I Am My Own Character
Director Jerry Manning talks to playwright Doug Wright about his love of musicals, what it’s like to win the Pulitzer, and why he put himself in the play
Seattle Rep Artistic Director Jerry Manning first met playwright Doug Wright in 1995. Jerry was the casting director for New York Theatre Workshop, and he was putting together a team of actors for Doug’s new play, Quills. That artistic partnership evolved into a decades-long friendship.
2003, Doug finished a ten-year labor of love: the riveting portrait of German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, I Am My Own Wife. Soon after, the play would premiere on Broadway and win a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Jerry was immediately drawn to the work, but the timing didn’t match up until now for him to direct it. Finally, Jerry is able to bring his own interpretation to this script and reconnect artistically with his old friend.
Jerry Manning: I Am My Own Wife is your story, as well as Charlotte’s. We follow you as you learn about this fascinating character, spend hours and hours in conversation with her, admire her and eventually come to terms with Charlotte’s very complicated personal history. How did the decision to put yourself into the story develop? What were the special challenges you faced in writing about yourself?
Doug Wright: I was entirely daunted by the prospect of writing Charlotte's remarkable story. I felt I lacked the requisite expertise; I barely knew German. I wasn't a twentieth century history scholar. Though openly gay, I wasn't a cross-dresser (except for the occasional Halloween). And I had certainly never experienced the constant threat of living under even ONE totalitarian regime, never mind two. In short, I felt woefully inadequate to pen her tale. But in spite of these nagging, ominpresent doubts, I couldn't let her go. I obsessed about her, day and night.
Eventually, I found myself at a writer's retreat in rural Wyoming, crying on the shoulder of dramaturg extraordinaire, Robert Blacker. "I simply can't write this play!," I whined to him. "I'm not expert enough!" Robert sat back in his chair and sagely said, "You're right. You're not an expert on any of the topics germane to Charlotte's life: World War II, the Nazis, the Communists. You have no authority whatsoever to write about those subjects. But you are an expert on ONE thing; your own remarkable ten-year love affair with a truly astonishing character. Can't you write about that instead?"
I still owe Robert a great debt for his words of wisdom; he gave me the creative freedom to chart a play about my hard-won, even intense, friendship with Charlotte. The audience comes to know her exactly as I did. And along the way, they become (I hope) as infatuated with her as I happened to be. And her history gets told, but it’s personalized, because she's telling a friend.
I was mortified at the prospect of writing myself as a character, of course. But it challenged me in a very healthy way, I think. If I was going to presume to tell the truth about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, then I had a moral obligation to tell the truth about myself, too.
J.M. Your plays are not only so historically rich, but investigate the lives of real players in history. What attracts you to characters like Charlotte, the Marquis de Sade (Quills) and “little Edie” (Grey Gardens)? How is writing about historical figures different than creating fictionalized characters?
D.W. I am drawn again and again to historical figures. Nothing teaches us about the present quite like the past. Mostly, I'm compelled by outsiders; people who were marginalized in their own cultural moment. People who felt obligated to tell the truth when it wasn't convenient. In the face of oppressively conformist governments, Charlotte wasn't afraid to express her own pronounced individuality. In the social confines of East Hampton, eccentric Edie Beale and her mother challenged the very notions of polite society. And the Divine Marquis...even today, he forces us to confront our very darkest selves.
I adore characters who are unapologetically "different"; they teach us so much about ourselves. What are eccentricities, but our own foibles writ large? We may cast Edie Beale as "the other," but don't we all have an aunt who simply won't throw away her old copies of Vogue, or a maverick, spinster cousin with a wickedly caustic wit? And Charlotte teaches us that no matter what we wear—a business suit, a policeman's uniform, a waitress' apron or a cocktail dress—we're all in drag, depending on our nature or vocation. No one is exempt.
I do take liberties when I write about real people. That said, it varies from play to play, based on the subject. A well-known figure like the Marquis de Sade can stand up to authorial invention; he's already well known. Countless other authors have employed him as a symbol in largely fictitious works. And the libraries are filled with competent, even artful, biographies to correct whatever flights of fancy a dramatist may invent. But I felt I had a higher standard of truth with Charlotte; the world doesn't know her in the same way. So, I stuck very close to the interview tapes. I didn't want to misinform audiences who might be encountering her for the very first time. And I was loath to embroider or alter a tale that was already ripe with ambiguity.
J.M. You’ve recently worked on a few musicals, and I understand have another new musical in the works. What brought about this shift in your career? What are the rewards/challenges of writing a musical as opposed to a play?
D.W. I love writing musicals because you have collaborators, so there are more people to blame. And I grew up adoring them; we didn't have Sesame Street records when I was a little kid; we had Original Cast albums. My mom used to play "Fiorello" for us before she sent us to bed.
As a young writer in New York, I took myself VERY seriously and decided that musical theater was frivolous and I should only pen straight plays. Now, in my dotage, I've returned to them, and I'm having the most lovely time. In a few well-composed bars of music, characters in musicals can reach emotional states that characters in plays take PAGES to achieve. Music is a wonderful emotional shortcut. I also happen to be tone-deaf with absolutely no sense of rhythm. So, I adore being in a rehearsal hall, hearing heart-stoppingly talented actors belt out beautiful music, and whispering to myself that I played a part in its genesis...even if I only wrote the book scene that frames the song!
J.M. Can you offer any hints as to what you’re working on at this time?
D.W. At present, I'm working on two new musicals. The first is called Hands on a Hardbody, and it is based on a cult documentary with the same title. It chronicles a truck competition in rural Texas and will premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse later this spring. The score is by Broadway lyricist and composer Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio of the rock band Phish. The other show reunites me with my beloved Grey Gardens collaborators Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, called War Paint. It tells the story of one of the most notorious and enduring rivalries in American business: the animus that existed between beauty titans Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.
J.M. What were you doing when you found out that you’d won the Pulitzer Prize for I Am My Own Wife?
D.W. Funny you should ask this question. Remember how we met, Mr. Manning? It was in the dark ages, and you were casting director at the New York Theatre Workshop and brought together the wonderful miscreants who performed my play Quills in its premiere there. Well, the day I won the Pulitzer I was in the very same rehearsal hall where we once held court together. I was directing a reading of a play called Holy Mothers by the Austrian writer Werner Schwab; it tells the tale of three down-on-their-luck scullery maids who clean toilets for a living. In the middle of the presentation, an intern slipped me a note. After that, it's all a blur.
I must say this about prizes like the Pulitzer: they offer very specific comfort to a writer. They let you know that, no matter the vicissitudes of taste or fate, the fickle critical response to your future or past work, there was one glorious moment in time when the pundits put their heads together and concurred, "Yes, perhaps...just perhaps...the man can write." And that's very fortifying.
J.M. What is the best piece of theater you’ve seen in the last year?
D.W. The best theater I've seen this year? Why, that's easy. Seattle's own Showbiz Tsunami, the divine Dina Martina. My husband David and I are hardcore Dina enthusiasts. Honestly, we believe Dina belongs in the pantheon of the great, subversive artists who've elevated clowning to an art, like Bert Lahr or Justin Bond. When we're feeling overwhelmed by a complicated, even malevolent world, we seek out Dina like an alcoholic plunders the cabinet for booze, and there she is, her lipstick hopelessly askew and her tattered hem rising dangerously above the knee, ready to tell it like it is. She is our balm, our Guru, our Life Coach. Talk about "wow."