Finding Drama Amid all the White Noise by Doug Wright

Keynote Address from the 2006 Backspace Writers Conference

About a week ago, I blithely signed on to my e-mail to discover a note from my brother Max. A fellow writer of considerable gifts, with a wry humor and caustic outlook , he was headed to New York to attend a conference. I knew he had an ambitious schedule, meetings with agents, seminars and lectures, but I held out hope he’d have a spare moment to share coffee; maybe grab a bite at my favorite Tex-Mex place in Chelsea, where we could catch up on family dramas and even talk shop. I assumed he was zapping me a note with his arrival time, or the phone number at his hotel.

Instead, I read the following: “Doug! It seems one of the keynote speakers had to cancel at the last minute; any chance you could fill in?”

And so I stand before you today. I’d like to thank both Karen Dionne and Harry Hunsicker for following up my brother’s entreaty with both swiftness and grace.

But I must confess, after I blurted my hasty, impulsive, and unexamined “yes,” I plunged into a crisis of confidence. The bulk of you are novelists. You write for the page, and I write for the stage. You dispense your stories one sentence at a time, to a single reader in an armchair, or on a plane, or reclining on a beach. It’s a far more private communion between author and reader; two minds in quiet conversation; two imaginations in muted concert.

Playwriting is noisier; we can’t do it alone. We need carpenters, building sets. We need actors, who declaim our texts and directors, who shout commands. Our audience can range from less than a hundred to two thousand, all soaking in the story in real time. Our egos are far more fragile than yours, believe it or not; we crave instant gratification; the laugh must follow (live!) on the heels of the joke, and we can’t wait for reviews; the applause must be immediate, adulatory, and prolonged.

Being a playwright and being a novelist have precious little in common. In truth, playwrights are a lot like cookbook authors. I feel closer to Betty Crocker than I do Don Delillo or Joyce Carol Oates. What are plays, after all, but recipes for three-dimensional events? They’re not written to be read; they’re written to be realizedlike Martha Stewart’s Balsamic-Glazed Pork Loin, or Gordon Ramsey’s White Peach Parfait. Recipes are little more than a set of instructions; dramatic texts are much the same.

Just as Martha lists ingredients, the means of combining them, and a method for serving, the playwright lists his characters, the scenes in which they interact and the words which they will say. A chef realizes Martha’s text; a director realizes mine. And, usually at least, we serve more than one person at a time. Hardly “two minds in quiet conversation;” it’s more like a shouting match in a stadium. The actors, the director, the playwright, the set designer, the producer, the theater owner, and the audiencethey all want to be heard.

Reading a recipe isn’t the same as sinking your fork into a piping hot slice of chocolate ganache; and reading a script bears little resemblance to the heart-stopping experience of sitting through a production of Peer Gynt. For the novelist, words on the page are the giddy end to a long, arduous creative process. But for the playwright, words on the page are just the beginning.

Given the disparate nature of our crafts, what, then, qualifies me to speak to you now?

{mospagebreak}At the end of the day, we are all storytellers. We use the humblest of materials, words, to weave fiction that purports to be truer, more meaningful, and more substantive to the human spirit than mere fact. We believe that art is the best conduit for the truth. We believe that it grants reason, order, and thematic heft to the disparate chaos of our lives, and that, without it, we are infinitely poorer. The fanatics among us, and I am one of them, believe that it even bests theology. Some look to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to answer the mysteries of living; I look to Eugene O’Neill, Vladimir Nabokov, Colm Toibin, and Thomas Mann.

There are fundamental principles of storytelling that supersede the differences in our chosen mediums; most stories boast a protagonist, in conflict with himself or others. Most share the same classical shape, and begin with an incident that rises steadily until it climaxes in a resolution, and fades in a denouement. And most are crafted around some core truth which the author has discovered; something so poignant, so irresistible, so inevitable and so enlightening that he (or she) felt compelled to write it down, rather than endure the terrible stress of knowing it alone; that parents nurture and torture their children in equal measure; that war in pursuit of peace is oxymoronic; that love can be curative and damning at the same time.

We write in hopes of discovering that the nightmares that taunt us are shared ones.

