PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With John Guare

By Robert Simonson
June 8, 2013

Perhaps he got the idea watching the acting antics of playwrights like Tracy Letts, Christopher Denham, and Jonathan Marc Sherman — or, reaching farther back, to a member of his own generation, Sam Shepard. But, for his new play Three Kinds of Exile — now running at the Atlantic Theatre Company — veteran dramatist John Guare has written a role for himself.



The part isn't that much of a stretch. He plays John Guare. Or at least a version of John Guare. This Guare interacts three other actual historical figures: the Czech filmmaker Karel Reisz; the Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska; and the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. Playbill.com talked to the playwright about his first time being a hyphenate.

Playbill.com: So, as I understand it, you play yourself in this play?
John Guare: I play John Guare. I am John Guare. The play is about three exiles, three people who came from eastern Europe, one ending up in England, one in North America and one in South America. Two of them were very close friends and one was a hero. The subtitle could be "Two friends and a hero."

Are you the narrator, or do you interact with the characters?
JG: You'll have to come see it! No, this is a part.

When you first started writing the play, did you get the idea very quickly to put yourself in it?
JG: Not at all! That was the last thing that happened. One of the scenes takes place in front of a painting that a friend of mine did, and, we would do readings of the play in front of the painting up in Maine. I couldn't find another actor to play one of the parts. I was going to go up anyway, so I read it. We did two readings of it, and at the end of it, I thought, "Oh, I have to be in this." It's as simple as that. It's something I haven't done in, oh, maybe 50 years.

I wanted to ask you—did you ever want to be an actor early in your career?
JG: Well, if you read The House of Blue Leaves, the scene that opens up the second act is with the son, Billy. The guiding light in the family is an uncle who is a casting director at MGM. My uncle was a casting director at MGM, and he was going around America looking for the ideal American boy to play Huckleberry Finn. He was so sick of kids that he came to my parents' house to hide out, because people would come to his hotel room with kids hiding in laundry baskets. I realized he was coming — I was eight years old — and I thought I would get the part. I came and auditioned for him, and he left. He thought my parents had put me up to it. He left in a rage. That was the end of my acting career. I had to be in a couple plays at Yale. And I was in a play at a summer theatre in Rhode Island. That was my last engagement.

Guare in Three Kinds of Exile.
photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

Are you playing yourself naturally in this play, or are you doing a stylized version of yourself?
JG: Well, I don't know. I think once you get on stage, you're a fictional person. It's an interesting challenge to figure out who I am and how I react.

Have you leaned on your fellow actors for advice?
JG: Oh, they have been sensational! I've learned about partnership. I didn't realize the amount of energy I'd get from them. I get all kinds of help. They give me breathing exercises to help my voice, and teach me how to hold for a laugh. It's great, great fun. And, usually, the playwright is always excluded from the play at half hour, and now I'm not!

How were rehearsals? You're acting, and then perhaps the director has a question for you about the script. Do you have to go back and forth?
JG: Oh, yes, I did lots of rewriting. It was really a nutty month. I was having all these different hats on. That was part of the fun and part of the challenge.

This may sound like a funny question, but do you wear your own clothes, or do you have a costume?
JG: Well, I asked that! You know, I'm so dumb that I thought that I would wear my own clothes. But [costume designer] Susan Hilferty took a look at them and said, "No way." Thanks to Susan, I look presentable.

That's funny, because I always think of you as a natty dresser.
JG: Really? Not to a costume designer. They have higher standards than the likes of us, Mr. Simonson.

Do you lead an actor's life right now? Getting to bed early; lots of rest?
JG: Very much so. I'm amazed how I wake up in the morning and look at the weather and think about what it's going to be today. It's astonishing how I've adapted. The other week I went to the other actors and said, "I had the worst dreams! I dreamed that someone came out of the audience and slugged me. I dreamt I was in the wrong clothes and I looked horrible." And they said, "Oh! You're an actor!"