Interviewed by Randy Gener
CRAIG LUCAS, Playwright, Screenwriter, Film and Stage Director
Although they are realistic in character detail and plot, Craig Lucas’s fable-like plays almost always depend on the formal magic of inventive artifice and the forceful complications of dark fairy tales.
In his best-known play, Prelude to a Kiss, which he has adapted into a Hollywood film starring Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin, a young couple, Rita and Peter, meet, fall in love and marry. At the wedding reception, a strange old man kisses Rita, and they switch souls. The man’s personality enters Rita’s body, and her personality moves into his body. Prelude to a Kiss, which premiered in 1990 at the height of the AIDS scare among gay men, fancifully deals with the sudden and unexpected onslaught of disease and the proximity of death. It is often read as an AIDS allegory. Like Prelude to a Kiss, Lucas’s screenplay to the film Longtime Companion (one of the first Hollywood films to depict gay characters in the main roles and to acknowledge the AIDS crisis in the 1980s) also centers on a kiss. One of its characters is a writer for a soap opera, and he writes a scene with a gay kiss, which is seen by a host of gay male characters and one straight woman, whose number slowly dwindles as the AIDS epidemic rages on and the plot depicts a single day for each year of the 1980s.
Another example: the plot to his 1988 play Reckless, which Lucas has also adapted into a film starring Mia Farrow, is so improbable that it speaks truthfully about the loony incoherence of life. One moment, an angelically perky housewife and mother of two boys, named Rachel, is snuggling in bed with her husband and listening to the comforting croons of Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Next thing you know, Rachel has accepted a ride and is speeding down the freeway, leaving behind her kids, her name, even her wedding ring, which she throws out the window. Thinking that she is having a “euphoria attack,” convinced she’s “going to be terminally happy,” Rachel learns that her guilt-ridden has hired a hit man to kill her. Panic-stricken, she is forced to flee in a housecoat and slippers and embarks on a bizarre odyssey, a tumble through a cruel wonderland as if on a perpetual freefall. “Things happen for a reason,” Rachel keeps saying in her sensible-mom way, until she is forced to ask, “Or do they?”
Considered one of America’s master dramatists, Craig Lucas was born on April 29, 1951, in Atlanta, Georgia. His mother abandoned him in a car. She left a note explaining that she could not afford to care for a baby. Eight months later, Lucas was adopted by an FBI agent who worked on that era’s communist scare investigations, and his wife, a painter who had converted to Episcopalianism from Judaism. Lucas grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs where the family later settled.
From an early age Lucas was involved in performing; he entertained patients at a children’s hospital at age 12, participated in drama clubs in school, as well as took piano and dancing lessons. Studying creative writing at Boston University, his mentor Anne Sexton advised him with his writing; she said, “Make it strange.”
Before becoming a playwright, Lucas worked as a musical-theatre performer on Broadway. In the mid-1970s, he appeared on stage in the choruses of Shenandoah, Rex, On the Twentieth Century, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and in the lead role of the musical revue Marry Me a Little. Lucas’s plays have been produced by many leading U.S. companies including the Atlantic Theatre Company, Vineyard Theatre, Lincoln Center Theatres, the Public Theater, Long Wharf Theatre, Roundabout Theatre Company, and Intiman Theatre of Seattle where he currently is an associate artistic director. As a director, Lucas has staged Harry Kondoleon’s Saved or Destroyed (2000); Play Yourself (2002); and This Thing of Darkness (2002).
Lucas’s later works, which include The Dying Gaul, God’s Heart, The Singing Forest and Prayer for My Enemy, have become even darker in theme and execution. The latter play, for instance, grapples with the Gulf War, alcoholism and the definition of family. Lucas is also an accomplished librettist; his libretto to the musical, The Light in the Piazza, based on the novel by Elizabeth Spencer and with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, is currently one of his most produced works in the United States.
Lucas’s next production is King Kong—Live on Stage, a new musical authorized by the estate of Merian C. Cooper (creator of King Kong and director of the 1933 film). Featuring animatronics, puppetry and circus arts, Lucas wrote the book to this show, produced by the Australian-based company Global Creatures, staged by opera director Daniel Kramer and with new music and period songs arranged by Grammy-nominated composer Marius de Vries. In an official announcement, Lucas says, “I am thrilled to be part of this project, working with a team of world-class colleagues, a producing dynamo, on a myth that speaks to man’s precarious relation to the natural world, poised as we are right now between annihilation and a slim chance of salvation.” King King will premiere at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre in early 2013.
