "You don't know how to talk to artists." Dale knows exactly how to talk to artists! When an artist hears what he doesn't want to hear, all of a sudden it's, "Oh, my God, he doesn't know how to talk to me, I'm an artist!" I can't wait to see if it works.
I write scenes I don't want to watch sometimes. Where I feel I'm making the characters do embarrassing things, or awkward things, or things I feel bad making them do. There were two scenes in Dex and Julie like that. (There's a scene) Ian has that I'm going to find it difficult to watch. Once I watch it once in performance, I'm going to be like, "OK! I'm going to be looking the other way!" I feel like I make people do terrible things!
ADB: Any surprises so far in rehearsal? Actors teach you anything?
BG: Oh, yeah. I'm amazed. We started Tuesday and on Friday we just sat around and read it and already the performances are starting to come alive, in four days. The suggestions from the cast about changes, I've probably taken 85% of them. Ian made a terrific suggestion for a change in the second act which I think really improves it. And Volansky (the dramaturg) is kind of a pain in the..., but she's Volanksy...
ADB: She's brilliant...
BG: Yeah, and she's helping. And Terry's just kind of the ringmaster. He just kind of sits back and let's all the nutcases bounce off each other and then says, "Let's get back to work." I love Terry, I've never worked with him before and so far we don't want to kill each other.
ADB: But to be a good director, he's going to have to repress the urge to be a nice person. So, you might want to kill him soon.
BG: I don't think I will!
ADB: How do you know when a script you're working on is ready?
BG: I don't, always. I don't even try to write the script until I have the end of the first act. The end of the first act is going to drive the rest of the play. Then I want at least two conflicts or twists or something in the second act. Once I have all those ingredients, I think I have a play that will work. Once I have a story to tell and characters who change and a character who the audience joins on the journey and cares about, once I have all those things I think the play will work, or at least work to the level where people won't walk out. I am for higher than that.
It has to be a world that interests me. I think human experiences are universal. I'm always telling my students, you write a play about your family, that's great, we all have families, but what is it about your family that I'm going to interested in? Why am I going to sit there and pay attention to your family? There has to be some sort of universality to a story. It can't be "this play is all about me and you can watch it!" No, I don't like plays like that. My world cannot be further from the world of Asher Lev, but I still got caught up in the story. Opus – I know nothing about music except that I like it, but I could get caught up in the story of (Opus') characters. To me, that's smart playwrighting.
ADB: You are a screenwriter as well. How similar or different are the disciplines?
BG: For me, the actual writing discipline is similar. You write for X amount of hours, find act breaks, that sort of thing. You don't fall in love with it, because they (the producers) can do anything they want to it. Sometimes you get a producer that protects you. The guy I just did my Christmas movie with at Hallmark, I've done a couple movies with him and he always tries to protect me. Sometimes he says, "we can't do this," or, "you gotta change this," and then, that's fine. I'm glad to do it. But I've dealt with some very well-educated, stupid people in Hollywood. Back when Tony and Dale were working, these guys weren't artists. Louis B. Meyer was a junkman. Harry Cohen was a song plugger. These were all just immigrants, no money. Sam Goldwyn was a glove maker. But they got in on this thing and their gut told them if a story would work, their gut told them what people would buy tickets to see, and they were very successful for many years and so they must have been right. They put out 52 movies a year back then as opposed to the 10 that Universal will put out this year. So, I'm dealing with a bunch of people who know nothing about the history of movies, know nothing about audiences. I made a reference to African Queen one time in a meeting with a young executive and he had no idea what I was talking about. I'm like, "1951, Humphrey Bogart won his Oscar for it, what, are you a moron?" It's like baseball players who don't know who Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig are. You gotta know the history of your business! Once one guy was telling me something about a story when Minor Demons was running off Broadway, and was done with six chairs and it was a brilliant production and audiences were sitting there on the edge of their seats and I was like, "I got a show right now being done with six chairs. No spaceships, no car crashes, none of that stuff, and I've got people on the edge of their seats, don't tell me about story, alright?"
This may explain why I'm a has-been in Hollywood. But, the money's great. And sometimes a project will come along that I love.
ADB: What's in the pipeline?
BG: I've got Any Given Monday, which will open next year at Theatre Exile and then moves up to Act II Playhouse. It looks as if I'll be acting in the Act II production.
I've got up in my head the next one. I go back to 1919. It takes place on an Indian Reservation in Nebraska. I'm heading out there after this project. Once again, something different. I don't want to write the same place twice. I could write a dozen Belmont Avenue Social Clubs. Maybe I'll go back and write another one someday, I had fun writing it. I get too bored.
I want to write a musical. There's an old Universal movie I think would make a hilarious musical. I want to write the book. I have no interest in writing lyrics. Usually with no musicals, the book sucks. Well, with my musical, the book won't suck! Egomaniac! That's on tape, too.
ADB: What a perfect way to end the interview. You heard it here first: Egomaniac Bruce Graham's book won't suck.