On May 30, Playbill sat down at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street for an unprecedented Playwrights’ Roundtable with the four playwrights currently nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play: two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, Drama Desk Award winner J.T. Rogers, and Obie Award winner Lucas Hnath.
Nottage’s Sweat is about a group of friends who have been working on the factory floor together and questions of trust and loyalty as they get locked out and picket lines ensue. Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 picks 15 years after Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House left off after Nora slams the door leaving her family and her children behind. She’s returned and the question is, “Why, and what is she looking for?” J.T. Rogers’s Oslo at Lincoln Center Theater is a look at the Norwegian diplomat and her husband, a social scientist, who create a back channel for a Palestinian-Israeli possible compromise that ended in the 1993 Oslo Accords. And Paula Vogel’s Indecent is the story of the troupe of players who put on Sholem Asch's The God of Vengeance, and the controversy it lit in Europe, among the Jewish people, and in New York.
In a not-to-be-missed discussion, the four icons of American playwriting discuss their processes, the musical playlists that fueled their work, what they think of the Broadway landscape today, and whether or not they’ve discovered their own voices. Watch the full conversation in the video roundtable above, with highlights below.
What is your play about in three words?
Lynn Nottage: Fracturing of America. In three words.
Lucas Hnath: Something like, how far we’ve come, how far we haven’t. I really, completely broke that rule.
J.T. Rogers: People risking everything.
Paula Vogel: Celebration of theatre.
Can you speak to how you arrived at the structure of your play? Was it dictated by the subject?
LN: For me, I always begin with writing the first scene and the last scene. And so, when I sat down to write the play I had two characters, which were these young men who had just come out of prison. And so, really, for me the puzzle of the structure was figuring out how did they get there, and where do they go from there.
You, J.T., use flashback in a more immediate way. Your first scene gets replayed.
JTR: At the end of the first act you realize that the whole thing has been a loop and we’re back to where we started. Once I figured out what was an interesting place to start, I also knew there was so much that I wanted to talk about. There were so many crazy and remarkable things that I early on realized that I had to write, and this almost thriller-like rapid thing and have some constant feeling of the audience that it’s skipping entire scenes or actions, so I can get to trying to create a sense of momentum with the audience.
I can talk all about it now as if it were all figured out, but sometimes you’re like, “Oh, that’s what I was doing.” In this case, the trouble was figuring out where to start but I knew the ending.
LN: Which is sort of an interesting conundrum thinking about new plays. How do you maintain that intense momentum? Because there’s so much information that has to be imparted that’s so necessary for us to stay engaged, and I thought it was done quite craftfully.
PV: I always look at turning points first. When I see the turning point then I know I can write the play. And up until then I do research. I knew that there were going to be actors in the attic in kind of rags, performing God of Vengeance the love scene. Originally, I was going to call it “Rehearsing Vengeance.” So, I knew that it was going to be rehearsals of that love scene over and over and over again from 1907 to 1952. If you’re writing towards the last scene, how do we keep the momentum up in the middle? It’s always a problem.
This is the other thing, it’s that I think the shows around this table are getting such a bang for the buck in terms of the actors. And what we’re asking the actors to do in our shows. They’re doing virtuosic feats in terms of the way that you’ve structured the chapters.
LH: They’re almost a set of boxing rounds. I knew I was going to start with a knock at the door. That was a given in starting to write it. But really, it’s a play that’s in real time with one exception. I knew the last scene would be a scene between Nora and Torvald. That felt necessary.
How does research play into all of your processes?
LN: I’m a researcher, it’s just I think it’s an extension of my fascination. And then my brain has to constantly be in motion. And when I’m not in the process of actually sitting down to write I need something to do and research becomes that thing. I see it as part of the creative process.
JTR: In open research, you find sometimes that that allows constant outward flow. Or sometimes you go, “Oh I need to have a little bit of form around this.”
LN: For me, the research, it’s like the Irish closing until it focuses exactly on what I want to do. I have to begin wide, because when I began researching Sweat I didn’t know it was Sweat, I didn’t know it was going to be about steel workers. I just knew I wanted it to be about this place.
At what point do you let the research go and put pen to paper?
LH: I kind of have to start writing before I do research because it’s the writing that gives me a sense of the questions that I have. Why I say I do “messy research” is, I’ll go and find books but I’ll read them out of order so that I have more questions from the research than I have answers. I continue to fuel it, fuel the writing with articles or essays or books pretty close until the end.
PV: I don’t know if this is true of you guys, but I find myself writing it in my head. I’ll go for long drives. I’ll be writing in my head.
All of these plays except A Doll's House, Part 2 transferred from Off-Broadway. Do you consider the size of the house when writing?
PV: I actually think that the notion of “There is a Broadway play,” is nonsense. I have seen incredible one-person shows on Broadway that have been absolutely riveting and holds the house. I do think that the notion of a Broadway show versus an Off-Broadway show is something that particularly has been applied to women. That we are writing smaller plays. Previews is listening to the audience [and their size]. And up until that point, I don’t know about you guys but I’m concentrating on being the first audience.
LN: It feels like we have the same impulse that’s happening in film: moving toward the Blockbuster. I think that that’s not really what the Broadway stage should be. I think that the Broadway stage is really about the weight of the ideas.
You have brought weighty ideas to the stage in your writing, but I wonder, overall: Have you found your voice? And if so, what is it saying?
LN: I think when you absolutely find your voice then you can finish. As playwrights, I think we are in this medium because we are constantly chasing the next idea, that we can’t rest.
LH: I’m scared of anybody who’s too certain they’ve found their voice.
JTR: The gods will punish you.
PV: I feel like each play carves me out in the inside, so that the next play can take that different space. The plays create our voice and each play creates a different voice for the next work.