Doug Wright: I am my own scribe

Playwright Doug Wright  talks about  obsessions, legacy, outliers  and the creative freedom of crafting for the stage.
By Julie Krug | Published: April 18, 2015


Doug WrightFor many of us, obsession is where it all begins. A story takes root as the first seed of interest is pressed into the ground. We water and nurture the object of our desire with intense interest and passionate research. Soon there’s a pulse. Next time we look, branches like arms are reaching for the sky. Characters multiply, plot stretches and story explodes into a leafy green circus.

To an outsider looking in – a familiar vantage point for veteran playwright Doug Wright – obsession in a writer might look like a neurosis. But Wright is a big believer in obsession. “If I’m going to ask an audience to pay good money and commit two or more hours of time to my play,” he says, “I urgently need to believe in it.”

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Wright has penned more than 10 plays, including musicals. In 2000, he adapted his play Quills, about the Marquis de Sade, for the screen in a movie by the same name. In 2004, Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for his Broadway play I Am My Own Wife, the true story of German transvestite Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf in Nazi Germany.

Wright obsessed over Mahlsdorf for 10 years before her doppleganger arrived on stage in a one-person show that’s now crossed the globe. It was during three intense years when he spent countless hours, accumulating hundreds of pages of personal interviews, that Wright not only grew to know Mahlsdorf, but he became her friend, as well.

Winning the Pulitzer for I Am My Own Wife was a defining moment. “I remember luxuriating in the fact that for one brief, tremendous moment in time there was a general consensus among the cognoscenti that I could actually write,” he says. But Wright wasn’t lulled into a sense of complacency. “To assume it was some kind of career-long sanction? I think that might be naive.”

Wright, 52, says obsessions are the heart of his plays. “Anytime you write a play, you’re saying: This obsesses me, this concerns me, this freaks me out and worries me a lot. How do you feel?” More often than not, his interests are deeply rooted in the stories of rebels and outcasts.

“Mostly, I’m compelled by outsiders; people who are marginalized in their own cultural moment, people who felt obligated to tell the truth when it wasn’t convenient,” says Wright.

Because artists are often acutely aware of society’s vision of the “other,” the playwright points to an unspoken desire and even a duty to give voice to outsiders. “Artists are responsible for curating the collective conscience of a people,” Wright says. “That’s a powerful incentive to write.” He believes artists willingly cast themselves as outliers, and it is this measure that provides the necessary distance to write about such people. “You have to write into the heart of what vexes, infuriates and confounds you,” he says.

Jefferson Mays in "I Am My Own Wife"

Jefferson Mays in “I Am My Own Wife”

Moises Kaufman, the playwright and founder of the Tectonic Theater Project, directed I Am My Own Wife, and in the collaboration saw firsthand how Wright’s interest bloomed into a full-blown obsession.

“Doug becomes truly obsessed with the subjects of his plays,” says Kaufman. “While working on I Am My Own Wife, he would often speak Charlotte’s words in her accent and use her cadences.” Kaufman learned as much about Mahlsdorf from Wright’s studious mimicry as he did from his own research.

During production, Kaufman says Wright’s obsession became contagious: “He inspired us with his exuberance. It was clear he was doing the work he’d longed to do for years, and he was joyful and playful.”

Kaufman calls the Texas-born playwright one of the most intelligent and curious people he has ever met.

Unsurprisingly, Wright’s obsession doesn’t stop with characters. The Yale graduate was a student of Terrence McNally, the Tony Award-winning playwright of Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime.

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“When he was my student at NYU,” says McNally, “he was meticulous and tenacious about his revisions on the script he was writing. He was even then one of those artists who believes that God is in the details.” Wright’s adjustments were sometimes so subtle that McNally couldn’t identify them, but he knew they made “progress towards a richer, better draft.”

McNally says it’s easy for students to get sidetracked in editing, but Wright never did. “He never lost his way in his re-writes,” says McNally, “especially on a play. He knew the work that had to be done, rolled up his sleeves, stayed calm and just did it – even then, when he was so young.”

Wright’s newest play, Posterity, opened in February at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in New York City. In a demonstration of life imitating art, the play tells the story of famed 19th-century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen as he sits for a sculptor and spars with the younger artist about his likeness, legacy and egotistical fears.

Wright creates work out of a desire to see his “own experience affirmed in the human sphere.” In an interview that is both generous and transparent, Wright talks about the support needed by successful writers. He points out the risks writers take for their work and how even anger is a source of artistic fuel. He occupies terrain that is both tough (What might we have to sacrifice for the art?) and abstract (Will our writing outlive us?). Lastly, he shows that our obsessions can haunt the rooms of our minds long after a project is over.

You’ve said you often write about rebels, outlaws and extremists, those on the outside looking in. What draws you to these characters?
I think they make appropriate subjects for drama. People who live on the margins of the culture can often teach us the most about it. For example, in Jennie Livingston’s landmark documentary Paris Is Burning, it’s disenfranchised, gay African American teenagers who teach us about the high-gloss world of white, privileged, female beauty.

