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Interview with Playwright, Donald Margulies

Ted Sod: I was wondering if you'd tell us where you were born, where you were educated and when you decided to become a playwright.

Donald Margulies: A baby-boomer born and raised in Brooklyn, I am the product of a middle-class, secular Jewish family and spent most of my childhood (between the ages of nine and 19) living in Trump Village, a high-rise, middle-income housing development in Coney Island. I was educated during the Golden Age of New York City's public school system, and was in the first graduating class of John Dewey High School, then a highly-touted, "experimental" school that, thankfully for a kid like me, eschewed team sports but celebrated eclecticism and creativity. I had discovered from a very early age that I could draw and dazzle people with elaborate book report covers and Brotherhood Week posters. When it came time to go to college, I went to Pratt Institute, the art conservatory in downtown Brooklyn, because they gave me financial aid. I lived at home and commuted on the F and GG trains to college. I always had an interest in reading and writing but, at Pratt, there were no mentors for me to talk to . I ended up transferring to SUNY Purchase, where I continued to be an art major but where I pursued my curiosity about playwriting, with Julius Novick, who became my first champion in the theatre.

TS: Novick was a critic.

DM: For The Village Voice; his was a byline that I knew. I read his criticism, so when I met him I felt very privileged. I knocked on his office door and introduced myself as an art major who wanted to write plays and he said, "Have you ever written a play before?" I said, "No." And he said, "I would be delighted to work with you." It was as if I had suddenly been given permission to write plays.

TS: Did you get writing work right away?

DM: I finished college in 1977 (with a BFA in Visual Art) and, the following year, was accepted into the MFA program in playwriting at Brooklyn College, which I left after eight weeks. While supporting myself as a freelance graphic designer in publishing, I joined a group being started by Jeffrey Sweet that came to be called The New York Writers Bloc. We were a plucky band of playwrights, performers and directors, who met in living rooms and, as we grew, in rented spaces, every Monday night for more than a decade. Among the members were Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, who were at that time looking for a non-Writer's Guild writer to work on a monthly program they were hosting on HBO. I wrote a spec script, was hired, and quit my day job as an art editor at Scholastic Magazines. That was 1980. I have earned a living as a writer ever since.

TS: Can you remember how the inspiration for Dinner with Friends came to you?

DM: I was going through a period of seeing relationships all around me implode. My wife and I have been married 26 years, we were together eight years before we married, and had our son years after that. There were relationships with friends that we took for granted as always being part of our lives. At the time I created the play, in the late nineties, I found myself thinking about the phenomenon of people approaching middle-age who reevaluate their lives and end relationships. Friends of ours were going through aspects of what the foursome in Dinner with Friends go through, but my wife and I seemed to be the ones around whom the maelstrom was swirling.

Marin Hinkle, Jeremy Shamos, Director Pam MacKinnon, Playwright Donald Margulies, Heather Burns and Darren Pettie

TS: Marriage takes work. And I sense that the characters of Gabe and Karen are going to keep at it.

DM: It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not aspects of me and my wife in those characters. However, I have to say that there is as much of me refracted in all four of the characters, both the men and the women.

TS: What were you looking for in the actors when you cast the play?

DM: In one of the first conversations I had with the director, Pam MacKinnon, we agreed that it was essential that we enjoy the company of these people for two hours. They are as flawed and impossible as the people we all know and love, who we call our friends. We must find plausible and be invested in not only the marriages between the men and women, but in the relationships of the same-sex friends, and between the couples.

TS: The women characters feel very honest and well observed. Do you sense that it is harder to write women?

DM: No, I have never felt that. Playwriting is all about empathy, getting inside the head of someone who is not you, to think like they think without judging them. People often tell me, "You write such great women." I don't think about it, I just write characters as rigorously and as truthfully as I can and hope, no matter their gender, that their humanity comes through.

TS: Will you talk about what you look for in a director? What is important to you?

DM: I look for a collaborator who is going to help bring to life, on stage, in three dimensions, what is on the page. Choosing a director is like choosing a therapist -- you want somebody who is going to be a step or two ahead of you, who can interpret and articulate your intentions better than you can, with the benefit of objectivity. I wouldn't want a director who imposes conceits or distrusts the text or who has prejudged the characters.

TS: Will you be updating any of the script?

DM: Just references to technology (like DVD players) that now seem jarring. The play holds up remarkably well and seems fresh until those technological burps occur, that needlessly date it. I've had to cut one of my favorite laughs, Beth's line, "Thank God their slides aren't back yet," because who under the age of 30 would have any idea what she was talking about?

TS: Between The Model Apartment and the later plays there feels like there is a stylistic change -- am I right about that?

DM: It is interesting for me to see the warm response to the recent New York revival of The Model Apartment, an admittedly dark play about Holocaust survivors and their troubled adult daughter I wrote when I was 29 years old that has had a production history fraught with difficulties. What if it enjoyed this kind of response when I was 30, would it have changed the course of my career? I don't know. Coming out of nowhere from a young writer, it may have been met with a lot of head-scratching; people might not have known what to make of it. In a way, I feel that the praise it received is in the context of the career I went on to have over the next three decades. But, more specifically, the plays that I write take the style and the form that those stories dictate. With Sight Unseen, for instance, we go back and forth in time. Plays that I wrote after that, like Collected Stories and Time Stands Still, are linear. The structure of Dinner with Friends initially presented itself to me as being in two triptychs. Maybe it harkens back to my visual arts background, but I do tend to see my plays in visual terms. The three scenes of Act One all take place within a few hours on a snowy night, and the three scenes in Act Two happen essentially within a day the following spring. When I reflected on the structure that I had come up with, I realized I had not permitted a scene in which all four characters appear together. I decided there needed to be a centerpiece between those two triptychs. That became that flashback scene that takes place years earlier on Martha's Vineyard when Gabe and Karen introduce Tom to Beth. In order for the play to have emotional resonance, I discovered, we needed to know what was lost, hence the scene in which we see the foursome at their youthful best.

TS: When you are inspired to write what happens to you? How do you respond? Do you lock yourself up in your room?

DM: I like to flip through play scripts, not just my own; there is something exciting about seeing printed language on a page that triggers responses in me. Maybe it has to do with my love of typography? I also like to look at paintings and photographs in museums and go to the movies.

TS: Do you have to hibernate to write or do you do eight hour days? What is your process?

DM: It really does depend. This past summer, thanks to my friend Jenny Gersten, I was holed up for three glorious weeks as a playwright-in-residence at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, working on my new play set at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. That was a wonderful gift where I turned everything else off and concentrated on whipping that play into shape, and left with a great sense of accomplishment. In my daily life, I teach one course each term at Yale and even one course is very time-consuming. I meet with students, read their work, advise on senior projects, mentor in the Yale Playwrights' Festival; it's a lot of work and I love it. I love the students -- they are remarkable, inspiring people. I would miss teaching if I stopped doing it. The kind of work I do is pretty diverse: I can cast a play while doing a polish of a screenplay, while thinking about a new play and revising another. In other words, the kind of work that I do during my work day is not just writing, yet it is all part of the job of being a playwright.

Dinner With Friends plays at the Laura Pels Theatre January 17 through April 13. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

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