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Interview

Tim Sanford and Bruce Norris

Tim:In our interview for The Pain and the Itch, I asked you how the ideas of the play took shape, and you said, “I begin a little argument in my head about a topic and then it develops tendrils and hopefully a structure.” Does that describe the beginning of this play for you as well?

Bruce: Yes in a sense. It’s more complicated in this one because it is related to A Raisin in the Sun and has a different sort of lineage as a play. But I remember a couple years ago when we were in the middle of the Iraq war, and I was in an argument with a friend of mine who was talking about support for the troops in Iraq. And I said, “Why should we support the troops? The collective effect of the people who make up the troops and all their individual decisions allow us to have this war that is illegitimate in my opinion.” And she said, “Yes but you have to take into account that minorities are over-represented in the military.” I said, “Yes, so?” And she said, “So you should support them because there are people who are being exploited, the minorities and poor are being exploited by the military.” And I said, “That’s a terrible argument to make. In fact I consider that kind of a racist argument. You’re saying I should extend a special waiver on intelligent decision making for people who are either poor or from a minority. That’s a terrible thing to suggest.” And I guess in a funny way it got me thinking about, “Where is my racism located?” Because I think I definitely am a racist to some extent, and it always comes out in ways that I don’t expect or want it to, but I can’t help it because everyone has unexpressed latent confusing feelings about the other in the world. And I guess that was in a way where I started thinking about writing a play having to do with the question of race. On top of that there’s the issue of A Raisin in the Sun and my exposure to it as a kid and how much I liked the play….

Talk about the circumstances of seeing it.

When I was in the seventh grade, my parents moved me to a neighborhood that had a school district that was not subject to bussing like some of the other school districts in Houston were. They wanted to move me there so that my brother and sister and I would not have to go to school with black people, because they thought that would bring down the quality of our education, and consequently make us less likely to get into good colleges and less likely to be rich. Little did they know we wound up not-rich anyway. Well, that’s not true in my sister’s case… but… anyway, so when I was in the seventh grade, a social studies teacher showed us, A Raisin in the Sun, and I always loved that play. On many levels. Like I love the scene where the mother slaps her daughter Beneatha across the face and says, “In my mother’s house there’s still God.”

Did they show you the movie?

It was the movie, you know on an actual movie projector.

And the irony was not at all lost on you.

It wasn’t really until a couple of years later that I put together the irony that we were watching a movie about someone asking a black family not to move into a neighborhood when we had taken the other way out, which was we moved out of the neighborhood. And so either that social studies teacher was oblivious to what she was showing us, or she was subversive and trying to fuck with our heads a little bit. I don’t know which is the case, but it did sort of fuck with my head. And it also fucked with my head because about four years later, I was in New York and I saw the musical Raisin, because I had so liked the play. And I’m sitting there in the audience watching Raisin, the musical, and I was thinking, “Gosh you know it’s just like The Wiz, I can’t be in either of these musicals. I don’t have any part in them.” And I thought. “Oh wait, there is the one part in Raisin the musical, just like in the Raisin in the Sun the play, of Karl Lindner. I could play that part.” And then the opportunity never arose, so I thought, “Well I need to give him more to do.”

And that’s why you wrote the play.

I guess so.

Even after you abandoned acting.

Yeah. Mmhum.

Wait, have you abandoned acting?

Well, unless it pays well. Or only lasts a few hours.

You remind me of that opening scene in My Dinner with Andre, where Wally Shawn is grousing about how hard it is to be a playwright, and how it requires you to take jobs just for money, like being an actor.

Yeah, that’s where he says, “In my twenties all I thought about was art, and now when I’m in my thirties all I think about is money.” To which I would add, “And in your late forties, it’s not just money, but food. Like how to get food.

You remind me of Wally Shawn, actually.

