A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of interviewing playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis over the phone. Live Arts, one of Charlottesville’s main community theaters, was in production with the show that earned Guirgis his Broadway debut: the foul-named (waitforit) The Motherfucker with the Hat.
Guirgis grew up on New York’s Upper West Side under a variety of cultural and artistic influences. He went on to grind the grind like many artists do, and today he works as a playwright and member and co-artistic director of the LAByrinth Theater Company.
I read Motherfucker to prepare for our interview, and it was a crack-snap-you’re-done experience. The fact that one of his shows would open on Broadway seemed to surprise Guirgis, and I found myself charmed by his humility, quick mind, and thick New York accent. Here was a guy who worked the trenches, who wrote when he felt bad and when he felt good, and by virtue of diligence and his knack for dialogue created a colorful, hilarious world in just 50 pages.
If 203 has been my year to act—to build diligence as a writer, to finish what I start—then 2012 was the time I focused on editing fiercely, on paring down and cutting back my words until only the truth remained. (These days, of course, I may not have the time to do the deep edits I love, but I know how to wield the razor blade. I have my red pen at the ready.)
When I look at the small heap of word-rubble that stands after my wrecking ball edits, I shed a small tear for time lost to my writing practice. But this is my way: overwrite, then cut. Farewell, useless words.
At the time of our interview, I was directing a staged reading of a friend’s work-in-progress. After a heated discussion with my friend on the subject, I decided to ask Guirgis how he felt about actors who “interpret” scripts—i.e. mess around with dialogue. Once an actor, Guirgis’s response was immediate and firm.
“Once I became a writer and understood what it takes to actually write, I had a lot more respect for the written word as it is written. Everything that is on the page took a lot of time and effort.”
Then he said my most favorite thing:
“It costs us something to do what we do. It costs me something to write a play, and it costs you something to write this article. The same way it costs an actor to give a great performance or a director to build a great show. But busy actors and directors can do three to five plays a year. If you’re very prolific, a playwright can write one play a year—really a play every few years.
“So if you think about it,” he said, “my life is shorter than everyone else’s. And if I told you how many fucking cigarettes I smoked while writing this play, you would know it.”
I didn’t need convincing, of course. We just laughed, two half-lives syncing for a minute on the phone line.
You can read my entire interview with Mr. Guirgis here.