Wallace Shawn, Steppenwolf's Designated Playwright

Wallace Shawn, Steppenwolf's Designated Playwright You've seen him in The Princess Bride and Clueless and watched him argue with Andre Gregory in My Dinner With Andre, but Wallace Shawn is nearly as prolific a playwright as he is an actor. His oft-staged Marie And Bruce, as well as A Thought In Three Parts and translation of Machiavelli's The Mandrake, all played at NY's Public Theatre, and his The Hotel Play was staged at La MaMa in 1981.
l-r: Martha Lavey (Judy), David Shapiro (Jack), Nicholas Rudall (Howard)
l-r: Martha Lavey (Judy), David Shapiro (Jack), Nicholas Rudall (Howard) (Photo by Photo by Brosilow)

You've seen him in The Princess Bride and Clueless and watched him argue with Andre Gregory in My Dinner With Andre, but Wallace Shawn is nearly as prolific a playwright as he is an actor. His oft-staged Marie And Bruce, as well as A Thought In Three Parts and translation of Machiavelli's The Mandrake, all played at NY's Public Theatre, and his The Hotel Play was staged at La MaMa in 1981.

Now, Shawn's latest, mounted in 1996 at England's Royal National Theatre as a tour de force return to acting for Mike Nichols, will have its American premiere at Chicago's Steppenwolf Studio Theatre March 23. The Designated Mourner, about a future where all the ideals of art and culture are destroyed, is staged Friel-style, as an interwoven series of monologues. David Shapiro stars as Jack, the chief of three voices in the piece, which is set in a fictional future in which intellectuals are rounded up, imprisoned and executed. These include his wife Judy (Martha Lavey) and father-in-law Howard (Nicholas Rudall).

Other works by Shawn include Aunt Dan And Lemon, staged at London's Royal Court, Steppenwolf and the Public Theatre; and the Obie winning The Fever.

Directing Mourner will be Les Waters, who staged Fen and Cloud Nine, and Shawn's Marie And Bruce, at the Royal Court. Designing Designated will be Dan Ostling (set), Christine Solger (lighting), and Janice Pytel (costumes). Michael Volansky serves as dramaturg.

Asked about his input to this production of Mourner, Shawn told Playbill On-Line that he's basically been out of the process. "It's possible to talk with a director before the play is rehearsed, but in a way, those discussions are meaningless. Unless the writer is literally attending rehearsals, theoretical discussions you might have are too abstract to apply to strange events that happen when actual human beings encounter the text." Playbill On-Line then asked the playwright what themes and ideas he hoped audiences would draw from the play. "That's more for other people to discover...what does it mean to them. I do what I'm capable of, and I'm only really capable of one thing when I write a play: the thing that comes to me right then. I'm not a commercial writer in the sense that I'm not involved in writing on an assignment for somebody else. The only person setting the assignment is me. No one's asked me to write. I've never tried to write on a particular theme. I only write stuff that I find interesting or inspiring...something comes to me that I can get excited about. I don't have any idea what I'm doing when I'm doing it. The blueprint is something you draw afterwards, if at all. I don't start with a plan."

Shawn continued, "Designated Mourner shares some of the qualities of my early writing, which was a fairly blunt engagement with the subconscious, or irrational, or intuitive. It also has the more rational or political bent that is more characteristic of my later writing. If anyone cares... I see it as a kind of synthesis -- that's the word everyone uses these days."

Sensing a tone of humility bordering on self-denial in Shawn's replies, Playbill On-Line then asked the writer if he was proud of his work. "There's an inborn need or tendency for each person to think what he has done is absolutely incredibly great and important to the world. I find that tendency very boring and idiotic, so I try to not get too dug-in to that particular way of looking at things."

But don't you take pride in what you do? "That would just depend on my mood," Shawn said. "There are certainly times when I feel pleased by something I've done, and I watch it, and I think, ah well, it's terrific. And there are other times... I think if I were a Red Cross worker in Africa I wouldn't be that skeptical about it. I'd probably feel on a daily basis, there's no doubt about it that what I've done was a good thing. Being a writer...who knows?"

Shawn then says that he is like most authors; he writes because he enjoys it. That may be true; quite a few writers hate the process of writing, finding tedious and arduous, but do so because they must. "It's more arduous to be a coal-miner," Shawn replied. "I like to write, or maybe I'm just a fraud who likes to be a writer. But I enjoy writing, and so I do write."

The Designated Mourner begins previews March 19 with an opening set for March 23. The show runs through April 13 at the Steppenwolf Studio on North Halsted St. For tickets ($14.50-$19.50) and information on The Designated Mourner, call (312) 335-1650.

--By David Lefkowitz