Moises Kaufman, the Venezuelan-born artistic director and founder of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project, is the writer and director behind Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project, about the killing of Matthew Shepard. He also directed Doug Wright’s Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning play I Am My Own Wife, which was workshopped by About Face Theatre at the Museum of Contemporary Art before heading for Broadway last year; it comes to the Goodman in January. Now he’s back in town collaborating with About Face artistic director Eric Rosen on One Arm, a new piece based on a short story and unproduced screenplay by Tennessee Williams.
Mara Tapp: Why don’t we start with a brief plot summary of One Arm?
Moises Kaufman: It’s the story of the heavyweight champion of the Pacific fleet in 1939, a young kid, a sailor who’s a fantastic boxer, and he gets in a car accident and loses an arm. He starts wandering the streets and becomes a male hustler, a male prostitute. The story takes place between 1939 and 1943, World War II, and he can’t go to war because he’s lost an arm. It’s what happens with his identity and his sense of self when he begins to have sexual relations with men. I don’t want to tell you more because it’ll ruin the plot.
The one thing that’s really important about it is that, as you know, Tennessee Williams’s characters of that era, if they are gay, they’re either (a) married to Elizabeth Taylor and they never say that they’re gay or (b) they’re best friends with Elizabeth Taylor and they get eaten by cannibals in Cabeza del Lobo. In his short stories the gay characters are much more open and existing. In his dramatic works of that time the gay characters are always hiding.
MT: What’s the history of the story?
MK: Williams wrote it in 1945 and it was published in 1948 in a collection that included the short story “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” which became The Glass Menagerie. What’s riveting about this piece is the way it must have stayed with Williams, because in 1967 there’s the first record of him penning a screenplay based on it. He reworked it until 1972 and then in ’72 he published it, and he tried from then on to get it produced and nobody would touch it.
MT: Why do you think that was?
MK: Because it was too daring. Because it was the story of a male hustler who sleeps with men.
MT: Do you see this as a gay play, or is it about other things as well?
MK: I have such problems with that classification, a gay play—
MT: That’s why I ask.
MK: No, I do not, because it’s about one man’s journey to self-discovery, and it’s not that he becomes gay at the end or anything ridiculous like that, but it’s a story of failure and redemption. It is a story of how one survives atrocious events that have absolutely no reason for being other than fate. And how does one maintain one’s sense of self, doing something like that?
MT: I ask you the gay question because, even though it’s totally odious, everyone will. I’m even thinking back to Gross Indecency. I was in the house for the Chicago premiere directed by Gary Griffin at Court Theatre, and the mayor was there. You probably recall this.
MK: I wasn’t here for the opening.
MT: Well, there was a wonderful moment: the kiss between Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas started, and all eyes should have been on the kiss, right? All eyes were focused on the mayor. How is he reacting? And he looked completely poker-faced.
MK: Isn’t that amazing? What year was that? 1998? We’re still concerned about a kiss. And what’s interesting in that play is that you had all of those male prostitutes in their underwear talking about sex that they had had with men and nobody blinked, but the kiss is still such a subversive event.
MT: Because a kiss is not about sex. A kiss is about—
MK: It’s about intimacy. To me that’s one of these things about this play: How does one define intimacy? In the context of Williams’s oeuvre, in the big picture, what’s exciting is that this is a document of gay life in America in the 30s and 40s. Here we have a dramatic work of Tennessee Williams, most of whose works that deal with that period are very closeted and suffer from a thing that he used to call obliqueness. He always used to say, “I’m forced to make gay characters oblique.” But this is a piece in which that’s not the case. You see a whole underworld in which he lived. It’s a story of Tennessee Williams’s life during that period.
MT: So you feel it’s more autobiographical.
MK: I think it’s very autobiographical. Tennessee Williams has this story about walking down the street—and he slept with a lot of prostitutes and talked about it very freely—and he met a hustler. They started talking and he asked the hustler, “What’s your name?” The hustler told him, “My name is Tom Williams,” which is Tennessee Williams’s real name, and they started a conversation and then they ended up having sex and whatnot. But it moved him very much, that the hustler shared his name, and I’m sure that that influenced this story.
The image that Williams has about the story is that it came to him with an image of a statue of Apollo without one arm—one of those beautiful images of Greek statues—and it’s about what happens when our image of ourselves gets fractured and how we put it back together. That’s why, when you ask me if it’s a gay play, I don’t know what “a gay play” means so it’s hard to answer that question. But I think that I know what you’re making reference to: Is this a play that deals only with gay themes?
MT: No. What I’m making reference to is the fact that it will be labeled that.
MK: I think that it shouldn’t be labeled that because I think it would be a great injustice.
