Both Sides Now: Bruce Norris Takes a Page From the Past for Clybourne Park

By Robert Simonson
19 Apr 2012

Christina Kirk and Frank Wood in Clybourne Park.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Norris was once a regular presence on the Broadway and Off-Broadway stage, but he hasn't appeared on the New York stage since playing the lead in John Guare's Chaucer in Rome more than ten years ago. Still, his former vocation informs his current one. "I think what's absent from the plays I write is maybe a lot of literary merit," he says, laughing. "I tend to write plays that are scenes of conflict between people, because that's what actors do. I write plays that — I don't want to say they're 'actor friendly.' But they give preference to those things that are active, rather than friendly."

Norris doesn't perform in his own plays — "I don't think I can do both jobs well," he says — but he does think about how he might play the people he creates. "I don't think it's possible for me to write a character if I don't think I could act it," he explains. "I think writing is a private improvisation. I've never had the courage to be an improvisational actor, so I do it in secret, and let other people do it."

Though he calls acting "the thing I wanted to do my entire life," Norris seems content to neglect his old trade. "I kind of feel I got my fill of doing that, and also reached the limits of what I can convey as an actor." Neither does he necessarily hold the acting game up as a terribly high calling. He once called it a "lazy person's job," and stands by that characterization.

"Being in a play, once you get out of rehearsal into the run of the play, you work two hours a day," he says. "It's not such a hard job." (Before the actors out there howl in indignation, know that Norris thinks that "writing is even lazier.") What isn't a lazy person's job, he says, "is acting in a television series that shoots for..." He pauses briefly before thinking better of following this line of thought. "I don't want to get into that whole thing that has recently happened to me."

Brendan Griffin and Jeremy Shamos in Clybourne Park.
photo by Joan Marcus

"That whole thing" is a dispute he had with producer Scott Rudin that almost derailed Norris' Broadway debut. Rudin, according to reports, felt betrayed when Norris withdrew from playing a leading role in a television adaptation of Jonathan Franzen's celebrated novel "The Corrections." So Rudin withdrew as producer of the Broadway run of Clybourne Park. The contretemps fed the Broadway gossip mill for a few heady days in February and rudely introduced Norris to a public that had no fixed notion of the man.

Obviously, the production was eventually salvaged by other producers. And the writer is grateful, while remaining, well, Bruce Norris. "When you grow up you imagine things — the Pulitzer Prize, Broadway, the Royal Court — as things that happen in some Valhalla, some exalted realm that you're looking up to. It's incredibly gratifying to finally reach that supposed summit. But then when you get there and you look around and think, 'Oh, it looks the same here as it does everywhere else,' you think, 'Gosh, these are people just like me.'"

(A version of this article appears in the May 2012 issue of Playbill.)