Interview with playwright EDWARD CLINTON

When did your career in the theatre first begin?

My career in the theatre began when I was twelve years old and in junior high school. They had a course called Dramatic Arts, and the teacher was a theatre major from Northwestern University, which, at that time, had a reputation as one of the best theatre schools in the country. I was selected with a few other boys to play members of the crowd in Northwestern University's production of Ibsen's Enemy Of The People. In that production a fellow cast member was Marshall Mason who played, as I recall, the part of the mayor. He later went on to become Artistic Director of the Circle Repertory in New York City where many of Lanford Wilson's plays were premiered. Being in the production of Enemy Of The People was the beginning for me, and I was lucky I began working with a very high caliber of talent.

    Very quickly after that, I played the lead in a children's theatre production of The Boy Knight Of Rheims, which is supposed to be the largest part for a child in a play written to be performed by children. I also went on to play the little boy in a quite a few other Northwestern University plays.

    This culminated, if you will, in my being offered a place in Alvina Krause's Eagle's Mere Repertory company in Chicago. We did Six Characters In Search of An Author by Pirandello, Shaw's Too True To Be Good, and most of Strindberg. Not only was it a world class training ground, it allowed me to get my Actor's Equity card at the very young age of fifteen, something most actors will work three to four years after college to obtain. Prior to forming her repertory company, Alvina Kraus made her reputation as a legendary acting teacher at Northwestern University, having taught, Dick Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal, and the list goes on. At the same time I acted in quite a few plays in high school, all of which had a very high standard of production by any measure. Evanston Township High School was very progressive, especially with regard to theatre, and while I was attending I took various advanced acting classes, as well as one seminar taught by Norris Houghton who happened to be visiting the area. He was one of the founders of the Phoenix Theatre in New York, and later became Dean of Theatre at Vassar College, and subsequently at the State University of New York at Purchase. Norris was also a notable and distinguished theatrical scholar, having written one of the first American studies of Stanislavsky, in addition to being a set designer, director and producer of note. I learned a great deal from Norris. Eventually, all this very early training and performing experience led to my being offered a full scholarship to study acting at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

Did you know right away that you wanted to pursue a career in the theatre?

I always knew I wanted a career in the theatre from the time I was very young. My Mother received her Masters Degree in Theatre Education from Northwestern University at the age of 20. She then taught acting at colleges throughout the Midwest until she met and married my father who was a civil engineer. My mother's education and love of the theatre, no doubt, influenced me from a very early age.

You continued your theatrical education in college?

Yes, at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, I studied acting. It was a very professional, intensive and rigorous training. Among others, I was taught by Peter Cass and Olympia Dukakis. The famed Jerzy Grotowski also taught as a guest for one semester, bringing along members of his renowned troop from Poland. Being in New York City didn't hurt either. The caliber of training was very, very high. I had also been accepted at Julliard which kind of played a theatrical Harvard to NYU's Yale or vica-verca, depending on your point of view. Had I opted to go to Julliard, I would have been in the same class with Robin Williams, Christopher Reeve and Bill Hurt. Bill's first wife, Mary Beth Hurt, a wonderful and very talented actress, was one of my classmates at NYU, along with Melissa Manchester and Christopher Guest, who is now married to Jamie Lee Curtis and more well known as a director/film-maker than as an actor.

    While I was still a student at the School of the Arts, I got a role in an Off-Broadway production of an Ed Bullins play, Pig Pen. At the time, Ed Bullins was the hot and very controversial black playwright of the moment. He set the stage for other black playwrights of note like August Wilson to come to the forefront. It was a great honor and a great break to get this role, the only catch was I had to leave NYU to do it because you weren't allowed to perform while you were attending. I took the chance and left to do the show. The show was a big success and I got wonderful reviews. It was included in that year's publication of Theatre World along with all the other productions at Wyn Handman's American Place Theatre. After the show closed, I learned the 1st hard lesson of being an actor, which is, just because you were in an off-Boroadway production that received great notice and you received great notice as well, it didn't guarantee future employment. After quite a while of going to auditions to get the next gig, it became apparent I should go back to school and finish up. However, I had to re-apply and re-audition. It had never been done before. When I left I had been warned by the administration not to leave. Long story short, I got back in but it was no easy feat.

