David Henry Hwang, Amy Herzog, and Thomas Bradshaw Talk Art, Cash, and Duping Joe Papp
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.
Soloski: And the most recent thrilling experience?
Bradshaw: Can we name our own plays?
Herzog: [Turning to Bradshaw] It will sound sycophantic, but I really was knocked out by [Bradshaw’s] Burning last year. At intermission I saw John Guare, and we were both kind of in a daze, and he said, “I’m in freefall. This is fantastic.” And that’s my association with your play, this feeling of freefall. You’re just so disorienting, that play in particular.
Hwang: The white supremacist part--
Herzog: I found a way into the Nazis in that play.
Bradshaw: The whole game was I wanted to make the guy you think you should sympathize with, the black guy, the unsympathetic character, and then to make the neo-Nazis super-sympathetic. As far as you can make neo-Nazis who are actually killing people sympathetic.
Soloski: You love that game. Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist plays that game.
Bradshaw: I guess it’s not really a game.
Soloski: Oh, it’s a game.
Bradshaw: A game and a serious artistic endeavor.
Hwang: I feel like I see a lot of things lately that I really like. Kris Diaz’s play [The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity], Jonas Khemiri’s play Invasion. But both of you guys, when I see your work it teaches me new things about what theater can do.
Bradshaw: I just read your play [Golden Child] and I was laughing out loud. I loved the English guy speaking broken Chinese. What does he say, “Now we will drink Jesus’s bodily fluids”?
Hwang: That’s a very Thomas Bradshaw line.
Soloski: It really is. David, you’ve mentioned FOB being picked up by the Public when you were just out of college, but for Thomas and Amy, when and where were your first play produced?
Herzog: Well, that play I wrote on the floor of the Laundromat was produced in a decrepit old firehouse with some college friends. That was the first time I saw people saying the words in front of an audience.
Bradshaw: My first plays were produced in college.
Soloski: And professionally?
Bradshaw: Well, early on there were plays that no one saw. This play All But Forgotten, and then a play called Songs of Love. Then Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist—I rehearsed it myself for four weeks and spent $500 and I produced that. But my first professional plays were at P.S.122, three plays pretty much in a row: Prophet, Purity, and Southern Promises.
Soloski: That was your artistic home. And Amy, David—Playwrights Horizons and Lincoln Center seem to be yours.
Herzog: Yes, though I have something at New York Theatre Workshop this year.
Bradshaw: These are much more illustrious homes, the Public, Playwrights Horizons.
Soloski: You are all making a living from playwriting. I’d like to know how it works. How do you put it together—grants, commissions, teaching? David, you’re having an extraordinary year.
Hwang: I feel like all the playwrights I know, including myself, make our living doing something else. It can be related to what we do, it can be teaching or it can be writing commercially. I’ve always written commercially, and that’s how I’ve supported myself, although I’ve got this wonderful grant, so I won’t have to do as much of that.
Bradshaw: What grant did you just get?
Hwang: It’s called the Steinberg. It’s the largest cash prize in the American theater.
Bradshaw: Holy crap. How much is it?
Soloski: In terms of royalties, do theaters still take a big chunk when they premiere your work?
Hwang: Most do.
Herzog: Some have opted out. Lincoln Center.
Hwang: The Public doesn’t.
Herzog: I think the Roundabout doesn’t.
Bradshaw: And lately it hasn’t been as egregious. It’s been more like 10% or 20% than 40%, which is more palatable.
Soloski: So it’s changing.
Hwang: I feel like best practice now is against taking it. So yes, it’s slowly changing.
Soloski: Tom, you supplement grants and commissions with teaching. Amy?
Herzog: I did for a long time. This is the first time I haven’t taught in five years.
Hwang: So it’s royalties and commissions right now?
Herzog: Yes, and a screenplay.
Bradshaw: I’m working on a TV thing. I can’t talk about it. And I’m writing the screenplay for Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Bradshaw: Yeah. And I’ve gotten major awards in the last four years, but you can’t plan for them. Every time it happens it’s always a complete surprise.
Soloski: David, you’ve been in the business the longest. In terms of both financial factors and aesthetic factors, do you think it’s harder now or it was harder then?
Hwang: I think it’s harder to break in now. The field has become more professionalized, and there are so many training programs and people coming out of the training programs. And when I was coming into the field it was still an expanding field. Everything was still growing, and then the culture wars happened in the '90s, the NEA started getting shrunk and there was less money. And we Baby Boomers, we’re still around, we’re still taking up slots, so it’s harder for playwrights to get started.