We write because it is more remunerative than penning suicide notes sometimes.

We write to bind ourselves to our fellow man, and, as Hemingway said–to forge a link between the living, the dead, and those as yet unborn.

So, with those commonalities in our favor, I hope you’ll grant this playwright some rope, as I attempt to illuminate the value of old-fashioned storytelling in an era obsessed with the sound-byte, the gigabyte, and the weekend gross. I’m convinced in the Age of White Noise that drama still exists, with all the potential for terror, pity and catharsis that Aristotle promised us; we just have to know where to look.

I’d like to describe three recent live theatrical experiences that I had the privilege of witnessing not too long ago.

The First:

I’m seated in a plush red seat, in a gorgeous ninety-five million dollar coliseum, seventh row center. Behind me, three-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine other eager spectators. Clutched in my quivering palms, a heavily laminated souvenir program. Its glossy text makes a promise on page one: “Tonight, you will experience a journey like no other, a show that sets a new standard for entertainment excellence.” On its rear cover, the immortal words: €˜Presented by Chrysler: Drive and Love.” In the contoured drink-holder on the arm of my seat, a souvenir plastic glass emblazoned with the words “A New Day.” In my lap, purchased from the concession stand outside, from a man dressed like an organ monkey, a box of gourmet jellybeans. Flavors like almond, passion fruit and guava. In front of me, a couple, newly arrived, takes their seats. He wears a tuxedo. She is a study in fringe. All around me, excited titters. I am primed. I am ready. Houselights dim. The show begins.

On a giant, rear-projection LED screen some four thousand square feet wide, an image appears. A woman descends an enormous stair; not a real woman, not Our Star, but a digitalized one. When she reaches the landing, in a puff of smoke, she morphs into flesh and blood. The Diva Herself has seized the stage. Her slender arms rise in flight; her voice arcs to achieve an impossible note, and the first of many Power Ballads begins.

I had to escape
The city was sticky and cruel
Maybe I should have called you first
But I was dying to get to you
I was dreaming while I drove
The long straight road ahead, uh, huh

Could taste your sweet kisses
Your arms open wide
This fever for you is just burning me up inside

I drove all night to get to you

Is that all right?

I drove all night

Crept in your room

Woke you from your sleep

To make love to you

Is that all right?

I drove all night

“Drive and Love!” indeed. A chorus of twenty female acrobats, feathered like silver peacocks, rappels from the ceiling. A phalanx of shirtless men leaps like antelopes from the wings. A staircase on a hydraulic lift swivels out of the floor, and the audience erupts in an explosion of applause. True catharsis? Aristotle’s terror and pity? Not exactly; we’re more like gluttons at a Roman banquet, greedy for the next course.

For the next ninety-minutes, to a non-stop, mind-numbing, monochromatic score played by an orchestra housed beneath the stage at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Celine Dion implores us to love her. Her arms jettisoned toward us in the dark, her fingers groping, the veins in her neck about to snap like so many rubber bands, she craves our adulation. And we grant it. Not to satiate her. At two hundred dollars a ticket, we whoop and cry “bravo” in the Sisyphean hope we can, somehow, in the face of so much patently synthetic, Pavlovian emotion“-satisfy ourselves.{mospagebreak}

The Second:

The next night, a few casinos down the strip, I’m sitting in a heart-shaped velvet love seat, watching a drag queen in a Thierry Mugler bustier. She has a long, black ponytail that trails all the way down her back past her knees, and a redundant leather whip. Her true identity? Celebrated New York downtown performer Joey Arias, long known for his savagely accurate impressions of Billy Holliday, and his definitive East Village, gender-bender haute attitude. I used to see him in fabulous dives in Alphabet City, mesmerizing and terrifying club kids half his age. Now he’s been shipped out West, put under contract, and re-packaged in a Vegas lounge act; it’s a little like plucking a lion from the plains of Africa, and plopping it down in the midst of Siegfried and Roy.

With a loud crack, Joey leans into the first row and coos to a balding, septuagenarian tourist “Tonight you will see deviance in all its myriad formssex celebrated instead of revileda frenzied orgy of love, love, love!”

