His ticket to Broadway was an earnest drama called Stand-Up Tragedy. It had been a critical success on the West Coast. But at the Criterion Theatre, it was massacred by the reviewers and closed after 13 performances. New York didn't hear from Cain for the next two decades. But this year, in an unlikely comeback, he returned with a new play — his first in, yes, 20 years. Equivocation, a speculative drama about the tricky business of being William Shakespeare, is now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club's New York City Center Stage I, and has performed considerably better than Stand-Up Tragedy. (How could it not?) Cain, who ran Boston Shakespeare Company for seven years and has a few more plays up his sleeve, talked to Playbill.com abut his second act as a playwright.
Playbill.com: How did you get the inspiration for Equivocation?
Bill Cain: I went to London to relax after teaching for a couple years in the south Bronx. I spent time in the Globe Theatre and time in the Tower of London. I saw inscriptions chiseled into the walls there from prisoners of conscience of the time of Shakespeare. I began to wonder about the relationship between this man who had churned out so many words and defined his time, and people of conscience who had just a few words to write for taking a stand at the same time. Some of the moral issues of Shakespeare began to come to mind. So that was the genesis of it.
Playbill.com: Did you start to write it immediately afterwards?
BC: I was there for two weeks. I got on a plane and on the plane I said to myself, "Turn this plane around." Because in some ways the play wrote itself in the instant I had that sense of those two different spaces [the Globe and the Tower], which are shouting distance from one another. I got off the plane, made reservations, and went back and started writing the play.
Playbill.com: How did you go about writing lines for characters living back then, and for a person as famous as Shakespeare?
BC: Well, I ran a Shakespeare company for seven years. We performed Shakespeare. We kept our plays in rep for years, so we were really steeped in him.
Playbill.com: So you must have had plenty of Shakespeare scholarship in your head already.
BC: Well, I'm more of a practitioner than a scholar, but I could hear his voice pretty clearly from living with him for seven years. He was our roommate. Playbill.com: How many plays have you written?
BC: Well, I was a director for years. I wrote a play called Stand-Up Tragedy. It premiered at the Mark Taper and won all sorts of awards. Then it came to Broadway [in 1990], where it was shot to death like a mad dog in the streets. But because it was a hit in Los Angeles, all the movie and television producers came out. From Stand-Up in L.A., I got 20 years of work in television. I had a wonderful time and did some work I'm very proud of.
Playbill.com: So this is only your second play in 20 years?
BC: This is my second play.
Playbill.com: So in 20 years you'll write another one.
BC: No. I have two more that are bouncing around. We had a reading at South Coast Rep recently of a play called How to Write a New Book for the Bible. And Marin Theatre Company is producing a play of mine called Nine Circles, which is about Iraq.
Playbill.com: How to Write a New Book for the Bible is an interesting title. Is it a religious play?
BC: I think all plays are religious plays.
Playbill.com: Ah. That's the answer of a true theatre person.