A Conversation with Terrence McNally
held in October ‘15 as part of DGF’s Traveling Masters Program
Terrence McNally: It’s nice to be back in Dallas. We lived here for about three years, the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade and I do not recognize anything.
Some of my very first theatrical experiences were in Dallas at the State Fair Music Hall; my parents took me to see some traveling road shows. In the summer they did musicals outdoors and some Broadway shows toured through here. So Dallas was very significant character in my life and I am very glad to be back. We are doing an original opera which is pretty unique in this day and age; most operas (like musicals) are based on familiar stories. Jake Heggie, the composer, and I have previously collaborated on the opera Dead Man Walking, which is based on the memoir by Sister Helen Prejean. Great Scott is completely original. I just came from rehearsal and it was pretty wonderful. Next week I’ll feel like it’s a disaster but as of a couple of hours ago it is not a disaster at all. The first opera I ever saw was in Dallas at the State Fair Music Hall when the Metropolitan Opera still toured. In fact, one of the reasons I think I’m a playwright is that I was introduced to opera when I was in 6th grade at Christ the King school in Dallas and the nun, I forget her name, it was something like Sister John the Baptist, came in with a phonograph. This is in the days of 78 rpm records. She put on some Puccini love duets and I was absolutely hooked the minute I heard it. I can’t answer the question “How do you get to love opera?” To me it was like vanilla ice cream, I just loved it right away. And so when the Met came on tour I made sure my parents took me to see Carmen. A very famous singer, Risë Stevens, played Carmen and It was a very theatrical production by Tyrone Guthrie. Maybe it all began right then and there at a Sunday matinee.It wasn’t until college I thought about writing plays, I thought I was going to be a journalist for most of my four years at Columbia.
Teresa Coleman Wash (moderator): I’m really fascinated by your career, your very first play was your Broadway debut
TM: It sounds like the movie version: you write a play when you’re 23–24 and it gets done on Broadway and it’s a big hit and you live happily and productively ever after. The truth is I was so ill-prepared. I was overwhelmed by the experience. I didn’t know what I was doing. How could I? The reviews were pretty vicious with the exception of one, but it was not the movie ending where the young man has his first play triumph and he is carried through the streets of New York. Quite the opposite.
TCW: But the play was extended actually.
TM: Yes, because the producers, Ted Mann and Paul Libin, did a very bold thing. In those days Broadway shows, when they got bad reviews, very often ran one night and when I read the reviews the next morning I assumed there would be no second performance of my play. The reviews were that really bad. When the phone rang finally (when you have bad reviews, you think your phone is dead. You keep picking it up, there is a dial tone, but nobody is calling.) it was the producers saying that since we came in $30,000 under budget, they were going to charge $1 a ticket, $2 on Friday night and Saturday nights and see what happens. And we sold out the rest of the week and we had still had enough to go a second week. We pretty much sold out for those two weeks and I felt the play had reached some people. If we had closed in one night I think I might have said I was such a failure at this, I better go back to journalism. I really credit Ted and Paul. I’ve always been very grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to feel like a playwright. That doesn’t mean everybody who was at those performances loved the play, it was very controversial. There was usually booing and cheers mixed. But I felt like a playwright, I felt like I mattered, that I was a member of the community and that made a big difference. This goes back to something I believe very profoundly: Theatre is about communicating. I think we decide to work in the theatre because we want to say something to people out there.
“I felt like a playwright, I felt like I mattered, that I was a member of the community and that made a big difference. This goes back to something I believe very profoundly: Theatre is about communicating.” — Terrence McNally
After we closed, I had to take a job in journalism to pay the bills and then I wrote a second play and it got done and it was successful, and that is another story in itself. you know, working for the right people; Elaine May had just broken up her comedy act with Mike Nichols and she wanted to try her hand at directing. I had written this play (Next) for a friend of mine, Jimmy Coco, who went on to become a very famous actor. This time I had the right cast and director. A new play can’t be a success without them. I was lucky enough to have the right combination by my second play. You’ve got to have the right people to do a successful production.
TCW: So I know that there are a lot of young people in the audience and you talk about the impact that Shakespeare has had on your career, particularly as a young person. Can you talk more about that?
TM: Happily, I am one of those lucky people -I am totally the product of public schools- that have had great teachers. We moved from Dallas to Corpus Christi and this teacher, Maureen McElroy, entered my life.
“I am one of those lucky people -I am totally the product of public schools- that have had great teachers.” — Terrence McNally
TCW: She was also a character in your play.