So begins ZUMANITY, the latest extravaganza from Cirque de Soleil, this one with a self-proclaimed erotic bent. Two lithe Asian women undulate, naked, their bodies impossibly intertwined in a giant fish bowl. An aerialist in a body stocking dangles hundreds of feet above us from leather ropes, her face concealed with an S&M dungeon mask as she bungees up and down, accompanied by a soundtrack of sighs and moans. A midget tumbler with steroid pecs catapults atop a pyramid of studs in spandex. And all the while, Joey watches, his eyebrow cocked as if to say “Shocked yet?”

It’s sex as imagined by Walt Disney; transgressive and outrageous, perhaps, to people who wear appliquéd sweat suits, collect Hummel figurines and order curios from the Franklin Mint. Folks for whom the word “sex” itself, when muttered in mixed company, is sufficient reason to giggle or smirk. Real decadence is never self-congratulatory or smug; real decadence is too voracious to pause and render judgment upon itself. Sex should be animalistic; and two elephants, rutting and heaving in evergreen forests of Sri-Lanka rarely stop to beam self-consciously and exclaim, “Look at us! Aren’t we wicked?”

ZUMANITY is, alas, like a three-dimensional Playboy cartoon; too selfishly smitten with its own naughtiness to offer forth any genuine, any spontaneous, illicit pleasure.

The Third:

The ushers throw up their arms, helpless. The sign in the lobby expressly forbids photography of any kind, but the whir and click of so many digital cameras is unmistakable. People haven’t come to Broadway’s Majestic Theater to have an experience; they’ve come to document one. To prove they were here, like pilgrims to the Holy Land, seeking not enlightenment, but a sliver of the cross, or a few tattered fibers of the Shroud of Turin.

The audience is as international as any religious odyssey. Many don’t even speak the language of the play; still, its broad gestures, illustrative style, and declamatory story telling are as easy to follow as a children’s pantomime. For many in the house, as they crinkle their candy-wrappers, whisper to their companions, and rustle their shopping bags underfoot, this will be their only attendance at a live event all year. They’ve scrimped and saved for months to pay the outlandish ticket price. No wonder, for this crowd, congressional phrases like “arts funding” have no meaning. This single experience will become their personal benchmark for that most intimidating of words: “culture.” For them, tonight will represent the apotheosis of my craft.

Regrettably–after a fifteen-year run–the actors onstage are less animated than the crowd. They move through their paces with the mechanical precision of watch-works; characters pop forward, vocalize, and then recede, like the historical figures in a German clock. In fact, many of the show’s key principals can be purchased down the street at a souvenir shop in Schubert’s Alley.

You can watch the Phantom live as he kidnaps Christine, then you can stroll down the street and purchase him, in a decorative animatronic snow globe with a music box base. Tiny revolving metal plates trill “The Music of the Night” as the masked figure pilots his captive in a gondola through a teensy, candelabra-strewn lair. The whole show, miniaturized, and pressed under glass. The ultimate distillation of spectacle; a ten million dollar musical that can still fit on your night table.

Why?

Now, admittedly, I flatter myself a rather sophisticated theatergoer, and yet I voluntarily attended these shows. Why?

A friend of mine has an ingenious theory called “Instant Camp.” You see, most cultural artifacts that wind up under camp’s gaudy rubric enter the landscape without irony, and are subsequently recycled and so labeled by a future, post-modern generation. The passage of time renders them comic in retrospect; witness the films of Busby Berkeley, the inflatable furniture of the 1960’s, or the Bee Gees.

But some rare phenomenon hit the aesthetic arena with such deliriously misguided ambition, such brazenly bad taste, such benchmark kitsch that they achieve immediate camp status. The three aforementioned shows, my friend insists, all qualify. He proffers other examples: the Paul Verhoeven movie “Showgirls.” Broadway’s recent debacle “Lestat.” Such works, he explains, don’t need the distanced critique of time; they give us, in the moment, precisely what we deserve.

I’d like to describe a fourth, and very particular, theatrical event which I had the privilege of witnessing. I hope it serves as an antidote to those I’ve already cited. And I hope it is instructive in re-asserting the primacy of the word; and reminding us that simple story-telling can still hold its ground in the face of down-loadable movies and the revolution that is Tivo.{mospagebreak}

The Fourth:

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon on Friday, and, without warning, my computer screen goes blank. My Sony flat-screen is a field of grey. The clock on my VCR isn’t even flashing midnight, and my DVD player is dormant.

