Playwright, Playtext, and Director in the U.S. Theater
An exchange between Carlos Murillo and Henning Bochert
Born in 1971, Carlos Murillo is the author of numerous plays that have been produced by various theaters across the United States. He teaches playwriting and acting in the drama department of DePaul University in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and their two children.
Murillo's plays repeatedly deal with fundamental questions of identity: who do I want to be, who can I be, what am I perceived as, what traces, what legacy do I leave? Together with a few other playwrights of a new generation in the U.S. theater, he formally experiments with multi-narrative compositions that convey a theme across a number of tightly interwoven plots. Furthermore, his plays employ a notation that is rather unusual for American drama and that he uses to clearly inscribe the intended rhythm in line breaks, non-grammatical orthography, and italics.
On Feb 19, 2011, the second play by Murillo (A HUMAN INTEREST STORY OR THE GORY DETAILS AND ALL, following DARK PLAY OR STORIES FOR BOYS the previous season) premiered at Theater Aalen in Germany, directed by Katharina Kreuzhage. In fall 2010, his translator Henning Bochert corresponded with the playwright on the changing situation in the relationship between playwright and director in U.S. theater.
September 8, 2010
From: Henning Bochert
Sent: Wednesday, September 08, 2010 4:05 AM
To: Murillo, Carlos
In translating your play A Human Interest Story (or the Gory Details and All), I am dealing a lot with the way you formally approach the notation of your plays, using line breaks for rhythm and inscribing pronunciations by means of italics and inventions like separating syllables by periods.
The footage in the documentary was un. b. lievable.
you don't even want to know
what happens when the Crafty baboon gets caught in the act.
Die Aufnahmen in dieser Dokumentation waren un. fass. bar.
Sie haben keine Ahnung
was passiert, wenn der Schlaue Pavian inflagranti erwischt wird.
It was understood that the
local stations would
interrupt their uhhh regular
atthistimeofday mostly uhhh
children's television – to
air the uhhh
Robertson's trial and conviction had been an
explosive story covered extensively from beginning to end.
Es war vereinbart, dass die
Lokalsender ihr ähh
unterbrechen würden –
umdiesetageszeit hauptsächlich äähh
Kindersendungen – um
Robertsons Verfahren und Verurteilung war eine
explosive Story gewesen, die von Anfang bis Ende ausführlich behandelt worden war.
As you can imagine, the sentence structure in German is quite different (including its more inflected character, mostly), which often makes it my task to find corresponding solutions for your choices of notation that also make sense in German. From my experience, this formal approach is rather unusual and new in contemporary U.S. playwriting, wouldn't you agree? And it made me wonder why you choose to do that.
In your experience as a playwright: do you need to nail the interpretation of your text down to the very syllable?
Does that reflect your need to protect your text better against misunderstandings and to give the production team more of a handle to what you meant to say or rather: how to say it?
All the best –
September 8, 2010
On 08.09.10 20:30, "Carlos Murillo" wrote:
Per your question/observation/curiosity about the layout of the plays… that's a can of worms! It hadn't crossed my mind, but it seems obvious in retrospect, that it would present all kinds of challenges to a translator – I almost feel like I have to apologize for making your life more difficult! Of course, I am joking….
The thought process behind it, esp. with Human Interest & Dark Play (as well as a couple of other pieces) is the importance to me of the way the plays should sound. At the risk of sounding pompous, I like to think of the plays in almost musical terms, and I attempt as best as I can to embed the way I "hear" the language in the way it's shaped on the page.
In my experience with the plays, it seems to have the counterintuitive effect of liberating the actor. In a lot of American plays where the language is more "flat" or prose-like or naturalistic, they end up spending a lot of time trying to construct a score to connect each moment, which I think delays the more interesting part of the actors' process of inhabiting and deepening their lives within a role. In a sense, by writing this way, I provide a "score" – a clear progression of thought that gives the actors some solid foundation on which to hang their hat, and more readily dive into a different, deeper kind of exploration.
I think you probably have also noticed the absence of detailed stage direction, or hints about how to physicalize the plays in space. In a way, by insisting on a certain sound, yet providing tremendous latitude for a director in how to stage the plays, seems to negate any question of me distrusting the actor. I love actors (I teach them as well as playwrights) – and think they work best and most inventively given clear parameters.
I wonder, however, how German actors might experience it – if it rubs them the wrong way or seems to place undue limitations on their craft…
I am delighted that you asked – I do hope to keep in touch, and I would love to hear more about what you are up to…
September 21, 2010
From: "Henning Bochert”
Sent: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 4:42 PM
You're right, it is a can of worms, or a wide topic of its own that I am tempted to dive into more thoroughly. It really is a large question relating to the dialogue between the playwright and the actor (as you mentioned) as well as between playwright and director.
During the past 20 years, that position of the director grew even more prominent in German theater, while the stand the author was able to take grew considerably weaker. There was more and more discussion about the almost absolute authorship directors take on in theater productions. While this very often produced thrilling theater, my impression is that that trend is being reversed in more recent years in favor of new forms of author-oriented theater.