In the past several years, Lucas has declined to give interviews to the press. This conversation is an exclusive for Critical Stages.
1) In your country, is there any major issue (for example, a contemporary social problem) that artists have failed or neglected to address on stage? Why? Is it because of censorship, or a blind spot in the community’s collective perception of the world? A community’s consciously or unconsciously turning a blind eye?
What all of us are failing to note or appreciate, in my humble opinion, is that we are on the verge extinction. Hollywood and videogames seem to me to be doing the best job of making us face the true consequences of our collective actions. We are right on the brink of being done for.
What do you mean by “we are on the brink of being done for“? I mean, we’re all going to die someday. Without a doubt.
That’s a completely different thing than the end of human life.
What do you mean exactly by “true consequences of our collective actions”?
I remember in the 1970s when Americans were first told that oil was a commodity that was going to be increasingly expensive and less in existence and that the environmental effects of our addiction to oil was going to despoil the planet. And I remember all the same voices in the U.S. Congress and public life, almost exclusively Republicans, who said, “That was hysteria and everything was just fine.” It may be too late to save the earth’s atmosphere, and we may in fact die by drought and fire and warfare over dwindling food and water and arable land. With the nuclear capacities we have help to spawn and scatter around the globe, it seems more a likelihood to me than a possibility that we will die by fire and very soon. Anyone who doesn’t recognize the reality of that possible scenario is living a dream.
Every scientist I know is pessimistic. I have a friend working in Africa with non-human primate. He just wrote to me yesterday that orangutans will be the first to go, and there extinction is an absolute certainty. We are living out a fantasy if we don’t see how unstable our economic greed has made the entire world. We armed and trained and financed Osama Bin Laden and then acted surprised and outraged when he used what we have him to attack us. What kind of insanity and blindness is that?
Are you seeing a moral failing by all of humanity? Violence? War?
Is it a Christian sort of moral failing?
And what is this obsession of yours with videogames?
I think young people’s engagements with videogames is an attempt to find something in the physical world that they can have some effect on—any effect. It makes them feel efficacious and smart and deft, which they are. But the world no longer gives them as many options for realizing a self unless they belong to the ever-tinier subset of humans living at the very top, holding onto all the wealth and power.
What drives you to keep writing then?
Fear. Hope. The Life Force.
What is it about writing plays that speak to you deeply—that allow you take up every morning to do it, even though it is so difficult to make a living at it?
It’s an ancient art form that brings living human beings together, which is less and less the way of our world. People are more often alone with their texts and screens and LED and plasma TV screens in their air-conditioned cells while the atmosphere is getting hotter and hotter, and people are asking, “What moral failing are you talking about?”
2) What, if anything, is difficult for you in communicating with a director? Why?
I find directors ideal collaborators. I don’t remember any history of feeling they don’t understand or hear me correctly. I consider directors my closest colleagues, as a writer, along with actors.
How early and how often do you exchange views about the coming production?
I talk about everything all the way through the process, including years afterwards, if the conversation is welcome. Some directors are more interested in talking about the larger connections between the work and the real world. Bartlett Sher and Mark Wing-Davey and Daniel Kramer are all deeply engaged with questions of how to be in the world. Other directors have seemed to me to be more focused on how to give the audience what they think they want, and that doesn’t sustain me for very long.
Having directed both in films and stage, does this fact make communication with another director easier?
3) Would you say something about the language you use when writing plays and how you arrived at this language? Or what do you expect from the actors who perform your words?
I use the language that I hear. It is question of what appears through my fingers and measuring it against certain kinds of rhythms and reverberations I carry within me.
From actors I hope for a point of view, a depth of investment in the character’s reality, and a willingness to speak up, to fully commit, to invite me in rather than to demonstrate and underline.
In your creative process, which bit do you enjoy least?
Opening a play in New York.
It stops being a conversation about what is being expressed and it becomes a laundry checklist of which performer was best, who’s hot, what movies and TV shows they’ve been in, how much money they have, why the show wasn’t or was as cool as this other show, and gossip, gossip, gossip about everything and anything but the subject matter of the play.
