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Interview: Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire

January 25, 2014

FROM INSIGHT FOR PLAYWRIGHTS 2012

Humility, Humanity… by Sandra Hosking. Copyright 2012. Used by permission.

Playwright: David Lindsay-Abaire, 42

Hometown: South Boston, Mass.

Place of Residence: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Education: Sarah Lawrence College, studied theatre and literature; and The Juilliard School, studied playwriting

Selected Titles: Good People, Rabbit Hole, Kimberly Akimbo, Snow Angel, A Devil Inside, Shrek the Musical, Wonder of the World

Selected Honors: Tony Awards, Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critics Circle Award

I was introduced to playwright David Lindsay-Abaire at the 2009 Great Plains Theatre Conference by an InSight subscriber and was immediately struck by his humble and genuine personality.

He is the middle child of three, which sometimes made him the peacemaker.  Perhaps this contributed to his ability to listen to and observe people, which, I believe, informs his complex and real characters.

He recently took time out of his busy writing schedule to talk about his craft candidly and with humor.

Lindsay-Abaire’s career is marked by a series of turns.

He wrote his first play in fourth grade for a Christmas pageant and wrote plays throughout high school.  He considered himself an actor primarily, however.  When he went to Sarah Lawrence College, he mainly focused on acting but took playwriting to fill in his course schedule.

“It wasn’t really until I got into Juilliard that I thought, ‘Maybe this playwriting thing is working,'” he says.  “I was in denial about it for a long time.”

Pursing playwriting as a career seemed unrealistic, and he didn’t know any working playwrights – “Not that being an actor is more realistic,” he quips.

Lindsay-Abaire was initially influenced by the work of established writers like John Guare, Christopher Durang, Eugene Ionesco, Anton Chekhov, and even the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers – “The more absurd the better – things that influenced my absurdist comedies,” he says.

It wasn’t until he enrolled at Juilliard in the late 1990s that he found true playwriting mentorship with Durang and Marsha Norman, whose work he had admired since high school.  Lindsay-Abaire was struck by the fact that the pair spoke to students as if they were peers, and he maintains relationships with both.

“To this day Marsha and I talk often about what’s going on in our respective lives.  She’s been to every one of my opening nights.”

Lindsay-Abaire’s journey to notoriety is comprised of a series of causes and effects.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, he attended plays at the Soho Rep in New York.  “I would see these funky little plays and think, ‘If I could just have a play at Soho Rep, nothing would make me happier.'”

He submitted his work to a myriad of theatres and many listings in the Dramatists Sourcebook and received many rejections.  He applied for years to New Dramatists but was rejected, sometimes with a nice note.  Finally, he submitted his play A Devil Inside to New Dramatists, and while he was rejected, a staff member sent him a note saying she passed the script along to Julian Webber, who was then the artistic director of Soho Rep.  That theatre produced the play.  “That was my first play in New York,” Lindsay-Abaire says.  “It felt like a change had occurred.”

Later, one of his plays was performed at the South Carolina Playwrights Festival.  There, he met playwright Stephen Belber (Match and The Laramie Project) who was attending Juilliard at the time.  The conversation prompted Lindsay-Abaire to apply to the school, where he was accepted.  While at Juilliard, Lindsay-Abaire wrote Fuddy Meers, his comedy about a woman with amnesia.  The play was accepted into the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

“I was rubbing elbows with professional playwrights – Lee Blessing and other folks like that.”

In 1999, the Manhattan Theatre Club produced the play where it received a favorable review in the New York Times, which called him a “welcome arrival to the mainstream Off Broadway.”  That was another turning point in his career.

“The circle just kept getting bigger.  To get a great review in the Times means a lot…The play was published in American Theatre magazine.  That was a big thing,” he says.

The point is one never knows where an acceptance, or even a rejection, will lead.

Lindsay-Abaire says he was still cementing his identity as a playwright while writing the offbeat comedies Fuddy Meers, Wonder of the World, and Kimberly Akimbo.  Writing the realistic, dramatic Rabbit Hole was a departure for him, and a life-changing effort.  The play earned him a Pulitzer Prize, which elevated his profile even more.

