On June 24, 2019 PlayPenn invited J.T. Rogers and Ayad Akhtar to Philadelphia to cover everything from the nitty-gritty of playwriting to broader questions about the American and world theatre.
Below is a transcript of their conversation.
A PDF of the transcript is available here.
Photo by Daniel Kontz
Paul Meshejian: So I’m going to give you a short, well not so short, bio for these two accomplished-
J.T. Rogers: Already, you’re starting it.
Paul Meshejian: Already I’m starting. First of all, it should be noted that we share the same hairstyle. That is the whole reason. So Ayad Akhtar is the author of the play Junk, which is recently seen at Lincoln Center Broadway and it was … The play was the winner of the 2018 Kennedy Prize for American Drama; also Disgraced, also seen at Lincoln Center Broadway. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and received the Tony nomination for best play, The Who and the What, and The Invisible Hand, which won the Obie Award, the Outer Critic Circle Award, John Gassner Award and the Olivier and Evening Standard nominations.
Paul Meshejian: As a novelist, Ayad is the author of American Dervish, published in over 20 languages. He’s the recipient of an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the 2017 Steinberg Playwriting Award, the 2017 Edward Kennedy Award, as well as fellowships from the American Academy in Rome and McDowell Colony and the Sundance Institute, Ucross and Yaddo, where he serves as a board director. He’s also a board trustee at PEN/America and at the New York Theater workshop.
Ayad Akhtar: Phew.
Paul Meshejian: Don’t worry, it’s competitive.
J.T. Rogers: Why couldn’t I go first? It’s unfair.
Paul Meshejian: Alphabetical order, my friends. JT Rogers’ plays include Oslo, seen at Lincoln Center Theater then Broadway, the National Theater of London, the West End, and in productions internationally. Blood and Gifts, also at Lincoln Center and the National Theater in London, The Overwhelming, the National Theater, a UK tour and at the Roundabout Theater, I might add, all of which plays were developed here at PlayPenn. Also, White People Off Broadway and Madagascar in both the US and London. For Oslo, he won the Tony, the New York Critics Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, Drama Desk, Drama League, Lortel and Obie Awards and was nominated for the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards. They have that in common.
Paul Meshejian: His works have been staged throughout the United States and around the world. His essays have been published in the New York Times, The Guardian, and the New Statesman. He’s a Guggenheim fellow and is a member of the Dramatist Guild where he’s a founding board member of the Dramatist Legal Defense Fund. As well, he’s an alum of New Dramatists and holds an honorary doctorate from his alma mater North Carolina School for the Artists. Yay!
Paul Meshejian: I thought I would start this off in a low-key way by just putting the question on the table for the two of them.
Paul Meshejian: How did you get involved in writing plays? Now I’m going to sit down and listen to you both.
J.T. Rogers: Well just to respond to that before we … Again, it’s lovely to be here. As Paul said, I am a thrice fellow here at the program.
J.T. Rogers: Oh, I can’t speak. You’re right. We should’ve gotten mics. No, no. We’re both ex actors so we should be able to. So just that as Paul mentioned, I’ve been here three times as a playwright-in-residence here at the PlayPenn Festival and it’s a special place in my heart and it’s really a privilege to be here and to be here with my very, very dear friend and for us to have the opportunity to have a conversation with you but also with each other because in our busy theater life, like all of us, we have to be in public to actually have a conversation.
J.T. Rogers: So why don’t I … Let’s start with you? How did you get involved in this profession?
Ayad Akhtar: I don’t ever know how to answer that question. I get it a lot. My parents were both doctors and I don’t think they understood what the hell I was doing. I had a high school teacher who changed my life and she was a literature teacher and she made me fall in love with reading and with stories and she had a passion for European modernism and she made me read plays. So, you know, made me read Durrenmatt, Beckett, and all that kind of stuff.
Ayad Akhtar: Then I got to college and I had a friend who was directing a show and he said, “I think you’d be good in this part.” It was a pompous guy, thought I would play well and apparently, I did. I had a knack for it and I loved to do it. So I started doing more theater. And then it was a weird thing. I had a mentor named Andre Gregory who used to say that a calling is something you run toward with the same intensity that you run away from it. And I feel like for a long time with the theater, that was really the story for me. I was… extraordinary opportunity after extraordinary opportunity. I graduated from college and almost immediately somehow found myself working alongside Jerzy Grotowski in Italy for a year. I was his assistant, which at the time was an extraordinary thing. One of the greatest, if not the greatest, acting mind alive on the planet.
Ayad Akhtar: And then from there, teaching, acting with Andre Gregory for a couple of years in New York City. And then I just … I was in New York in the mid ’90s and everybody who was interesting was making independent films. They weren’t doing theater, so I started to gravitate into those communities and I started to make … write and make movies and whatnot, or at least be involved with that. And I hadn’t written a play.
Ayad Akhtar: I knew ever since college that I wanted to write a play and I hadn’t written one and I was going to write one someday. And then it wasn’t until I had written 12 screen plays and four novels that I sat down and wrote a play, and that was Disgraced. And it was like, people often say, “Wow, you won a Pulitzer with your first play.” I was like, “Well, yeah, but I’ve been writing 20 years at that point. And I knew something about story, I knew something about dialogue. And then, again, it’s the same thing. I’m running away and then running toward.
Ayad Akhtar: I end up as a young person in the room with Grotowski and then I write a play and I have a Pulitzer. And it’s this weird super charged on steroids encounters with the theater that then set me on this track and now … I had this run where I’ve written a bunch of plays and they’ve all done very well and produced all over the world and now I’ve just finished a new novel and I’m pointing away from the theater. I suspect for a while until I get called back, so it’s a …
Ayad Akhtar: And then there’s another secret part of this which is that I’ve had lots of weird mystical experiences in the theater my whole life. When I was very young, as growing up the Muslim tradition to see the prophet in a dream was a big deal and there could’ve only been one person in my family who did and when I was eight, I had this dream about the prophet, which became a big thing in the family. Like, “Oh, he’s announcing a new Imam, is he going to be … has been born into the family.” And that dream took place in a theater. The whole dream took place in a theater. And that was when I was eight.
J.T. Rogers: I just missed this special deal. Was it a proscenium?
Ayad Akhtar: In the dream, the prophet calls me up onto the stage to lead the prayer on the stage and he and I led this prayer and the entire audience starts praying. Anyway, so there’s that. And this was also the first time I fell in love. I was 11 and I was in a classroom and there was a play about Susan B. Anthony and the classroom across the hall, we got shuttled in and sat in our seats and watched this play. This young girl stood up in the jury box to proclaim some verdict and there was some extraordinary moment in my life when it was real clarity. The extraordinary … Everything made sense.
Ayad Akhtar: So I’ve had lots of those weird experiences in the theater. So there’s some under current that I don’t account for, some karmic… I don’t know what it is exactly, but I just keep … It just keeps coming into my life in a beautiful way.
J.T. Rogers: Yeah.
Ayad Akhtar: How about you?
J.T. Rogers: It wasn’t that interesting. I met the Buddha on the road. I’m glad you stopped because I’m going to answer and then I’m going to use that as a segue to a question for you. One of the things … I was only half joking when I said this in the conversation with just us. When we came down in the car together from New York, I said, “Well why don’t we just ask ourselves the questions that we never get a chance to ask each other when we’re together.” Because we always go off on tangents about politics or this or life, as friends do.
Ayad Akhtar: The business.
J.T. Rogers: The business. And so I always wanted to be in the theater from when I was maybe nine. I was growing up in Central Missouri and my parents had split and my mother was living this sort of Bohemian life in the East Village where you could have an apartment for $150 a month, sort of dabbled and she was taking acting classes at H.B Studios with Bergdorf himself, just as a civilian. And I was playing the huntsman in the local Columbia, Missouri Entertainment Company in Children’s Theater Production of Snow White. And still a legendary performance. Grotowski-like.
J.T. Rogers: But my mother came home for the holidays and she said, “Oh, well what are you doing? You’re doing a monologue?” I said, “Yeah, I do have this speech from–” “Well, let’s do it.” And I gave the speech. She said, “I don’t believe any of that.” And so she made me do it over and over and over and over again. And then, speaking of the spiritual, there was a … And I’m doing the speech. I think the tech lighting board operator did the adaptation. I was literally, you know, probably 45 in the play for nine year olds. And I did this speech and for a moment, I actually believed that I was trying to decide whether I was going to cut Snow White’s heart out and give it to the queen or not.
J.T. Rogers: And I had this very quiet epiphytal experience of just saying to myself, “Oh, well this is what I’m going to do. This is what I’m going to do with my life.” Which it wasn’t until having a teenager now to realize how fricking strange that is, a blessing and a curse, but mostly a blessing. And so I just did that. I was a student actor, an actor and I went to conservatory acting school, North Carolina School of the Arts.
J.T. Rogers: And while I was there, I started on a whim, I had an idea late at night and went to the bathroom, because I didn’t want to wake up my roommate and I started writing a play on a napkin. And the beauty of the school experience, which you don’t realize later, is that you have the … You have access to facilities that only three or four theaters in the non-educational world have. And so this was in the … being in the early ’90s and pre-litigious America where they would think nothing of giving a 19-year-old kid the keys to a multi-million-dollar facility. So you would rehearse all day and then at midnight, you would rehearse your play with multimillion dollar facilities until three in the morning and then you do a show and you had this extraordinary experience which you thought was regular which is … This is pre-internet.
J.T. Rogers: Since nobody had anything to do on the weekends, you do a short little play and 300 people would come to see the play and then it would take 25 years for you to replicate that. Wonderful, because you knew what you were shooting for.
J.T. Rogers: And then I went to the city and I, in hindsight, had a strangely but blessedly non-struggle over realizing that after my entire life wanting to be an actor, I no longer wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be a playwright. And I came to the city and with my then girlfriend, now wife, and best friend started a small theater company and ran that for years and years. And was broken by the experience after eight years and finally we had to quit and it felt like a death and a failure at the time, but it was extraordinary in that it taught me everything. Most of what I learned about being a writer came from being an actor. And everything else I learned from running and failing in running a theatre.