TM: I mention her very often. I dedicated things to her. She made Shakespeare an accessible, enjoyable person. Sure some of the words we didn’t understand, we had to work a bit to understand him, but she made us realize what was going on, the humanity in his work. No one understands every word in Shakespeare and it is a little more work than the way I am speaking now, but it’s worth it and she taught us to love the glory of this language we were once speaking instead of being afraid of it. You’d be surprised at the number of fellow playwrights I know who say they hate Shakespeare or are afraid of him. They were introduced to him like castor oil: “It’s good for you”. We were never taught that he was for the chosen few by Mrs. Mac. He was for everybody, he wrote for everybody. People stood in what they call the pit to hear these plays. They were very much a part of the fabric of Elizabethan play audience. Shakespeare, as you get older you appreciate more and more about him, but what I came to learn is he doesn’t write his opinion of his characters, he writes his characters and lets you draw your opinions of them. That is really hard to do and smart and mature writers can do that. It’s not important what I think of Hamlet. Let me just show you who Hamlet is. Then draw your own conclusions. Or Iago. Shakespeare doesn’t worry why Iago is bad, but he shows us that kind of evil, what it does. Whenever I am at a wits end what to write about or how to write, I pick Shakespeare up and there is always a moment, a scene, something that just inspires me to write objectively. To me the greatest line in dramatic literature, is when Lear enters when Cordelia is dead and he says “Never, Never, Never, Never, Never” Five times, so simple but how much more profound that is than an elaborate speech, “Oh, My daughter is dead, blah blah blah”. I revere the simplicity in Shakespeare, but he wasn’t afraid to write the “big” moments either. Cleopatra’s death speech is simple and bravura at the same time. He is my god of gods.
“Whenever I am at a wits end what to write about or how to write, I pick Shakespeare up and there is always a moment, a scene, something that just inspires me to write objectively.” — Terrence McNally
TCW: We have a TNT program. TNT is an acronym for Teenagers ’N’ Theatre. It’s an apprenticeship program where we teach kids not only how to perform on stage but the design aspects of theatre and it culminates with the Shakespearean in production. And to your point, for 6–8 weeks these kids are dissecting the scripts and interestingly enough, 90% of the kids who participate in that program pass the reading part of the star test. Think about that? 90% of those kids pass the reading part of the star test, but its like you were saying, because they are dissecting that script.
TM: That’s great. Mrs. McElory had us memorize scenes and do them together. So at least when we didn’t know quite what the words meant, we had to make it mean something for ourselves in order to speak them to our partner. “Ha, Portia, dead! How ‘caped I killing when I crossed thee thus?” I was terrible but I loved doing that Tent Scene from Julius Caesar. I just get upset when I meet people who say “Oh I hate Shakespeare; he’s boring”. I think they are missing one of the great joys of life.
TCW: One of the things that you talk about in The Legacy Project, you mention working with people you perceive are smarter than you and people that you can learn from. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
“Life is a learning process until the moment it ends” — Terrence McNally
TM: I think life is a learning process until the moment it ends. And if you put yourself in a situation where you say I am the King here and everyone is here to serve me, you’re never going to learn anything. So I like to work with actors I’m sort of scared of or directors who are very demanding, I think it’s good to always be challenged. I don’t like working with mean people or assholes. I mean smart people and sometimes smart people are also assholes, but at least they are smart!
A really smart actor teaches you a lot about what you wrote and a good director can show you maybe some insights into your play. I just think it’s a good life lesson, be involved with someone who is smarter than you. Work for people or with people who are smarter or as smart, who are going to teach you and challenge you. And I think in the arts there are a lot of them out there to work with.
TCW: So I am going to ask you a question that I asked Doug Wright, and that is: With so many lucrative opportunities in film and TV, why do you still work in theatre?
TM: Well, it’s the simplest answer: I wasn’t offered many films. I don’t know how virtuous I would have been if someone said to me “Do you want to earn a million dollars and write a screenplay.” So there was that. I don’t dream in movies. The few movies I have been involved with have been plays of mine, which I have written the screenplay for, but they are really excerpts from the play, so I don’t count them as original screenplays. I just love the wear and tear and the body contact of the theatre and rehearsals and performances. I remember we were making the film of Frankie and Johnny and at the end of the day you put the films in those octagon shaped silver canisters and the guy walked out of the door to take it to the lab to be developed. I remember Michelle Pfeiffer saying, “There goes my performance” because she would never film that scene again. There were probably 6 takes or 9 takes in that can each one a little bit different, that the director and editor can choose from but she no longer owned her performance. It was in that can. In theatre, there are nights I have seen plays of mine saying “Master Class will never be this great ever again, Zoe Caldwell was on fire tonight, wow.” And then four nights later she was even better. You know, there is no such thing as a definitive performance in the theatre because it is different every night and that just excites me more than precision of movies. You know friends of mine in Hollywood say “I don’t get it, you playwrights write for free on spec” Then they tell you that on their last movie they brought in four other writers and there’s about two words left they actually wrote. That’s when I tell them about the Dramatists Guild contract. I own my script, they can’t change a word without my approval.