MT: Much great art begins in specificity, and if it can become universal then we say it’s good art.
MK: I would go even further than that. I’m Latino and I’m Jewish and I’m gay and now I live in New York. So when they say, “Are you a gay writer?” I say, “Yes, I’m a gay writer. I’m also a Jewish writer. I’m also a Latino writer and a New York writer. Which one will you choose and how many adjectives do you need to be able to understand what I’m saying?”
MT: Identities are critical to empowerment, but it seems to me we’re at a very interesting point when they become limiting instead.
MK: I think you’re absolutely right. Is Angels in America a gay play or is it a great play about America?
MT: Is the most important thing that Oscar Wilde was gay? No. I’m sure you’ve faced this with Gross Indecency. There’s a danger that it then becomes a piece about gayness when there’s a whole lot more going on.
MK: The most important thing that I tried to do with Gross Indecency was try to make a play about a subversive artist and the relationship between that and a society that found him threatening. That’s what that play is about. I always contextualize that conversation by saying, “You know, the excuse for getting him to trial was his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, but the reason for getting him to trial is because he was becoming too subversive in a Victorian society that was too oppressive.”
There’s this whole conversation going on right now about how the gay community should be so happy because there’s so much more representation of gay life, and to me that is a very dangerous statement, because although it’s true that there is more volume of representation, the way we are represented is still with shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which is about how gay people are good decorators. Well, in 1969 there was a movie called The Boys in the Band, and in that movie somebody says, “Oh Mary, it takes a fairy to make something pretty.” So the same discourse is still being perpetrated upon us.
MT: Let’s change the subject. I gather that you find a project, fall in love with it, and do it. In this day of theater seasons, planning ahead, that’s completely antithetical to the way a lot of theaters work.
MK: My company, the Tectonic Theater Project, is 11 years old. Tectonic is the origins of the science of structure, as in architecture, and the company’s named that because we have one goal: to explore theatrical language and theatrical form. What interests us the most is, What are the new theatrical forms?
I always get very depressed that 90 percent of the work I see is either realism or naturalism, which are 19th-century forms. If you go to a contemporary art gallery today and you see a painting that looks like a van Gogh, you would never accept that as a contemporary visual vocabulary. You’d say, “Well, this is somebody making a bad copy of a visual vocabulary that perished 100 years ago,” right? Since impressionism we’ve had Postimpressionism and cubism and dadaism and pop art and op art, plus modernism and all of the isms of the 20th century, and yet when you go to the theater today most of the time it’s almost like time travel. Except for the light being electric, you could be walking into a show that was being produced—I’m not going to say 1890, but maybe 1910.
MT: Are you including new takes on classics?
MK: New takes on classics are like trying to make a cubist painting out of a van Gogh. The van Gogh still is present. The text is there, and theater is so much about text. So one of the big questions that we ask in our theater company is, What are the new forms? How do we revitalize this form? How do we really explore the possibilities of this medium?
Gross Indecency was born out of that question. Whenever we would go into the rehearsal room we had two questions. The question of content was, Why was Oscar Wilde tried? And the question of form emerged as soon as I started doing the research. I started finding different versions that contradicted each other. In my naivete I thought, “Well, when I’m done reading all the material I’ll know who’s telling the truth.” After doing all the research all I was left with was a number of contradictory versions and the challenge became, How do you make a play that is not about reconstructing history but about the impossibility of reconstructing history?
Gross Indecency‘s become the third-most-performed play in America, and I think that one of the reasons for that was not only that the subject matter was so thrilling and this was such a good story, but it was also something that was daring and it was new and it was using theater as a form. The same thing happened with The Laramie Project. There the question became, Can we, as a theater company, go to a town, talk to the people of the town, and then come back and create a play about them? And the question of who got to tell whose story became very important. That’s why in The Laramie Project the company is present—we didn’t want to remove ourselves and give the impression, or the delusion, that this was an omnipresent narrator. We wanted to say, “These are not the people of Laramie. This is our interpretation of the people of Laramie.”
Laramie right now is one of the most-performed plays in America, and it’s the second-most-performed play at the university and high school level. I’m always terrified that I’ll sound very pompous, but I don’t mean to be. I mean to make a point: the success of those pieces is not only that the subject matter was interesting or that they have fallen in the middle of a conversation we’re having on a national level but also that the form of those pieces is something that really poses questions.
MT: I want to shift to I Am My Own Wife because that’s also a very difficult piece to categorize. Talk a little bit about how it came to you and how it worked.
MK: It was the first time that I was using Tectonic techniques outside of my theater company. Doug Wright is a very dear friend. He had been working with this material for a very long time.
MT: He was blocked, wasn’t he?