J.T. Rogers: Which then brings me to the question I wanted to ask you when I was in the car, so what was a singular or multiple … What was the singular failure for you that marked you and hopefully, not to put the words in your mouth, but hopefully at the same time where they often are as we’ve talked about, was profoundly helpful in some way for you?
Ayad Akhtar: Can I think about that? Do you have one?
J.T. Rogers: I have many.
Ayad Akhtar: Why don’t you go first.
J.T. Rogers: Okay. Yeah, yeah, sure.
Ayad Akhtar: Give me some time to think about that.
J.T. Rogers: I have many but I’m parsing through. There was one that was particular because they were all … Yeah, okay. I’ll put them all in a soup in a way because they are … kind of all lead to the same thing.
J.T. Rogers: So I did this for eight years and then I stopped and I was starting over in a way because we had been kids playing at being grown-ups, playing at running the theater, literally trying to think well if we’re 45, how can we do this? So we were strange to our peers. And so here I am at 30, I guess, living in New York waiting tables at Houlihan’s Penn Station. Trust me, it was much worse. I still wake up in the middle of the night and say, “If you don’t finish this screenplay, you’ll have to go back to Houlihan’s. Get up and get back to work.”
J.T. Rogers: So I was starting over and I didn’t … The phrase here, I couldn’t get arrested is an understatement. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know anything. I had been living in this bubble both of non-connective tissue with other artists and certainly artists that could help me. But also realizing in hindsight, working in my tradition that was incredibly antiquated and was unrelated to anything that was going on in the New York Theater. And I was lost. I was bereft. And it was only later as I started over and then began the process of “becoming a playwright” that other people had started 10 years before me in my age group. Was only later that I realized that there was eight years of failure and then years after of isolation, being in the theatrical Siberia, so to speak, was an unbelievable blessing because by the time I was “discovered” I knew what I was doing. And I don’t think I would have been able to survive artistically if I had gotten what I desperately wanted, which was to be “discovered” at 25, 27, 31, 32, 33. So that’ll be my …
Ayad Akhtar: Yeah, my story’s very similar in that respect. Miss Derfler made me want to be a writer at 15. She didn’t encourage me to be a writer, she just encouraged me to accept contemplative life and a life of reading as a worthy life. But that led me to the desire of want to write. That led me to writing all kinds of stuff and achieving just enough success to be able to keep the delusion going.
Ayad Akhtar: I’d written one novel which was bad and then another which was even worse and I had spent six years on that one. It was 600 pages and I thought it was the greatest thing that had been written in the language since Moby Dick, secretly, of course. I didn’t say that to anybody.
J.T. Rogers: Let’s hope you didn’t.
Ayad Akhtar: I didn’t. And I shared it with a friend, a very good friend who I trusted and he took me out for a drink and he said, “You know, you might not want to share this with anybody.”
Ayad Akhtar: I’d always been doing many things at the same time. I’d been teaching acting and cobbled together a living. And then I got some screenplay writing work. Anyway, started writing screenplays basically to eke out a living in New York. And I did that for a while. And then came back to writing a novel and I wrote what would be my third novel. And I felt like I knew how to do it better. I’d been taking notes from people about story now for a while and I had been to film school for film directing and I learned a lot about story. And it was like, “Okay, I think I understand how to hold an audience’s attention a little bit better.”
Ayad Akhtar: And so I wrote this book, it was American … would end up being American Dervish, which was my first published novel. And got it to an agent and the agent said, “This is wonderful. I don’t see how it could sell. Thank you.” Got it to another agent, “Yeah, you’re a really wonderful writer, send me your next book.” This went on, seven agents. And It was a year and a half process. I remember the night … And I was 38 at this point, so basically insolvent, having to ask my parents for money every now and then just to fucking make ends meet, cobbling together, you know, ten-year relationship that floundered because of recalcitrant stubborn insistence that this was the only thing I could do with my life. Living in a ramshackle studio in Harlem. I went to Brown and many of my best friends had multimillion dollar apartments in Central Park West.
Ayad Akhtar: So seventh agent passes, very famous agent. I won’t tell you who it is, but wonderful. Writes me a long note, “You’re such a wonderful writer. I don’t see how I can sell this book.” So it was a pass. And I remember one night I got an email and I went home. I was on my way home from the West Village and I got home and I felt … sat down on my bed and I felt some kind of pain that I’ve never felt … had never felt before and have never felt since. It was like every nerve in my body was in psychic pain. And I thought, oh, I see. This must be what it’s like to be in hell. This is hell. What I’m experiencing right now.
Ayad Akhtar: And I laid down on the bed and I just felt it and I thought to myself, and this is kind of crazy is baked into me, so just bear with it: If this is the price I got to pay to come back and actually be successful in doing this thing that I love, I’ll pay the price, I’m not giving up.
Ayad Akhtar: Two months later, an agent read it, said it was the book she had been waiting for for 15 years. It was the largest sale of debut fiction in New York City at the end of that year. Was published in 20 languages and catapulted a writing career which was not anything, suddenly to the point where a year and a half after that, I win the Pulitzer. And I thought back to Kim Bassinger and it was like, she’s up there at the Academy Awards saying, “If a girl from Georgia can do it, anybody can.” And I was thinking, “You’re Kim Bassinger, what the fuck are you talking about?”
Ayad Akhtar: But people come up to me like I’m some image of success or something and they have no idea. I was 39.
J.T. Rogers: I think it’s interesting. Because I think that there’s something about … and this I think has changed regarding the conversation he and I were having in the car about culture we’re living in now. I think that there’s a need to erase the culture and even individuals to erase, reduce your story … erase is all those things. I’m always telling whenever I speak to students, etc., I always change the topic of the conversation whatever I’d been asked to talk about, said we’re only going to talk about fear and failure because those are the only things that are important as an artist. And I’m going to tell you about my failures, not about my successes.
J.T. Rogers: And yet still, you go into these conversations, even with people you’ve already given that talk with, the narrative is only the extraordinary success of the pre-ordained excellence that could only have happened because you were talented. Because people don’t want to accept the fact that the difficulty what has to be sacrificed to get the work but also this terrifying randomness of it. There’s this idea that people who are “at the top” well that’s because they deserve to be there as opposed to the realities you and I know that there so many actors and so many people, like your teacher that was so instrumental in your life. My high school teacher as well that I’m still in touch with. My mother, making me do that and the endless random events.
J.T. Rogers: But I want to ask you because just about your book. Since the first time we met, you gave me that marvelous American Dervish before it was published, but also when we first met, we then and still do, share a lawyer who has been a mentor to both of us, an extraordinary man.
Ayad Akhtar: Yeah. I owe my career to him.
J.T. Rogers: And Mark, his name’s is Mark Glick we’re just chatting with him in the car coming down here, haranguing me for not doing something properly. And he said, “Oh, you were project A, I’ve got project B now. I want you to … Would you meet project B and read this play?” And it was, what I thought at the time, was your first play was The Invisible Hand which was then done. So often the case, there’s a narrative he wrote a play, another play, but reality we often … A new play was actually six years old. It’s always more muddled than anything seems to be.
J.T. Rogers: And what was interesting, just knowing you now for years, and reading that play and thinking, wow, this is really good. Remember we sat down in the coffee shop.
Ayad Akhtar: Yes.
J.T. Rogers: Yeah, yeah, and we spent two hours talking about the play and then what was so-
Ayad Akhtar: You gave me great notes.
J.T. Rogers: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons we’re friends, the selfish aspect as we both be honest and give good notes to the other person. But I remember what was so intriguing to me was reading it and then you gave it back to me shockingly not much later and to see how radically you had changed it. And you took some things I thought, others not, but then other things and other people told you and most importantly, your own thoughts. And then to see that play as an example of … the adage is true that anyone could write, but a writer rewrites. And realizing early on that this was someone I was really interested in as a colleague, even before we became friends, was like, “Oh, this guy fucking puts in the work.”
J.T. Rogers: And so let’s talk a little bit about that because I’m a little obsessed about craft and your approach. Because I think more than any of our colleagues/friends, that you go through a process of relentless revision. And I’m curious just to talk a little bit about that.
Ayad Akhtar: Well we were talking at dinner about American playwriting in the programs, the graduate programs. And in my confusion about how crit sessions are just not the right place to know whether a play’s working. Other writers are not your audience. Your audience is the audience and if your work is not in front of an audience, you don’t know whether your work is working. And I have time and again been surprised by the wisdom of that reality. And when my show gets up, that’s when the work begins. The first preview of the first production is the beginning of the process because that’s when I’ve learned what I’ve done. I don’t know what I’ve done until the audience encounters it. I work furiously through previews every single, often rewriting. Andre Bishop, with The Who and the What, but it was at Lincoln Center said, I’d never seen anybody rewrite a play the way you have in two weeks.
Ayad Akhtar: I’ve been working on that play for years. I was ready to start rewriting it. I was ready to understand what needed to happen.
J.T. Rogers: What was your very first production?
Ayad Akhtar: It was Disgraced in Chicago.
J.T. Rogers: In Chicago, all right-
Ayad Akhtar: And I watched that I was like, “Jesus Christ, this play’s got to get rewritten.”
J.T. Rogers: Did you do it? That was the pre-New York production, right?
Ayad Akhtar: Yeah. And then I rewrote it for Lincoln Center, I added a new scene. And then it was at Lincoln Center and then we went to London and between Lincoln Center and London, I rewrote it again. I rewrote the end of the third scene and the beginning of the fourth scene and the very ending. I wrote 13 endings to that play. And then between … And then it won the Pulitzer in London and then between London and Broadway, I rewrote the play again.