So you studied acting in college, not playwrighting?

That's right. I had secretly wanted to be a writer since I was in the third grade. I got a typewriter for my birthday, but I was always intimidated by the idea. It was not until I was a professional actor on the road in various theatrical companies and regional theatres that I really began to write. Most actors on the road are bored to death. They work for a few hours doing their play and the rest of their time is their own. Some actors have a real problem with the free time and drift into various states of unhappiness unless they are on the stage performing. For me, all that free time in strange towns was the perfect opportunity to begin writing, which is what I did. I started by writing an historical screenplay based on the Scottsboro rape case of the 1930's, called Dance For You. That was the first of a number of screenplays and teleplays I've written. And, of course, I wrote what I liked and knew best - plays, specifically comedies. There is really no better training ground for playwrighting than actually performing on stage in play after play. Especially with comedy, you learn the essentials of rhythm and timing, which are at the heart of all comedy.

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You directed a production of your comedy, what was it like to direct your own play?

My career in the theatre has been an ongoing learning experience. As director, I have a built-in advantage of having written the play: If a part of a scene doesn't work, I can simply rewrite it. I know my comedy best and being farcical with a great deal of physical comedy, I'm able to make it even funnier through the directing process. The part of directing I love the most is helping the actors realize the absolute best performance they can achieve.

    I had a good deal of success right away with writing both plays and screenplays, while at the same time I was growing more and more disenchanted with acting. A career decision made when you're twelve does not necessarily wear so well when you're in your late twenties. Since I had quite the baby face I was always cast as the little brother. I love actors, but I'm not really cut out to be one myself. It takes incredible perseverance and determination to keep at it until that breakthrough role finally comes your way. First you need to learn your craft, and then you have to practice it, and then you have to be in the right place at the right time, which is often that strange thing called luck. It can be very discouraging and frustrating at times. It's hard for anyone not in the theatre to imagine how difficult it all is. I understand the pain of it. That's why I love actors. They endure quite a bit. One of the big challenges in directing comedy is that you can't really make someone funny. You can set up the situation. You can put together the necessary elements. But you cannot make the actor BE funny. An actor in a comedy must be innately funny. That is why casting a comedy is critical. Directing comedy is very different from drama. Whereas drama is analytical, comedy is technical. It's about rhythm, timing, pace and energy. It must be incredibly precise, much more precise than drama.

Do many playwrights direct their own plays?

From Shakespeare and Moliere to Brecht, Wilder or Kaufman and Hart, there is a long and respected tradition of authors staging their own work. Contemporary playwrights who would make the list include Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, David Hare, David Mamet, Sam Shepard and John Patrick Shanley. Having been an actor is a tremendous asset in directing. I tend to know when to push and when to pull back and let the actor find it for themselves. When you direct your own work you rely on feedback from a number of people as the play develops; producers, artistic directors and other colleagues. I have had the advantage of brilliant feedback from people like Rene Taylor who is both a comic actress, director and playwright. Robert Falls, who is a Broadway Director as well as the Artistic Director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and Gene Saks who is famous for directing the premiere of many of Neil Simon's plays. There is no greater genius than the audience. The audience will always tell you when you've got it right, or more painfully, when you don't. Another obvious advantage to directing your own work is that it cuts down on disagreements and tedious conversations with the playwright.

You are an alumnus of the O'Neill Playwrights' Conference. What was your experience at the O'Neill Playwrights' Conference like?

The Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Connecticut is a place where plays are chosen to be read and minimally staged by the best directors and actors in the country. Robert Redford's Sundance Institute is modeled after it. The O'Neill is the best experience a beginning playwright (or any playwright for that matter) can have. I really grew as a playwright there, at a moment when I was new to playwrighting. I gained invaluable experience about the process of playwrighting from people who not only had vast experience, but also believed in sharing and passing on that experience so that others could benefit from it.

    The O'Neill is one of the few institutions I've ever come in contact with that is everything it's cracked up to be and maybe even more. Lloyd Richards was running it when I was attending. I had known Lloyd from NYU where he taught acting and was Dean of the School of Arts. Along with George White, Lloyd Richards made the O'Neill a tremendously important theatrical asset to the country.

    I enjoyed my experience totally, and connected with some really wonderfully talented people. A distinguished drama critic for The New Yorker, the late Edith Oliver was my dramaturg and Lynne Meadow the renowned Artistic Director of The Manhattan Theatre Club directed my play Benefit Of A Doubt. I also met veteran playwrights Edward Albee and Arthur Kopit. Chris Durang was attending the O'Neill that summer and we got to know each other during our time there. Chris attended Yale Drama school with Wendy Wasserstein and he introduced me to Wendy that summer. Having had the opportunity to meet and work with this high quality of theatrical talent provides you with the kind of experience that makes all the difference in the career of a playwright.

You've also written for film and television, how does that compare to playwrighting?

It doesn't. However, there is a saying among playwrights regarding the financial feasibility of playwriting which is you can make a killing at it, but you can't make a living at it. This is true. Learning how to write a play, however, is a perfect place to also learn to write for television and film. Paddy Chavefsky, for example, was not only a wonderful playwright, a tailor to exquisite teleplays, not to mention being a fascinating screenwriter. It all begins with learning the basics which is what playwriting provides. Although I have written for television, film, radio, short stories etc.. My first love is and always will be the theatre. In a screenplay, if you're clever, you can get away with all kinds of tricks that, unfortunately have very little to do with good writing. In most cases, a long list of screenwriters are hired one after the other to do rewrites on any original script. This is a long tradition in Hollywood. And one which hasn't changed over the years either. Its part of the reason Hollywood is considered a factory town by playwrights. Some things never change. It is a huge accomplishment to write an original screenplay and actually see your name alone on the screen when and if the screenplay ever makes it to the screen, which it usually doesn't. There are usually quite a few things on the page that never end up on the screen. I recently read an interview with playwright David Lindsay-Abaire who described the Hollywood process metaphorically as having a lot of cooks in the kitchen. He aptly described it as creatively putting a meal together, throwing in whatever odd ingredients you want and coming up with a tasty little dish that is uniquely your own. Then an army of people push their way into the kitchen and ask you to cook up the same meal for them, except as you begin to cook, someone steps up and yells, "Wait! You can't put mango with that!" and someone else shouts out, "Beans! Yuck! I hate beans!" or "No don't add that spice, that won't come out right." Before you know it all these people are throwing things into the pot and pulling things out, and making a mess of the kitchen. Then they stand back and say, "Well, that doesn't taste very good. What happened? Let's get another cook." So, in the end the writer has no control over what he has written and it feels like being on a roller-coaster ride. Some people love roller-coasters, while others find them to be very unpleasant experiences. Playwright Nicky Silver said it : "Hollywood money is hush money. You should just take it and hush."

    On stage, in a play, it's either there or it isn't. The saying "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage." is quite accurate.

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What did you learn from having your screenplay made into a film?