Soloski: Amy, Tom, do you feel this difficulty?
Bradshaw: There were some challenges with getting people on board with my work.
Soloski: Your work’s quite controversial.
Bradshaw: At first people didn’t even know what I was doing. But once people were like, oh, he’s doing this on purpose, that made the work a lot more acceptable. It really took all those plays at P.S.122 for people to see that.
Herzog: I was part of that glut of playwrights coming out of training programs, and for a few years out of graduate school I felt I was having a really hard time breaking in. But when I look back at that, I think the plays I was writing weren’t ready for production. I don’t feel I was being shut out, because of unfair circumstance. But I’m curious about what you guys think about the whole training program thing. Are we training too many playwrights?
Hwang: I don’t know that I want to go so far, but there have to be a lot of different ways to get into the field. The Public tries to do it with the Emerging Writers Program, they try to bias it a bit toward people who didn’t come out of programs. When I got my first production, there were a variety of different circumstances that happened, but essentially Joe Papp was looking for an Asian-American play. Joe did a reading of FOB and he took me into his office. He said, I’ll give you some notes. I didn’t agree with the notes, but he was Joe Papp. He said, go home, do another draft, send it back to me, and I’ll decide if I want to do it. I waited three weeks and I sent him back the exact same draft.
Bradshaw: Oh my god.
Hwang: And then I got phone call about 10 days later: This is Joe Papp and the play is great now, we’re going to do it.
Bradshaw: Oh my god.
Soloski and Herzog (simultaneously): That’s so ballsy.
Herzog: How did you have the self-possession at that age to do that?
Hwang: I don’t know if I would have the guts to do that now.
Soloski: What’s your biggest complaint about institutional theaters today?
Herzog: I feel so frightened for some reason.
Bradshaw: This is dangerous stuff.
Hwang: I’m the oldest, so I’ll start. I feel like the not-for-profit movement started as an alternative to commercial theater and that was the whole point of it. Now all these regional theaters and institutional theaters are kind of about, what shows have we moved to Broadway? Have we won the regional theater Tony? Broadway’s such a tiny slice of the American theater and to focus too much on that really hurts the field.
Herzog: There’s a culture of development that’s pervasive—a culture sometimes where as a playwright you’re given notes and you’re expected to put the notes into action in order for the play to be produced.
Bradshaw: And the person who comes to you with notes, it’s like, have you ever written a play? What do you really know about dramatic structure? It is very different to study these things in theory then to actually implement them.
Herzog: When a production is contingent on rewrites, that’s the situation I’m objecting to.
Soloski: What theater would you most like to work with, and are there theaters that you don’t want to work with?
Herzog: I will be so impressed if either of you answer that.
Bradshaw: I’m not answering that question.
Hwang: We’re all too advanced in this field to answer the question of whom we don’t want to work with.
Bradshaw: It’s like, don’t give me money!
Soloski: Well, whom would you like to work with then?
Hwang: I feel like the Public has been my home since I was 23, and I’m very happy to work with the Signature this season.
Soloski: Anyone you haven’t worked with?
Hwang: Come back to me.
Bradshaw: I really would like to work at London’s Royal Court or the National.
Hwang: Oh, I can say that, too. I never get produced in London.
Soloski: What’s so great about London? Why do you say London and not Chicago?
Herzog: We’ve all had productions in Chicago. They love us in Chicago.
Bradshaw: You want the thing that you can’t have. London is a great theater city.
Herzog: Young people go.
Hwang: It’s a theater-going culture.
Herzog: Thomas, I’m really jealous of your other European connections. I would love to have a play in Germany. That would make me feel really cool.
Bradshaw: I’ll hook you up.
Soloski: So far, what has been your best experience as a playwright and your worst?
Herzog: So tough, Soloski.
Hwang: For best, I’m going to say Yellow Face simply because Yellow Face is the rare example of a show that I’ve worked on where the New York experience was more pleasant than the out-of-town experience. Not that the out-of-town experience was bad, even. But usually it’s harder in New York, people don’t get along, there’s more tension, but the play got better. In terms of a bad experience, I guess Face Value would be a good example of that, because it is traumatic to have a play close in previews, on Broadway. First of all we got really bad reviews out of town, the one I remember had a headline that said “M. Turkey.” Then we came into New York in a blizzard. I remember I was in a car one day with the director and the producer and some kids started throwing snowballs at the car, and I thought, this is just perfect. But mostly what was bad was I felt like I lost the play along the way and I didn’t know how to fix it.