J.T. Rogers: So interesting because I don’t … I do a lot of rewriting but I do think I do most of my rewriting in the first or even second rehearsal. But I do make changes in the audience, but this is neither here nor there, it’s just interesting to hear to hear how you did this. I find that for me it’s so much of it is literally about the musical rhythm of the language. And if I’ve got the rhythm right, and usually I know, then it works in very different ways. But what’s interesting, when times there are big changes in the audience … Actually the biggest change recently was here at PlayPenn when I was doing the first iteration of the entire, finally, entire play of Oslo and to the immense credit of this audience, it was four hours. Nobody left so, going back to the audience, I’m like, “They didn’t fucking leave.” It’s over an hour or two long, and they didn’t leave, so I’m on to something.
J.T. Rogers: But I just wanted moments when I had an experience and came to yours which was … I had written extensively between what is the last scene of the play now and the end of the third act, we could almost call a fourth act. It was about 30 minutes of stand-alone, probably the most interesting historical and comedic, etc. and maybe even most moving, I think of the play. But seeing it from an audience the first time when this particular play sort of climatically ends emotionally, the climax of the play is a peace deal tentatively being made on the phone between the PLO and the Israeli government. And when the Palestinian representative says, “They’re crying over the line” and they said, “What is that sound?” And he goes, “They are crying, they did not think they would live to see this day.”
J.T. Rogers: And the moment the next scene started, I was like, “Oh, fuck, that’s all gotta go.” That’s the end of the play. I didn’t even realize that. So that was the moment I hadn’t experienced before.
Ayad Akhtar: Exactly. And that’s the kind of epiphany that never happens for me anywhere else but in front of an audience. And musicality’s interesting. I don’t get to the musicality until the syllable structure is absolutely crystal clear and is not about my own internal sense of how it’s playing, but what my sense of the audience’s level of absorption in the language is. And so that’s when I know …
Ayad Akhtar: Because with Junk for example, again the same thing. We had a production in La Jolla before developmental production workshops, all of which were very extensive and I was rewriting throughout all of the workshops. In La Jolla I was … My partner was in the show. I was there for the entire run and I kept tinkering privately with the play. Then when we did developmental workshop at Lincoln Center, I showed up with a new draft and then worked on it throughout the course of rehearsal. And sometimes by the time we got to previews, there were a couple of rewritten scenes, but for the most part, it was adding a syllable, taking one away, adding a line, adding an echo of that line in a scene that I wanted the audience to be able to subconsciously …
Ayad Akhtar: To me the process of priming the audience on an unconscious level is 90% of the work. The book that I read that has taught me the most when I think about audiences is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Because it’s an anatomy of cognitive function of the two systems of the brain. The slow thinking system and the fast thinking system. And one of the things that I learned from Kahneman was priming. That when you use language, language sets in motion certain associations for the subject. The test subject in his case is psychological subject, but in my case, the case of the audience. And so if I’m priming the audience the right way, but I can’t know what is effective priming until I’m in the audience and I can’t be able to be sensitive to effective priming until I’ve been in an audience many times. And I understand-
J.T. Rogers: Like at the first few times you’re in shock. You’re like: my god, there’s people.
Ayad Akhtar: And I also don’t know what I’m priming that’s mine and what I’m priming that is unconscious to me.
J.T. Rogers: Do you also find … I still to this day, I find myself … One of the frustrating things is bemusing when you step outside yourself, but it’s frustrating because you can’t learn it except to relearn it afresh every time is… I’m in the rehearsal process, be it six months or two years writing the play on my own and you’re trying to just find the most elegant, complex and yet subtle ways, never an easy choice to find a way to make the complicated interesting. And then whenever you get in front of an audience, you realize sometimes well, you just need Joe to say, “Hey, I think we should do this.” And those lines … I could never write those lines until I’m in front of the audience and realize, oh, if I could’ve known that, I would’ve saved me four weeks.
Ayad Akhtar: But you can’t know it.
J.T. Rogers: But you can’t know it.
Ayad Akhtar: Because it’s the audience’s being.
J.T. Rogers: And they’re collectively … I was talking to a young playwright, again, this goes back to a comment you were saying, not to put words in your mouth, but I find what puzzles me about the whole graduate school training thing is the unconscious arrogance that gets baked into the, that I am the artist and I know better and I’m special. As opposed to acknowledging the fact that any audience, be they at the National Theater of London or the Rockbridge High School community players’ parents’ audience, is collectively the IQ of any collective theater audience just shoots through the roof and you can’t fucking get anything over on them. And all you can do is desperately use every skill that you’ve ever acquired over a lifetime of doing this to not … to somehow try to be a little bit ahead of their smarts.
Ayad Akhtar: Right. But I think this veers into terrain, maybe we don’t want to get into. I’m pretty certain I don’t want to get into it.
J.T. Rogers: Yet, somehow you are.
Ayad Akhtar: Well, just out of honesty, just for the sake of honesty. I feel like if the issue is to problematize the audience’s privilege or to problematize the audience’s gaze, then you have an adversarial relationship with your audience that’s not about union. It’s not actually about understanding what the wisdom of the audience can bring to the process.
J.T. Rogers: No, then I misspeak because I don’t mean to-
Ayad Akhtar: Yeah, but I’m not imputing that you do. I’m saying that that’s what I see. That the justification did not take the audience’s wisdom seriously is to discredit the audience as a matter of procedure. Which to me, there’s a different forum for that. I don’t think that’s the theater at the end of the day. But that’s my concluding. I’m a writer for the audience. When I had Miss Derfler, I was young writer. I wanted to show the world how exceptional and unique I was and it wasn’t until that started to fade and I started to approach my work as a meaningful exploration and creative engagement with the world and not with the expression of myself, that’s the moment that I point towards the beginning of my writing career, really. Because that, the creative engagement with the world, suddenly opens up the question of craft. How do you engage creatively with the other? Through a shared sense–
J.T. Rogers: Open the same endpoint, but for me it wasn’t a realization that work was only going to be good if I eliminated myself. I think it’s Yeats who said about Shakespeare is genius is that he leaves no fingerprints. And of course you can’t be remotely… fantastic with Shakespeare, but it’s a good thing to shoot for. Like to try to eliminate … And then there’s something … Because then you’re no longer … It’s no longer about what you have. I got Oslo in front of the audience and I was asked in a talk back the first night, “Well do you think it was a good idea that they did these secret accords?” And I paused and then I gave some probably quasi-erudite answer. And I paused because I thought I’ve never asked myself that question. Never occurred to me… whether I had an opinion about whether. I ended up-
Ayad Akhtar: Your opinion doesn’t matter.
J.T. Rogers: My opinion was, “Oh my god, that’s a great story. And it’s full of the things that I care about, I’m going to tell that story.” But it’s that removal of self. It takes a long time to learn that, doesn’t it? It takes a long time-
Ayad Akhtar: I think so, yeah. You got to get beaten up enough to realize that you’re going to fail at that particular kind of game. It’s like Oscar Wilde says, “The only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting what you want.” So you get it and you realize well, that’s a phony baloney, so then you’re not interested for that reason.
Ayad Akhtar: But you and I didn’t get it for so long that we found something else to keep us interested in this thing.
J.T. Rogers: We just try to be hopefully continually elastic.
Ayad Akhtar: And joke. I got a joke I do in public. That my writing career has had four stages so far. My first was I thought I was writing really well, but I was writing really poorly. I was 15 to 25. And then the next stage was I’m still writing really poorly but I’ve started to realize it and I’m trying to get better. Third stage is I am writing better but nobody’s paying any attention. And the fourth stage is now, I suppose. I’m writing better and folks are paying attention. Hopefully not to be followed by, I think I’m writing really well but I’ve started writing really poorly.
J.T. Rogers: Well you’re laughing, that’s my life. I just had a memory when you were talking about that, actually come before to say, also looking back to our first question about trajectory and how we got started. I remember very distinctly I had been writing a bunch of plays in New York at this small company, staging them. To this day I cannot … I came and sat down in a meeting. I don’t know exactly how many people were in this audience because I had so many years of having more people on the stage at my play, than in the audience that I can’t not obsessively like rain man, count the heads. It’s like PTSD.
J.T. Rogers: But writing plays and plays and plays and doing them and some of it was because of not having the craft, some was the subject matter, some of it was this revelation. And I went to, again, those random things that alter our lives that we like to forget so that we can have our narrative of excellence.
J.T. Rogers: A friend of mine, I’m still friends with him, very successful TV actor. He just came out of the NYU acting program, goes, “Hey man” and we’re waiting … we’re cater waiters together. We had taken a bus home late at night. He goes, “Hey man, the class behind me is doing this play by this Tony playwright. I don’t know what his name is, but you should come, we’re doing it in a black box.”
J.T. Rogers: And so this student production, which is so legendary people still have it in their bios. People who’ve got Tony Awards and movie stars, all kid actors at the time. And it was this 3rd year student production of Perestroika by Kushner, on its own in a theater no bigger than this, with the costumes. They were in blacks and there was some set, no lights, no fancier than this. And didn’t know the first part and the final performance that I hadn’t gone to, so I missed five whatever they had to do in college, maybe five shows if you’re lucky.
J.T. Rogers: And it was revelatory, and it was amazing because one it was such a extraordinary … All these actors have gone on to be really successful, some extraordinary group of young actors. And the play has such … Parts that work are just unbelievable. And I remember thinking, oh, so it’s okay to have people talk on stage. It’s okay to have people talk and be smart because we’re in this moment where we instinctively we dumb everything down because somehow the culture is telling us to do that. I was doing that.
Ayad Akhtar: Well, in 1835 Emerson wrote in his journal, “why can’t a man sit down to think in this country without somebody asking if he’s got a headache?”