When a film is produced, its success or failure is contingent upon the numbers at the box office. Those financial figures determine everything. However, the box office for a film is determined by the release and marketing of the film. Those are determined by the politics that take place during the making of the movie. So, you see, it is really a very delicate process that ultimately has a domino effect. If comments or actions are made during the making of the film that don't sit well with the movie executives, then don't look for a good release. In my Hollywood experience, there were so many things out of my control that eventually I fell under the wave of it all, and it is the tradition in Hollywood to blame everything that doesn't go right on the writer. That's what happens. Even the title of the movie was not mine. I didn't like it and wanted to see it changed. I had a crack at trying to convince them of a different title. I wanted STOPS ALONG THE WAY, but the Brits loved HONKY TONK FREEWAY and they held their ground. While John Schlesinger was a big name director, and quite a fine director I might add, he had never directed a comedy before, and when he got called on the carpet by Universal executives for going over budget, his responses were quite defensive. This caused consternation and animosity that ultimately had it's consequences in the release of the film. There were many other aspects that had to do with the producing company, EMI selling video rights before Universal Pictures agreed to release the film. When Universal found out they weren't going to participate financially in those rights, well, they weren't very happy campers. They didn't want to spend any money on a good release of the film and that's as they say “Show Biz.” There is no escaping it. You really need to go into those kinds of situations with you eyes wide open. If you don't, then the experience will open them for you. It's not fun. But you will definitely learn a great deal, not only about filmmaking, but about life also. It's not an easy road.

How long did that whole film experience last?

It took about three years total, which was an extraordinarily long time, but John Schlesinger went about things in a very methodical and deliberate fashion. There were five drafts of the original screenplay. I did exactly everything I was asked to do. When it started getting far away from my original draft, I managed to maneuver it into a script I knew they would hate. I was really taking a chance at that point. And in fact, there was a version I called the Black Draft because they always use different colored covers for each different draft, and this particular draft had a black cover. Anyway, just prior to principal photography there was a big meeting between the British producer, Don Boyd, the British editor, Jim Clark and John Schlesinger. They almost stopped production at that point because John was starting to feel like he wasn't the right director, but Jim Clark talked him into just going back to my original script. It wasn't quite the original draft, but the first or second draft had much of the original plus some changes that John made. They all agreed that if they used that draft then John would be safe and he could succeed with it.

    At one point, I was called into a special meeting with the EMI executives and asked if I thought they should replace John Schlesinger with Robert Altman. I immediately said NO, because I felt very loyal to John and being a loyal person is something I value. In fact, the motto of the Clinton family name in British peerage is “Loyalty never shames.” Unfortunately, not too many people believe in loyalty.

    I was very much involved with the casting process. I was the one who suggested Jessica Tandy and Hume Cornyn. I had always seen them in the roles when I first wrote it. They hadn't acted in a movie together in thirty years. At the time they were on tour doing Gin Game all over the world, including in Russia, which was still communist Russia. John Schlesinger didn't want them at first but I talked him into it. Then he loved the idea and offered the parts to them.

    After all the rewrites and the casting process I was only on the set a few times, but I was always available if John wanted something changed, a new line here or there, whatever. It was quite a demanding process. In the end, even though Universal didn't give HONKY TONK a good release, I feel it's close to the script I wrote and it is a good original film. By today's standards it's a little long, but that is because television has really changed people's attention spans for entertainment. It started out to be just a small independent film to be directed by Don Boyd, but then Hollywood got a hold of it and everything changed. It has been called one of the funniest movies and one of the most overlooked movies of all time. I think that's true.

    Just Before HONKY TONK was to be released, I ran into Beverly D'Angelo in Beverly Hills. She was embarrassed when she told me she had just signed to do the movie VACATION with Chevy Chase. The reason she was embarrassed was because she knew that since HONKY TONK was going to get poorly released, another studio was ripping off the whole thing and calling it VACATION. In fact, there were some scenes in VACATION that were in my original screenplay for HONKY TONK, but had been edited out. Again, that is “Show Biz.”

What about other screenplays?