Well, he’s my hero, in many different ways.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that in several of your last plays, the theme of race has played a part, starting, I’d say, with We All Went Down to Amsterdam…

Well, the last four really. In some ways race is kind of incidental to We All Went Down to Amsterdam, I mean there’s a character who happens to be black who is sort of a subversive figure who works in the institution where he’s being accused of sexually harassing someone…

On the first day of rehearsal, Pam talked about going to see that play in Chicago, and the very first scene starts with a black janitor cleaning…

With a vacuum cleaner, yep.

And she could feel it in the audience, that it was breaking a real taboo.

Well that’s the thing… If you’re a white playwright and you’re trying to write either African American or in the case of The Unmentionables, African characters, there’s an expectation that you are going to somehow pussyfoot around the economic realities, that there are a lot of black people percentage-wise in the country who still have not gotten out of poverty and who are still stuck in a defective education system and a jobs market that keeps them from moving ahead the way they should legitimately. So if you do represent a black person in a menial job, of course that’s the initial response. But in that play it so happened that that was the character that got to say all of the things that I myself would have wanted to say. And the same holds true for The Unmentionables, where there’s this character, the doctor, who gets stoned all the time and who’s a completely morally irresponsible person, like me, and so gets to be my voice in the play. That’s not really true in Clybourne Park. I mean there is no character like that who speaks in what I would call the author’s voice in this play.

How about The Pain and the Itch?

The Pain and the Itch also has a racial aspect. There’s a guy sitting in the living room of this white suburban family who is different. He’s Muslim, from the Middle East or from east Africa…

And his dead wife was the maid.

Yes, the domestic worker.

So there’s another common thread.

Yes exactly.

Was there anything in particular that brought A Raisin in the Sun back into your consciousness? The play had made such a strong impression on you at an early age then laid fallow for many years.

I don’t really know, other than to say that I’ve written several plays that featured African American characters, and I feel like in each instance I have tried to put my voice in them. And I thought, “Well what if I did the opposite? Maybe that’s a convenient dodge of the racial issue on my part as a writer, if I simply call an African American or African character ‘me’ in the play, then that’s a way of getting around what I feel about how I deal with issues of race in my life.” Which is I avoid them, by and large. I don’t deal with them at all. But similarly, I don’t think I deal at all with many moral or ethical issues in my life, I just dodge them. And I come up with crafty excuses for why it’s ok for me to dodge them.

And it’s true even though race is a factor in all of these other plays, it’s a bit reductive to say any of them are specifically about race. Certainly in We All Go Down to Amsterdam, as you said, it’s peripheral.

And you could say about The Unmentionables is not about race per se, but it is set in West Africa, so it becomes an implicit point in the play,

It’s a little more about colonialism, right?

It is, yeah.

And The Pain and the Itch is more about materialism. It looks at the privileged lefty liberals and they have a maid of course, and they practice a kind of double speak in their moral universe.

Exactly. But colonialism and materialism are wedded, I mean they’re two halves, I mean there would be no colonial impulse without material impulse. And I think that applies just as much to Clybourne Park as it does to The Unmentionables. And in fact The Pain and the Itch is also about people being more obedient to their material impulses than to their ethical impulses.

Right. And the structure of Clybourne Park really dramatizes the dichotomy between these two forces, or actually, it shows the link between economic forces and social racism, in the before and after of white flight, then gentrification. And I love how the first act depicts a time when racism is blatant…

It’s assumed. In fact, for some of the white characters in that first act, I wouldn’t even call it racism. It’s simply the order of things.

It’s the status quo.

Right. Did you know that today is the 50th Anniversary of the North Carolina Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in? That was in 1960, and in this play, it’s still a year before that, before that kind of igniting event that brought racism to light and named it. So this play takes place at a time when the characters are not conscious in a sense of their own racism. Whereas now, we’re so steeped in consciousness about it, it’s what the character Steve says later in the second act of the play, “every word I say is scrutinized.” And that’s where we are.

And of course the nice whammy of the play is that here we are in an ostensibly post-racial world, isn’t that what Lindsey says, that “the rest of the world has begun a more sophisticated conversation about the topic?” Yet it still bubbles through. And it bubbles through with her as much as with her husband. You know, when the second act begins, everyone is literally sitting in a line, as if they’re equals.