J.T. Rogers: Well I had been giving myself a headache for 10 to 12 years and it was like, “Oh, just write about the things that you actually care about.” And that led to me writing grown-up plays. And by grown-up, I don’t mean stuffy, I mean I was actually going to write about … It sounds so ludicrous now, but I was going to actually write about the things that interested me. And knowing that then, of course, that’s when I started to become a playwright. Because I was actually writing about what seemed to be esoterica but it was my esoterica so then it was my play.
Ayad Akhtar: Do we have questions that were prepared or something like that?
Paul Meshejian: We do. We have a fabulous Michele Volansky who has polled the audience.
Michele Volanksy: I have. Hi, everybody.
Audience: Hi, Michele.
Michele Volansky: Before we do that, I want to do one quick little business thing. Give me your hat J.T. [Puts names into his hat.] This is going very well, going very well.
J.T. Rogers: I can do it up tempo, if you want.
Photo by Daniel Kontz
Michele Volansky: We have some signed scripts to give away. So let’s do this first. And then we’ll do two more at the end. Who do you have?
Paul Meshejian: Ronnie Kurchner-Hawkins?
Michele Volansky: Excellent, Ronnie. Great. We’re going to give you – This is the signed version of that.
J.T. Rogers: I have Ivor Clark.
Michele Volansky: Do you have Oslo already?
Ivor Clark: I do have Oslo, actually.
Michele Volansky: Great. All right. So I’m going to give you Blood and Gifts. And then we’ll do the other two in a minute. So I polled the audience, I asked them a bunch of questions and they seem to have taken two tracks. One followed a more practical aspect of things and the other was slightly more philosophical. So we’ll start with the practical and I’m going to follow up with something that both of you …
J.T. Rogers: I’m a big believer in, I don’t know why, but to couple with yours sort of mystic thing like theater, mysticism, and taboos are important to me. And August Wilson, you can never have a hat on … In rehearsal, you can’t have a hat on the table, never on the floor. It’s just bad.
Michele Volansky: Right, bad juju. So I will condense one question to start this process land, and then I will get specific from our guests. So both of you talked about the years of work. The theatrical Siberia, the psychic pain. Those were the two phrases that I-
J.T. Rogers: That could be our memoirs.
Michele Volansky: It’s a new show on HBO. And so I guess for those playwrights in the audience who are really struggling for that first step, that first step of busting open a door. I don’t think there’s any way of saying, “Well, here’s how you do it,” because as one of you said, the terrifying randomness of it. But I wonder if, from a practical point of view, if there’s any way to replicate what both of you are talking about about how to learn from the audience.
J.T. Rogers: Yeah, I have a very … You have to do your own work. One of the, to use your phrase — maybe I’m misquoting — mystifying or troubling or confusing about the graduate programs or the culture. One of the other, I find rather actually kind of pernicious aspects of it, unintended I’m sure, but still pernicious nonetheless, is this infantilizing of the process for the playwright, is that the playwright was a poet who could only sit in the room and write poems and hope that somebody read them. Not to enable anybody. That’s a struggle that the poet has. But we are public artists and so you’re only going to learn by having front of people from the audience and paying people. The money exchange for the audience, it means nothing if the work is good or bad. So just do your own … If you literally can’t have the money to rent a theater to hear a play of yours read for one night, then do it around your kitchen fucking table. Ask your neighbors. There’s never a bar “low enough” that you’re not going to learn, maybe profound learning, and so …
J.T. Rogers: And the act of making theater, not just writing like a novelist sits at his desk and writes every day; that’s part of it. But also to be in front of an audience, however humble or grand that is, that’s the … the engine of doing that is what creates the energy that pushes you forward. Sitting around waiting for someone to help you, you’re never going to have a career.
Michele Volansky: You don’t want to add to that?
Ayad Akhtar: I don’t think I have anything to add to it. I think that’s it. You just got to … How many false starts? 4,000 false starts, 4,000 times I thought that call, that thing, was I dealing with inherently prejudicial decision-makers? Yeah. Was that their problem? No. Was that my problem? Only if I let it be. It’s like there’s no way around the difficulty in my experience and it turns out that the difficulty is what has given the work its grit, and vividness, and its life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And I worry that the lack of grit, though I’ve had my fair share of grit in the last year or so, but I worry that that’s not conducive to real growth. And it’s not me being a masochist, it’s me just recognizing that creativity is about that friction and that friction has got to come from somewhere.
J.T. Rogers: When I was younger, I would become consumed a jealous rage whenever I would see someone my age whose dad was still young. Young we would say under 30, getting success. Literally just getting a workshop production that got a rave review in the Times, let alone some … a Pulitzer. Now I look at anyone who’s given immediate success in theater and my first thought is, oh my god I hope they’re going to be okay, because that’s really, really bad for them. It’s hard-
Ayad Akhtar: It’s a hard obstacle.
Michele Volansky: And so thinking about that, the idea of graduate programs, do either of you want to comment on … For a group of playwrights some of whom may have gone to a graduate program or may be aspiring to go to a graduate program. What are the kinds of things that one should say before entering or pursuing?
Ayad Akhtar: What to say to whom?
Michele Volansky: For the playwrights to ask themselves.
J.T. Rogers: I’ll go first on this.
Ayad Akhtar: Because you tend to go.
J.T. Rogers: I tend to go. I did drive you. I went to his house, I brought him here. What the hell was the question? Yes, I do, but to be fair, I have to put a caveat out there because I didn’t go to graduate school. I’ve never been to a writing class. So there is an element of me pontificating now about something that I shouldn’t be. But my pontifications right or wrong come out of seeing the end result as an audience member and as a colleague and as a member of the profession. I think that my concern about it is that it sort of echoing, as often going to be the case clearly tonight is echoing what Ayad was saying probably more tersely and more eloquently which is I get concerned about it because I see it as a flattening place.
J.T. Rogers: Granted there are colleagues and friends of mine who have gone through graduate schools, who come out being really good writers. And I think one of the reasons that people do it, it’s now become the only … or seemingly, the only funnel, shall we say. If you told me 20 years ago that Brown and Yale would pick who are American playwrights, I would’ve puked I’d been laughing so hard. Once again, I was wrong.
J.T. Rogers: So I guess though my question would be for the playwright is not oh heaven forfend, you shouldn’t go, no one should ever go to these things, I just … You just need to go in with your eyes open. If you’re going in to be given, to be told whether you’re a good writer or not, you’re never going to be a writer. The theater is a deep and practical art form; that’s what I like about it. Whenever I get stuck, I think well what’s the practical problem that I’ve got to solve?
J.T. Rogers: But if you’re looking like what is it you’re looking to do? What are you wishing to accomplish separate from what you’re being told or not told by your professors, is what am I getting, what am I seeking to get out of this as a natural trajectory? But I just have a concern, a larger concern just seeing the academization, this ivory towerization, quote-unquote, of the profession and I think that it works best be it a Neil Simon play or King Lear when we don’t … you entertaining the audience as a dirty idea. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been instructing, “Well obviously, our job is to entertain the audience,” as if I were saying something shocking. As if ticket sales didn’t have something to with it. It’s like on and on and on. So it’s a bit of a ramble, but …
Ayad Akhtar: It’s all true. I don’t know, I went to film school and I got a degree in film directing because I didn’t want anybody to tell me how to write. And I wanted to understand the process better. I didn’t want to become a film director, but I wanted to understand the process. And it’s helped me. It’s given me a synoptic perspective. I think tend to be a generalist and a poly-something. I need to be thinking in many different ways at the same time. And I totally get why people want to go to school and I get that there can be value to it. I think in this era, this so-called era of golden era of television or whatever, playwriting is a conduit into that realm and I think a lot of people want to be writing in TV and one of the “easier ways” excuse me, is to go to a graduate playwriting program that then leads you into-
J.T. Rogers: It’s so weird when you think about it.
Ayad Akhtar: It is weird but it’s what happening. And I think people know that. They’ve caught on to it. I had an assistant recently who, wonderful young writer, young, emphasis on young. But wonderful young writer, a lot of potential who was just … Has been locked in this cycle of readings and workshops and this and that and this, until someone is like, you don’t even know if your play’s any good because you still haven’t seen it in front of an audience.
J.T. Rogers: This is now what we’re riffing on, but it is connected. One of the big problems in the theater, it’s happened in my life time as a want to be now actual professional playwright, is this kudzu growth of middle management where theatres, they can’t give a playwright more than a $4,000 commission which is getting $50 and asking someone to feed 100 people, have assistants to senior staff of 401K programs. And the danger or the inevitable kudzu nature of middle management as corporate America teaches us, is that for middle management, through no fault of its own, just being human beings, these are jobs that don’t need to be there, which is Hollywood has taken … this is a longer standing process, the same phenomena in Hollywood, it’s just moved now to the theater. And so middle management needs to prove its value. And how do you prove its value by creating something measurable? How do you create measurable workshops and readings, and notes and meetings and notes, developments, development hell?
J.T. Rogers: And of all that is, without intending, to continue with the weed metaphor, choking for the artistic liability in theaters and for the writers. More than the actors, more than directors but for the writers specifically.
Michele Volansky: But I think that there is a perception, or at least an understanding, and Erlina, where are you? There you are. You had a really good question about that. About developmental experiences that are the most transformational or developmental experiences that were the most useful. I guess those are two really great questions but even before that question, is the notion of how do you go into, as someone who works at a developmental organization, how do you foster an environment where a playwright can get things out of it? What are the questions? Again, what are the things that are useful for playwrights to get to that point? Or women, if they’re in that point?
J.T. Rogers: I got it, but…
Ayad Akhtar: No, if you had it…
J.T. Rogers: Because of PlayPenn, that’s why…
Ayad Akhtar: Oh, I see.
J.T. Rogers: I think, for me, PlayPenn’s been a good example of that, because the whole culture that Paul has created over the 15 years, 15?, 16 now?
Paul Meshejian: 15.
