Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Herb Gardner on Playwriting

I absolutely love the following excerpt from the introduction to Herb Gardner's THE COLLECTED PLAYS. It is written by Herb and was read out loud to my acting class a few weeks ago by a substitute instructor (John Korkes). John knew Herb fairly well and was in the Broadway production of CONVERSATIONS WITH MY FATHER. I have to retype all of this to get it online, but it is worth it:

"The editor of this volume, a hopeful and kindly fellow, has been waiting for this introduction for two months. I have offered him a series of deadlines, lies, promises and apologies which we have both decided to believe. How do I explain that I write plays, that I speak in the voices of other people because I don't know my own; that I write in the second person because I don't know the first; that I have been writing plays most of my adult life waiting to become both an adult and a playwright, and that it takes me so many years to write anything that I am forced to refer to myself during these periods as a playwrote? I have tried to write this introduction at desks, in taxis, on long plane rides; I have worked on it at thirty-thousand feet and in bathtubs; I have spoken it into tape-recorders and the ears of friends and loved ones. There are several problems: I can't seem to invent the character who says the lines; I am writing words that won't be spoken aloud and in a strange language, English-- my first, last, and only language; and, most importantly, I cannot offer an explanation for why I wrote these plays because there is none. Playwriting is an irrational act. It is the Las Vegas of art forms, and the odds are terrible. A curious trade in which optimism, like any three-year-old's, is based on a lack of information, and integrity is based on the fact that by the time you decide to sell your soul no devil is interested. Your days are spent making up things that no one ever said to be spoken by people who do not exist for an audience that may not come. The most personal thoughts, arrived at in terrible privacy, are interpreted by strangers for a group of other strangers. The fear that no one will put your plays on is quickly replaced by the fear that someone will. It's hard to live with yourself and even harder for people to live with you: how do you ask a Kamikaze Pilot if his work is going well? The word "Playwright" looks terrible on passports, leases, and credit applications; and even worse in newspaper articles alternately titled "Where Did These Playwrights Go?" and "Why Don't These Playwrights Go Away?," usually appearing in what the New York Times whimsically refers to as The Leisure Section. The most difficult problem, of course, is that I love it.

God help me, I love it. Because it's alive. And because the theatre is alive, exactly what is terrible is wonderful, the gamble, the odds. There is no ceiling on the night and no floor either; there is a chance each time the curtain goes up of glory and disaster, the actors and the audience will take each other somewhere, neither knows where for sure. Alive, one time only, that night. It's alive, has been alive for a few thousand years, and is alive tonight, this afternoon. An audience knows it's the last place they can still be heard, they know the actors can hear them, they make a difference; it's not a movie projector and they are not at home with talking furniture, it's custom work. Why do playwrights, why do we outsiders and oddballs who so fear misunderstanding use a medium where we are most likely to be misunderstood ? Because when this most private of enterprises goes public, and is responded to, we are not alone. Home is where you can tell your secrets. In a theatre, the ones in the dark and the ones under the lights need each other. For a few hours all of us, the audience, the actors, the writer, we are all a little more real together than we ever were apart. That's the ticket; and that's what the ticket's for."

Herb Gardner, NYC, January 2000

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