Pulitzer Winner Donald Margulies on Theater in the Trump Era

Playwright Donald Margulies has been associated with Orange County's South Coast Repertory for most of his career. (Photo courtesy of South Coast Repertory)

This is the first in an occasional series of talks with artists on topics beyond the “project at hand.” Our plan is to speak with them in ways that are more random, meta-contextual and conversational than usual. We may ramble a bit, but hopefully, the rewards will be potentially greater as they relax and reveal themselves.

Donald Margulies, one of America’s most successful playwrights, has been closely associated with Orange County since the beginning of his career.

Born in the Bronx, he began his career with a successful stint as a graphic designer. The world of art figured prominently in the first work to bring him widespread acclaim, “Sight Unseen,” which debuted at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory in 1991.

Since then, “Collected Stories” (1996), “Brooklyn Boy” (2004) and “Shipwrecked” (2007) were commissioned and originally produced by SCR. “Sight Unseen” and “Collected Stories” were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Margulies’ “Dinner With Friends,” which SCR helped to develop, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and was adapted for TV by HBO with a star-studded cast.

Paul Hodgins talked with Margulies, 63, in late August about his current projects (including his almost finished play, “Long Lost,” which was given a reading last season at SCR’s Pacific Playwrights Festival), his preoccupations, fears, annoyances, and anything else he felt like chatting about for the better part of an hour.

Playwright Donald Margulies (Photo courtesy of SCR)

Voice of OC: How important was SCR to you in the early years of your career?

Donald Margulies: SCR was at the forefront of commissioning a whole generation of new writers who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten that crucial support. It gave people a sense of purpose. There were people in Orange County who cared about what I was writing and eagerly awaited my plays and offered me resources. That was valuable. My breakthrough play, “Sight Unseen,” premiered at SCR in ’91 – my first bona fide breakthrough success. I owe that to SCR. I may not have written that play if not for them. For me, that play was also kind of a seminal play that bridged the previous plays, my Brooklyn cycle, to a new chapter in my maturity as a writer. SCR gave me the time and psychological support to do that.

VOC: Where does “Long Lost” stand at the moment? We see that its world premiere is scheduled for next spring at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Margulies: I’m trying to give it another pass before I get inundated with school (Margulies is an adjunct professor at English at Yale University). I presented it at (Pacific Playwrights Festival) last year. The development process was attenuated because of extenuating commitments. I’ve been involved in a mini-series about Andrew Jackson for the last two years. It was on the front burner for me for quite a while. The development process of “Long Lost” has taken a year longer than I would have liked.

VOC: It’s about two brothers who don’t get along. That sounds like Sam Shepard’s “True West.”

Margulies: Brothers are certainly a motif in American drama, from O’Neill and Miller on. Certainly Shepard. I’m contributing to the genre. My piece is really quite different – the brothers are central to it, but it has become a bigger play, a more metaphorical play about our current political climate. To me, the brothers have come to represent the divide. I hope I can escape the “True West” comparison!

VOC: Did the Presidential election of 2016 have an effect on this play?

Margulies: I began the play in 2015 for Nashville Repertory Theater. I was mentoring several playwrights and the festival culminated in the presentation of their work and something of my own. And what happened after the election of 2016 is I realized there was a bigger play there. It became less familial, less domestic. I’ve been trying to weave in certain elements that were not there before. The “T” word is never mentioned. It’s really about a cultural divide and not as much a political divide.

VOC: What are your current thoughts about our political divide?

Margulies: I think it’s part of the American DNA. What’s happened in the age of Trump is it’s not him who caused these things. They were subterranean for a very long time. The liberals among us were optimistic to think that the election of Obama (took) us beyond all that. Instead, this festering undercurrent has been given permission to flourish. It’s horrifying.

VOC: The country is obsessed with it right now. How do you weave it into your work?

Margulies: I’m trying not to be heavy-handed about it. I think that these resonances are there. I don’t want to over-italicize it or become overly topical. But I do think it’s very much a contemporary play.

The character of David is the younger brother of Billy – two boys who grew up on a farm in Indiana. One made it in finance, the other has been a total screw-up. Billy is 50, David is a couple years younger. David has built a successful and financially comfortable life for himself with his wife, a retired corporate lawyer who now runs a not-for-profit in New York. Their college-age son has vague memories of the estranged uncle. Billy shows up in David’s Wall Street office one day. David’s problem is, “What do we do with Billy now that he’s here and inflected so much mayhem?” The play is about the limitations of filial responsibility. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it has become a metaphor for the country. It certainly is an American tradition or trope.

VOC: I’ve never thought of you as an overtly political playwright..

