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Art&Seek Q&A: Doug Wright

by Stephen Becker 7 Oct 2009 8:30 PM

Dallas playwright Vicki Caroline Cheatwood recently interviewed Highland Park native and Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Doug Wright about Grey Gardens. Wright wrote the book for the musical, which is playing at WaterTower Theater in a superlative production. He talks about adapting the famed Maysles Brothers documentary for the stage and growing up gay in the Park Cities — all as part of this week’s Art&Seek Q&A.


Dallas playwright Vicki Caroline Cheatwood recently interviewed Highland Park native Doug Wright about Grey Gardens. Wright wrote the book for the musical, which is playing at WaterTower Theater. The Tony and Pulitzer winner talks about adapting the famed Maysles Brothers documentary for the stage and the American playwrights who influenced him as a kid as part of this week’s Art&Seek Q&A. Jerome Weeks reviews Grey Gardens for Art & Seek here.

Vicki Caroline Cheatwood: There are wonderful parallels between Little Edie and Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire: the fragile mental state of both women, rumors about promiscuity sabotaging love, escape plans foiled, the unmarried daughter left behind to deal with aged/sick parent. Were these parallels intentional? Being a good Southern boy, were you predisposed to Tennessee Williams’ work – or did you rebel with Harold and Edward?

dougwrightDoug Wright: I’m not the first to say it, but if Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett had ever collaborated to invent an indelible character, it would be Little Edie.

No one who writes for the American theater can claim they haven’t been profoundly influenced by Tennessee Williams. I remember going to the Preston Forest branch of the Dallas Public Library, hiding on the floor at the rear of the stacks, and devouring plays like Small Craft Warnings and Clothes for a Summer Hotel. They were red-hot, incendiary texts; almost too dangerous to check out and take home – I had to read them then and there. He mesmerized and terrified me. In a culturally conservative climate, Williams was my tutor in the unruly affairs of the heart, the nature of desire, the eccentricity of the poet’s life, and the poignant ache of desire.

V.C.C.: Much has been written up about the differences in style in Act I and Act II. As I read the first act, I saw it unfolding like a Douglas Sirk melodrama, a Technicolor past that’s peopled by beautiful and wealthy men and women. Then in Act II, boom, cinema verite. The two acts are two fascinating pieces in a “what the hell happened here” puzzle. Which act was easier to write? Also, since you were doing something structurally that was very (to use a Little Edie word) revolutionary, were you concerned about how it would be received?

D.W.: When we began to work on Grey Gardens, we decided the acts should be markedly different and shouldn’t offer facile, armchair explanations for the women’s wild ride from privilege to squalor. Again and again, we said, “In the first act, let’s delicately plant a few subtle seeds of what’s to come … the co-dependence between mother and daughter, the retraction of family funds, a love affair gone disastrously wrong, and the ladies’ shared penchant for performing. Then during intermission, while the audience is sipping cocktails, 30 years pass. Those tiny seeds we planted have time to grow. And they are nourished by a host of seismic historical events: the end of World War II, the Eisenhower 50s, the Kennedy assassination, the tumultuous 60s, and the crisis of national conscience that was Watergate. So when the audience enters Act II, the curtain rises and those same seeds haven’t merely sprouted; they’ve grown into a dense, towering forest. Some of the more boulevard critics were confused by our refusal to simply explain the women away with more obvious dramaturgy, but the smarter ones, I think, appreciated our effort.

Sometimes in peoples’ lives, dramatic change is the result of one catastrophic event. But more often than that, our tiny pathologies marinate over time, and bloom so slowly we hardly notice them … until one day we wake up to find we’re living in a dilapidated, 28 room mansion with, say, 52 cats.

Your analogy is apt and one which Michael, Scott and I often cited when we were planning the piece: the first act would be reminiscent of Douglas Sirk or slightly curdled Philip Barry, and the second-act would be hand-held documentary style. It’s amusing to note that many famous quotes from the Maysles documentary are folded into Act I. And Act II, while it bears a greater superficial resemblance to the film, is actually structured quite differently.

Diane Sheehan as Little Edie in the WaterTower production of Grey Gardens

D.W.: I think that’s what gives the piece its surprisingly universal appeal. No matter where you live in the world, chances are you have that quirky, uncommunicative relation who keeps the family baffled and anxious, especially at the holidays. Every neighborhood has that odd house at the end of the block, with an overgrown yard and suspicious trash. In November, our Grey Gardens musical will open in a major commercial production in Tokyo. I suspect the Japanese have their share of oddball aunts and uncles, just like we do!

V.C.C.: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between Big Edie and Little Edie?

D.W.: Their relationship is chronicled so gorgeously in the Maysles film. I think it’s the relationship every parent has with his or her child. Parents do wonderful, selfless things for us; they also unwittingly wound us. In one moment, a mother can unknowingly devastate her child, and in the next, she’s “kissing it to make it better.” They cut us, and then apply the bandage. They render us both victim and beneficiary. That’s why they have such boundless power in our lives.

I was extravagantly lucky; my own folks are loving and supportive. But it took me almost 10 years of therapy to fully see that!

V.C.C.: What’s your favorite moment that you created for your Edies – one for Big, one for Little?

D.W.: I feel guilty answering this question, because it’s a moment we invented. It’s not in the film. Little Edie offers her mother a choice of soup; tomato or lobster bisque. And Big Edie replies, “You choose.” It’s the first magnanimous gesture she’s made toward her daughter over the course of the entire evening. As such, it’s her only profession of genuine love.