Playwriting, however, has also changed. Authors have been reacting to the directors' strong influence by giving their texts a stronger spine (thematically and in plot) while more or less yielding the design of the text's "epidermis" to the production.
All the best –
September 22, 2010
From: Carlos Murillo
To: Henning Bochert
Date: 22.09.2010 04:01:49
Subject: RE: Format etc.
Dear Henning –
Your thoughts about German playwrights and their relationship to the auteurism of German directors provides interesting food for thought. We operate in such different systems – here in the States "auteurs" tend to gravitate to re-imaginings of the classics and adaptations and devised work and work less on new plays. There's a whole other kind of director here that we refer to as a "new play director." The tendency for the latter – at least in theory – is to sublimate their vision to the playwright's. This is not to say they don't have influence or do not put a distinctive stamp on productions of new plays – it's more that they are expected to work "in the service" of the play and the playwright's vision. (Of course it doesn't always work this way…) Weirdly I think this stems from a kind of unintended patronizing attitude on the part of theaters for American playwrights. In my opinion the idea of the director "serving" the playwright is nonsense and tends to produce bland work. But this language stems from, I think, the relative lack of production opportunity for playwrights in proportion to developmental opportunities (readings, workshops, staged readings). Countless talented playwrights in this country get trapped in that mill, doing tons of readings of their plays and only rarely getting produced on an appropriate scale.
My own tastes as a theatergoer and practitioner lean towards more "auteurish" or "experimental" theater… I like the director with a vision that goes beyond simply staging the play (read: the director in 'service' of the text) to a realm of orchestration – where text has a central place, yet there is an acknowledgement and deft use of all the elements at the theater artist's disposal. (When I direct my own work, the first thing I tell the actors is the playwright is dead, we found the script in a trunk somewhere, and it is our task as an ensemble to articulate a vision for this mysterious text). In that sense, I don't think there is a definitive production of any of my plays – I think they depend entirely on space, the ensemble, the amount of money we have, what the expected audience will be – and all aesthetic decisions for building a proper container for the play stems from addressing those questions. I think there are writers in this country that are uncomfortable with that notion – there is a belief that there is a proper "way to do the play." On the other hand, there's an interesting generation of writers now that grew up on MTV, the internet, is at ease with multiple narratives and embrace both "high" and "low" culture – they tend to be more auteurishly directorial in their writing, paradoxically, by leaving a lot up to the imagination of the director. I think a good example of this tendency is Jason Grote's 1001 – do you know it? I directed a production of it last year – and by virtue of how "impossible" the play is to stage, forced me to think more as an auteur and less as a director serving a playwright's vision.
January 31, 2011
From: "Murillo, Carlos"
Sent: Monday, January 31, 2011 9:19 PM
To: "Henning Bochert"
Subject: RE: Last questions
Dear Henning -
Thanks for your note – I've been meaning to reply to your earlier message… this past week has been rather hellish.
In the mean time, below, and pasted to your questions, are some thoughts/replies.
I look forward to keeping in touch – and please accept my apologies for being remiss in keeping up to date on our correspondence.
From: Henning Bochert
Sent: Monday, January 31, 2011 9:36 AM
To: Murillo, Carlos
Subject: Last questions
I'm very intrigued by your reply and a few keywords therein.
I did read (and translate) Jason Grote's "Civilization" early in 2010, and I feel, like you, that he is part of a new generation of writers in the U.S. who brought forth very exciting developments.
Our correspondence has increasingly revolved around the triangular or linear relationships between playwright-play-directing. I believe there is something else we might want to touch upon in order to continue and round up this conversation. That is: how and where new plays are generated? Plays are developed in workshops or seminars, together with the actors, as you mentioned. What is your personal experience with and objective view on that? What role does your position as a teacher both for writers and actors play, a union non-existent in Germany?
This is an interesting question – the vast majority of professional play development occurs through the play development arms of non-profit theaters, playwright-centered organizations (New Dramatists, Playwrights' Center, Bay Area Playwrights Foundation, Chicago Dramatists) and organizations like Sundance, the O'Neill, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, The Lark, Ojai, et al, that are devoted to developing but not necessarily producing new work. There of course is also development that happens in a commercial realm – I have little experience with that. And often these days the commercial and non-profit worlds collaborate through investments made by commercial producers in not-for-profit productions that are intended for Broadway. A good example of this is the current musical AMERICAN IDIOT – which was originally produced at a non-profit, but moved quickly to Broadway. The commercial producers were involved from very early on, as far as I understand, with the purpose of transferring the production. The “seed money” provided by commercial producers for ventures like this is the source of great controversy here: on the one hand, it's a boon to a theater to have the resources to do something large scale that has the potential to transfer. On the other, many folks in the trenches think this shifts the original mission of the non-profits away from doing risky work and centering their focus in their communities towards commercial success.