Across the Big Apple, and most of the East Coast, dimmer boards short out, spotlights fizzle, CD players shut down, and movie projectors grind to a sudden halt. Pop Culture is mute. It’s the New York City Blackout of 2003.

People can no longer sit passively, ingesting “entertainment excellence.” Now, they must create their own. The police are bracing for wide-scale looting, even riots. But something else happens instead.

In the Brooklyn neighborhood where I lived at the time, tenants flee their stifling apartments, and head for the stoops. We’re no longer sitting idly on the sofa, ingesting life as it unfolds on television, mediated by conglomerates like General Electric, Time Warner or even Chrysler Motors. Life is on the streets now. It’s live. It’s a community experience, no longer a solitary one. People start to talk to one another.

Everyone is instantly a writer. We all have theories to posit, prospective answers to the pressing question of the moment: why has the world suddenly gone dark?

In the absence of hard news, we start spinning scenarios. The Investment Banker from the brownstone across the street grimly suggests it’s another terrorist attack. More fantastically, the actress from next door insists that it’s the impact of Mars, side-swiping the earth. The coffee vendor at Joe’s Java has a hunch that there’s a power outage because of an earthquake in Niagara Falls. For the Rastafarian who runs the UPS Store, it’s the giddy onset of the apocalypse.

Finally, the truth comes, disseminated from car radios and the occasional battery-powered Sony Watchman. It’s a generator fire; the news is almost anticlimactic, after the whimsical, fatalistic, even bracing tales unfurling on my porch.

But soon, these fledgling writers move beyond the subject at hand; they exchange life stories. Share jokes. Pop beer cans. Philosophize. The night will thrust headlong into the following day, so there’s no need to rush back indoors. Let the carnival continue, at least for now.

Around the corner on Seventh Avenue, the local Thai restaurant, fearful of allowing mountains of food to putrefy in warm refrigerators, has erected a buffet line on the sidewalk, and is serving up heaping plates of Goong Ga Prow and Duck Panang, all gratis. Sustenance of the most practical sort. In my bachelor fridge, I’ve nothing but day-old take-out Chinese and a few Godiva chocolates leftover from an opening night gift basket, so I’m especially grateful.

But there’s aesthetic nourishment, too. Neighbors who have heretofore never even met are now actually performing for one another; a trio of teenagers is drumming on plastic tubs. On a bench in Prospect Park, a grandmother–with reverential concentration–pulls the gold band off her ring finger, brandishes it before her grandkids like a talisman, and then elegantly slides it back on. An entire wedding re-enacted in a single, poignant gesture.

Against the giant, dead-husk of an apartment building, a girl shines a flashlight on her brother as he strums on his guitar.

The community is coming together to engage. To assess itself. To find, from the Islamic Community on Flatbush to the struggling Bohemians of Windsor Terrace, its commonality in the face of extraordinary circumstance.

It is employing its collective imagination to answer the unknown; just like that totemic moment when, faced with nothing but chance and oblivion, man first invented a God.

Theater is a lot like pornography; I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. It always begins, doesn’t it, when the lights go out? And this is theater of the purest sort.

For the theater knows something fundamental about the human imagination: in the absence of stimuli, we create our own. Give us a bare stage and a hand-painted sign that says “Poland,” and we will build a country.

Am I arguing, then, for a simpler aesthetic? A return to minimalism? More frugal, homegrown story telling? Not necessarily. I’m merely making a plea on behalf of invention, true invention, that engages the writer’s most precious resource; not his or her own imagination; but the miraculous mind’s eye of those anonymous people sitting in the dark, or browsing in their neighborhood bookstore.

Sure, they’ve been wowed by Pixar, struck dumb by Industrial Light and Magic, lulled to sleep by reality television, and overdosed on their own e-mail. They’ve bobbed in isolation tanks, flown flight simulators, climbed the Eiffel Tower on Las Vegas Boulevard, and even honeymooned in underwater hotels.

