Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Conversation with Gala Guest of Honor Bruce Norris

On April 2, PlayGround will celebrate its 16th annual Benefit & Awards Night, with a gala fundraiser at the Claremont Hotel, featuring special guests Bruce Norris and Jonathan Moscone. We caught up with Bruce as he prepares for rehearsal for the Broadway premiere of Clybourne Park, to ask about his own beginnings as a playwright and his experience with Clybourne Park, the Pulitzer Prize and what's next on his plate.

Actor and playwright Bruce Norris was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play Clybourne Park which heads to Broadway this spring following acclaimed productions across the country, including recent runs at the Mark Taper and its West Coast Premiere last season at American Conservatory Theater in a strong production directed by Moscone. Clybourne Park also won the Olivier Prize for "Best New Play" following its premiere at New York’s Playwrights Horizons.

When did you realize you wanted to become a playwright and how did you get started?

Bruce Norris: I suppose I’d say I’d always wanted to be an impresario of some kind, that is, to occupy the adult chair in the rehearsal room.  But as it worked out, I had some success as an actor early in my twenties and that effectively distracted me from other interests for about fifteen years.  In my mid-thirties, while living in Chicago, I realized that I enjoyed my experience in theatre in proportion to my control of it, and whereas an actor has minimal control a playwright has a considerable amount.  So, being the autocratic, fascistic control-freak that I am, I slowly made the transformation from one job to the other.  I had written or adapted a couple of shows for Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago, and then, shortly after I moved to New York, Martha Lavey, Artistic Director of Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago – who, as it happens, had been an actor in the very first play I had produced – offered me a commission to write a play for them.  Two years and two plays later, Steppenwolf produced a play of mine, called The Infidel, and the rest of it followed.

How would you characterize yourself as a playwright? Where is your favorite place to write? What elements or concepts are important to you in writing plays?

BN: I’m not sure I would know how to characterize myself… Angry? Pessimistic?  I don’t know.  I tend to write in the afternoon, although I used to get more work done in the morning.  It sort of depends on how much caffeine I’ve had.  I can tell you this – I’ve never written a play while drinking alcohol, which might be why I tend to be argumentative rather than lyrical.  Maybe I should think about drinking more.

How did it feel to earn the Pulitzer Prize? Do you remember where you were when you got the news? How has this achievement shaped, changed, or affected you, your goals and your work?

BN: When the Pulitzer was awarded I was on an island off the coast of Maine, and as I had no internet connection I had to drive three miles to the public library to check my email.  I opened my in-box and it overloaded and I thought maybe America was under attack.  As to how it’s affected me… Well, I guess it just means it’s all downhill from here.

What was your inspiration and/or vision for Clybourne Park?  How did Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun play into the conception of your play?

BN: Well, of course Clybourne Park would never have been written without the Hansberry play.  I had first read Raisin when I was about twelve years old, and as a privileged white child in Texas I found very little to identify with in the struggles of the Younger family (the protagonists of Raisin).  I did, however, identify with the white villain of the play, Karl Lindner, who comes to the Youngers’ apartment to ask them not to move into the neighborhood of Clybourne Park.  And many, many years later, as an adult, I began to think about the ironies of having been exposed at an early age to a play that – accurately - depicted me and those like me as the unwitting heirs to a legacy of discrimination, inequality and petty cruelty.  Karl Lindner is my people.  And, thinking forward, I began to wonder how much, if anything, has really changed in fifty years?  Are the changes we’ve made deep or superficial? If you ask me, I’d say the latter.

How did Clybourne Park make its way to Broadway? Are you ready for your (playwright) Broadway debut?

BN: I don’t honestly know how it wound up going to Broadway.  As I write this, the marquee is up, but there have been so many twists and turns in the life of this play that I won’t actually believe it’s happening there until the final curtain on opening night.

What’s next? Do you have any new projects in mind?

BN: Because of the success  (or should I say, roadblock?) of Clybourne Park, I have several plays, written since, that are as yet unproduced.  One of them, called A Parallelogram, was produced two summers ago at Steppenwolf Theatre and may still have a future life.  The next is a play for Lincoln Center in New York, which will be produced in the Fall of 2013.  And there are two more in various stages of completion…

The 16th annual PlayGround Benefit & Awards Night will take place on Monday, April 2 at the Claremont Hotel and features a reception and silent auction, seated dinner, "fireside chat" with Bruce and master of ceremonies Jonathan Moscone and much, much more! Tickets are $250-$1,000 and tables of 10 are $2,500-$10,000. All proceeds benefit PlayGround's playwright and new play incubator programs. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit http://playground-sf.org/benefit.

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