Often, the people with the most compelling accounts of warfare aren’t the generals, but the refugees. Exclusion can breed expertise. Helena Rubinstein knew the admission policies of New York’s exclusive, anti-Semitic women’s clubs because she was rejected by them. Characters who’ve experienced injustice firsthand usually impart the greatest truths.

You’ve said you get very obsessed when working on a project or new idea. While an outsider might see obsession as neurotic, how important is this trait for writers?

Grey Gardens

Christine Ebersole in the Broadway musical “Grey Gardens”

If I am going to ask an audience to pay good money and commit two or more hours of their time to my play, I urgently need to believe in it. I often tell young writers, “If the subject isn’t sufficiently compelling to occupy your time and attention for the three-to-five year time span it takes to write and rewrite a good play, then why should an audience give you 120 minutes out of their lives?”

If our obsession with the subject matter we’ve chosen runs dry too soon, we won’t put in the necessary time to truly complete the play. I’ve written about the Marquis de Sade, the Beales of Grey Gardens and now Henrik Ibsen. But I’ve in no way exhausted those subjects for myself. I’m still transfixed by each and every one of them.

You encourage writers to write what they don’t know versus what they do know. But in Posterity, your character – the famous playwright Henrik Ibsen – seems to closely mirror you and your own life in some ways. What were the challenges of writing about the “known,” and what pitfalls can writers avoid when touching on their own stories? In what way does this play explore the unknown?
I’ll never forget a lecture I heard by the great screenwriter Paul Schrader. In it, he described teaching a college screenwriting course. He cited a young male student who had recently come out to his classmates as gay, but was still closeted at home. During the semester, the kid lived happily and unashamedly, but on vacation breaks, he’d return to his hometown and crawl back into his shell. He was writing his first screenplay about this bifurcated life. But like many young writers, the script was indulgent and overwrought, and the student over-valued certain passages simply because he knew them to be “true.”

What was the solution for the beginner’s “indulgent” script?
Schrader gave him an assignment: to abandon autobiography and write instead about a “double agent” during World War II, spying for both the Americans and the Germans. Suddenly, the student was able to pour all of his emotional and experiential knowledge – hard-won as it was – into a safe vessel; the distance of the subject from his own life liberated him. The resulting screenplay was both more interesting and more thematically truthful in relating the costs of living according to the will of others and not your own.

Sometimes as writers we need those vessels to truly open up and share what we know.

I know what’s it like to be a mid-career writer, facing middle age. On its own, that might not be sufficient material for a worthy play. But if I can take that knowledge and apply it to another artist’s experience in early 20th-century Norway, I might find the common truths that unite a titanic cultural figure like Ibsen, and a lone, 52-year-old lapsed Texan working on his iMac in Manhattan. And along the way, I might even create a work that has genuine literary merit.

Do you feel a sense of your own legacy? If so, how does this affect your writing?
I’ve no idea if I have a legacy or not. But I do know I’ve reached a certain age, and for the first time in my life, time feels finite. That makes me scrutinize with greater care the writing projects I elect to pursue. More than ever now, in my head and heart, they have to matter.

What most separates playwriting from other forms of writing?
Playwriting is less akin to being a novelist or poet than it is to authoring cookbooks. A script is a set of detailed instructions, which other people execute to make the final product. It’s a “recipe,” if you’ll forgive the cloying metaphor, for a three-dimensional event. Its chef is the director, and the cast, design team and crew make up the ingredients.

That’s why most playwrights don’t consider a new work truly “finished” until it has weathered at least one full production. Martha Stewart wouldn’t release a cake recipe without baking it first.

Playwriting differs from screenwriting in one respect: Playwrights hold the copyright on their own material, so no changes can be made to their texts without their authorization. Screenwriters are “workers for hire,” and so the studio owns their work and can run roughshod over it with impunity.

So there’s more creative freedom in playwriting than screenwriting?
Immeasurably. Again, it’s a copyright issue. Playwrights own their work, and screenwriters do not. Movies in this country are profit-driven. With the exception of the small and rarified world of Broadway, the vast majority of plays in this country are produced in the nonprofit theater. Money doesn’t rule the process in the same way.

More often than not, plays are judged by the specific idiosyncrasy of an individual writer’s voice: Are they unique? Are they tackling new subjects in fresh ways? Is the vision original and does it carry the ring of truth?

Movies are judged by their popular appeal – in the same way we elect our politicians.

You once likened the theater to church. Does that make writing a sort of religion? Is it a spiritual practice for you?
I suspect it is. I have many dear friends who are professionals in medical and corporate fields. They lead high-paced, frenetic lives during the week and have faithfully set aside a couple hours on Sunday morning to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. I’m so incredibly fortunate that my professional life is built upon that very contemplation. It’s a true privilege.

Call me romantic, but I do think art transcends even religion. You don’t have to be Catholic to be profoundly moved by the Pieta, or Hindu to be gobsmacked by a bronze statue of Shiva. Orthodoxies tend to divide us, but the pure expression of shared truths can be a powerful force to unite.