But they still are not immune to the power of the word. Other media may blast them into submission, but the word still has the power to seduce. In the shrill circus of mass-market entertainment, literature is still the eternal sirenthe classy femme fatale who knows, “If you want to get someone’s attention, whisper.”

If we can ignite the collective imagination, if we can use language to enlist our audience as true collaborators and not merely passive spectators, then we have fulfilled the obligations of our form. We have made a case for the indispensability of literature to the human experience. We have secured its future.

To the playwright: that society matron in seat 7D, the one she’s been renewing for years, with her Hermes scarf and her Escada blouse, she’s holding something in her lap, and it isn’t a hand-bag. It’s Pandora’s box. We don’t have to endlessly stitch together winged demons in the costume shop, or build a hundred malevolent, marionettes with tridents for tails; they’re already waiting there, trapped inside. All we have to do is open the lid.

To the novelist: that dentist who belongs to a Tuesday night book clubthe biochem student who wanders the fiction aisle of his college librarythe CEO reaching for a paperback before he boards his private jet. in each of them, such ferocious potency! Lying dormant in the recesses of each subconscious, a thousand terrors. Wonders. Perversities. Truths so horrible, so beautiful, so profound, that we could never hope to invent, represent or originate them. Life has already bequeathed them. Our task as artists? To unleash them, to set them free on cathartic flight– from the safety, the security, of a park bench or a favorite recliner.

So if, like me, you occasionally lose heart, and come to feel that the written word is hopelessly antiquatedthat writers themselves have become the equivalents, say, of glass-blowers or gothic stone-carvers, out-distanced by a culture that deems them vestigialthen remember: computers crash. Plasma screens singe their pixels. Cell phone batteries die, video-games freeze, DVDs warp in the heat, and iPods lose their data. Words aren’t technology dependent; no matter what happens, they will forever be reliable conduits for sharing our stories. An adjective will always modify a noun.

Now enough of all my high-blown theory; what does it mean to you? Let me conclude with some practical advice, addressed to writers of every stripe. Ten tips, ideal for Post-Its or, if you’re ambitious, a sampler.

1. Never write to a perceived marketplace. Second guessing the taste of the public is as inscrutable as the hula-hoop, the pet rock and Everybody Loves Raymond. Leave that to agents, publishers, and marketers. Write in a way which trumps fashion, not caters to it. When you’re told your work isn’t sufficiently commercial, take heart in the following fact: yes, it’s true that Bridget Jones Diary stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List for seventeen weeks in 1997, but Virginia Woolf has been selling quite briskly, thank-you, for almost a hundred years.

2. Write for readers who are smarter than you. If you’re writing a medical thriller, assume it will be read by Harvard neurosurgeons. If you’re scribing a historical romance, set against the backdrop of the Civil War, presume that Doris Kearns Goodwin and Ken Burns are among your readership. The moment your audience sniffs condescension, you’ve lost them forever.

3. Love the act of writing more than “being a writer.” The notion of living the life of the aesthete in a swank little garret, paying visits to Charlie Rose to discuss your latest tome, is as seductive as it is fatal. I know a hip junior editor at a supermarket tabloid who spends more time pining for “legitimate” publication than she does putting her fingers to the keys. Spend more energy on your second draft than on your query letters. If you want to write, make peace with the idea that a monthly mortgage, a car loan, private school tuition for junior, credit card bills, hell, even regular eating habits—are all impediments to your craft. Fantasize about your chosen subject more than you fantasize about success. The personal satisfaction of a phrase well turnedthis is the only guaranteed reward that writing can offer. And if other rewards do follow, foreign rights, movie deals or, dare I say it, even Pulitzer Prizes, glorious as they are, they pale in comparison to that utterly thrilling, utterly private moment when a character you’ve created takes flight, and starts speaking to you, and you’re suddenly a mere vessel, furiously transcribing her words. It never gets better than that. If you expect a different kind of gratification, then perhaps this isn’t the profession for you.