When you're on the “A” list in Hollywood, many opportunities come your way. But Hollywood is Hollywood and they have a very definite way of doing things. If they don't buy an original script outright, you are offered development deals. You are allowed to develop an idea into a script. The first draft is delivered and reviewed by various executives in charge at that moment, and then you are paid for your first draft. Sometimes they want some changes to the first draft and then you write a second draft. After you deliver the second draft, it is reviewed again and you are paid. If the same executives are still in charge when the second draft is delivered, (which is often not the case because the turn over of Hollywood executives is very high) then you have a chance of the script going to another draft. They might even talk about people for the lead roles. Then there is a big chase around town talking to agents to see who they might be able to get attached to the script and it goes round and round and round till it either goes further ahead or just stops dead in its tracks. It has little or nothing to do with the script you wrote. It has more to do with whoever or whatever power is involved or in charge, and that changes by the minute. So you see, it's actually an impossible maze of events that there is little or no control over. Some people enjoy all that kind of business and other people are driven nuts by it. I personally, don't enjoy it and find it extremely unfulfilling. That's why I prefer playwrighting and other kinds of writing. I've written a mystery novel, as well as some short stories for Ellery Queen and Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine. There are still challenges to getting other types of writing made manifest, however, they're not nearly as unpredictable as the movies.

    I wrote television pilots and screenplays for several other major studios, Warner Bros., MGM, Universal, and Walt Disney Pictures. Several of those scripts were on the list of projects with a “green light” as they say until there was a change in executives. Then they went the way of the world. One even survived the change in executives,(and the one of the new executives was Jeffery Katzenberg) but the new executives didn't like the deal the previous executives made with me so they spent a good deal of time trying to undo that deal and make a different one. They were constantly pushing for me to come out to L.A. and live there (like every other write in town, as they put it) but that didn't appeal to me in the least. Unfortunately, more time is spent on that sort of thing in Hollywood than the actual work. It's a deconstructive use of energy. Very wasteful in my opinion.

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Who has had influence on you as a playwright?

Of my contemporaries I admire both Wendy Wasserstein and Christopher Durang. I think Wendy is very funny, in a very traditional way. Additionally, I love her prose, and I also think she is a lovely person. When Wendy was casting Uncommon Women for the Off-Broadway production, she lost an actress and was frantically trying to find a replacement. She asked me if I knew anyone I thought would be right for the part. I was dating a wonderful actress by the name of Ellen Parker at the time and I suggested Ellen to Wendy. They met and Wendy hired her. Uncommon Women was a big success for Wendy, and Ellen Parker went on to perform in Wendy's next two plays, Isn't It Romantic and Heidi Chronicles, for which Wendy won the Pulitzer Prize. Timing in life is everything. At one point Wendy and I shared the same agent. The next time I saw Wendy, she had split from that agent and she suggested that I also do so immediately. I took Wendy's advise, but I ended up paying a very big price for leaving that agent. The agent was quite bitter at my leaving and made a lot of trouble for me following that split. It was yet another big lesson about Show business that I learned the hard way. The most important thing I feel about Wendy Wasserstein is that she's one of those people who have handled their success extremely well and she really deserves it. I'm a big fan of Wendy's.

    Chrisristopher Durang and I share a similar sense of humor. I think Chris has had a blessed career with quite a few challenging periods that he didn't anticipate. Those challenges have made him a better person and it shows in his work. Chris's work makes me laugh out loud and that's a good thing. His work has the qualities I admire and also strive for. He has his own unique brand of humor and his writing is fresh, original and inventive. I feel we share a similar point of view about the world and in some way we are kindred spirits.

    David Mamet put Chicago Theatre on the map and contributed to changing the way American playwrights write dialogue, and John Guare does something I like to do, and that is something I call natural surrelism. His plays have a real story with real people, but there is a surrealistic quality that allows it stand apart from the rest and really speaks because of that. It has an almost spiritual effect.

    Then there are the legendary playwrights. I have a particular love for Thorton Wilder, who made it all look so easy. This was not a good thing with some critics who entirely missed the points in his work.

    And the ones on everybody's list: Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller. I also like British playwrights Alan Ayckbourne and Harold Pinter. Another favorite of mine is Noel Coward. Besides being a very interesting and successful playwright, he was also a performer with the greatest sense of style and class, two characteristics that you rarely find anymore.

