Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Conversation With Playwright Craig Lucas

Playwright Craig Lucas
Craig Lucas during rehearsals of Reckless.
Playwright Craig Lucas has a long association with South Coast Repertory, and he remains an associate artist with the company. SCR’s Associate Artistic Director John Glore recently checked in with Lucas to talk about playwriting, collaboration, inspiration and The Light in the Piazza.

John was there in the beginning, for SCR’s first Lucas play, Reckless (1984-85), and all the ones that followed—Blue Window (1985-86), Three Postcards (1986-87), Prelude to a Kiss (1987-88) and Marry Me A Little (1987-88).  Music played a big role in Blue Window and Three Postcards, and Marry Me A Little was a musical without dialogue assembled from various songs by Stephen Sondeim that had not been performed in any New York show at that time. Here are two photos of Craig, taken during those early days.

Craig during rehearsals of Blue Window
JG: Music has been important in your work as a playwright since the beginning; why is that? What does music allow you to do that makes it an important tool for your work as a writer?

CL: Music achieves its effects without words—like color and shape and movement, it has no inherent meaning, but rather associative meanings. Often that meaning is in relationship to itself, one part of the sound in concert with another. Auden called it "pure contraption." There was music in my home from an early age. I played the piano and sang, my parents loved music, my dad was an opera fan, I was taken to musicals, I performed in musicals as a kid and then into adulthood when I came to New York. Something about what the music can do above and beyond and in tandem with words and dialogue and dramatic sequences seemed and continues to seem to me inherently natural. Dialogue can have rhythm and pitch and tempo, so it's musical in that sense, but the notion of pitch and accompaniment along with those other factors moves things into a higher realm, one that gets at emotional states that are very hard to invoke by a reasonable or rational approach: ideas may lead into the upper realms, certainly mathematics can, but music leaps there, passing through the various boundaries of the perceivable world by noumenal means maybe, something beyond what can be understood through the senses alone?

You’ve become one of the busiest librettist/book writers in theatre lately. Did that start with The Light in the Piazza? Is it something you have actively sought? Or if it’s more a matter of people coming to you with projects, what do you think it is in your work that makes you sought after for such projects? 

I had nothing to do with it! I was kind of washed up—my house was on the market, I could not get a good enough set of reviews from the New York Drama Critics to engender work that would yield any income, the independent movie world was transformed, I was no longer viable there either, and I began to read philosophy and theology to find another way to live, not knowing what I would do. I had written a lot of very dark work—starting with God's Heart through The Dying Gaul, Stranger, Small Tragedy, Prayer For My Enemy, The Singing Forest—and as you know, a lot of theaters around the country showed resistance to this work. I was asked to write an opera with Nico Muhly for the Metropolitan Opera, then I was asked to write the book for King Kong, and suddenly, I was asked in quick succession to write the books for a brand new imagining for the stage of the Gershwins’ An American in Paris (with Christopher Wheeldon directing and choreographing), Invisible Man (with Adam Guettel writing music and lyrics), a musical of Amélie (with songwriters Dan Messe and Nathan Tysen), The Outsiders (with lyricist Bernie Taupin, for director Kristen Hanggi) and there's another new one I'm not allowed to talk about until the producer is ready to announce it!

So, the last five years have involved a lot of slow, patient, deliberate and thrilling work on these various projects with these wonderful colleagues. They don't pay very much for development, but I have not had to sell my house, and though the New York Times didn't much care for The Light in the Piazza in New York, and it ran but one year, it seems to have a certain amount of impact among theater people. Writers in other disciplines seemed to respond strongly to it—Denis Johnson, whom I revere—spoke to me glowingly of the piece. And suddenly I realized that I'd grown up with musicals and I'd been befriended early on and mentored by Stephen Sondheim, whose works from the 1970s had opened many doors in my perceptions regarding what's possible onstage, and it is only now that I can call upon so much of that knowledge and experience and be someone with a renewed and deeper passion for the possibilities—along with what the Zen folks call “Beginner's Mind.”

When you’re working on a musical or opera, how do you and the composer decide what is to be sung vs. what is to be spoken? Or is it different from project to project?

I never make that decision, because I don't think it falls within my province. The composer/lyricists know, and I then aim to serve that need, insight, development.

Adam Guettel originated this particular project [The Light in the Piazza] and then came to you to write the book after he had already written some of the songs. Did that make your job harder or easier, building the book around songs that already existed?

Oh, it was much easier being able to hear some of the songs, including a few lyrics, plus the narrative had built-in wonder and structure, because of Spencer's novella, a marvel of 20th-century American fiction.

Was Elizabeth Spencer involved in the creative process in any way? Did you consult with her as you were working on the book?

Oh yes, she came to Seattle when we were in previews (I was also directing that first production) and she had good ideas. Her new book of stories is incredible, I recommend it highly. She just keeps on truckin'.

It’s been more than ten years since The Light in the Piazza premiered at the Intiman Theatre. What do you think about the show now, as you look back on it?

I'm going to admit to a character failing. I don't look back. I don't go to see other (new) productions of old plays or musicals I've written, I only look at what I'm writing now, what's new. I did get involved in a revival or two, and I found the process not so very interesting or pleasant, so as much as I might love to collaborate on a new production of an old work, I tend to keep my eye on the next one.

You and Richard Greenberg were two of SCR’s original Associate Artists, in recognition of the important place each of you has in SCR’s artistic life and history. I wonder if you’re aware that The Light in the Piazza is one of Richard’s favorite musicals and that he saw it 13 times when it played in New York?

Richard Greenberg is one of my favorite people in the world, he always makes me laugh and makes me happy at the same time. When Piazza closed in New York, he sent me an email saying, "This day shall live in infamy." He's the best.

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