It's been an overwhelming couple of months for the Texas native best known for the regional play, Quills, and its movie adaptation. An hour after being shocked by news that his I Am My Own Wife was named 2004 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Wright spoke to Playbill On-Line about his lauded one-actor play, now at the Lyceum Theatre.
The work was initially a pile of transcripts of interviews he had conducted in the 1990s with an aging German transvestite named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), a curator of antiques who lived during the Nazis, the communists and into the period of the destruction of the Berlin wall and reunification.
The Broadway production, like the early 2003 developmental run at The About Face Theatre Company in Chicago and the summer 2003 Playwrights Horizons run Off-Broadway, is directed by Moisés Kaufman and stars Jefferson Mays.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE: I was pleased to see that I Am My Own Wife lost none of its immediacy and intimacy when it moved from Playwrights Horizons to a larger house on Broadway.
Doug Wright: I wanted to make sure the new space at the Lyceum didn't overwhelm the delicacy of the play. Our primary goal was always to not showcase the play, but give the audience a worthwhile experience alone with Charlotte the way I had so many worthwhile experiences with her in her basement going over the details of her life.
PBOL: I keep telling people it's some of the best storytelling on Broadway. I miss clean storytelling. But even saying that, there's nothing clean about this because Charlotte is a confusion to this onstage character that you created — the character named Doug Wright. She's a mystery still.
DW: [Laughs.] She's a complete and vexing mystery, and I felt like in exploring her life, the best way to honor her was to present her with all of her contradictions intact. That's why I chose to tell the play through my own eyes, so that the audience would share my journey as I discovered, first — I thought — a hero, then, upon closer scrutiny realized, no — I'd actually stumbled upon a human being. PBOL: As complex as any of us.
DW: Right. Absolutely.
PBOL: There was a time when this was a pile of interview transcripts. You were stymied. You didn't know if it was a play.
DW: Yes, I didn't. In fact, it was the tireless collaboration of Moisés Kaufman and Jefferson Mays that coaxed the play out of me, and I feel like I would be remiss if I didn't say that three dramatists have been awarded the Pulitzer this year, because the two of them were absolutely indispensable to the evolution of this play.
PBOL: The script grew out of "theatre games," at Sundance Theatre Lab, wasn't it?
DW: It was. Moisés said, "You've got this giant stack of raw material, you want it to become a play, you're completely blocked, so let's get rough and crazy and let's start to create a few theatre games based on the material." We did, and suddenly he got me to think about its theatrical possibilities in a radically new way. Had Jefferson and Moisés not interceded, I don't think there would be a play.
PBOL: Moisés put on a dress in that Sundance workshop —
DW: He did indeed. Jefferson carved miniature furniture out of old shirt cardboard. And I read what Moisés claimed to be a very tattered copy of the gay guidebook to Berlin. I suddenly realized that by showing snippets from her life, we could suggest the fabric of an entire 20th century and that was our goal. [In the final version of the solo show, Mays wears a black dress and pearls, Charlotte does indeed read snippets from the gay guidebook and miniature furniture is pulled from an oaken box to suggest the passion the character has for antiques.]
PBOL: Were there other exercises, or did your collaborators start you off and running and you conjured your own ideas?
DW: Those were primarily the [exercises ] I required. As I wrote the play, I realized it would be more than just about Charlotte — I was composing a symphony for a true virtuoso, and that was Jefferson. There'd be crazy rehearsals where I'd say, "How many accents can you do?" And he'd run through about 12 accents, and I'd say, "All right, let's do an international press conference and have you play all of those people." His extraordinary facility as an actor was also a very reliable muse.
PBOL: In the play, Charlotte appears on a wild German TV talk show.
DW: Yes, that is my invention, but entirely true to the German TV shows on which she appeared. They're every bit as lurid and over the top as our "Jerry Springer." I remember once she was on a show that was, "Celebrating Difference With Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf and a Dwarf!"
PBOL: In its development, Robert Blacker, artistic director of Sundance Theatre Labs, helped.
DW: Yeah, he was instrumental. When I was so blocked about the play and felt like I couldn't tell it in an honest or a true way, he said, "You can't tell all of European history. You've got no authority." He said, "Instead, just tell the story of your burgeoning relationship with her. You're not writing a history play, you're writing a love story." Suddenly, the play made enormous sense.
PBOL: Did you fall in love with Charlotte, in a way?
DW: Absolutely! I felt like I'd met a mentor and a true grandparent; someone who could teach me my own past as a gay man. Growing up in Texas, I had a lot of ambivalences about my own sexuality and then I met Charlotte, and I was, like, wow, she was unapologetically gay in the face of the Nazis and I can't handle a few Southern Baptists! I thought she was a real curative for all the problematic thoughts I had about my own sexual identity.
PBOL: I Am My Own Wife is unusually structured, small, surprising, some would say experimental — in a way, the narrator-playwright is on an investigation. It doesn't attempt to be what you would call "a well-made play," but it's rich with story.
DW: I am a passionate devotee of narrative. I think that storytelling has fallen out of fashion, and yet I think it's one of the most fundamental ways we communicate with one another. I tell my students at NYU that if something funny happened to you at 9 AM in the morning, you test fly it over the water cooler, you've evolved it into a pretty funny joke at brunch, and by dinnertime you've created an epic. It's how we communicate our experience, by building narrative. I still think it's a critical and indispensible part of playwriting.
PBOL: Did you know Doug Wright, the playwright, would be a character?
DW: I didn't until Robert [Blacker] said, "Make it a love story." Then I knew I had to be [a character]. It also kept me honest: I thought, if I'm going to commit Charlotte's life to paper, I need to show equal courage and attempt to commit my own — and be fair to both of us, and be equitable in my presentation of us both.
PBOL: What's coming up for you?
DW: I am currently adapting a book for the fine people at Warner Bros., and writing a thriller for the actress Reese Witherspoon. I'm trying to pay off my new Manhattan apartment.
PBOL: We will not lose you to the movies, will we?
DW: No, I'm a creature of the theatre and I hope that I Am My Own Wife demonstrates that. I think sometimes in art, less is more. The challenges the theatre poses to us as artists are usually worthwhile ones.
PBOL: Are you the kind of writer who has six future ideas for plays in a file somewhere?
DW: I do, actually. I have the plays I want to write for the next 15 years, I think.