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Some questions for Bill Cain
By Madeleine Oldham

Bill Cain’s star is finally, rightfully rising on the horizon of the American Theatre.

His first play achieved success on the West Coast, went to New York, and closed after 13 performances. It was not until 20 years later that his second play, Equivocation, debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and here at Seattle Rep and also ran at New York’s City Center. 9 Circles premiered at Marin Theatre Company last year, this production of How to Write a New Book for the Bible is having a co-premiere, first at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and now here, and in an unprecedented repeat performance, Bill won the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association Award presented at the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays in both 2010 and 2011. With this current momentum behind him, his career is right in the middle of seriously taking off. Bill was nice enough to take a moment and answer some questions posed by Berkeley Rep Dramaturg Madeleine Oldham, with special help from Berkeley Rep Public Relations Director Terence Keane.

Why write this particular play?
The play focuses on three people: my father, my mother, and my brother. These are exquisite human beings, and I wanted to ritualize in some way the wonder of their lives as a way of celebrating them. I think the history of both religion and drama is the sins of the parents are visited on the children—as told by the children. And whether that’s Adam and Eve have ruined our lives or James Tyrone and Mary Tyrone [Long Day’s Journey into Night] have ruined the lives of their children. This is not my experience. My experience is the opposite of the general tradition; I have a huge sense of the blessing of my parents’ lives being passed to the next generation, and I wanted to make a ritual of that passage of life visible. Most of drama really is pointing the finger backwards. And comedy is where we get to celebrate. There’s a drama in generosity as well. I don’t think the only drama is in the scarring or the losses. I think there’s great drama in self-sacrifice and kindness and the cost of kindness. And that’s a ritual I would like people to enter. And exit less afraid and more joyous.

What do you hope people will walk away with when they see this play?
I hope they walk away with a great sense of joy, walk away carrying less fear about how life ends. My parents both gave off light as they died, and they found a way to make their deaths a summation of the goodness they had received and given for their whole lives. The play is very funny. And I think the reason for that is my parents understood that death does not negate life, but it’s one of the things in life. I hope the play works as a celebration of all of the darkness and light and not just some of it.

Was this a play that’s been building inside you for a long time, or did it come to you in a particular moment?
The first part of this play was actually written shortly after mom died. I had cleaned out the apartment and I found myself unable to leave. I stayed in the empty apartment an extra day just hanging out. Then I knew I had to go or what needed to happen—which is the final scene of the play—wouldn’t happen. The apartment needed to be empty of everything. Certainly empty of me. So I took the one thing I hadn’t been able to throw out before—the ironing board—and left—knowing what event would take place in my absence. That sequence—the play’s ending—was written immediately on leaving the apartment. After that—bit by bit—over the next 10 years I wrote the story of the play as a book—which I then adapted into this play.

Plays are full of decisions about what the right information is to tell a story. Were there things that were particularly hard for you to leave out?
Not really.

Does the play cause you to relive painful moments? If so, do you find it cathartic?
I think of the play as joyous. I don’t feel any regrets about any of the events of the play. Compassion certainly. I feel that my parents and my brother are absolutely exquisite people and I see the play as a celebration of them.

Is this the most autobiographical thing you’ve written?
No question.

Is the play pure autobiography or is it a blend of fact and fiction?
“Bill” says early in the play that he’s keeping a journal and writing it all down. “Bill” is faithful to that. Some of the funnier sequences—including the biggest fight in the play—are virtual transcriptions of the events. If I were going to fictionalize, I would have taken out some of my more boneheaded, selfish behavior, but I decided to let it stay as it was.

Were members of your family supportive of your writing this play?
It was a book before it was a play, and my brother loved reading the (still unpublished) book. He’s a little more concerned about the play, but he’s decided to trust me on it—for which I am very grateful.

