Ted Malawer started his career as an opera singer. Then, his love of storytelling led him to the publishing realm, first as a literary agent for children’s book authors, then as an editor of children’s books, and ultimately as a children’s book author and novelist, himself. So it makes sense that when Malawer embarked upon playwrighting, his subject matter would eventually return him to the world of children’s publishing. “Although I never anticipated landing in the book world, I really did fall in love with it,” says Malawer. “The transition to playwriting, I think it was just another branch off of storytelling, but less lonely, for me. I wanted to kind of get back in the room with other makers.”
Now, Malawer is in the room with director David Cromer, his cast, and the Pride Plays team as his play Everything Beautiful Happens at Night works toward its developmental reading as part of the 2020 Pride Plays Festival. Malawer writes about Ezra, a fictional author of the Chipmunk and Squirrel series in the '80s, and his editor, Nancy. But when Ezra wants to take his characters in an unprecedented direction and defies Nancy, their longstanding relationship may be irreparable.
Here, we spoke with Malawer about the inspiration behind his play and the power of children’s literature.
Knowing a little bit of your personal history, from where did that idea of the children's book author defying orders come?
Ted Malawer: When I first started in publishing, I was given a copy of a book called Dear Genius. And it's a collection of editorial letters written by this woman Ursula Nordstrom. She was like this incredible woman and very influential children's book editor. She was the publisher of Harper & Row children's books, which now has HarperCollins, for 1940 to early 1970s. And she really shaped the course of children's literature as we know it today. She edited Goodnight Moon and Charlotte's Web, all of Maurice Sendak’s work, Shel Silverstein. Harriet The Spy books. She loved writers and she loved illustrators and she sort of stood by her authors and defended them very fearlessly.
She had this motto: Instead of publishing bad books for good children, she wanted to publish only good books for bad children. Putting stuff out there that wasn't written to please adults reading the books to the kids, but really spoke to kids and their own imagination and their own emotional lives. She was like really close friends with Maurice Sendak, but it's kind of unclear how much, or even really if at all, they discuss their sex lives. She was never married. She lived with a woman who she would refer to as “the friend who I live with” (which is obviously not unique to her) to sort of hide her sexuality. Sendak, I think he waited until after his parents died to come out. So that was kind of percolating in me and, you know, a series of books that I've always loved are the Frog and Toad books, the Arnold Lobel books, which she also edited. Aside from being so talented, he was married and had children and came out later in life in the ’70s, and then he died in the ’80s of complications from AIDS.
I had no idea. I loved Frog and Toad and these references ring so true for me, but so many readers probably don’t consciously realize this context.
Smarter people than me have studied these books and noted that these very seminal works for children, books that are probably on half the bookshelves across America, were written by queer writers and kind of explored queer themes without ever really stating [that outright]. That was kind of the genesis of the play. And it's really interesting because as I was writing the first draft of it Jesse Green published this really amazing article called “The Gay History of America's Classic Children's Books.” It was a beautiful article and he points out that Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola, and the George and Martha books by James Marshall, Runaway Bunny, Where the Wild Things Are—these books that are all by queer writers and they're entertaining, but they also explore themes of loneliness and connectivity and friendship and self-exploration that are very personal to these authors. So I got really interested in the juxtaposition about how anti-gay the world was in the ’70s and ’80s, and yet people are reading books like Frog and Toad to their kids at night without really knowing necessarily that there might be another level to those books.
In your play, is the direction Ezra wants to take with his book series a covert queer storytelling like these authors, or is it more overt and that’s why it causes a ruckus?
It’s the latter. It takes place over the course of a year set between 1984 and 1985. And it explores the professional relationship and also the friendship of this children's book writer named Ezra and his editor Nancy. When we meet them, he has a children's book series called Chipmunk and Squirrel, that is certainly a nod to something like Frog and Toad. The play kind of explores what happens when somebody new comes into the picture and upsets the status quo.
Why was it important to set it in the ’80s?
It's still a struggle today, but I do think that, certainly within the last decade or even two [it’s better]. Even in the late ’90s, there are books that are much more overt about different family structures, gay relationships. For me, I wanted to write about a moment in time that felt particularly dangerous. Obviously this is also the time when people are being confronted with HIV and AIDS. The questions that I explore in the piece circle around the rules that we play by in order to be accepted. And very much at the heart of the piece is figuring out later in life, what's really important to you and what's worth taking a risk for? A really important question is: How do you live a full life when you can't truly be yourself?
You're working with director David Cromer. What has his perspective brought to this iteration of the play?
I'm excited to learn from him. Every time you share a play, it's an opportunity to learn. And I think you learn from the actors, you learn from a director, dramaturg, the audience, especially. I'm really excited to see what kinds of things we discover. That to me is kind of like one of the most rewarding parts of it.