V.C.C.: Regarding the “Brooks” – the servants – what made you include them? Are the men there mostly to facilitate the action (answering doors, bringing news, etc.), or was there more you wanted to say by including them in the story?

D.W.: The Brooks of Act II appears in the original Maysles Brothers film; he was the gardener and handyman at Grey Gardens. We invented his father, Brooks Senior, in Act I. We wanted to suggest the kind of continuity that existed in privileged households of the era. And — in a quiet way — we wanted to suggest something about the changing political landscape in the country. Brooks Senior is practically an indentured servant, while his son is clearly a free agent. In a somewhat inevitable way, as outsiders, both of the Brooks comment on some of the more frivolous aspects of life among America’s entitled class.

V.C.C.: What limitations do you place on altering the facts when using true events as source material for a play or movie? How much do you feel an obligation to accurately depict a real-life person or event, or do you freely change the details in order to tell the story you want to tell?”

D.W.: Great question. Since Shakespeare’s time, writers have been “playing with the facts” to serve the drama. As playwrights, our primary obligation is to write compelling theater. We’re not biographers or historians. And audiences who come to see historically-inspired work are naive if they think certain liberties haven’t been taken; going to see a play or movie is no substitute for sitting down with a great biography, if verisimilitude is what you’re after. Most audiences, I think, are pretty sophisticated. After all, no one goes to see a movie like A Bug’s Life and leaves the theater crowing, “Hey, I’m an entomologist!”

Usually, when a playwright chooses to write about a particular historical character, he’s appropriating it to talk about some aspect of his own experience. The historical figure is just “good cover!”

That said … .my personal standard does differ, depending on the person I’m writing about. When I was writing about the Marquis de Sade, I felt free to alter the facts of his life to serve the thematic concerns of my story. First of all, I was working within a precedent: plays like Marat Sade and Madame de Sade do the same thing. Secondly, Sade’s own life is extremely well-documented. There are countless great biographies on the shelves, and he pops up in plenty of history books. So there are more than enough available sources to “set the record straight.” But when I was writing about Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf in I Am My Own Wife, I held myself to a different standard. While she’s a real person, her life story isn’t well-known. I knew most theatergoers would be learning about her for the first time via my play. And she had never been the subject of a theater piece before. So in adapting her life for the stage, I didn’t change any of the basic facts.

Finally, it’s important to realize that all history is subjective. “Absolute truth” is the ultimate fiction. It’s usually people in power who write, publish and disseminate the chronicles of their times. So we should always read history that purports to be “the truth” with a critical eye.

V.C.C.: What are you working on currently?

D.W.: I’ve recently adapted August Strindberg’s little known work Creditors for the LaJolla Playhouse and will direct it there this fall. And I’m finishing a screenplay for the Walt Disney Company. From Strindberg to Disney! I like a varied diet.

V.C.C.: At what point in the process (idea, research, notes, actual writing, etc.) do you realize you have a viable piece and continue working, versus scrapping it and moving on?”

D.W.: That’s easy: If I stay interested. No matter how hard the writing gets, if I’m still passionately fired up about the subject, I keep going. If I lose interest in the subject itself, I abandon the piece. If I can’t stay genuinely engaged in the topic I’ve chosen to dramatize for the length of time it takes me to write the play (from two to five years, sometimes) than I can’t expect an audience to stay interested for two and a half hours.

V.C.C.: I’ve read that you’re a disciple of Pinter, Albee and Charles Ludlum. Any up-and-coming playwrights who are thrilling your soul?

D.W.: Lynn Nottage received the Pulitzer this year for her devastating, profoundly humane play Ruined about violence in the Congo, and it meets every expectation; it’s a heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat play. Itamar Moses is a savagely smart new writer with titles like Bach at Leipzig and The Four of Us. And longtime actor Geoffrey Naufts scored big this year with his wise and devastating look at a gay relationship in crisis called Next Fall. As theater becomes an increasingly rarified art form, available only it seems to the privileged few, it’s heartening to see so many astonishing writers who are still willing to give it their creative attention.

V.C.C.: What was the best part about growing up in Highland Park? Biggest drawback?

D.W.: Unquestionably, the greatest aspect of life in University Park was the remarkable school district. My teachers were uniformly astonishing: always well versed in their chosen subjects, wildly inspirational, and appropriately challenging. My drama teachers (both from junior high and high school) are still among my most cherished friends. [They] instilled in me a respect for working artists. I think that fed my hunch that one day I could actually become one.

Growing up in “the Bubble” … well, if I’d truly felt like I “fit in,” I don’t suppose I ever would’ve become a writer. But as an anxious gay kid in a family that wasn’t as materially ostentatious, politically conservative or religiously zealous as many of the neighbors, I always felt like an outsider. And I think most artists write from that perspective – as observers, poised outside the mainstream.

That said, it was tough to grow up gay in the Park Cities, certainly in the 1970s. But that wasn’t true of my old neighborhood in particular; that was true in most of the country. And happily, things are changing. Last spring, I had the remarkable privilege of being honored by my old school district as one of their “distinguished alumni.” I was the first openly gay person they’ve ever recognized with that award. At the annual dinner in their formal presentation, they included photos of my California wedding to my husband, David Clement, and even acknowledged him in the ceremony. I was incredibly touched. A few old codgers sat on their hands, terrified by the winds of change, but others applauded enthusiastically. All in all, my alma mater was admirably 21st century about the whole event.

V.C.C.: What’s the very first restaurant you hit when you come back home to Dallas?

D.W.: That’s so easy. Jack’s Burger House on Hillcrest, without question. The seasoning on those fries? Sometimes, on hot summer New York nights, I find myself dreaming about it.

The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.