How does being a priest affect your playwriting and vice versa?
I’m a Jesuit priest, and the Jesuits weren’t founded to live in a cloister or a monastery. We’re supposed to go into the world, find the presence of God there and celebrate it. I’d say that was a pretty good description of what all of us in theatre do as well. Theatre is always proclaiming “attention must be paid” to what is neglected and holy. Willy Loman. Antigone. Blanche. In this play—Mary. The jobs of writer and priest—as “Bill” says in the play—are closely related. In both, you point and say, “Look. Look there. That person you haven’t noticed—he, she matters.”

Can you talk a little bit about why you included the subtitle “A play for an older actress”?
It just is.

Religion in contemporary America can be a fraught conversation at times. Have you encountered any pushback about drawing on the Bible in your play?
I think we all sense the religious nature of family and this play places that—as does the Bible—at the center of revelation. It’s hard to quarrel with that. The Bible—it’s not a rule book. It’s the story of a family.

Did your family have a family bible?
We had bibles, but not the hand-me-down kind from generations before. The Bible for us wasn’t so much the physical book, but the stories. My family lived in stories and both mom and dad were storytellers. Dad couldn’t tell a joke. He’d get laughing so hard he couldn’t get to the punch line—which annoyed us as kids—but he was a champion storyteller. When we were little, he would make up stories with us and all the neighborhood kids in them. Mom’s stories always had a point and the point was usually “Work harder!” But Bible stories mixed in with Irish lore, sports stories, neighborhood gossip, literature, and history to create a rich stew of beginnings, middles, and endings.

When did you decide you wanted to be a playwright?
I had been a director for many years and was working at the Boston Shakespeare Company when I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Nicholas Nickleby and knew instantly I wanted to write. Four years later, I had a play called Stand-Up Tragedy. It took me 20 years to write the second one, but I seem to be picking up pace at the moment.

Do you write in other formats? What attracts you to writing for the stage?
I wrote for television for many years and loved doing that. Nothing Sacred for abc-tv was one of the great experiences of my life. It won the Peabody Award and the Writers Guild Award with a bunch of others. We didn’t last long—one season—but, while we lasted, we created a national community and it was an extraordinary experience. I don’t find much difference between stage and television. I love them both for the same reasons—gathering a community around a story—with any luck, with some laughter—always widening the circle of inclusion. I love theatre for its intimacy and television for its vast reach.

Does the process of creating a play look the same for you each time? If not, how was this one different from others?
All are time-consuming, wracking, lonely, and….Why do I do this?

What’s next in your writing world after this play?
I just workshopped a play called thirty.three. at the Ojai Playwrights Conference, which has been kind enough to host all of my plays so far. It’s also biblically based, which is odd for me. Jesus refuses to rise from the tomb. Just to get out of the Bible, I’m working on (not really working, it’s recreational writing) a screenplay about the sexual coming of age of lifeguards on the Jersey shore. It’s an emotional comedy. Then, finishing an overdue film script about Greg Boyle—a Jesuit who works brilliantly with gang members in Los Angeles. He talks about the basic quality of love being “no-matter-what-ness.” I love that.

What haven’t you done yet that you’d like to?
I’d like to try pole-vaulting at least once. Skydiving at most once. I’d like to live in Florence for a while and soak up some Dante, Canterbury and soak up some Chaucer, Dublin and read the second half of Finnegans Wake. Someday I’d like to really clean my room. I’d like to, for once, fold my laundry as soon as it comes out of the dryer. I’d like to do a one-man show—or maybe I’d just like to be the kind of person who could do a one-man show. There is a great deal of writing I would like to memorize—James Agee’s poem “Dedication” and Teilhard de Chardin’s “Hymn of the Universe.” I’d like to go back to studying karate—that feels like unfinished business. I’d like to go back to teaching middle school in the Bronx—nothing was ever better than that. I’d like to write a play a year for the next 10 years. Or a really good play every two years. Or a great play—once. I’d like to write a new book for the Bible.

Interview reprinted with permission from Berkeley Repertory Theatre.