J.T. Rogers: 15 years, is that the playwright is in charge. Not in charge in a, to be coarse, dick swinging way, but the process is I’m not here, and this answers the question of what’s the marker or definition of a successful, I think that can be successful, because everything he’s been talking about is developed all the development for example, that Ayad’s talking about in his plays and how fruitful they are. But he’s in charge of that and in charge can be because you’re a famous playwright and of course is in charge, or it can be because the institution has proved that, or it can simply be most importantly for a young writer, an emerging writer to use that term, which is only coined because it’s so hard now that you couldn’t call a young person over 50, so we’ll come up with emerging. As an emerging–
Ayad Akhtar: You have emerged.
J.T. Rogers: De-cocooned. But if you are, and this is really an internal thing, if you are doing a workshop or development or whatnot, especially in the early stages of your career, and again this is things I wish I’d understood years ago, if you are doing it to find out … If you were entering with these are the things I want to look at. I’m going to learn things I don’t know, but these are the concrete practical things that I know that I need to focus on and do and think about so I have a task. A task set for myself as I go forward. As opposed to, gee, I hope they like it. If gee, I hope they like it is it, you’re going to waste the entire developmental process because you’re not listening to the play, metaphorically, you’re listening to whether they like it. I’m done.
Ayad Akhtar: I never thought of that and I think that’s a good way of articulating something I feel. I had an experience. So I write this play, wins the fucking Pulitzer, and then my agent has a play that is not done. So he sends it to people. So somebody in San Diego liked it. So calls me, let’s do a reading. So okay. So I go out to San Diego. We do a reading of this play. People love it. Okay, it’s not done. It’s not done at all.
J.T. Rogers: You told me about this play.
Ayad Akhtar: So we do another reading. Three months later, we’ve done another developmental workshop. Do a lot of work on the play, god the audience loves it. It’s like, “Jesus Christ, this is so weird.” They loved it then and they love it now. I still couldn’t figure out what was going on. Maybe it’s good. So then we do a production of the play and the audience loves it. But Charles McNulty comes and he writes a very accurate review of what’s wrong with the play that I was completely blind to because of how much everybody loved this fucking play. I was like, “Oh right, that’s right. Yes, exactly.” I got to rewrite the beginning, I have to rewrite the middle, I have to rewrite the end.
J.T. Rogers: At least you know, now.
Ayad Akhtar: Everything between those three points was fine.
Michele Volansky: The title is great.
J.T. Rogers: The second half of the title really worked.
Ayad Akhtar: So I already had a production schedule for Lincoln Center of this play. I locked myself in a room for three months and I rewrote the play from scratch. Now I salvaged … probably salvaged a good 60% of the verbiage of the play in that draft at Lincoln Center and then through the course of previews as Andre said, I’ve never seen anybody … I’ve wrote three endings in previews for that play. Landed where we landed, the play is finished, I thought. I’d seen productions in various places. I saw a production in Hamburg two years ago at an enormous … it’s like a tiny little play with four characters, 1200 seat house and probably the greatest living director in Germany who did it. She did a brilliant job of this play, but she cut a scene and put in a Derrida monologue in the middle and did a bunch of stuff. And I saw it and I’m going, wow, it’s brilliant. I wish I had known how to do that and the play would’ve been great. But then I saw it again about a year later in Vienna at the Burgtheater, their big national theater and it was done exactly as the text was written and exactly as I had written it, and it was the most sublime production of my work.
Ayad Akhtar: To this day, in grateful to whatever is above or below or wherever we are, that I had that experience. Because it was that experience of oh my god, this is the perfect realization. So that’s another subset of this whole conversation, which is that the audience sees the director’s play; they don’t see the writer’s play.
Ayad Akhtar: But, that said, that process got me to the text that ultimately it took me another two years to see a production in Vienna to realize, I got it. But I didn’t know that entire time, and the only way that I … The only points of meaningful context, transformational or useful, were encounters where there was something at stake. And it reminds me of something that Grotowski used to say a lot which was that, you do not learn craft in moments of practice. You internalize, somatize craft truly when you have something profound to lose. It’s only when you’re actually doing it. Scales don’t give you craft. What gives you craft is the encounter where you are at stake in the craft. That’s when you learn. And so to me, that’s … However an organization can marshal their resources to give the playwright … He doesn’t have to be a full house, but it has to have the value of the encounter with the audience.
Ayad Akhtar: There’s a big difference between supporters coming to see new work by a young playwright who’s going to do great things and an audience that’s paid to have a good time one way or another. It’s a very different dynamic. And that second dynamic is to my experience, the only one that really has taught me.
J.T. Rogers: What’s interesting about, I just thought if this is that … Kind of circling back to the first question, but having a light bulb moment here from what you just said, I think that there’s something that’s being set up in workshop and development that drains what … it drains the risk.
Ayad Akhtar: Oh yeah, it’s all about risk.
J.T. Rogers: And if you-
Ayad Akhtar: It’s all about risk.
J.T. Rogers: But that’s really up to the author because in a way it doesn’t matter if we’re … It would be like the equivalent is us coming to have this conversation and going, well, there isn’t a big red curtain on this stage, so it doesn’t really matter what we say or do. It’s closer to like you’re there and I’m here, and if say nothing interesting, then I sucked. And so if you approached the workshop with the fact that you’d better be fucking good because people have left their house and if it doesn’t work, you should be embarrassed and go home and cry like a proper writer. Then if you don’t have … if you’re not making yourself or allow yourself to have that experience, then you’re not a writer, but also then you’re misjudging the whole point of the workshop. You should be frightened.
Ayad Akhtar: To harmonize yet even further this note of shrillness that we are now sharing with the audience, I think that one of the things, at least for me, the notion that the American writer, American playwright, is in charge … It’s problematic for me because dramaturgs are not emboldened to say, “Sorry, this shit doesn’t work.” And directors are incentivized to kiss a playwright’s ass just enough to be able to be assured that they will stay with the project when it moves to New York. It’s a whole system of incentives that is centered around, and you used the word earlier, infantilizing the author. But it’s also … Writers do not understand audiences as well as directors do because directors spend more time in theaters with audiences than writers do.
J.T. Rogers: I 100% agree with you about that.
Ayad Akhtar: That’s not saying in opposition to what you were saying.
J.T. Rogers: No, but it’s good that you’re making me clarify the thought. I think when I say being in charge, I don’t mean it in the sense of I’m the boss.
Ayad Akhtar: I know what you mean.
J.T. Rogers: But just for them because I think I totally agree with what you said and that’s not said enough-
Ayad Akhtar: No, you’re saying you have a list of … You have things that you’re trying to accomplish.
J.T. Rogers: You need to have your own goals independent of what other people say, so that when you get … I always say to young writers when they have their first reading, start the reading with a question that you need answered that’s practical so you’re not so terrified that you’re not actually listening to the play. I have to do that and I’ve done this a lot, so I go, “My god, there’s people out there.” What am I listening for?
Michele Volansky: And that there’s a certain level of self-awareness and the ability to be critical of one’s own self which–
J.T. Rogers: Well that goes back to what… the four stages of Ayad.
Ayad Akhtar: Sounds very menacing.
Michele Volansky: One of the things that a couple of our participants asked about is how ideas take shape. So Linnea asked this question and Jared Delaney asked this question. I think Michael Hollinger asked this question. About how do you take, or do you, take a political, a social, point of view and make it a play or-
J.T. Rogers: I love when you talk about this.
Michele Volansky: Do you not lead with that? Where do you lead from? Where does that start?
Ayad Akhtar: I don’t know and I don’t … In a way I don’t really understand, it’s not obviously personal, I don’t understand the question. When I think that that’s part of what my response would be, is that it doesn’t make sense to me that people don’t treat the intellectual or political atmosphere of their lives as part of the substrata of their consciousness.
Ayad Akhtar: We are made of and from and through our interactions with one another which are not … I don’t have to have a degree in critical theory and Foucault understand the complicated web of social relationships, power structures, institutions, custom, longstanding thought patterns that are inherited from one generation to the next within a dominant ethnic region, to recognize that all of that is what constitutes our being. There is no being outside of that. And the notion that there’s some private being that we’re going to somehow in some neo-Chekhovian way we’re going to chart our path into that thing, is to miss the whole point of Chekhov, actually which I don’t think is that great for the audiences, but whatever., that’s beside the point.
Ayad Akhtar: I think that to me what we experience and I think one of the things that we’re going through as a nation and as a culture right now is the maddening way in which politics has inserted itself into our daily lives as a noticeable, visible, markable factor of our well-being. And so now it feels like we can be political. But we’re always in that ebb and flow of money, ideas, beliefs, prejudices, all that stuff is constantly at play.
Ayad Akhtar: Now, how do you make that interesting? Well how do you make any play interesting? You make it interesting by making sure you have a character who wants something. They got to want something and the audience has got to be invested in some way with the desire that that character or those characters have and you have to be able to chart that process for the audience, otherwise, they’re going to lose interest.
Ayad Akhtar: So there’s this interweave that that … One is a craft question and the other is a more philosophical sort of I don’t know. It’s very American question in a way. Politics is life. There isn’t … When Plato writes the Republic, he says very early on in the book that this is a thought experiment because the city is a soul and the soul is made whereby it encounters the city and is made through its encounter with the city. The city, our elders, our schools, our laws, build our being. And so in order to talk about our interior, we must talk about the exterior. There is no distinction between these things.
Ayad Akhtar: So I think it’s a little maddening. If there’s a supervening note of shrillness in my response, it’s a result of the frustration that you and I both have. Because what is this question? I don’t even understand it on some level. And I know that it was probably not asking in the spirit that I’m now characterizing, but-
J.T. Rogers: That’s not going to stop you.