If writers often write from a sense of anger and inequity, how do we take those powerful emotions and not let them consume us, but instead become fuel for our art?

Quills - Macht der Besessenheit / Quills

Kate Winslet in the movie version of “Quills”

Anger is both a potent and a reliable muse, and I wrote many of my early works, like Quills, from a deep well of it. Fortunately, the act of writing itself is purgative. By committing your demons to the page, to some extent, you exorcise them.

And of course, good plays are seldom built on mere diatribes; they need balance. So even if a work originates in anger, the process of re-drafting often requires compassion as an antidote to what would otherwise be an overwhelming same-ness in the text. And that can be healing. 

You said that just as there should always be conflict between the characters in a play, there should, too, be conflict between the play and the audience. Can you explain this latter conflict?
Ideally, the audience members should be as engaged in the theater as they would be in a heated family conversation over, say, Thanksgiving dinner. They shouldn’t be passive observers. On a narrative level, they should be navigating between their expectations of the story and its actual trajectory. On a dialectical level, they should be challenging its ideological content. On an emotional level, they should be weighing their feeling against the overt artifice of their surroundings.

“But she’s not really dying! She’s an actress! So why is my heart breaking?”

Great plays ask audience members to engage by bringing their knowledge of the world, their preconceptions, even their prejudices into the room with them, so the play can work both in concert and in opposition to those dearly held beliefs. A play should be a rigorous workout for both the brain and the heart.

Of course, I make pronouncements like that, and I scare myself. Can I possibly live up to my own grandiose theorizing? Yipes.

We talk a lot about developing our skills as writers, about developing characters, plot, story. But what about developing the skill of risk-taking? Does writing need some personal risk for it to be successful?
Well, I don’t think it requires rappelling down skyscrapers or running the rapids. But I think it definitely requires emotional risk. As authors, we are carving out some small piece of our hearts and holding them up to the world for scrutiny. We’re exposing our deepest obsessions, darkest fears and most preposterous hopes to an audience and implicitly asking, “Have you felt this way, too?” And if the audience responds enthusiastically, then we are affirmed. We are acknowledged as part of the great human sphere.

Our experience is validated, and our seeming peculiarities are revealed to be universal truths. Sometimes, the inverse happens, and it can be very painful. The audience balks. Or worse still, responds with indifference.

But if we’re not brave enough to hold our most tremulous selves up to the light, then we should probably opt for a safer profession.

I’ve heard the vast amount of plays written will never be performed. Is there inherent value in producing a certain amount of work that will never be published or produced? Is failure an important part of the writer’s journey?
Oh, absolutely. Like any craft, you learn by doing. Anyone learning to ski for the first time is going to spend a great deal of time splayed out in the snow, looking up at the sky. Writing is no different.

What have you had to sacrifice to be a writer?
Security. I still wake up in the middle of the night and obsess about the fact I still have to line up the next gig. There’s no salary to fall back on, no trust fund, no vast savings. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky because I’ve been able to write in remunerative media like television and film to support my playwriting habit.

But if I were forced to live off theatrical royalties alone, I’d be in deep trouble. And I’ve had four shows on Broadway, the most commercial theatrical marketplace in the world. I shudder when I think of the economic realities facing new and emerging writers.

What kind of support system does a writer need in place to thrive and be successful?
Writers need to believe that art matters, that it can unite cultures, champion the downtrodden, foster universal understanding and save the world. Can it? Well, who knows? But a writer needs to believe that it can. Otherwise, the task of writing is too daunting and the rewards too few.

Writers should surround themselves with like minds, so they don’t question the innate worth of their craft. This may mean fellow authors, but it also might include inspiring teachers, or even just the armchair reader generous enough to say, “I read your book, and it touched me.”

The Broadway version of "Quills"

The Broadway version of “Quills”

Did you grow up in an artistically supportive environment? If not, how did you deal with this?
Fortunately, my parents were great supporters of the arts, but my neighborhood in Dallas, Texas, was typical of the area: Football and church dominated the landscape. In retrospect, perhaps that was a perverse advantage. Forgive me for quoting myself, but in Posterity, Henrik Ibsen is asked what a young artist needs to succeed. A bit caustic, he answers, “To advance his craft, he needs only hardship, condemnation by his critics, an indifferent audience and the need to express himself via a dying art.” I think there’s truth in that; anything that fosters resilience is good for an artist.

I can’t imagine ever not writing. To me, it’s not a job, but a way of being, a life’s work. Do you ever think of retiring? Moving to another medium?
I’m an old dog. New tricks? Too late. 

Are you afraid of being forgotten?
As an adult male without progeny, I often think my work will have to make a case for my existence in the world after I’m gone. My vision of an afterlife is enjoying frequent productions of my plays on the nonprofit theater circuit, and maybe the occasional Broadway revival. Somehow, that feels more attainable than meeting the rather exacting criteria for admission to heaven.

Julie Krug is a freelance writer in Washington state. She is a regular contributor to this magazine.