It’s democratic

And so is the staging: static and flat and democratic.

Yeah. Yep.

Because it dramatizes this equal footing that we’re on.

Well you know Bev at the end of act one optimistically dreams that someday we could all sit down at a big table, and that’s what we’re doing in the second act. We’re all sitting at that big table, and it hasn’t solved anything, except maybe a few things about the way we talk to each other? Maybe that? But it’s like saying if you had your foot amputated when you were two years old, it doesn’t grow back. That wound is still there. And it’s never gonna go away.

There’s a moment I like in the second act where Tom is reading what the Landmarks code says about Clybourne Park and “its distinctively low-rise single family homes,” and people start yelling and then Lindsey says, “And you know the thing is communities change, they do, and that’s just the reality, and some change is inevitable.” And then Lena responds, “It might be worth asking yourself who exactly is responsible for that change.” The repeated use of the word “change” here feels like an intentional reference to Obama’s campaign slogan, you know?

Yeah, uh-huh. Well that’s how the play ends too. Bev says to Kenneth, “I think things are about to change, I think they’re gonna change for the better.” She rings that word several times. I think that was actually adjusted in the last draft of the script before we went into production, to make that reference.

So when you wrote the play, it wasn’t…

It was before Obama’s run for the presidency. But that quickly came up. And you know, I don’t want to shit on Obama now, I’m glad he won, but it is a little, what’s the word, sobering, to realize that change is a lot more difficult to accomplish than it is to print on a poster.

You said something earlier about questioning your own racism, and it reminded me of something we talked about generally in your last interview. I think you were talking about your first play, An Actor Retires, and you said, “I wrote this play about how my pretentious arrogant little personality was perhaps not the ideal personality to have as an actor.” Then you talked about how later you stopped writing plays with parts for yourself in them, yet the motif of self-critique remains clearly in all of your work. I think people naturally assume satirists have an axe to grind or a soapbox to climb up on or something, and maybe miss the element of self-examination you have.

You know, after The Pain and the Itch there were a lot of people who presumed I was a Republican, because, well it’s a legitimate thing to assume since I come from Texas, but I think they assumed it because the play was critical of a certain kind of idiotic behavior of some of us on the left. And by “us,” I don’t mean “them,” I mean “us.” I mean that’s the idiotic behavior I indulge in. And so yeah, I think weirdly those of us on the left shoot ourselves in the foot so thoroughly without any help, that I think it seems a little gratuitous to actually kick the left when they’re down! But the character of Steve in the second act of this play makes as big an ass of himself as I make of myself over and over again in social situations. And he does it on principle. He does it because he believes that the principle that he’s following is noble or enlightened in some way, that he should be allowed to do it. Meanwhile, he’s making an ass of himself. Although I would say, I think the principle that he’s standing up for is legit. He’s saying he shouldn’t have to base all of his actions on the supposed sensitivities of who is in the room. All that you do then is create an incentive for people to be sensitive, and then you lead to government by the most sensitive members. That’s a kind of bullshitty way to decide what your action is in the world. But when you do ignore the sensitivities of the people in the room, you get in big trouble.

Paying heed to the sensitivities of others is also a principle some people hold, but living by them is a different matter. As two different characters say in both acts of Clybourne Park, “Well, you can’t live in a principle.” And when Lena says there is a conspiracy to break up her neighborhood, Lindsey counters, “You know what? We’re talking about one house.”

Right. That’s what you do in an argument about real situations. I mean Lena is saying, here’s a real situation. This neighborhood has been a majority black neighborhood, and now it’s changing, and we’re not comfortable with that situation. She’s as real about it as you can be. And Lindsey says, but we’re talking about one house, we’re talking about my individual life, which has nothing to do with your reality. She’s saying, I have a principle of freedom that conflicts with your principle to have things respected. My freedom principle is in conflict with your history and respect principle. And so the clash of those two principles doesn’t produce any conclusions, it just produces anger and argument. And that’s what’s interesting to me about it.

