David Henry Hwang, Amy Herzog, and Thomas Bradshaw Talk Art, Cash, and Duping Joe Papp

A playwrights roundtable

Think of it as a casual Kings County salon: Three playwrights—David Henry Hwang, Amy Herzog, and Thomas Bradshaw—nestled on a sofa, sipping fizzy drinks and gnawing ginger cookies as the their fall season begins. Bradshaw’s play Job, a brash revision of the Old Testament tale, opened September 19 at the Flea. A revival of Hwang’s Golden Child, about a man visited by dreams of his ancestors, launches his Signature Theatre season in October. Herzog’s The Great God Pan, which concerns a young man beset by a trauma he can’t recall, begins performances at Playwrights Horizons in late November. All three plays deal with the evidence of things unseen—divinities; half-forgotten memories; dreams and ghosts—but the playwrights kindly showed themselves in a Brooklyn living room on a rainy September afternoon to voice their opinions of their craft.

Alexis Soloski: When did you know that you wanted to be playwright?

David Henry Hwang: I saw some plays my freshman year in college—The Tempest and The Matchmaker at ACT—and thought, oh, maybe I can do this. So I started writing plays in my spare time. Things happened for me very quickly when I was younger. I wrote a play to be done in my dorm in my senior year called FOB, and 14 months later it opened at Martinson Hall in the Public. It’s really hard to think of that happening nowadays, the field has gotten so much more professionalized. But I didn’t know that I was going to be a writer, that that was my life’s mission, until I had my first flop. It was a play called Rich Relations at Second Stage in ’86.

Thomas Bradshaw: But what about the flop made you think, this is…

Hwang: Because I didn’t get any positive reinforcement for it. And I still felt really glad that I had done it, that it was important that I had done it.

Bradshaw: Did you feel artistically satisfied with it?

Hwang: It’s not that great a play, really. Sometimes you write them and they’re not so great and you still need to do them.

Bradshaw: I started writing when I was a kid, 5, 6, 7. I was selling these plays door-to-door to neighbors, and they would give me a dollar for these plays that had a couple lines on every page and I would draw pictures. I remember drawing planes on them—I was into planes—but I can’t remember what they were actually about. I acted all through high school and started writing more seriously. Got my playwriting degree from Bard, got my graduate playwriting degree from Mac Wellman [at Brooklyn College]. When I was at Bard I double-majored in sociology, because I thought I might need to go and be a lawyer some day, because who can make a living as a playwright? Every few years I get worried and start thinking: I guess I could still go to law school. Lawyers make so much money.

Amy Herzog: I was an actor for a long time. After college I got a role in a touring production of Ramona Quimby, an adaptation by Len Jenkin with Theatreworks USA. And I went on tour for five months and had a crisis about the fact that I was one of the lucky few who was getting my union membership and making a living, [but] I was feeling creatively stifled. I was doing the laundry for the whole company one day, and I sat on the floor of the Laundromat and I wrote a 15-minute terrible play that I luckily didn’t know was terrible and thought was good. And I kept writing.

Soloski: And what was the first play you saw that just thrilled you?

Bradshaw: My grandmother took me to Miss Saigon. It was in… (Turns to Hwang.) I’m a big racist. I’m like, oh, David Henry Hwang’s Asian. I bet he remembers when Miss Saigon opened.

Hwang: It opened in 1991. I remember because my show was already closed and then this other Madame Butterfly thing came along.

Bradshaw: So I was 11. Old enough to have sexual thoughts, I guess. Because I remember sitting next to my grandmother and thinking it was very inappropriate that she brought me here. The situations.

Hwang: There are strippers and things in it.

Bradshaw: People have told me that the music was bad. But I was moved by it. I was moved by the music in Miss Saigon. I was having a real emotional experience, a real deep emotional experience.

Soloski: Did you like the helicopter?

Bradshaw: Of course I liked the helicopter. I would like to have a helicopter in one of my plays.

Herzog: An unfortunate overlap with Thomas’s answer, but I think Les Miz was the first professional show I saw, though that was earlier, ’86 or ’87. I remember being completely bowled over by it.

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