Soloski: Would you ever go back to it or is Yellow Face—
Hwang: Yellow Face is my way of dealing with Face Value.
Herzog: I’m so new to this world and I’ve been very lucky. But all three plays that I’ve had produced, I’ve been so abjectly miserable during previews. I remember sitting in a preview audience of 4000 Miles in Lincoln Center. And the man in front of me said, “That felt like 4000 hours!” That was pretty good. If you’re going to be mean about my play, that was well said. I do feel like there’s something that happens during previews where you feel completely lost, you feel the play is a failure. I do that every single time.
Bradshaw: Burning was the most artistically fulfilling for me. Most of my plays have been an hour, an hour and a half long, and to create this big thing opened up something. My latest play is 160 pages, it’s like let’s try this long-form stuff some more. But some of the responses to my plays have been out of control, especially some of the early work, which I wasn’t prepared for. I wasn’t prepared for how angry people were and how they lashed out at me.
Herzog: Has it become a point of pride?
Bradshaw: No, what’s to be prideful or proud of about people being angry at me? I don’t want people to be angry at me. I just want to write these plays and have people say, you’re a genius. The way some people wrote about Purity, past anger, past talking about the work and wanting to assassinate me, just attacking Tom Bradshaw. I remember reading those reviews. I was really unsettled. I thought my career was over.
Hwang: I think of you as having such a thick skin.
Herzog: I assumed that, too.
Bradshaw: Well, I got one.
Herzog: Do you read your reviews?
Bradshaw: I read all the reviews. I have an extremely thick skin now. Purity was six years ago. But that experience taught me a lot. I learned a lot about that craft. It’s like there would be a way to write that play that would ease the audience in. With Purity it was almost like a baseball bat. Welcome. Bam!
Soloski: Well, you do begin it with child rape. Now, playwriting is an extraordinary career, but also a difficult one. What’s the hardest aspect of craft for you and what’s the thing that makes you keep doing it?
Hwang: My favorite part of the whole process is when I’m writing and I have an impulse to do something I don’t understand and I end up discovering something about a character that I had no idea about. That just feels so magical.
Bradshaw: Suddenly your characters are doing things themselves.
Hwang: You’re taking dictation.
Herzog: I agree, and I also love a moment that’s maybe the opposite. We eventually hand off the writing to a group of people who surprise us. It’s exciting to me to be truly surprised by something in my play based on someone else’s gift.
Soloski: And as to the worst aspect, for you, it’s previews.
Herzog: They’re agony. I could blame it on a lot of things. That’s the time when everyone agrees we’re still working on this, we don’t know what it is yet. It should be really wonderful, probably if you’re a really good Buddhist, but it’s agony.
Hwang: I think opening nights are horrible.
Hwang: Especially New York. You should be celebrating that you made something and instead it’s about 10:00 p.m, online—
Bradshaw: Looking up the reviews.
Hwang: That’s what the evening’s all about.
Soloski: One last question: Let’s pretend the revolution has come and you are now responsible for New York theater. What do you do? Do you finally say, we’ve had enough Twelfth Nights, we’re done? It’s your chance to remake the theater for good.
Bradshaw: I really would be trying to create a new theater where there were many different types of plays that pushed boundaries in different ways, exploding people’s conceptions of the world we live in.
Hwang: I would liberate theater from the tyranny of the box office. If you lower the ticket prices, you get a different audience, and then you’re not trying to please a very small portion of the New York theater audience.
Herzog: Ticket price seems to be the most important single thing to change. There’s LCT3, Roundabout Underground, a lot of institutional theaters are catching on to this. Also, we’re not training directors to think in really interesting, exciting ways that are pushing boundaries, it’s so much about writers.
Bradshaw: You might feel different when you start working in Germany, all those director-run theaters. I went to a festival there and there was a female playwright in tears because they had cut 50 percent of her play and suddenly they had a guy in a chicken suit.
Herzog: Actually, they’re doing a reading of 4000 Miles in Vienna, and I just had a phone conversation with the woman who at the end of the conversation, she said, “Oh, and by the way, it’s much too long, so we’ll be cutting it.” Then I remembered what theater is like in Europe.
Bradshaw: That could be a whole other roundtable.
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