4. Read, and read widely. If you want to write romances, then by all means, read those contemporary authors with names like Barbara, Belva, Danielle and Rosamund. But don’t forget the ladies who invented the form; Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. If mysteries are your genre of choice, then pepper your bookshelf with the occasional Hawthorne or Henry James. When it comes to horror novels, Stephen King would be the first to credit Ann Radcliffe and Edgar Allen Poe for most of what he knows. If you’ve a penchant for satire, then roll back the clock to Jonathan Swift and even Aristophanes. There are lessons to be learned from the author of the moment, of coursebut if you want to learn the rudiments of the form, then study the writers who formed the rudiments Remember: the author who writes more than he reads; that’s the sure mark of an amateur.

5. Dismiss that woefully misguided maxim “Write What You Know.” Instead, and I emphatically believe this, write what you don’t know. Write about what confuses, enrages, haunts and confounds you. The writer who has the answers is penning propaganda; the writer on a quest for them is the one I’d rather read.

6. Stretch yourself. If you’re a single working Mom with kids in daycare, don’t write about it. Instead, write about the Dickensian workhouses for children in nineteenth century London. If you’re in the National Guard, write about Incan warriors. If you’re a straight man at home with a wife and three kids, and a gay man on business trips, trolling the local bathhouse.write about a double agent in World War II, his allegiance torn between warring countries. You’ll be surprised how much you know.

7. Never be afraid to humiliate yourself. Arthur Miller said we haven’t truly done our work if our writing fails to cut so deeply, so close to the bone, that we’re vaguely embarrassed by it. When you write, don’t be limited by your sense of shame.

8. Every time you start a book, assume it will never be published. The opportunity to revel in your subject, to drink it in, to obsess over it, should be enough. That way, even if your masterpiece never makes it to Barnes and Noble, by its completion, you’ll still be the world’s expert on the indigenous Eskimos of Greenland. For two, six, or twelve glorious years, you’ll have walked in their snowshoes, and, book or no book–you’ll be richer for it.

9. Study the sister arts. Nothing teaches you more about economy than Chinese brush painting; or more about rhythm than dance.

10. Be wary of Keynote speakers. Take panelists and seminars with a grain of salt. Don’t follow the instructions of “How To” books. Don’t attempt to imitate authors on the bestseller lists. Instead, when you sit down in front of your computer, the phone muted, coffee cup by your side–do something truly courageous: open a vein.

As we flounder into a new century, searching for new storytelling forms, new modes of literary experience-€“I’d like to proffer a single, final word. One we often hear shouted during dress rehearsal, or read as the last, fateful series of syllables typed by the playwright. But it’s a word, which I hope will have new resonance, and promise a future ripe with possibility, alternatives to the corporate-sponsored opiates and palliatives too often mistaken for creativity, the therapy, the social conscience, the religion, the impossibility, the glorious conundrum that is art. One word which might actually pave the way toward a brighter future:

Blackout.

Thank-you very much.


Doug Wright was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award for Best Play, the Drama Desk Award, a GLAAD Media Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Drama League Award, and a Lucille Lortel Award in 2004 for his play “I Am My Own Wife.” In 2006, he received Tony and Drama Desk nominations for the Broadway musical “Grey Gardens.” Most recently, he was represented on Broadway by Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Earlier in his career, Wright won an Obie Award for outstanding achievement in playwriting and the Kesselring Award for Best New American Play from the National Arts Club for his play “Quills.” He made his motion picture debut writing the screenplay adaptation, which was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and received the Paul Selvin Award from the Writer’s Guild of America. The film was named Best Picture by the National Board of Review and nominated for three Academy Awards.

For director Rob Marshall, Wright also wrote the television special “Tony Bennett: An American Classic,” which received seven Emmy Awards.

His stage work — which includes such titles as “The Stonewater Rapture,” “Interrogating the Nude,” “Watbanaland,” “Buzzsaw Berkeley” and “Unwrap Your Candy” — has been produced in major cities across the nation and the globe, among them, New York, Dallas, London, Stockholm, Budapest, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Sydney and Tokyo.

For career achievement, Wright has received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Tolerance Prize from the KulturForum Europa. He is a member of the Writer’s Guild of America, East; the Screen Actors Guild; the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers; and the PEN American Center. Wright has appeared as an actor in the films “Little Manhattan” and “Two Lovers” and the television show “Law & Order.”


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