Our 2017-2018 Literary Intern, Kate Schwartz, interviewed several of this year’s Soundings playwrights about their work, both past and present. Here’s a transcript of her interview with Richard Dresser.

 

Kate:  I am intrigued to learn more about the trilogy you wrote about “happiness in America.” Augusta the upper class. You explain, “Someone in each play is trying to escape the class they’re born into.” I find that such an interesting theme to explore. I can understand someone from the working class striving to be a part of the middle class, and I can understand someone from the middle class dreaming of being a part of the upper class. Why do you think the young man in View of the Harbor “dreams of a middle-class future?”

 

Richard:  In VIEW OF THE HARBOR, Nick wants to escape the upper class for several reasons. His domineering father has charted a course for Nick that has nothing to do with who he really is (which is why he renounces the opportunity for inherited wealth in the course of the play). Also, as his sister points out, they lived a very sheltered life in which the same privileged children went to kindergarten and summer camp and prep school and college and dances and vacations together and they never felt a part of the exciting, spontaneous, chaotic world of people who have to find out who they are and make their own way. Nick succeeds in bursting out of the bubble of wealth and privilege for a more authentic existence, but when he comes back home, he realizes he hasn’t escaped at all.

 

Kate:  Your play, Rounding Third, premiered in Chicago before transferring to Off-Broadway. I read it’s also been made into a film. Congrats and kudos! The play is about two little league coaches and their contrasting mindsets of how to play the game. Don wants to “win at all costs,” while Michael is in it just for the love of the game. You said Rounding Third asks the question, “How should we raise our kids?” Again, I love the tough question this play inquires of its audience. In your opinion, what are both the perks and downfalls of raising our kids to “win” and raising our kids to find their joy?

 

Richard:  I wrote ROUNDING THIRD to try to answer that question: “How should we raise our kids?” I had been an assistant coach, urging kids to play for the sheer joy it. And then I became the coach and felt an unsettling need to WIN. Which caused me to start treating the players a bit differently (as my son who was on the team helpfully pointed out). We live in such a competitive society it seems that we need to teach our children how to successfully compete. But childhood is so brief shouldn’t we protect the simple joy of it as long as possible? As you can see, I haven’t resolved the issue. But it made the exchanges between the coaches extremely heartfelt.

 

Kate:   I read your interview from Broadwayworld.com about your play Closure, which premiered at New Jersey Rep. This play seems like psychological thriller as it is about a daughter who mysteriously disappears, and the Detective who steps in to “save the day” but “may have plans of his own.” Closure seems like a bit of a departure from your other works because of the suspense factor. What inspired you to write something more gripping, or did that happen by accident?

 

Richard:  I like to think that everything I write is absolutely new territory for me. But of course there are themes I return to over and over. With CLOSURE I was writing about parents who face the most excruciating nightmare–the disappearance of their child—and what it does to their marriage. Much of the tension in the play is generated by whether the marriage can survive both the disappearance of the daughter and the mysterious agenda of the detective. How we raise and take care of our children seems to be a theme I keep coming back to.

 

Kate:  In that same interview, I discovered the first playwrights you read were Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett. Personally, I am a huge fan of all three writers, and find them to be farcical, absurdist geniuses. Since they were the first 3 playwrights you read, have they impacted your work at all?

 

Richard:  They continue to influence me for different reasons. As a beginning playwright, each of them excited me because they broadened my ideas of what is possible to do on stage. They pushed back the boundaries. And of course the extreme precision of the language had a great effect on how I write.

 

Kate:  Your play in this year’s Soundings Series, “Wolf at the Door,” tells the story of “9 tenants, 1 shady landlord, and a run-down apartment.” Keith is the head of the Tenants Association, which is comprised of a diverse crowd (different ages, ethnicities, classes). In essence, it tells the tale of “neighbors and gentrification.” What compels you to explore and examine the world of class and gentrification in so many of your works?

 

Richard:  I think we like to feel that we are a class-free country and we have the founding documents to prove it. But in fact I believe we are as defined by class as England, although without the labels. Statistically, the upper middle class (roughly the top fifth of the country) enjoys an extraordinary amount of privilege and also goes to extraordinary lengths to hold onto it, whether liberal or conservative. Where you live largely defines the quality of your education, which in turn has a great deal to do with where you go to college. And through legacy admissions, internships, and the professional connections that go along with all that, the upper middle class does an excellent job maintaining its privilege. It’s easy to demonize the top one percent, but the income divide is more complicated and insular than that.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ll get down from this soapbox and tell you that “Wolf at the Door” is a flat-out comedy, it’s not an “eat your vegetables” night.at the theater. It attempts to shine a light on the lunacy of these strange days, and if it makes you a better person I had nothing to do with it.