“There is no such thing as a definitive performance in the theatre because it is different every night and that just excites me more than precision of movies” — Terrence McNally
And I think sometimes they envy the playwright’s life because we own our plays. The two screenplays I wrote that were original, I was paid some money for, certainly not a fortune. They never got made for various reasons, and it’s like a whole part of me, a year of my life, just disappeared. They are the possession of studios. They bought them; I own my own plays. When you work for a film studio, they own your script and they can do whatever they want with it. I just think the playwrights have the better end of the deal.
TCW: So I want to talk a little bit about censorship. You’ve also had some flak about Corpus Christi. Do you think we have made significant changes as it relates to censorship?
TM: The fact that it still happens would make me want to say no. I think it’s great that the Dramatists Guild fights the good fight. People for the American way, Norman Lear’s group, was wonderful during Corpus Christi scandal, whatever you want to call it. It’s great to feel the support of your fellow artists and arts organizations like the Dramatists Guild. We always have to fight censorship.
I certainly understand how what I think is art is can be offensive to people, but then don’t come see it, but to shut it down is a big difference. Freedom of speech is so basic, but every so often you read a story of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath being censored because of that famous scene where the nursing mother feeding the hungry man. I mean, my god, if there is anything that is an American classic, its Grapes of Wrath. And it’s usually some ill informed person thinking they are doing the right thing. And probably hasn’t read the book. Most people who are upset by Corpus Christi never read it but they heard it was dirty, that was enough for them. A lot of those people who cause that trouble have too much free time on their hands.
TCW: You talk about the importance of artists finding a home. Do you want to talk more about that?
TM: Absolutely, pretty early in my career there was a theatre company just starting on the upper East side called the Manhattan Theatre Club and they did a play of mine that had closed unsuccessfully in Philadelphia on its way to Broadway. It was going really well during previews. The Artistic Director, Lynne Meadow said, “I want to do your next play. I’m doing your next play.” She didn’t ask what it was about, anything about it. That kind of freedom was liberating. I went home and started writing Frankie and Johnny. That was the beginning of almost a decade at MTC. I think I did 12 plays and I felt at home and it wasn’t about whether the last play was a hit. It wasn’t based on whether we had a star in it. It wasn’t based on anything but their commitment to do another play of mine. Most of the plays I did with Manhattan Theatre Club were pretty damn successful. It felt like I would finish a play on Friday, go into rehearsal on Monday, and open the following Monday. It seemed just much easier than the play development process that is the norm today. It takes forever to get a play up, mine included. Young playwrights have a much steeper hill to climb than I did frankly. Productions costs have risen, and theatre companies are more cautious about new plays than it was when I started. I mean the 60’s were wild. Playwrights would be on the cover Time and Newsweek! When is the last time you saw anyone in the theatre on the cover of a national magazine? Theatre was the coolest thing you could be doing in the 60’s, much cooler than movies. That slowly changed as theatres changed, but that’s because of the economy, real estate and all the things that happen in the real world. Theatre started as a service to a community, if I understand it correctly. I never studied theatre history but from what I gather, people did not pay to see the plays in Athens, they brought offerings, and they went to hear their stories re-enacted. They all went to see Medea and Oedipus Rex and Elektra, they knew the plot, there was no suspense but they liked the ritual of seeing a common heritage retold. That meant it wasn’t about hits and box office prices. It was originally a service to a community and slowly we have gotten away from that. It has become increasingly difficult for a New York writer to feel he’s reaching his community. Most of my plays are done for an audience I don’t particularly identify with but they can afford the price of tickets. Sometimes I feel very conflicted about that. But I think artists should be paid, I believe that very passionately. I think artist deserve 3 meals a day, a roof over their head, but they don’t need a boat and a house in the Hamptons. Here’s my two cents: Don’t forget your roots and don’t forget who your audience is.