Ayad Akhtar: No, it’s not, because there is an underlying prejudice against somehow against either whether it’s ideas or whether it’s politics or … And I think that, and then I’m going to pass it over to you J.T., I just had to get in a little, you know, run with it a little bit. I think that having a point of view about the political thing that we’re in, in my case, it’s finance or Islam or whatever, is a liability. And Shakespeare, who is the greatest of teachers in so many ways, most of which are not actually dramaturgical, they are the process of his ability to do the thing, I would say earlier which is to unconsciously prime his audience through language, is unparalleled. As Steven Booth once said, “Trying to compare Shakespeare to other poets is like trying to compare King Kong to other monkeys” which is of course true. But one of the things that …
Ayad Akhtar: Yet another thing that I’ve learned from my deep and long study and passionate study of Shakespeare is that you never know what the fuck he thinks. You read one play, he could be a Catholic. You read another, he could be a Protestant. You read another, he’s on the side of the nobles. On the other, he’s on the side of the common man-
J.T. Rogers: And he leaves no fingerprints.
Ayad Akhtar: Yeah, he doesn’t. And one thing he does make very clear is that he’s got to sell tickets and he knows how to do that. And you can see that process afoot in his work. But having a point of view, having an opinion, having a belief in justice is a huge liability for your capacity to see the unfolding absurd and absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful comedy and tragedy of human affairs. It doesn’t help to have a, it’s a French word, to have some desire for a particular end. It doesn’t help. And you see it in playwrights like Brecht who could have been that great, but weren’t because of this, because you see his point of view too much.
J.T. Rogers: See, this is why I wanted him to answer.
Ayad Akhtar: Yelling at you and you were yelling at them.
J.T. Rogers: I only have one practical, my obsession thing, because I agree with everything you said as usual. But I think again, my personal obsessions are with praxis, is when I’m asking that question myself, well what, is this a play, is this not, how do you deal with … I simply say if the story that I want to write about if it’s ripped from the headlines or made up in my bathtub, doesn’t matter, if the story is A equals B and B equals C and thus A equals C. Which is to say `fascism is bad and democracy is good,’ that’s not a play.
J.T. Rogers: A play is a struggle between two rights, not between a right and a wrong.
Ayad Akhtar: Much better put than what I was saying.
J.T. Rogers: Finally.
Michele Volansky: So can I just do this… Jean Haskell, where are you? There you are; hi, Jean. Is how we use theater to get people to take action and is that possible?
J.T. Rogers: I don’t think the theater is a tool for that. I think the theater is a tool for personal transformation that an individual or individuals rippling outward can be changed. I was certainly changed by being in the theater. But I saw that Tony Kushner play I spoke of in one way changed my life but I didn’t know then though change … then become an activist politically, which would, by that logic, would be what I should’ve done, because that would be change, but I don’t think it publicly-
Audience Member: But it changed your life.
J.T. Rogers: Well yes, that’s an individual being changed as opposed to-
Audience Member: Took some action.
J.T. Rogers: Took some action, but I strive to be very politically active and care and blah, blah, blah and all that, I just hear myself saying that sounds so pretentious. But I don’t think the thing — we were talking about this at dinner. I don’t think that theater is an art form that moves … makes in its action of making theater in front of an audience changes things in the way when we’re talking about, I think we’re talking about change. Again, Max Stafford-Clark used to run the Royal Court, he did a couple shows with me in London. One said to me, of course, and he’s hardcore lefty. He said, “Of course theater doesn’t change the politics on the outside.” And I was like, “What? You of all people? He said, “Well, dahling, I ran the Court for 10 years and the greatest English artists in the world trying to tear down Margaret Thatcher and when I left the theater, she was still there.” So no, I don’t think we change politics.
J.T. Rogers: That’s not a cynical. I don’t mean that cynically, I just mean I’m not sure that … That’s like saying there’s a football game change … I can’t think of an apt analogy, but I just don’t know that kind of change is what we should be looking at-
Michele Volansky: But I think we have this notion that because of the ideas espoused and the values that we place upon art making, that it should do something greater than simply ourselves and I wonder if we’re deluding ourselves.
J.T. Rogers: What do you mean by that? What’s the … I’m not saying challenging.
Michele: There hasn’t been a play that causes people to, or should there be a play or should a play have the potential to get … to lead people off their feet and then go rushing out and over throw the government? Is that the role of theater?
Ayad Akhtar: Well, Vaclav Havel couldn’t do it as a playwright, so he became president. I think what’s beautiful and remarkable about the theater is it’s collective … When we did that Steinberg thing, I quoted the article about hearts beating in unison and that’s what happens in a theater and of course as practitioners, we know previews is about making sure that everything’s right so the heartbeat of the audience is happening in unison. That’s the process I was talking about before, a syllable here, a syllable there, cut this, move this there. That’s what that process is about. That is a collective act of union at its best and that-
J.T. Rogers: To just totally, because this is why I’m a playwright not a politician… ah, shit.
Ayad Akhtar: Go right ahead.
J.T. Rogers: No, no, now we got to go.
Ayad Akhtar: I forgot.
J.T. Rogers: I know. I’m done too, let’s move on.
Ayad Akhtar: So that collective act of well-being or union or in the Greek tradition of tragedy, the confrontation with the finality of life or the eternal no of the universe, as a collective, we encounter that and it has some purging function for our society. For us as a polis, for us as … But that doesn’t necessarily lead to action per se. An absorption into a different order of being, yes. In that different order of being an epiphany, yes. Maybe that epiphany is about action and maybe it’s about love and maybe it’s about stillness. But I don’t think that art’s purpose to my mind has ever been to change anybody’s mind. It’s to give them a bigger mind, if you will. A bigger heart.
J.T. Rogers: I would say I think that– if you were to wrap it around try to the beginning of the question or the sentence even is that the political act is not one of let’s stand on the streets and shout. I don’t think that’s … I can’t think when that actually happens so I don’t think it really does happen. But I think the political act can be expanding empathy and making people …
J.T. Rogers: In a way, what I want most in the theater in that expanding of a heartbeat you’re talking about as myself as an audience member I want to come out of the play being less certain than when I came in about what I believe. Not that I’ve been yelled at, but then I perhaps been allowed or pushed towards questioning my certitude by seeing people in a story that I might have dismissed, but now see as fully human.
Michele Volansky: Do you think that your experiences in working here in the United States and your experiences in working in Europe have changed, altered?
Ayad Akhtar: The English, our culture, who have a national writer. We don’t even have a national writer. And their national writer is a play-writer. And kids are learning his words since the time that they’re in nursery school. So that creates a different ear. It creates an ear for the audience which I don’t think we have frankly. I don’t think we have … When I’ve experienced … I’ve had two productions in Britain and one of them has been the great — and this other production in London — two best productions I’ve ever had in my work, just on different level of engagement understanding, a different sense of craft frankly. The actors knew how to do stage craft. They knew how to speak text on a stage. That’s something that unfortunately I just find American actors don’t have.
Ayad Akhtar: We aren’t taught as American actors. We do not cut our teeth on the very difficult classical work. We have the classical class here and there. We got to do the monologue, whatever. But we are not put through the paces of really making that language work, which I think makes a huge difference in … It’s why British actors are eating American actors’ lunch in Hollywood. It’s because they know how to shape meaning and they know how to do it physically.
Ayad Akhtar: And so that, from the English perspective as far as I’m concerned, I just … To me it was an enormous, enormous learning experience to be in the room with a group of theater artists who had an entire culture’s wind in their sails as they were doing the work. It was a very different experience.
Ayad Akhtar: Going over to Germany, I had a lot of work all over Europe but mostly in Germany is the place that I spent most of my time. And what’s interesting about Germany is that the audience is incredible because tickets are so cheap. These huge, huge theaters. Largest theater in Hamburg is … The theater in Hamburg is the largest theater in the country is where all my work premiers, 1200 seats, anybody can get in for 20 euros. And so the houses are filled, every night, they’re filled. People are going to the theater and they go to the theater to figure out what they think about things. We’re obsessed with going to the theater and having some emotional experience. They actually use it to try to figure out where they think about something.
Ayad Akhtar: So that’s been interesting too because in a way as a natural poly-something, I think of the artist as one of the last, if not the last synthesizer of knowledge in our culture. A culture that has become, and I mean global culture, not American, that’s become increasingly about specialization and fractured activity, there are no people who are professionally-
J.T. Rogers: We’re the last generalists.
Ayad Akhtar: We’re the last generalists, specialists who actually are also synthesizers of knowledge. And so to me, the German theater is a much more natural place for me to be working because the audience is much more willing to go along for that ride.
Ayad Akhtar: Now coming back to the States, this is my home. You cannot hate your home without doing harm to yourself, I believe. So I do love the things … certain things about the American theater. Broadway, love it or hate it, there’s something about it that I do still love because it is so alive. It’s still alive and that audience, though it’s paid a lot of money and it’s unconscionable the amount of money that sometimes is paid for those tickets, there is a feeling of here-and-now-ness. You don’t want to be anywhere else. You are at center of the world when you’re in a Broadway house with your show that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Yeah, it really is.
J.T. Rogers: Can I make a suggestion?
Michele Volansky: Yes.
J.T. Rogers: Because we’ve been talking for a long time. Can we take a couple from them-?
Michele Volansky: Yeah. I was totally going to do that. I was absolutely going to do that.
J.T. Rogers: So smart.
Michele Volansky: So who’s got a question or two? Yes?
Audience Member: So this is about playwriting. I have a three and a half year old granddaughter and I’m vitally engaged in trying to get kids now involved in theater. So what do you think is the best way to engage younger kids so that we can bring them in?
Audience Member: Can you repeat the question?
Michele Volansky: The question is how do we get younger people, children, involved in theater to make them aware?
J.T. Rogers: I think take them to good theater. Really, you can’t tell people that theater is good, even if they’re three especially at three because they have not been culturated to pretend they like something they don’t like. I think you’ve got to take them to see and probably something that’s a little supposedly above them.
Ayad Aktar: Did you take Henry to see plays?
