In honor of the 20th anniversary of Juilliard’s Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program, one of its many distinguished alums, David Auburn (who wrote, among other plays, the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Proof), chatted with co-directors Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang.
So, I guess the first question should be, when you agreed to take this job, did you think you’d be doing it 20 years later?
Marsha Norman: Nope—Chris didn’t think he would be doing it after the first Christmas. [Laughter]
Christopher Durang: [Then-director of the Drama Division] Michael Kahn asked Marsha to take over the playwriting program. It was designed so that it would be two playwrights teaching. And so Marsha called me up, and asked me if I would like to do it. I said yes. But then I called back the next day, and said, you know, I’m getting cold feet, and what if I don’t like it, I don’t want it to take away from my own writing, and blah, blah, blah. And Marsha said, well, why don’t you just do it for six months, and if you don’t like it, you can quit. Then, as you know, from the first day we just had a lovely time.
Marsha, what made you want Chris to be your partner?
MN: I figured I should invite somebody to teach with me who, regardless of what might happen in class, I would want see every Wednesday and get as a reward the presence of this person. That’s how I felt about Christopher.
CD: I had never team-taught, or been a student with more than one teacher at a time. So I didn’t really know how we would do it. But what seemed to occur in basically the first three weeks is, after we’d hear a play and then we would comment on it, I felt like we were running a talk show. And as the year went on, and it was feeling kind of jolly, I started to say to people that I felt that Marsha and I were sort of teaching as if we were Nick and Nora Charles.
Everyone comments on how well the partnership works, and it seems that you complement one another, both in terms of your own work and also in your approach to the students’ plays.
MN: A lot of what we enjoy about working together is how confounding it is to everybody else. Everybody thinks, how could these two people be teaching with each other? Because she’s this tragic, weeping thing. And he’s this hilarious person. And yet it’s been the easiest thing in the world. We often have classes where there’s 15 minutes of nothing but laughing, and that’s really good, because the world is so hard. Hard on young writers especially.
CD: And old writers.
MN: [Laughs.] It’s really hard. So, it’s good that they feel safe in the room and they feel that we like them and we like their work.
My feeling as a student those first two years was that the focus was very tightly on helping us figure out the kind of work we wanted to do, and making that work as strong as possible, but did you have any larger ideas about the program? Were you trying to “change American theater”?
MN: Well, the bigger vision, I think, evolved as we saw what kind of troubles our writers got into out in the world—when you get to a theater with a new play and suddenly there’s a line of seven people to “help” you. Getting playwrights back to the position of central responsibility for the work was really important to me. I do believe that we’ve made a difference in giving writers a sense of, “I’m not gonna rewrite my play just because some theater told me to.” That doesn’t work.
Do you ever worry that, especially as the program has become so well known, that a sort of Juilliard house style has emerged?
CD: I haven’t been worried about that, but maybe I will now. [Laughter]
MN: Rather than style, the real emphasis is on subject. I do think that we really encourage people to find and write out of their stuff—that’s the word Jessica Goldberg (Playwrights ’00) used to refer to why you became a playwright in the first place.
CD: This was back in the third year. She said, when we write from our own stuff, it’s always the best work that we do. We discussed what that meant. It doesn’t have to be autobiographical, but it’s the themes that really touch something in you: something that you feel deeply, or are deeply upset by.
MN: We are always saying, “Go to the center of yourself.” Not to what’s popular now or what kind of plays are being done now.
CD: Something else really important is that the Juilliard actors read [the students’ plays]. That’s been part of the [playwriting program’s] design since the beginning, and it’s incredibly important. Talented actors really, really help. And our writers have built up these good friendships, and professional relationships as well. I do think that’s a wonderful part of the program, and we’ve also very much enjoyed having [longtime drama faculty member] Richard Feldman be part of it for so long.
What do you think the impact on your own work has been of teaching, and teaching with each other?
MN: Something about being with Christopher, listening to his work over the years, I’ve caught a little bit of his gorgeous sense of humor. I feel more free to write things that aren’t laugh lines, but they get laughs.
CD: When we started, I was in my 40s, but I had no reason to be around people in their mid- to late-20s, as our students tended to be. And I found I liked being around that younger energy. It actually energized me rather than zapped it out.
One final question. Looking at two decades’ worth of students, is there something that playwrights leave Juilliard knowing that they didn’t know before? Is there some big thing that writers tend to take away from this program?
CD: I think most students finish feeling more self-confident than when they came in. We do try to encourage and be enthusiastic about things that are terrific. And if something isn’t terrific, it’s not like, oh, you’re terrible. [Laughter]
MN: Right. We see the writing as a continuum over time. It’s about maintaining a kind of trust in yourself and your abilities. I think what we actively teach is that if you can hang onto that trust and nourish your sense of what’s worth writing about, then you can do the real job, which is completing your body of work.