“It’s a nice thing to have, but the next day I have to go back and write a play and the Pulitzer doesn’t help me write it.”

Good People, which premiered in early 2011 at the Manhattan Theatre Club and received Tony Award nominations for Best Play and Best Performance by a Lead Actress in a Play, is a drama about a working-class woman trying to provide for her invalid daughter.

“I thought I had written another naturalistic drama.  That play on Broadway got wall-to-wall laughs, more laughs than any of my comedies did.  It was surprising that people laughed so much,” Lindsay-Abaire says.  “I hope it also says something about class in America.”

He is a dedicated writer, keeping regular business hours.  While his heart belongs to the theatre, he also writes film scripts, including Rabbit Hole and Inkheart.  He’s currently working on screenplays for the Wizard of Oz prequel, OZ: The Great and Powerful, the animated Rise of the Guardians, and the Poltergeist remake.

Redoing a popular film like Poltergeist can be tricky.  “I too love it. That’s the best thing about it and the worst thing,” Lindsay-Abaire says.  “You don’t want to wreck it.  I’m trying to find the balance and not wreck it while wanting to make it current.”

A steady stream of screenplay and play commissions keep him occupied.  “I love saying yes to things I haven’t done before,” he says.  “It’s why I did Shrek the Musical, why I did Rabbit Hole.  I challenge myself to do something different just to see if I can do it.”

As busy as he is, Lindsay-Abaire tries only to take jobs that are fun.  “My heart is 100 percent in theatre, as much as I love movies – and I do love movies – but the process is different.  What’s on the screen is not the writer’s version,” he says.  The film version of Rabbit Hole, however, is different.  “When I look at the screen, I think, ‘That is me. That’s how I wanted it.’”

Lindsay-Abaire is currently working on two plays.  One is theatrical and close to his early absurdist comedies.  “It does feel bigger and certainly stranger.”  The other play is more naturalistic and set in South Boston, although the plot is different than Good People.  Both plays were commissioned by Manhattan Theatre Club, Lindsay-Abaire’s theatrical home.  “I’m the luckiest playwright,” he says.

The husband and father of two has a knack for writing multi-dimensional characters with an appealing vulnerability, such as the grieving mother in Rabbit Hole.

“I don’t think about it.  I just try to write about humans.  I try to write about people that are true and truthful and pathetic and complicated,” he says.

He also writes strong female characters with substance.  “I do deliberately make most of my protagonists female.  I know so many great actresses, and most lead parts are for men,” he says.  “I think it does help me to give myself distance from the protagonist so I’m not writing about myself…Of course I am writing about myself.  It’s a stupid little trick.”

Perhaps he gets his skill from his mother, whom he calls an amazing storyteller and huge personality, the center at most family gatherings.  “It makes sense to me that my plays are peopled by strong women.”

He adds, “I find people fascinating.  They are way more interesting than I am.”

Tips

Submit often.  Put your work out there in every way possible.  Take every opportunity afforded you.  You will be rejected 99.9 percent of the time.  I was.  That’s all you can do…Keep casting the lines because you never know when you’re going to get a fish.

Write more than one play.  Many writers write a play, have a reading, get notes, put it away for several months, then rewrite it later.  This cycle can go on for years.  “In that time, you have changed as a person.  It’s not that you’ve figured out the play…A person has a play for six or seven years because they think they’re going to crack it.  Forget that play.  Take those new impulses and put them in a new play.  It’s better to have 10 first drafts and not one play you’ve written 12 times.  You have to rewrite but not at the expense of the other great plays you can write…Every play is a stepping stone to the next play.”

Be true to the play.  In hopes of getting produced, writers are writing small plays.  “I do wish that the theatre was more conducive to bigger thoughts and bigger plays.  The development process for playwrights encourages them to write small plays…If anyone writes a play – God forbid, with nine people in it – it will never get produced…They’re writing plays that will go over well in a reading atmosphere, which is inhibiting writers from thinking outside the box…I’m trying to shake loose of that myself.”

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