Here we are talking about social change and ethical implications of what we do, and the intersection of the personal and the political in your plays, but you’re also on record as saying that art doesn’t really change anything. And actually nothing really changes anything. So what calls you to keep wrestling with this stuff in these plays you’re writing?

I guess because I’m just a contrary asshole. I think that’s just my personality.

But you also said you want a bigger paycheck. You want more food. Are you writing the plays you think will give you the biggest paycheck?

My personality is always going to trump my ability to earn more because I’ll always shoot myself in the foot. I can’t not be me. It’s a Wally Shawn question, “Why can’t I wake up tomorrow and be different?” Well I wish I could, but I don’t. Everyday I wake up, and it’s just me again. And I have to go through the day as me all over again. And so I write these plays, and they’re just coming from this animal that has this personality.

Today is Groundhog Day.

Oh, it is?

It actually is. And maybe in honor of that movie, you should think about how you can incrementally change your life, and just take piano lessons secretly in non-real time to impress Andie MacDowell.…

I’d like to get this on record. My favorite author is a British economist and philosopher named John Gray, and his recurrent theme is about the folly of optimism and the folly of hoping for a Utopia. That’s a legacy of sort of Christian thinking and enlightenment, and that The Enlightenment was a reinterpretation of a Christian myth, that Utopia is achievable And he would support the idea that’s more of an Old Testament idea or even more likely a Hindu or Buddhist idea that life is cyclical and just repeats itself endlessly and you have to sort of figure out where you are in that cycle. And that, to hope for, to hope to solve society’s problems, Karl Lindner says I’m not here to solve society’s problems, and he’s right, he doesn’t solve them. To suggest that we can solve them in anything more than the most completely temporary way is hubris and destined to fail. And I would tell anyone to pick up any book by John Gray to reinforce anything I say.

Despite this, you still write these plays, which are—

But I don’t write them to help the world, I write them to help me!

Help you what?

Pass the time. Amuse myself, give myself pleasure. It’s something that gives me a huge amount of pleasure to see happen in front of me, until the night when an audience hates it and I have incredible self-loathing and pain and can’t get out of bed, but it’s a purely selfish pursuit. What I’m doing, by writing plays, is just completely selfish. If what you really want to do is change the world, and you go into theater as a way to do that, I feel you’ve chosen the most inefficient means possible.

Conversely, if you only want to pleasure yourself, why write a play? It’s such a public arena, and success is so dependent upon other people.

There are a lot of things that give me pleasure, but nothing gives me more pleasure than participating in a really heated argument. That’s the most pleasurable thing for me. So sure I could just sit at home and masturbate all day, but it wouldn’t be as much fun… as masturbating in front of other people!

This reminds me of what you were saying in our last interview about acting. You said a lot of actors have an almost reverent belief system about acting as a deep and transformational art form, but for you the fun of it was putting on a fake beard and a funny costume to tell a story. To “play.”

When we were in the middle of tech rehearsal, one of the actors said to the director, Pam, “Pam, I can see Frank from where I’m sitting, and I’m not supposed to see him.” And I said from the back of the house, “Can you also see all those seats facing you in front of the proscenium? You seem to be unaware that there are 200 seats looking at you.”

(laughter)

Did the actor enjoy that input?

No. She resented it.

I think it is an interesting paradox that we enjoy this. You know, that maybe it doesn’t change our lives or our hearts, but it’s a hell of a lot more fun to wrestle around with this stuff than to go…

...work in an office.

…forgive me, go see Bye Bye Birdie! Or whatever. “Escapist theater.”

Oh that. I don’t know. If you slice the audience for theater, which is already 1% the audience for all other entertainment, you take that 1% and slice it down to the audience that actually attends plays that are, first of all new plays, and then further cut it down to those who would be interested in so-called controversial new plays for whatever reason, that’s a tiny fraction of the entertainment-consuming public. It’s almost like a tiny little club, a tiny little fan club for a strange and useless obsolete art form. It’s like scrimshaw. like people who still collect scrimshaw. No one cares that there’s a really good scrimshander who lives in Nantucket, who cares? Now, similarly, I really can’t expect a huge groundswell of people is going to like something as perverse and rarefied as so-called controversial theater. Should I go off on the theater-is-useless thing? I mean, here’s the thing. Here’s what I think. When I received the Steinberg Award, Tony Kushner made the introductory speech and talked about the greatness of theater and so forth, and I realized as I was sitting there, that my father—

But Tony Kushner didn’t introduce you, John Guare did.