Margulies: I’ve grappled with the very notion of being a political writer for a while. In “Time Stands Still,” character of Jamie takes off on the subject of political theater. There’s a lot of me in that speech about the dubious impact of political theater when those who are seeing it are the converted. It becomes more of a self-congratulatory exercise.

VOC: Is there a place for theater in the current political discourse?

Margulies: I think so. The Public Theater is going to put Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” (a play about extreme poverty in small-town Pennsylvania) on the road and present it in various cities free of charge. That’s an inspired notion of bringing people to the theater who wouldn’t otherwise go. To bring that play, which is such a zeitgeist play, to the heartland is a very exciting idea. That type of thing is not a remedy, but a response to the audience problem that we are all grappling with in the theater. It’s an aging audience by and large and an affluent audience.

VOC: Haven’t theater audiences always been older?

Margulies: I don’t think so. When I was growing up in Brooklyn in a lower-middle-class household, we could afford to go to Broadway shows if we sat in the balcony, It wasn’t that much more than the cost of a movie. Now there’s no equivalent for that.

VOC: You once said that you were looking for “an annuity” – some lucrative TV or film project that would pay the bills and set you up so you could write what you wanted. Are you still looking?

Margulies: It’s less important to me now. I don’t know when we had that conversation, but I can say that the options for playwrights in TV have grown so tremendously and richly. It’s really a bountiful time for writers in TV; it has more or less eclipsed indie film. Sarah Treem and David Henry Hwang and these working playwrights who are still playwrights are able to write for TV and for the most part reside on the East Coast. When I was in my 30s, the options on TV were very limited. You’d try to sell a pilot but that would always involve being in LA. Now it’s such a Wild West scene in Hollywood with all of the really extraordinary and exciting work that’s being done on TV. It’s a different ethos and economy than when I was coming of age as a writer. Running a TV show is pretty much a young person’s game. To be more of a consultant or advisor, I could see that. The insane pace of doing an ongoing series is a tall order.

VOC: TV seems to be a much more attractive playground now for playwrights.

Margulies: I think the nature of TV is so free form now. You’re not bound (by) the same kind of season or structure, or constrained by having to deliver 13 episodes by August 1. It’s more conducive to creativity. A limited series, 8 to 10 hours, is a really enticing form; I would relish that opportunity. But to sign on for five years is less attractive to me at this stage of my life and career. I still teach, which is an emotionally rewarding piece of my life. Juggling all those things is part of the challenge.

VOC: Does cultural criticism still serve a purpose in the age of Twitter?

Margulies: I don’t know. I can tell you from a playwright’s point of view that the New York Times still matters. I don’t know how many other voices out there matter as much. However, I do think that the twittersphere and blogosphere is phenomenal in that I can counter the power of the New York Times. Some things have created their own ecology. These organizations can function without the imprimatur of the New York Times. When I was coming of age in the ’80s, there was Clive Barnes at the Post and Frank Rich at the Times and Douglas Watt at the Daily News. And there were several core constituents who were supporters of theater. That’s completely changed. The nature of opening nights has changed. You don’t have to send someone out to a newsstand at Times Square or the lobby of the New York Times to find out how your play did.

VOC: What newspapers and critics do you read now?

Margulies: Hilton Als in The New Yorker. Josie Green is now the second stringer at the New York Times. He can be acerbic, to say the least. I do read New York Magazine. I don’t turn to a single writer. If there are certain things that are opening that I want to see, I don’t read reviews. It’s not a question of spoilers. It’s an actor or writer whose work I admire. I will see a play no matter what the consensus is. I’m making my judgments that way and not letting in the noise of the internet. It’s dizzying.

VOC: What forms of journalism do you enjoy?

Margulies: A think piece or rumination on themes on people involved in the creation of something. To contextualize a review or an artist’s work beyond the two hours is an exciting notion. I guess the New York Times tried that over the years with Margo Jefferson on Sundays – a counterbalance of the daily review.

VOC: Are you more of an online reader or a print reader?

Margulies: I like Paris Review, which will run interviews online that won’t appear in the printed version. The days of browsing through periodicals, that practice is completely outmoded. I was on a retreat on an artists retreat recently. I limited my time online. I couldn’t go cold turkey but limited the time I spent on newsfeeds.

VOC: Communications technology has even changed how writers tell stories now.

Margulies: Think of procedural dramas and how much screen time used to be spent on going out to get information instead of Googling something. It’s kind of hilarious. In Tom Cruise’s movie, “The Firm,” there’s a very suspenseful scene about Xeroxing pages. So much of what my students are writing about (concern) social media and the ramifications of it. Life now is so much driven by the electronic image.

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.