The Playwright's the Thing

Photo: Linda Cicero

Playwright Amy Freed's Freedomland -- an extraordinary tale of dysfunctional families -- was a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama. In the acting and playwrighting courses she teaches at Stanford, the 40-something lecturer urges students to think about the physical aspects of being on stage -- the "very kinesthetic experience" that is live theater.

Stanford: What's your preference in writing plays -- tragedy or comedy?

Freed: I think many things are just too painful to be anything but comedies. Life is kind of surreal, and the collisions of absurdity and grief and silliness are what laughter comes from and what tears come from. You can't drag people to the theater for more pain than life provides. You've got to give it some release, so I do write comically as much as possible.

Who are your models of today and yesteryear?

John Guare, Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, Carol Churchill, Tina Howe, Susan Lorie Parks. And Shakespeare is so interesting because he'll do a really complicated construct textually and then he'll immediately follow it with a simple rephrasing. He'll use some outlandish phrase that probably nobody understood then any more than now, like "the heel and catastrophe of the time," and then he'll immediately re-say it, really simply. He's playing on several levels of complexity, and to me that is so generous and so full of love. That's what I try to learn from.

Revivals are such big draws on Broadway nowadays. What does that tell us about the state of theater today?

Theaters complain of the thinness of contemporary writing, but writers are drawing from a thinning-out, very derivative pop culture. At one time the arts reflected what people sounded like, but now people are reflecting what entertainment sounds like. It's a degrading or shrinking of the fingerprint of individuality at least from my increasingly codgerly perspective. So I think it's harder to find a language that expresses even sustained meditations on things—and then, to put all that into the muscular and vital and active stagecrafty aspect of theater is another leap. I do believe there's a crisis in writing today, but I think it's a crisis in viewpoint, spiritual outlook and cultural identity.

So what makes theater compelling for you?

Everybody is shocked at how high the stakes need to be in theater for a play to really be alive. People have to want stuff so passionately on stage, and we're in an age of disconnect from our wants and drives. What is it to really want to solve a theorem or to want to break through into a new form of music? It's got to be as visceral as sex. And as a playwright, you've got to write to convey the greatest desire. It's so exciting when you start surrendering to understanding that writing for theater is really about people's deep wants. It's a very committed, open-hearted kind of thing in an age of cool culture, where we don't show our hearts very much. It's antithetical to what we're trained to do, which is to hide who we are and hide what our real dreams are.