    When I first began writing plays I started by reading and studying every Pulitzer Prize winning play, and I was greatly influenced by that study. When my play Benefit Of A Doubt was to be produced by the Folger Theatre in Washington D.C., I went to see the work of a director I was thinking about working with. The play was Tennessee Williams' Eccentricities of A Nightingale. Low and behold who was there, none other than Tennessee Williams himself. He was unbelievably kind and gracious to me. He asked to read my play and also gave me helpful advise with regard to that director. Based on that advice, I ended up working with a different director than the one who had directed Tennessee's play. I was very lucky to have had as my director for that production, Emmy Award winning director Barnet Kellman, who did a wonderful job, and also brought Carol Kane to the production. Needless to say, Tennessee William's writing, as well as his advice and encouragement given to me in that brief encounter had a great influence on me.

    When HONKY TONK FREEWAY was produced, I will never forget working with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. I was asked to write a new scene for them right on the spot, which I did, and then they took the pages and rehearsed the scene. It didn't look like much when I saw them finally perform it for the camera, however when I saw the scene on film in the rushes that night, I couldn't believe it. It was absolutely brilliant, and it was sheer joy to be working with such sparkling talent. While working in L.A. I had the opportunity to meet Lucille Ball. Anyone interested in comedy has studied Lucy, she's one of the greats. Meeting her was memorable.

    Another great influence on my writing was Eddie Bracken. I was cast in the part of the son-in-law in a touring production of Never Too Late, which starred Eddie, his wife Connie, and their daughter, Susan, whom I knew from NYU. Eddie Bracken's comedic timing is genius and working with him was absolutely invaluable. What I learned from him had a great influence on my playwrighting. I also learned from Jerry Dodge, Maureen 0'Sullivan and Kurt Kaszner when I worked with them on tour in Neil Simon's Barefoot in The Park. As far as comedy goes, I think Neil Simon really contributed a great deal to comedy playwrighting. In my opinion, he set the standard that defines modern comedy today. He is really a wonderful playwright and that should be said more often.

What is it that you feel you've learned about comedy from working with some of these legendary comic actors and your studies of other comedy playwrights like Neal Simon?

The question of what is at the root of comedy sometimes arises and I believe the essentials are; lack of balance, distortion, over-emphasis, or under emphasis and surprise. Farce is broad comedy. When the curtain goes up the audience must get an immediate sense of unrest, of imminent surprise – a taut feeling of uncertainty. Comedy has in it the ingredients of high spirits and excitement. According to Aristotle, the essence of the laughable is the incongruous, the disconnecting of one idea from another, or the jostling of one feeling against another. You cannot force people to laugh, you cannot give a reason why they should laugh, they must laugh of themselves or not at all. This is why the audience is the most important component in understanding comedy as a playwright. If you know what you are doing the laughter will be there. This can be enhanced by the actor's performances. Further the actor becomes expert at controlling the laughter as they perform the play before different audiences. They sense where they can either draw out the laughter or cut it short so the action can move forward facilitating the pace and the overall dynamic of the play. This is where comic timing comes into play.

    While I have studied comedy all my life and enjoy talking about it in depth, it doesn't bear too much analysis. E.B. White said “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.” I personally subscribe to the idea that comedy is the sparkle on the water, not the depths beneath. I feel that after seeing a comedy, the audience should leave the theatre feeling that they've been taken away from their troubles for a short time and by laughing, they simply feel good. This is a positive action. We who have a talent for creating comedy also must make it look easy, but I can assure it is no easy feat to keep an audience laughing for 90 minutes. Oscar Wilde said that “Talent is the infinite capacity for taking pains.” We love to laugh and also to make others laugh, and this is why we go to great pains to make it both funny and entertaining.

    Comedy is the glint of the sun upon the ocean not the depths underneath. We know the depth is there but for the moment we choose to enjoy only the warmth and delight of the sun.

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