“It takes forever to get a play up, mine included. Young playwrights have a much steeper hill to climb than I did frankly.” — Terrence McNally
You, young people out there should be inspired by someone like Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote a very special, fresh, groundbreaking show. It doesn’t sounds like a committee wrote it. So many musicals on Broadway now feel like a corporation wrote them. He said no no no, I want to write a musical about Alexander Hamilton and George Washington and cast it with people of color. It makes you look at American History fresh. He was bold and I think bold is really important in the theatre and we all want to copy success and that’s a really bad habit to get into. I’ve made a few attempts teaching playwriting, I don’t really have the patience to be a teacher. So often people, whatever play was a big hit the year before, they are writing in that style and you want to say, we don’t need another Harold Pinter. We’ve got one Harold Pinter. And I just heard this Oscar Wilde quote a year or so ago from Jake Heggie, the composer, it’s his tag line in his email: “Be yourself, everybody else is taken”.
TCW: So We want to open it up for questions.
Audience Member: I wanted to ask you how do you deal with the digital divide currently in 2015 with audiences in theatre? How do we attract, as artists, individuals, who are addicted to digital media and social platforms and all of the gimmickry and scenery that has taken over this generation of wonderful artists and even my own. How do you deal with that in your writing?
TM: That is a great question and I don’t really know how to answer it. I think what the theatre has to offer is humanity, live, people like me and you in the same room with other people who are telling them the truth about the human experience. All the digital stuff in the world doesn’t always do that. I think if you speak in your honest, own voice, maybe there is only one listener, but I’m a great believer if a play reaches one person, then it is a success. I think we shouldn’t try to compete with the digital world, I mean I don’t know how to. I hope I can still write characters that people are going to care about in situations that the people in the audience find themselves in. I worry when I see so few young people at the theatre. In elementary school, my generation, we had to be in a little orchestra, and they didn’t care whether we liked music or wanted to learn about music. We had to learn about music, the same way we had to go out and play sports, we had to take drawing. If young people are not exposed to what we are talking about then I am really worried. Something has got to be done. I do think you raise a very important issue, what’s going to happen to the arts. Of course they are going to be affected by the times. But I do think there will always be a place for a unique, singular human voice in Theatre.
Audience Member: Could you speak to the younger people in the room, about the time commitment and passion it takes to see a project run from its initial beginnings to the end?
TM: Well it takes enormous commitment, integrity, working with people smarter than you. It’s a challenge but if you love your work you don’t mind the challenge. I think because theatre is more difficult than it used to be, the people sticking it out really care. I am so encouraged by the number of theatres that have sprung up in the affordable boroughs of New York where young people are living now, such as Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. These young companies are making their own opportunities. We made our own opportunities at Manhattan Theatre Club. Now Manhattan Theatre Club has 5 theatres, a whatever-million-dollars-a- year budget, but we did plays on Samsonite chairs and the overhead fluorescent were the lights we used. You have to go back to the basics of it and find your peers. We all grew up together. When I wrote a play for Nathan Lane, he wasn’t Nathan Lane and I wasn’t Terrence McNally, we were friends. It goes back to the community feeling of theatre. And there are techies who just want to build sets and do lights and sound, stuff I know nothing about but we can’t do a play without them. God bless ’em. There is still a community out there. They do all they can to stamp theatre out, but it doesn’t go away. We’re like cockroaches we just keep reproducing in another borough. There are no young people in Manhattan who just came to live there and work like I did because they can’t afford to live there. I came to New York at 17 and my apartment was $45, a one-bedroom apartment in the West Village. It was great because everybody I knew was a playwright, a poet, a singer, an actress. Now it’s the highest rent neighborhood in New York City. So now people who want to be artists have moved to the other boroughs. You can be a great artist and work in Dallas and stay right here. Let my generation be the last that that New York matters so much to. I promise you, I know people who have really satisfying lives in theatre who live in cities that are a long way from New York. You want to do theatre, my only prayer is you just do it. And there are people out there that will help you and will want to work with you and the reward is when the play reaches an audience And believe me, there is no greater reward than that.
“Let my generation be the last that that New York matters so much to.” — Terrence McNally
When we do a play we know at once if we have connected with the audience. We’ve told them something they wanted to hear, we’ve helped them, we’ve enlightened them, we’ve consoled them, we’ve excited them, challenged them, we’ve connected with them. That’s what the art is about, to connect to our fellow man. That can be done anywhere. When I did Corpus Christi I was trying to recreate that, those passion plays that were done in the front of churches where they told bible stories because the people couldn’t read. So they couldn’t read the Bible so you put on these medieval morality plays for non-reading public. And I wanted to tell the life of Christ for gay men and women, it would mean something to them.
Audience Member: I always wanted to ask somebody who’s contributed in the theatre form of art, how do you feel about your own creation? How do you feel when somebody thinks the world of them or less of them, how do you feel about it in your own way?