In the non-profit world, there are many ways that new plays go through development… Many theaters (though in this economy resources are shrinking) have commissioning budgets, where they will pay writers to write new plays. The nature of commissions differs depending on the circumstance – in some cases, it's a way for a theater to demonstrate financial support for a writer and at least some commitment to their work and development as a writer. This is not necessarily tied to production though it can lead to that. Other commissions are more specific in terms of what the theater wants, and there are production commitments built into the commission. When the commission is complete, a theater has the right to exercise their options for the play – they may choose to produce, develop, or pass on the piece altogether. It becomes very tricky – a theater may have a budget to commission 10 writers but only a couple of slots to fill with new work in their seasons. In the end, though, the writers get to pocket the money and have a piece of work they can market to other theaters.
As far as my experience with development goes… I have lots of that. I find it very valuable to work with actors and a director on a play as it progresses from an early draft to something that is “producible.” It's a good way of focusing on a text in a concentrated way to prepare it for production without having to think about all the other elements or critical scrutiny, which can often mean the life or death of a play. It also serves to put a play on the map, as it were – literary managers and artistic directors take an active interest in what's happening at places like The O'Neill and Sundance, as they are frequently incubators for work that will reach stages throughout the country. The down side of this kind of development is that it can become an end to itself. There is a common phrase, “developed to death,” that describes plays that circulate in the development world but never get their chance on the big stage. It can be frustrating for writers to find themselves confined to that – development then can become an end rather than a means to an end.
You should take a look at Todd London's book OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE, a recent study about the climate of playwriting in America. It's pretty stark in its assessment, and I would imagine shocking to someone from a climate where there is significant government support for theater making.
Could you expand a little more on the way you use the term "auteur"? In a theatrical context with a playwright, i. e. author, its use is confusing, because you seem to give it a different meaning.
By “auteur” I mean a couple of things. In the States, when people use that term in reference to theater, they are referring to one of the following:
1) a writer/director who has a distinct theatrical approach to both text and staging. A great example would be Richard Foreman, the experimental NY writer/director. He writes the texts, creates unique physical and visual worlds for them and puts his unique stamp on them. He is also a widely regarded theoretician – his theater is totally unique and impossible to replicate. Few people ever do a Richard Foreman play on its own. He produces something new every year, and there is an “eventness” to his productions – in a sense they feel more like art openings than traditional theater events. Other folks in the U.S. one might characterize as auteurs of this variety: Richard Maxwell, Young Jean Lee…
2) there is also the auteur, usually a director, who is known to put a distinct "authorial" stamp on existing texts… and by authorial I don't mean textual… I mean primarily visual and conceptual. From previous exchanges, this would be a common thing in Germany – here companies like the Wooster Group, led by Liz LeCompte, are a prime example. Their highly specific renderings of, say, O'Neill's plays would fit into this category. People here are less comfortable unleashing their auteurs on new plays (which I think is silly) – because in the world of new plays a priority is placed on “serving the play”… where a director is expected to subsume a personal vision for the sake of realizing the playwrights' vision. They are meant to “do the text” and often serve as much as a dramaturgical function as a directorial one.
You also mention an “unintended patronizing attitude on the part of theaters for American playwrights.” What is the story behind this lead?
Most not-for-profit theaters these days are run either by directors or by administrative types – the primary aim is to keep the financial health of the institution sound – which is difficult given the economic crises of the last few years. Producing new plays tends to be a money loser for theaters so they tend to be risk-averse when it comes to producing new plays. Often the seasons for our regional theaters are comprised of classics combined with the hits from last season in NY. I think this stems from a notion that the powers that be know what will sell. An unknown play makes it hard for a theater to get behind fully.
There has been a lot of dialogue since the publication of Todd London's book about the death of playwrights in artistic leadership roles or being at the table when programming decisions are made. There has long been an atmosphere of distrust – where the playwright is seen and treated as a guest, as opposed to an inhabitant and stakeholder in the life of a given theater. The book has had an impact – streams of funding have appeared that theaters use to hire resident playwrights to their staffs. It is great in many ways for the writers – they get a steady paycheck and that ever-elusive thing – health insurance (we're not civilized that way like you are in Germany!) and a seat at the table. For many writers who've received these residencies the benefits are also artistic – commission, development and sometimes production. However, I have also talked to other writers who are in those positions and find themselves like David facing Goliath: the organizations are so entrenched in doing things the way they have been for so long, that a single playwright can do little to change it. Also, most of these residencies have a limited time frame – once the three years are up, the writers are on their own again. In that climate, TV, which is undergoing a golden age here in the U.S., has become EXTREMELY attractive to playwrights – and Hollywood is actively seeking them out.
And finally: Do you feel your writing reflects the dawning of a new relationship between playwrights and directors in U.S. theater? You challenge directors to take a more creative stand in the dialogue with your play rather than servicing your views, is that correct?
Speaking for myself, I thrive best in a robust collaboration with a director. I do have a very strong physical/visual sense when I am writing – one director I worked with many years ago once said I direct my plays on the page. I am always excited when a director stages something in a way that forces me to understand what's on the page in a counterintuitive way. And where there is an exciting dissonance between what's happening in the words and what's happening visually/physically.