How do you tackle it?
I stop listening and do the things I care about.
In an interview by someone else you said, “I’ve always experienced life as a mixture of great joy and great sorrow. I was just talking to somebody about Reckless and I remembered that I was writing it while the first of my friends were dying of AIDS.” Would you mind telling me more about this experience?
Hard to put oneself back in that time, it was so unimaginably strange and new and psychotic-seeming: friends and colleagues dropping from view, suddenly gone. It was not conceivable in 1981 and 1982, when I wrote that play, that there could actually be a new virus that would spread only among homosexuals in New York City (and Haiti, and people receiving blood transfusions). It was such a wildly improbably manifestation of one’s own sense of isolation and self-hatred, i.e., internalized homophobia. How does one react to the impending sense of cataclysm while simultaneously achieving any healthy sense of self-respect while the entire culture is suggesting that one is sick and twisted and despicable for the way one was born, or for something that one did not consciously choose? It was crazy making.
You re-wrote Reckless extensively before it assumed its present form. In what ways did those events in the early 1980s affect the way you wrote or re-wrote the play?
Who ever knows? It all goes on beneath the surface, or so much of it. One is always trying to tell an engaging story but if the ship is sinking and the deck is on fire and no one is listening and everyone is acting as if everything is fine and yet you may sicken and die at any second…. It makes for a dislocated sense of reality, or, more exactly, for a sense of a reality that has come loose from anything familiar.
What can you tell me in terms of how you created Rachel as the main character of Reckless? Where did she come from?
She is part of my mother’s identity—a kind of plucky American optimism married to a potentially deadly manner of denial in the face of trauma.
4) During your career, have you received a particularly insightful piece of criticism?
When was that?
John Lahr’s review of Prayer for My Enemy in The New Yorker last year was the most eloquent appraisal of my intentions I’ve ever received. Routinely, Frank Rich, Robert Brustein and Michael Feingold have written appreciations of my work that have struck me to be honest attempts to engage with the heart and brains of the work rather than the icing on the cake or the pretty distractions of the actors’ physiques and physiognomies.
Do you remember it well enough to quote?
What was so important about it?
Giving audiences a window onto the intentions and formal aspects of a new work, something that is rare and intensely valuable. What Frank Rich did for audiences while most New York critics were dismissing the composer Stephen Sondheim’s earlier masterpieces.
If you were given a chance to speak directly to the critics, is there something you can say to them?
I would say: You have an incredibly important job. Don’t waste it by primping or, worse, pimping your wit.
5) Will you introduce us to your most recent or upcoming work? What do you see as your future five to ten years from now?
I have a new play written for [American actors] Elizabeth Marvel and Bill Camp. I have a one-woman play I’ve written for Carol Kane. I am writing the books to two new musicals. And I have completed an opera with composer Nico Muhly that premieres at the English National Opera next spring and at the Metropolitan Opera after that. I have written a screenplay for Leonardo di Caprio about Timothy Leary. I have written a screenplay based on the novel The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon. I have a screenplay based on my play Small Tragedy. And I have a new screenplay, which is a science fiction romance.
In what way would you describe your most recent plays have become radically different (or the same) as your early works?
I think I am still trying to get to the heart of what it feels like to be alive right now. I’m less eager to appease an audience at once with laughs and charm. I’m more willing to challenge them, because I find that when I go to the theater or to see a film, that I want, to be respected in my intelligence and my ability to grapple with contradiction.
 Randy Gener is a writer, editor, critic, playwright and visual artist in New York City. His photographic installation-art piece, In the Garden of One World, recently debuted at New York’s La MaMa La Galleria. Author of Love Seats for Virginia Woolf and other Off-Broadway plays, he is the recipient of the George Jean Nathan Award, the highest accolade for dramatic criticism in the United States, and NLGJA Journalist of the Year, among numerous other awards, for his critical essays in American Theatre magazine, where he works as contributing writer. He also won a Deadline Club Award from the New York chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for “shedding light into censorship and repression of the arts.” Gener most recently helped curate, produce and create “From the Edge,” the USITT-USA National Pavilion to the 2011 Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space. His website is theaterofOneWorld.org.