TM: Well, I like it best when someone says your play really meant something to me, it touched me. To be in the men’s room at intermission and the gentleman at the next urinal says, “Boy, this play really bites the big one.” That’s not very enjoyable. The novelist is not there; he never hears someone saying that at intermission. When I see people putting on their coats at the end of act 1, that’s a horrible sighting. What can I tell you?
Unfortunately, I am one of those playwrights who tends to remember the negative reviews. So I finally stopped reading them about four plays ago. That’s way, way too late in my life to have given those critics that power because even plays I know that are very successful, the one negative review is the one I remember. That’s why I should probably be in therapy probably.. Once I wrote a play called Some Men and we were doing it in Philadelphia and when it was over, there was a woman, clearly a mother with her daughter, who seemed to be in her late 20s. They said, “Mr. McNally?” “Yes?” “I just wanted to tell you, your television drama, Andre’s Mother, so changed our lives.” “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, when I found out my daughter was gay, I asked her to leave the house that night. And my husband and I had not spoken to her in almost 10 years. And my husband and I watched that show and we called her and we have been close ever since.” I think that’s why we do art. Most of the time people say they enjoyed it, they were entertained. But when we reach people on that other level, you have to feel good about what you’ve done, all the sacrifices you made, or what you put up with. If that doesn’t move you, I don’t know who you are.
Audience Member: Hello, I have a question about regarding practical writer things. You mentioned readings and how that was off-putting. I am wondering, if you ever find yourself in the midst of a big big rewrite and if you have any tips with anyone struggling with rewrite hell.
TM: Well, I’m not against readings, I am saying, it’s just changed. We used to get the play up and learn in rehearsal. We did our rewriting then, now people have added this process before and most plays go through this. It’s a fact of life, whether you like it or not, every play that is going to be produced in this day and age is probably going to get a reading first. I think what is really hard for writers is to do their rewrites and not lose sight of their play because everybody in the room when you are doing a reading has an opinion and they all think their opinion is better than anybody else’s. If you can listen and separate the gold from the dross and say this really will make my play stronger or better, then you are already a mature playwright. The key to being a successful playwright is rewriting. And if you are one of those writers who thinks the script is like Moses and the Ten Commandments, etched in stone, you are not going to be very happy writing plays, because everyone is going to want to make a suggestion. And you are busily writing down every single note that you are given and trying to incorporate them all into the next draft of the play. Suddenly it’s not your play anymore. You’ve written the notes of your well-meaning collaborators, you’ve not written your play. You really have to be very clear what you want to say with your play, with these characters, who they are. I always say to work in the theatre you have to be sensitive but have skin thicker than any elephant. Well-meaning people give you really bad ideas for your play.
“The key to being a successful playwright is rewriting.” — Terrence McNally
You have to listen because every so often, someone will go “Wow, that is really really smart.” I have learned from good actors; I have done rewrites based on something that happens in rehearsal. So you’ve got to listen and listen hard, but also stick to your guns too. It’s really tricky, it’s really tricky. We all like to be told our script is perfect, don’t change a word, but the number of times that will happen in your life is exactly 0. Get used to it. I always say this to anyone, “Are you sure you want to be a playwright? Read one book and say yeah that’s the life for me. It’s called Act One by Moss Hart.” It’s a book about getting his first play on and what he went through in rewrites, rewrites, rewrites, rewrites, rewrites.. You read that book and say yeah that sounds exciting, working with smart people, who will help me shape my play or I don’t want to do that. I want to write a novel or poem or essay where I get one editor and he has a few changes and we publish it. Done. On to the next one. Theatre is not over until opening night and the curtain falls. You are making changes to the last minute. This book of Moss Hart touches this and that has not changed and it’s very pre-digital. It’s still the same experience of writing a play.Theatre is feedback from the minute you say the end, curtain, people start making opinions. Hang on to your play, it’s not easy, but that’s why it’s a good idea to know what your play is really about and what you really want to say before you let anyone else read it. I’m not a big fan of, “its my first draft, its 800 pages, and I know it needs work.” That’s an invitation to people to come in and really rewrite your play for you. Write the best possible play you can and then let someone say, I’ve got a couple of suggestions. So I hope that answered your question.
TCW: It is such an honor to have you honor our stage. Thank you.
DGF’s Traveling Masters Program is a national outreach program that brings prominent dramatists into communities across the country for writing workshops, master classes, talkbacks, and other public events.
In partnership with leading regional theaters and universities, the Traveling Masters Program creates local programming that give theater professionals and the public first-hand experience with renowned artists. To Read More, visit: http://dgfund.org/programs/#TravelingMasters