An interview with Talented Mr. Ripley playwright Phyllis Nagy Part One – The Writer

Playwright Phyllis Nagy

I recently had a conversation with The Talented Mr. Ripley playwright Phyllis Nagy. Her stage adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel runs at Round House Theatre Bethesda from September 8 through 26, 2010. Here’s part one of our talk.

Jacqueline Lawton: So to start could you tell me a little bit about where you live (maybe where and what sort of neighborhood) – describe the street where you live – what can you hear if you open a window, what can you see if you look out that window.
Phyllis Nagy:
I live in downtown Los Angeles on the ninth floor of an early 20th-century office building that’s been converted into a residential loft building. It’s a corner unit with south and west exposures, so both sunrise and sunsets are full of dramatic light and pretty special views of the city skyline and its iconic buildings. Downtown is L.A.’s only truly urban neighborhood. Though it doesn’t much remind me of New York, where I was born and raised, it has the energy that New York had before it became Disneyland and thus, I adore it as I adore no other part of L.A. It’s still relatively sparsely populated, but is the only place in town where you don’t need to hop into a car to buy a carton of milk. When I open my windows, I hear a city and its sounds – terrifying and familiar – rather than the drone of cars merging onto freeways or the obnoxious whirr of leaf blowers. Like you hear everywhere else in Los Angeles.

JL: Then tell me a little bit about your favorite place to write. Do you write in the same place or in different places? Describe your favorite place to write.
PN:
My favorite place to write is the only place I write: my desk, a big old metal 50s tank desk. I can’t write an early draft anywhere else. But I can revise a piece of writing from virtually anywhere else.

JL: Give us a little background on where you’re from originally, where you grew up, how you ended up where you are now…
PN:
I grew up on St. Marks Place in the East Village in a semi-tenement apartment building. I say “semi-tenement” because there was an elevator that occasionally worked in the building. My family lived on the ground floor and my parents were the superintendents of the building. Five of us cramped into a 3-room apartment. But there was a little courtyard outside our front windows and I spent most of my time playing handball against the wall of the adjacent building and fantasizing about other places, other lives. It began a lifelong love affair with wanderlust, itinerancy. And I’ve subsequently put down roots, however temporary, in many different places. What these places hold in common is that they are all big cities. I could not live for long outside of an urban environment.

JL: In addition to being a playwright, you are also a screenwriter. How is writing for a live audience different (other than the form and format) from the other forms of writing you’ve done?
PN:
When I write screenplays, I am writing for a live audience, or at least as “live” as any theatre audience. It’s the screenplay itself that is flat, two-dimensional, just as its eventual home (the movie screen) is two-dimensional. Plays are three-dimensional, always. That is not to say that screenplays can’t contain the kind of visceral beauty that plays contain. On the contrary, the challenge is to surmount the remove that screenplays automatically present to writers as the actors are not the primary conduits of the writer’s words– the director is the primary conduit, and the director can and does manipulate the actor’s interpretation of the writer’s words at will in post-production. That’s not a bad thing, either. It’s just entirely different from the process of creating a play.

JL: What is it about writing plays that draws you…as opposed to writing poetry, songs, or fiction?
PN:
I’m not sure it’s a choice in my case. I’ve tried poetry and short fiction in the past and gave up on them because I just wasn’t very good at it. What defines a dramatist, ultimately, is his use of time. The temporal realties and nuances of drama as opposed to novels, say, is vastly different. The one thing I would like to do (and which would suit my abilities) that I have not yet done is write a proper opera libretto.

JL: Describe for me all the sensations you had the first time you had one of your plays produced and you sat in the audience while it was performed…what was different about the characters you created? How much input did you have in the directing of that work?
PN:
My first professional production was Weldon Rising in a co-production of the Royal Court Theatre (London) and the Liverpool Playhouse. I did not direct that production, though I was in the rehearsal room every day. I said very little, as there was not much for me to add at that point. I also had no idea what I was doing at that time, and was smart enough to just sit and listen.  We began performances at Liverpool and moved down to London a month later. I was so sick with nerves and various crises of confidence at the first preview that I couldn’t tell you what the show was like or what my response to hearing an audience laugh or shuffle their feet in boredom was. The thing I do remember was an incident following that preview in the Liverpool Playhouse bar. A tough middle-aged woman, a Scouser through-and-through, approached me and asked me if I was the writer. I told her that I was. She told me that she and her husband had come to the theatre with tickets to see Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine, which was playing in the main house. They mistakenly walked into the studio and instead saw my play, which subjected them to an hour and fifteen minutes of a darkly comic, apocalyptic rumination on the consequences of renouncing one’s identity set on the blood-soaked streets of Manhattan’s meat-packing district, replete with a transvestite prostitute who refers to himself only in the third person, two drunken lesbians who shoplift beer and have pretty full-on sex while bridges collapse and tunnels explode and various other things I’m pretty sure do not appear in the play they thought they would see. I asked her when she knew she wasn’t at Shirley Valentine. She said: “When the tranny told the lesbians to go live in Brooklyn with the rest of their sisters, I knew something wasn’t right. He were interesting love, that tranny.” To this day, it remains my favorite audience comment.

JL: Who or what inspires you to write?
PN:
Fear inspires me to write. Or, more properly, confronting fears. Exploring them. And love. Perhaps they are one in the same.

JL: What do you hope to convey in the plays that you write – what are they about? What sorts of people, situation, circumstances, do you like to write about?
PN:
I want to provoke a single thought that perhaps did not previously occur to someone sitting in the audience. And I truly believe that a few laughs along the way never hurt the journey. I don’t have an agenda to push in any of the plays. What they mean to me is never what they will mean to any other individual. I can see, though, from looking at the body of my work that my obsessions and fascinations have to do with things like duality, identity, loss of identity, synchronicity, the intersection of fate and will. And I can also immediately see how a list like this makes the work seem like some ghastly dose of medicine. Which probably means that it’s never a good idea to make such lists.

Part two of my talk with Phyllis Nagy will be posted on this blog in the coming days. In it, we’ll look more specifically at her adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Jacqueline Lawton

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