J.T. Rogers: Oh, I curated the shit out of his theatre experience. I took them to see a play for Father’s Day, it’s like, “Hey thank you for like … These plays you picked, they’re actually really good.” Now you finally get it. I think you do. That’s the joy, that’s the responsibility. What your granddaughter, what your student, young students, the friends of my sons that I’ve tried to evangelize to taking them, buying them theater tickets over the years, selfishly so they might see my play one day. You’ve got to see it and go “Oh, that’s cool. That’s exciting.” That experience when you have when you’re like, “Oh, people are saying on stage things I didn’t know you could do. I didn’t know you could do that. I didn’t know that was allowed.”
Ayad Aktar: You go up rather than the whole dumbing-down…
J.T. Rogers: Just in general, we’ve done … we infantilize infants culturally. So I think a little above and it’s all so special. They’re getting to have that experience.
Michele Volansky: Yes?
Audience Member: I have a question about you talking about unconsciously priming. You said that about an hour ago, so thank you for repeating it.
Ayad Akhtar: I primed you.
Audience Member: So I found that interesting because you talked about doing that in the paces and putting it in the brain and that blending with putting it in front of an audience you need to do that. But have you had moments where that priming didn’t go the direction you thought because you don’t know the … what do you do maybe if–
Ayad Akhtar: Rework the play.
Audience Member: Because the schemas of the audience you don’t necessarily know.
Ayad Akhtar: Especially when events in the world significantly alter their relationship to things. And so you can never ignore where an audience is. You have to know. Harvey Weinstein just got outed in the New Yorker so that joke ain’t gonna work. It might be funny, it’s just not going to work-
J.T. Rogers: If you’re David Mamet.
Ayad Akhtar: I think that it’s a living thing. The audience is a living thing, your text is a living thing. That’s why I’m not precious about it and it’s constantly changing. So Junk went up at Lincoln Center, then I saw a production in Hamburg that eliminated the intermission and cut five scenes. I’ve told our district directors in this country, we went ahead and did that and did it at Milwaukee Rep, then we did it again at Arena Stage with a different draft. Every draft is evolving. Now, I’m going to give up on this because I got to go on to do other stuff. But there are … for folks who … There are now four drafts of that play. If the director wants to do it, there’s four drafts of Disgraced. If a director wants to do their homework and figure out what version of the play they want to cobble together to make for their audience, I’m totally all in. Unfortunately, directors in this country are not encouraged to think that way. But yes, I think that, just to get back to your question, the process of trying to figure out how you accomplish the goal, is both a process of trying to figure out what works and what it is that you need to change about what you think you have to do because the audience has changed. That’s it. It’s a kind of loop.
Photo by Daniel Kontz
Michele Volansky: Yes, sir?
Audience Member: Theater’s a collaborative art, so I’m curious to hear from you guys who are the collaborators that you like to return to again and again and why?
J.T. Rogers: I’ve worked a lot in the last five or six years with a director named Bart Sher, Bartlett Sher in New York. And I’d be happy to just work with him for a long time. In going back to this practical and now I’m like, “Huh, I should write that play next because I know Bart will want to do it, so that’s a good, then it will be fun and we can work on that together.
J.T. Rogers: I like to work with designers I’ve learned now and often that comes to the director. A good director travels with you, so they become your group and then you can have a short hand with them as well. But he’s great. Howard Davies just passed away a couple years ago in London. He was amazing. And I like to work … I end up often not doing it and I think I’m going to write for particular actors, but then the world would shift the play you’re working on. But I get a lot of comfort and energy out of knowing that those actors out there that you do get to work with more than once so that you can … You know that they’re able to … It’s something about knowing that they’re actors out there that you know that can execute what you’re doing, that pushes you to sort of like a good director or any collaborative. Like, “Oh, I know they can do it.” So then I can swing for the fences because I’m not just abstractly hoping that there’s someone who gets it.
Audience Member: Is there a danger in the comfort?
J.T. Rogers: It’s the opposite of comfort. It’s more like, “Oh, I can really take a risk now.”
Audience Member: I guess I wonder if you work with someone over a certain amount of time, if you slip into a comfort, is there a danger in that?
J.T. Rogers: Yeah, I think a good collaborator is someone who is cruel and kind. I think I’m sometimes too kind as collaborator; that’s a flaw I have. But I like working with people that are sometimes, will slap you just when you’re feeling good about your relationship. Because you’re like, “Oh, right.”
J.T. Rogers: Being only half joking, the slap is not … It’s neither punitive nor a power play, it’s come on. This has to be right. Everything else is subservient, so this has to be better.
Ayad Akhtar: I’ve had many collaborators and I think that what I’d say just as a general thing is that I think, and I hope I don’t come off sounding uncomfortable with some of the identity language that is going on and maybe I would come off using it now, but I find that women directors tend to understand my work better and tend to bring out something about the work that is there but is easy for men to miss because it’s very masculine in its posture, but often there’s a lot of femininity in it in terms of its … And I just have found that I’ve generally done better by women directors, who I just think are often more … there’s more emotional intelligence there, operating both in the room and also with relation to the text.
Ayad Akhtar: But I’ve had some great collaborators of all kinds and sometimes there’s a great collaborative for one project who is not necessarily great for another and I just hope that I can find my way through that and sometimes it doesn’t work out, but sometimes it does.
Michele Volansky: Both of you, and we’ll get to you guys … back to you guys in just a second. But both of you talked about coming from an acting background and having been around a lot of playwrights, some of my favorite playwrights started out as actors. I wonder if there’s anything you want to say about that.
J.T. Rogers: I think it used to be the case. The way that all directors used to be stage managers. That was a trajectory. Because that was the only way you could learn. I think for me, at least, as an … Everything you need is … Writing for the stage is not … Ayad writes novels and writes plays. That’s like being a neurosurgeon and a dentist. They’re both doctors but they’re quite different. And I think that the theater has a particular kind … It is verbal. It doesn’t matter what it looks like on the page. You violate the rules of punctuation because you need the actor to stop there. So you can leave the audience to your subconscious idea.
J.T. Rogers: And so as an actor, you go … My first big show in London at the National, we were with a cast and it was play set in Rwanda and it was done here at PlayPenn, called The Overwhelming, my first workshop. It was a big career move and we were having drinks after the first day of rehearsal in this French acting place, the French come in and the chef said, “Listen, we gotta talk.” Your play is so great.” I was like, “No, no but the Frenchman is so great.” It’s like, “Oh.” “No, no, you actually write it in English, it’s exactly the cadence of how a Frenchman speaks in English. How did you know that, you don’t speak French?
J.T. Rogers: And I’m evading the question and he keeps asking me, to his credit. And after three beers, he says to me in English. I said, “You really want to know? Do you honestly want to know?” “Yes.” I said, “I walk around my room and I talk like this.” He’s like, “Why would I want to know that?”
J.T. Rogers: It’s after you can walk around, in tiny little room where I work and if it sounds good as I’m walking around saying it out loud, then better chance it’s going to … I have to perform the play and listen to it before anyone else performs it because it still has to be written but I least know that it sounds right.
Audience Member: I guess speaking about collaborators, I’m curious if you’re any political ideology or the way … or your values or anything like that impact the way you hold space for collaborators or are you process at all, or if you think of it as separate.
J.T. Rogers: I just try to be respectful and exciting. Hopefully by everyone I work with I have to. But I don’t … I’m sure all that gets in the filter into what I do, but I’m just trying to listen to and push them forward with whoever I’m in the room with, I would say.
Michele Volansky: Ayad?
Ayad Akhtar: I’m not sure I entirely understand the question. I suppose, I think what you’re asking and clarify for me please if I’ve got this wrong, is that there are certain beliefs or … There’s a certain frame, mental frame that you’re wondering if I require of a collaborator in order to be able to be in dialogue. Is that what you’re saying?
Audience Member: I guess it’s more about the space and how you enter a space and what–
Ayad Akhtar: But isn’t that the same thing?
Audience Member: I think so, maybe yeah.
Ayad Akhtar: So whether it’s one or many that we all have a shared something, right?
Audience Member: Yeah.
Ayad Akhtar: And a certain craft-arranged version of that would be Liz Lerner’s Rules for Engagement, right?
Audience Member: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ayad Akhtar: I don’t subscribe to that because I think it minimizes friction and I think creativity comes from friction. And my ability to withstand that friction is going to result in a proportionally productive process for the work that I do. I think of the theatrical encounter as a union of opposites, not as a unipolar encounter and if the room is held to a certain kind of standard, which is totally fine, I don’t have a problem with them, I just don’t want them. I want there to be a multiplicity of languages, beliefs, ideas, and I don’t think that, sometimes people are inappropriate, but then you deal with it, that’s human, that’s what the play is about. The play is about somebody who … Somebody dies in every play that I write, basically. So-
Audience Member: And conflict.
Ayad Akhtar: If you can’t write about conflict, you don’t have a play. So, yeah.
Audience Member: Getting back to the more nuts and bolts question for the writers in the room, can you talk about what the ideal commission would look like? When is that useful and how is it best employed to help a writer?
J.T. Rogers: To somebody that … It is dependent on where you are and your … My desires now for commission would’ve been different … Ultimately, my first response was going to be as much money as possible because it’s difficult to work, it’s difficult to eat as a playwright. But I would also say that even more than that is just, I don’t know if you agree with this, but you want to take a commission or the theater wants to give a commission when the plan is that they’re going to do the play unless you fuck it up. This goes with the workshop kudzu. The commissioning of “Oh, well we have to give some money out.” And its always fucking women and men of color so that we don’t have to do their fucking plays. We’re just going to give it out because I’m frightened of that, so we’re just going to scatter money about. As opposed to I’m giving you money because I’m betting on you.
J.T. Rogers: And the flip side of that is I want a commission that’s useful to me is the sense of when I’m desperate and struggling with a play which, if you’re not, then you’re not going to end up with a good play, to know there’s a pretty good chance that they’re going to do this play, I better push through, I’d better survive the hell, as you described it so eloquently earlier. So that would be-
Audience Member: So it’s an actual investment, not a cynical-
J.T. Rogers: Yeah, a check. I’m not saying that people are being actively cynical, but a check, a free-floating check is not a commission, that’s just a … that’s just purgatory.