Tony Kushner went first.

Right, but then John introduced you, and he called you a suicide bomber, which I have a feeling you’re about to demonstrate. Go ahead.

I’m just saying, my father, who lives in Texas, is not in any way related to theater. Not only has he never seen Angels in America, ostensibly the most important work of theater in the past twenty years, as we’ve all been told, he’s never heard of it. So if the most important work of theater goes unheard of by a hard-working citizen of the U.S., what does that say about how important theater is?

I think it says more about your father. 100 years from now, more people will remember Tony Kushner than your father.

I suppose so. I’m not sure Angels in America is that important. I certainly don’t think the plays I write are very important. Angels came and went in a cultural moment and it excited a lot of people, and it probably led to other things like Will and Grace, but I don’t know if it’s “important.”

You know you are part of a skeptical tradition, from which you are just speaking chapter and verse. And I know I’ll never change your mind. Plus whatever your skepticism about theater, it doesn’t’ stop you from writing. In fact, it seems to inspire you. Do you feel you’re in a bit of a groove now? You just received this big grant and you have two plays opening in the same year.

I feel like I have more money. I at least was able to pay off some bills. But I’m always miserable when I’m trying to write something. There’s a period of about three days following the completion of the first draft of something, when I hit print on my computer, where I feel a weight lift. And the rest of the time I’m in misery.

There are writers who say they enjoy writing. You don’t actually enjoy it?

Well, I suppose…

Don’t you laugh out loud at yourself a little bit?

Yeah, of course. I mean I suppose I do, but the percentage of time that you’re actually enjoying it… You’ll spend a week trying and trying to write something, and then you may have one fifteen minute period where something comes out in a kind of constipated burst and you’re momentarily relieved, and then the system seizes up again, and you wait for the next.

And is there a time when the living playwright Bruce Norris enters in and says, “Is someone gonna do this play? Am I gonna make any money off of this?” Do the practical ramifications of what you’ve done enter into your thinking?

I put that off as long as I possibly can. I’ve never thought about whether or not something was producible when I was writing it. After it’s done sometimes you think about it, and frankly if I write something and I realize it’s not producible, that probably means there’s something wrong with it as a piece of writing. I’ve thrown away three plays in the last ten years. In fact Clybourne Park is one of the plays I was going to throw away, and then I decided to rewrite the second act of it.

The second act was appreciably different?

Yeah. The characters were all the same, with one exception. And yet the structure of it was completely different. I had originally thought I wanted to take the same collection of characters as in the first act, and line-by-line and scene-by-scene reproduce the structure of the first act intact, in order to, in a ham-fisted way, say nothing has changed, nothing is different. But that became a useless exercise.

But then this other idea came to you.

Yeah.

I love this paradox of your work that you write for yourself but you are so keyed into the audience response.

Well I’m not a solipsist, I’m not just writing plays in a bubble to amuse me with my word play. What’s amusing to me is the way that people hear it. .

You also take such pleasure in your structures. The craft is irresistible and so rare.

I’d say I have a sort of manageable form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’m the kind of person who can’t work until the objects on the desk in front of me are aligned at 45 degrees, or right angles. I mean, people used to make fun of me for how clean my college dorm room was. I don’t care, I thought they were losers because they lived like pigs. So yeah I guess I’m a little obsessed with the structure of things.