MK: He was very blocked, because Charlotte [von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who survived the Nazi and the communist regimes] proved to be a more complicated character than he expected. When I came in I said, “The thing that you are most afraid of is where the pearl of greatest beauty lies. It’s in the complication.” I was called to Sundance to work with him. We were there for three weeks. He had a bunch of material and I said, “Stop.” Douglas comes from a tradition of realistic playwriting. He knows how to write real scenes, and his instinct was to go over there and write kind of a docudrama.
What I said is, “Wait. Wait. What we’re going to do in these three weeks is just get to know her using theater.” We got in the room and I said, “OK, everybody present to the rest of us a moment.” Moment is a word we use in Tectonic a lot. It means a theatrical construct that you then can place next to other constructs to create meaning. I came in and I undressed and I put on a dress. I said, “This is, to me, something about her.” Doug Wright had been reading the Gay Guide to Berlin, so he read from the Gay Guide to Berlin. By the end of those three weeks we had a great sense of who Charlotte was, and we also had—and this was very important—the beginning of the second act. Once Doug felt comfortable enough that he had done her justice, then we could start bringing in the things about her that he was critical of.
MT: Now you’re working with a text that’s already been given two forms by its creator—short story, screenplay. What do you do with it?
MK: Well, here’s the uberquestion. The film was never made, right? I’ve made films. I could go ahead, get myself a producer, and make the film. There is something to me about the film never having been made that is very moving, that Williams tried many times to get it made and it never was.
The great Latin-American writer Jorge Luis Borges has this essay called “The Library of Babel,” and he postulates that there exists in the universe a library that holds all the books that ever have or ever will be written. To me that is such a magnificent idea. I think that in that library there must be a wing or, sadder yet, several wings, dedicated to unproduced dramatic texts. And I think that if you were to visit that you’d find One Arm there. So the formal question that I’m asking is, Can we take that screenplay text and not make it a play but bring it onto the stage and say, “There was a movie that could have been made. Let’s us in this room with the audience imagine what it would have been like.”
MT: Given that there are these long, static narrative passages still in the script, what do you want to achieve?
MK: It’ll be very, very dramatic. Tennessee Williams is doing a formal experiment, and I want to respect that. If you look up Beethoven’s sketches [Kaufman’s next project focuses on the composer] he will have A and B and a D-flat, and you look at it and say, “Well, that’s nothing.” That’s not nothing—that’s going to become four minutes of music. You look at the screenplay and it reads almost like that. There are moments when Williams is sort of “Oh, da da da” and it’s just like three notes that will eventually become a full scene. He wrote three notes, and what we’re doing is completing the phrase. So we’re very much respecting his text and his story line.
MT: There is clearly a Chicago connection here. What brings you back?
MK: There are two things. Number one, I love the city. I really find it just so cosmopolitan and smart, and the theater public is so smart it’s a really good place to put your ideas up on the stage and have a real conversation with an audience. There are only three cities in America that I feel do that: this one, New York, and San Francisco.
The other thing is that when we were thinking about doing I Am My Own Wife we really needed to try it out of town. Somebody gave me the name of Eric Rosen, and Eric and I have become very, very good close friends and close collaborators. I found a real partner in crime with him. We kept wanting to do another piece and I said, “Well, this is a piece that I’ve really wanted to do for a long time. It’s very daring and it’s very dangerous. It’s very seedy. It’s about a certain kind of underworld. It’s about a fallen angel and his redemption. It’s about all of these things.” And he said, “Well, let’s talk about it.” What’s exciting is that we have come up with a model that is really weird: this theater from New York bringing in the material, this theater from Chicago [About Face] doing the production, and this other theater from Chicago [Steppenwolf] giving us the infrastructure. It’s a very radical way of making the work happen, and yet very freely in a city that I really love.
Whenever I lecture at universities and colleges I always talk about A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which is at the Art Institute.
MK: Because it is very representative of the way I think about the world. Seurat had two ideas: He wanted to capture something about that beautiful Sunday afternoon, that moment of great peacefulness, that moment of great leisure. He also had a social content in it. There’s the factory in the distance. This is the middle class enjoying itself while the factory’s still working, so there was a social commentary inside the piece. In addition to that there was a real formal question being posed. The science of optics was becoming very well-known, and he was really questioning how far these colors can go and still become a painting. How can you capture light?
That’s the way I tend to think about the work—how do I capture that beautiful moment in the leisurely Sunday afternoon? How do I layer that with the factory in the background? And how do I keep asking the questions about how colors come together in the retina? That is very, very much how I think about creating theater.
When: Previews 12/2-12/4: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7 PM. Opens Sun 12/5, 6 PM. Through 12/9: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7 PM.
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, downstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.