Ayad Akhtar: And to answer his question in investment language, I’ll answer your question, to put his answer into investment language. I think the commissions that are Ben Graham’s value investing versus playing the indexes. You play the indexes, you’re going to end up getting, sure there’s going to be stuff … The whole index is going to grow and you start putting money into a certain kind of playwright, you’re going to get something that comes out of that. But I think if you’re as a value investor, Warren Buffett or Ben Graham, or somebody like that, follows a company for a long time, understands the balance sheet, understands what the underlying economic strengths of that company are and then injects money systematically to help those things. The more you know a writer, the more you believe in that writer, and see what that writer can do, but that’s a greater time commitment and it’s like all things these days, true intimacy is waning. That requires real intimacy in a way and that’s what’s most helpful I think to a writer.
J.T. Rogers: When I wrote Oslo, it was a commission with Lincoln Center and I was not writing it because I was … got distracted from writing a movie which ended up being long and fruitful because it taught me how to distill things much better and that really helped the play in the end. But I felt like in the terror of that, like “oh, it’s never going to happen” and also I was overwhelmed by the size of the play. Then Andre Bishop, who runs Lincoln Center, called me and they said, “So, when are you going to write this play?” Say, “Yes, you’re not going to write it.” “Of course I’m going to write it.” “Okay, can you … Will you have it ready for me in a year from today?” I said, “Yes, okay.” So I’m programming the play, please don’t not have it written. That shit made me like, wow. I cannot let him down. He gave me this. I cannot let him down.
Ayad Akhtar: Andre is unique in that respect. He’s all in. I’ve worked with a lot of artistic directors, many of whom I admire and love but Andre, he’s unique. He picks something, see something and that’s it. I want your work. I’m going to do it. I’m committed to doing that. That’s a long-term development really.
Michele Volansky: And that’s a gift.
J.T. Rogers: We’ve been both blessed to have that with that particular theater and that particular person, but I know other writers who had their version of that with other … I mean, There’s a small theater in Salt Lake City called Salt Lake Acting Company that was instrumental, instrumental in my development as an artist 10, 15 years ago. They had spotted me out to do a reading of a play and I had writers block, which I didn’t tell them and I’ve used that to force me to write the play, which is a huge weird sprawling mess and I wrote the first act. And I went to a meeting and I started off saying, “Listen, you know, thanks so much. Obviously, you’re not going to do it. I don’t know what I was thinking.” And then, so I was just anxious and they were like, “Oh, no, no, we’re going to … we want to do it next year.” And then another rehearsal process later, so can we commission you for another play?
J.T. Rogers: And so they did three plays of mine and that … that you had that that relationship. Yeah, there was no money relatively speaking. It was tiny. Audience was actually super intelligent, that was lovely to learn as you have the theatre regional audiences are often much smarter than New York theatre audiences, who think they’re so smart.
J.T. Rogers: But it wasn’t the money. It was the knowledge that I had a home. I had never been able to do it unless I fucked it up, which is great because then you’re not comfortable but you’re pushed to do it. Actually-
Michele Volansky: But it’s scale. Not everyone gets to have the relationship with Andre. Not everyone gets to do that. If you can lower it, that’s the thing that–
J.T. Rogers: But the principle is still there.
Michele Volansky: The principle is still there.
J.T. Rogers: And also I would say that the scale has nothing to do … not only as we all pay lip service to, but it’s true, it has nothing to do with the quality of the work necessarily. Sometimes it does. I think Andre is an example of that. But also the experience, similar to what you were saying earlier about your ability to have multiple versions of a play and it can always be fluent for you, which you’re better at that than I am and I admire that in you. I’m a little bit more perfectionist to a serious fault at times. There must be one or just a book or script.
J.T. Rogers: But what I have learned is that the experience of making … Not only is the experience of making the play and the quality of the experience can be just as fruitful in a small theater with no money as a big theatre…
J.T. Rogers: But as I’ve done this more and more, the experience of making the work with the group I’m in, is more important to me than anything else. That I’m only doing it … I’m writing the play to get into a room of people that I’m excited about. I’m not writing the play to write the play.
Photo by Daniel Kontz
Audience Member: I wonder going back into the writing process and having the play performed before an audience and the information you get from that audience, what is it that you listen for? The audience’s response to what parts of your play? And is there a point where making the audience accept it loses your point in the play that you’re trying to write. In other words, you give into the audience rather than continue with your objective of your play or your point.
J.T. Rogers: That’s a good question.
Ayad Akhtar: Yeah, it is. What I’m listening for in the audience is both a laundry list related to the play itself. Are jokes working? Is a particular pause happening? Is a gasp happening? Is this happening, is that happening? That’s the measurable obvious laundry list.
Ayad Akhtar: And then there’s another more transformative, I would say, dare I say, shamanic dimension of this which is that you become part of the body of the audience. And the body of the audience carries its own consciousness. One of the challenges of a Broadway house is that the body of the audience is big enough that there are often multiple zones of consciousness within a Broadway house. And so unifying that field, sitting in different parts of it and understanding how the play is playing based on what that part of the audience is seeing and hearing and how to bring all of that into unity, that’s methodical process that is both intuitive but also requires a systematic approach.
Ayad Akhtar: Can I lose the thread of what the play is all about by listening to the audience? I suppose. But it doesn’t happen in my case because I’m not writing it for anything other than that experience. So when I do the … When I see the play for the first time, I discover what it is-
J.T. Rogers: What it’s actually about.
Ayad Akhtar: Yeah. It is about something that sometimes that’s not available to me until I see it in front of an audience. Like a child that comes into being and you’re like, “Wow, what is that? That comes from me? I don’t recognize that.”
J.T. Rogers: That is a monstrosity.
Ayad Akhtar: Or that amazing thing. I don’t recognize that. That’s its own unique thing. I am going to now be in service to what I see as quiddity in front of me that is different from myself. The point which in the process in which it escapes my intention is actually the beginning of the creative process for me in its final iterative stage. So yeah, that would be my response.
J.T. Rogers: I would say in taking a page from your playbook about learning to read the audience, I think we’re coming to the end here, so I feel that.
Michele Volansky: We’ll do one more? Who’s got one more question. Over here? Yes, sir.
Audience Member: As you write are you conscious of political correctness and does political correctness influence your subject matter?
J.T. Rogers: I’m trying to parse… It’s a big multi part question. I’m going to translate that just so I can … It seems like the first part is … You tell me if you’re not saying this. I’m just still trying to catch … Are you saying I’m frightened to write about certain things?
Audience Member: Yeah.
J.T. Rogers: Yeah. I think that … I’m pausing because I want to give you an honest answer. I think that so far, I have observed this phenomenon more than gone through it partially because … and one thing that you and I share I think, is that we write plays about things that are so alien to the current moment in American playwriting that’s it’s a little bit sometimes, which is helpful and sometimes which is deeply frustrating, is if we’re writing in a foreign language. I’m writing in a foreign language. And so, often the things I’m writing about that I’m passionately interested in, are not overlapping with the very specific, I find times deeply un understandable to me from a theatrical standpoint. I’m not trying to be political about it, I’m just saying I’m watching it as a citizen and as a playwright. And I’m over here doing this and there may be an overlap and then I’ll deal with that. But I’m just trying to do this right now.
Ayad Akhtar: To me, a good idea for a story is never just one idea. It’s taken me a long time to come to this for myself. A good idea for a story is the meeting point between three or four ideas. So what passes for one idea is often usually just enough to get me through half a story. So I wait. I accumulate ideas and then I just wait and I wait and more ideas and then they suddenly start to come together and then suddenly I’ve got three of them that are in the same zone and then there’s an inciting spark and kindling is lit and then I just start writing.
Ayad Akhtar: The way I hear your question is I’m interested in writing something that might not be politically correct; that’s one idea. Then the other idea is, I’m having a tough time about whether I should do it or not, and that’s another idea. So for me to sit inside the question of is it okay to write about something like that, would be the response I would have with the question you would have rather than I don’t know if I should write about this. I think if there’s a question, there’s probably a question. Then you better do it really, really well, otherwise you’re going to be criticized. That’s just what’s going to happen.
Ayad Akhtar: And if you then say, “Well, this is really bad. I should be able to write whatever I want”, but you haven’t made a convincing case to the audience, bad on you I think as a writer. And the only way around that is to fold your doubt into that, so that becomes the second idea. I still don’t think it’s enough for a play. I think you need two more; one or two more. That’s my writer thinking about story response to the question.
J.T. Rogers: We were having this conversation about, I honestly don’t remember what play it was. It was not a play by one of us, sometimes in the last couple years and I’m echoing what you just said, but you said very sharply and well. You said, “Look, the problem is when you don’t do your homework and you don’t make a good play. If you make a good play, people celebrate the ability to transform beyond your race, gender, age, ethnicity, et cetera as an author. You don’t write a good play, especially the moment we’re living in, you’re in trouble. I think that’s the honest answer to that.
Michele Volansky: Will you pick one more?
J.T. Rogers: I will. I got my hat back. No I’ve been okay. It’s been seated off the ground. (picks name) I’m so happy and honored to say Michael Hollinger. Fine, fine colleague.
Ayad Aktar: (picks name) Gayle Smith.
J.T. Rogers: Champion of the young.
Michele Volansky: Paul, do you want to say anything?
Paul Meshejian: Only to thank our guests for this exhaustive conversation. Not exhausting, exhaustive. You’re wonderful to sit down and talk with us. Your ideas are clear, articulate, stimulating, provocative. We appreciate your coming. Thank you.
Michele Volansky: We have another hour or so in the lobby-
Paul Meshejian: We have some wine and-
Michele Volansky: Beer and seltzer. Come and chat a little bit more.