The great thing about the act structure now is that in the first act the racism is overt but in the second act it’s much more hidden. The characters would deny to their death they harbored any racism. And then of course you force it out of them. It reminds me of the piece I wrote for the subscriber bulletin comparing you to Randy Newman. The song, “Rednecks” starts in a good ole boys’ southerner’s voice, then shifts to the self-righteous north. “ In the north, the nigger’s a Negro, he’s got his dignity. Down south, we’re too ignorant to realize that in the north they’re setting the nigger free. They’re free to put ‘em in a cage,” and then he names all the “ghettos.” To me that’s sort of incredibly, weirdly moving moment that just slowly unmasks the whole country at the same time that it builds this beautiful, mounting, all-enveloping musical chorus.

My favorite Randy Newman song is the one called “The World Isn’t Fair” about Karl Marx, do you know the song?

I’m not sure.

Fantastic song. It’s all about Karl Marx’s plans to remake the world, and remake humanity. It talks about when Karl Marx was a boy, and all the things he dreamed of, and then tries to imagine Karl Marx seeing the world today and having to say to him, the world isn’t fair Karl, and it never will be. And I find it just incredibly heartbreaking, the thought that poor, optimistic Karl Marx, who thought he could change things, would have to look at the world now and weep, because it’s not going to change.

One of the great things about your work that we’ve talked about before is the way you pull the rug out from our expectations about your characters. The notable example is Kalina, the Serbian girl, in The Pain and the Itch. Here you achieve some of that effect by the double casting. There’s continuity between Jeremy’s characters, Karl and Steve. They’re both versions of uptight white guys who specialize in talking too much and stepping in it. But the other characters have their foibles too.

In a funny way I’d say that Damon’s characters, Albert and Kevin, perform similar functions in both acts. He’s sort of the quiet defender of what seems like a basically moral position, and he’s also, I think, the most sympathetic guy in each act, because I think he just wants things to be calm and peaceful and serene. The opposite of Jeremy’s character.

We see Annie’s characters mainly in relation to Jeremy’s. In the first act she’s deaf which I always saw as a kind of thematic compliment to the race issues in that act.

Right - the condescending way that the hearing people deal with her disability is analogous to the condescending way the white people deal with the non-white ones.

In the second act, she’s continually expressing outrage at her husband and putting him down, but she keeps letting her own biases slip.

Yeah, in the first act she’s submissive, and in the second she dominates her husband, but she’s not any freer of prejudice than he is. She’s just less willing to cop to it.

Is there any significance that her characters are pregnant in each act?

No more than that the black couple has three children in both acts - it’s just a bit of mirroring.

In the first act, Christina’s character, Bev, is like the voice of mindless optimism.

Yeah…the voice of persistent good cheer and hope for better things. And in the second act she’s a realist.

It’s easy to look at Bev’s relationship with her husband in the first act and see them as totally separate, because Bev is so talkative and cheerful and Russ is so taciturn. And she’s enlisted her pastor to come by and do a little grief counseling, which he resents. But what became clear as we worked on it is that there’s no division of affection between them. There is division between how they’re coping with this tragedy that has riven their lives, and yet you, I sense that they are still sort of life partners.

Well, they were clinging to each other. I mean they’re all they have, now. There’s no third party left to stand between them.

It’s just a trap I think to look at them as somehow representing opposing worldviews. They’re very much like Jack and Mrs. Spratt in a way.

Absolutely. I don’t think that they are political or socially minded people at all. They’re just people who are dealing with their own personal situation, and they happen to run up against an ethical situation in the course of that. I mean, I think Pam sort of summed up something about the play sort of nicely, when she says that, she said “how do we expect to deal with a social issue like racism when we can’t even deal with our own personal issues?” And I feel like that’s sort of what the play is about, because everything we think is personal and psychological And so our racism, if we feel it, is a personal matter too. It has to do with our families, and what our individual histories are, what we were exposed to, who beat us up in the third grade, whether or not we went to school with people who were different from us, whether or not we lived through the Vietnam war as children and saw people with different skin color being burned with napalm, I mean all of that informs all of our thinking about all of it. And it doesn’t set us free, it just complicates everything we do, because we are looking, we’re trying to figure out who we are, and, this sounds like a platitude, but who we are is ourselves, and that’s inescapable. We can’t be a theoretical person; we’re just an actual confused person.