Wednesday, April 26, 2006

INTERVIEW: Richard Wright

The secret is out; Douglas Wright’s play, “I Am My Own Wife” continues to be embraced by the theatre world at large. Doug nabbed the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2004 and won a Tony for Best Play as well. The play recently left its home at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre for a run around the globe, stopping off here in San Diego at the La Jolla Playhouse as part of its 2005 Season.
Playhouse Artistic Director, Des McAnuff, like an encouraging father figure, accepted Douglas Wright’s play in development a few years back as a project for the Page to Stage new play development program. Des is now beaming like a proud papa at its success.
“IAMOW” is all about a struggling transvestite by the name of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, living under the 20th Century’s two most conformist regimes, the Nazis and the Communists. Trapped in a male body, she changed pronouns to become a “she” in her early years. A heroine in her own right, she became a collector that seems to underscore the historical journey through her life and those regimes. Born in 1928 as Lothar Berfelde, she lived to tell her tale—or most of it—before she passed in April of 2002.
Wright, after amassing a mere 500 pages of transcript with Charlotte, gifted her story to the world through his dynamic award-winning play. Currently, as the Tony award winning actor for IAMOW, Jefferson Mays takes on some 35 characters in a tour de force performance that you can’t pass up.
I spoke to Doug from Los Angeles recently and our chit-chat is memorialized below.

Cuauhtémoc Q. Kish (CQK): Do you think IAMOW has, in some small way, changed the political landscape of this nation?

DOUGLAS WRIGHT (DW): I urgently wish I could say yes. Theatre is that adventurous, albeit rarefied form of communication that seems to preach to the already converted. I will tell you that Laura Bush attended IAMOW in Washington, D.C. and she stood with those offering up a standing ovation. My hope is that something of the evening will be shared through pillow talk to President Bush.

I commended Douglas on his very proud moment at the 2004 Tony Awards where he publicly acknowledged his husband, David Clement. Any opportunity to demonstrate to the world that gays can lead productive, wholesome lives should never be lost.

CQK: Does David play an active part in your creative life?

DW: David is very supportive of my work. I was afraid that settling down with someone and nesting would remove some of the creativity within my soul, but he has allowed me to be less tortured and focused. At times, he acts as my creative muse.

CQK: You dedicated IAMOW to your four wives; is David included amongst the four?

DW: The dedication was made before David had walked into my life. The four wives dedication includes: Moises Kaufman, Jeffrey Mays, Jeffrey Schneider (translator), and John Marks (Reporter). David will have a future dedication all his own.

CQK: You’ve won a zillion awards to date; how do you handle celebrity?

DW: I find that celebrity has provided me with an unwary heightened scrutiny of my work. Some of it is welcome, but the pressure to produce at that level can be daunting.

CQK: Do you find it just a little bit ironic that you have a gay playwright and a gay director working collaboratively with IAMOW, but the straight member of the collaboration, actor Jefferson Mays, gets to wear the panty hose and pearls?

DW: Yes, we’ve gotten a lot of laugh mileage out of that. We’ve actually asked Jefferson’s wife to join us on tour as the Assistant Director, as she is an actress in her own right and a former President of Actor’s Equity in Australia.

CQK: Would you consider Charlotte a one-woman Stonewall?

DW: Yes; in her own unobtrusive, quiet way she was a gay hero and survivor. But unlike Stonewall’s fireworks, she did it in her own graceful way.

CQK: Did you fight the truth in coming to grips with Charlotte’s story and were you ever tempted to create a fiction to protect her?

DW: I felt that battle for ten years. I broke through that writer’s block when I realized she just didn’t fit into the mold of the cardboard hero.

CQK: Do you find that, as a playwright, you can somehow change the politics of being exclusive, to one that is inclusive?

DW: I hope so… It’s a shame that arts funding has been cut so drastically because it is a conduit for understanding. It’s a way for individuals to slip into the skin of others.

CQK: Charlotte was the subject of a 1992 documentary by Rosa von Praunheim; did it influence your playwriting?

DW: It was useful as research for IAMOW only, most especially because it was sub-titled.

CQK: Along the same lines, did you find Charlotte’s autobiography useful in regards to the truth about her participation with the Nazis?

DW: I had to give up on the reading of that book as it was written in a German style that was impossible for me to absorb.

CQK: It has been said that Jefferson Mays’ portrayal of Charlotte has phrasing that is almost musical; was that intentional on your part as the playwright?

DW: I am, in fact, tone deaf. However, her recorded conversations were innately poetic, with almost a rhythmic cadence and Jefferson embraced her style as an actor.

CQK: Do you see anyone else in the role of Charlotte besides Jefferson?

DW: Yes. I’ve seen a recent benefit performance with another actor as well as one by a Swedish film star that were remarkable. I have some control over who plays the part, however, less control when it is being done by Regional Theatre.

CQK: Do you have any plans for the over 500 pages of transcripts that you have as a result of your many conversations with Charlotte?

DW: I may assign them over to historical biographers who can evaluate her story and find her place in history.

CQK: Charlotte died in 2002. Were you invited to her funeral?

DW: It was a private, family affair. Charlotte was buried before the family made the announcement to the media. Her family didn’t approve of her life. I attended a memorial service that was open to the public.

CQK: You have said that IAMOW is like a “questioning device” for the audience; what did you mean by that?

DW: History is illusive. As playwright I am the presenter of facts and want the audience to make their own decisions about Charlotte.

CQK: Has Jefferson’s portrayal of Charlotte changed over time?

DW: In many ways his portrayal has deepened. He distills her essence so beautifully that most audiences, like the one recently in Krakow, Poland, leave the theatre with great fondness and even love for Charlotte.

CQK: What’s the primary reason you write?

DW: It’s more remunerative than a suicide note.

CQK: Keeping that last comment in mind, how do you feel about your earlier works such as “Stonewater Rapture,” “Interrogating the Nude,” “Unwrap Your Candy,” and your musical called “Buzzsaw Berkeley?”

DW: Earlier I wrote out of a sense of amorphous rage, anger and bitterness. I think there’s been a shift in my work to temper those elements.

CQK: Do you require applause from your hometown in Texas?

DW: I have a supportive family. My parents are elderly and they laughed with glee when I told them I had won the Pulitzer. IAMOW opens soon at the Dallas Theatre Center and I hope they all come out to support the show.

CQK: What’s the next project open for close scrutiny by your adoring pubic?

DW: Grey Gardens; it’s a musical based upon a mid-70s documentary and explores the life of Jackie Kennedy’s Aunt and cousin, who with 52 cats, turn their backs on high society.

CQK: How was your experience with La Jolla Playhouse and with Artistic Director Des McAnuff?

DW: Fantastic; Des is an angel.

Douglas Wright was visiting Los Angeles in regards to a screenplay and then he’s off to Germany for the opening of “Unwrap Your Candy,” an evening of four short plays he penned about four disparate, semi-sane, totally self absorbed creatures. He may stop off in San Diego during the run of IAMOW, but he’ll miss opening night.

I’m anxious to visit with Charlotte on opening night at La Jolla Theatre and would encourage everyone to pay homage to yet another gay, accomplished author who, I’m certain, will find his place as one of America’s greatest playwrights.


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