Theatre History Studies
2009 VOLUME 29
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS
Copyright © 2009 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One An Uncommon Woman
An Interview with Wendy Wasserstein
JACKSON R. BRYER
When, on January 30, 2006, Wendy Wasserstein died of cancer at age fifty-five, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City, the American theatre suddenly and prematurely lost one of its most eloquent and distinctive voices. Less than four months earlier, on October 24, 2005, Wasserstein's play Third had premiered at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City. Third was an expanded, full-length version of a one-act play with the same title that had its world premiere with another Wasserstein one-act, Welcome to My Rash, in January 2004 at Theater J in Washington, D.C.
Wasserstein's previous full-length plays and musicals include Any Woman Can't (1973); Happy Birthday, Montpelier Pizz-zazz (1974); When Dinah Shore Ruled the World (with Christopher Durang) (1975); Uncommon Women and Others (1977); Isn't It Romantic (1983); Miami (1986); The Heidi Chronicles (1988), which won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, and the Drama Desk, the New York Drama Critics Circle, the Outer Critics, and the Susan Smith Blackburn awards; The Sisters Rosensweig (1993); An American Daughter (1997); and Old Money (2001). She is also the author of numerous one-act plays; a children's book, Pamela's First Musical (1996); three books of essays, Bachelor Girls (1990), Shiksa Goddess (Or How I Spent My Forties) (2001), and Sloth (2005); a post humously published novel, Elements of Style (2006); and several screenplays and teleplays.
This interview, conducted on March 7, 2004, in the Kogod Theatre of the Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Maryland in College Park, was certainly not the last interview Wendy Wasserstein gave, but it may well have been one of the last in-depth public conversations in which she participated. It is published here essentially in its original form; in a few instances, information deemed helpful to the reader has been inserted in brackets, and a few questions from the audience are not denoted as such. For assistance at numerous stages of this project, I thank Carolyn Bain.
BRYER: Let's start with a little biography. You were born in Brooklyn but were brought up in Manhattan and went to private school there and then went to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Did you know that you wanted to be a writer fairly early on or not?
WASSERSTEIN: I used to go to the theatre a lot with my parents. I grew up actually taking dancing classes at the June Taylor School of the Dance. They were the dancers on The Jackie Gleason Show that did faux Busby Berkeley dancing. I really am not much of a dancer, but my mother did make me take those classes and then took me to see plays afterwards. When I was in high school, every year we had something at the school called the mother-daughter fashion show, and I quickly realized that if I wrote the show they'd let me get out of gym. I knew nothing about fashion, but I knew I really wanted out of gym! Those were the first shows I wrote in New York.
BRYER: When you went to college, did you think at that point that you wanted to be an English major or major in writing?
WASSERSTEIN: No, I was going to be a history major, and then I wasn't quite clear as to what I'd do. How I ended up taking playwriting was I was at Mount Holyoke and I was studying to become a congressional intern and I was reading the Congressional Digest. I kept falling asleep and my friend Ruth said to me, "Why don't we take playwriting at Smith and then we can go shopping?" I answered, "I don't know much about fashion, but I'm sort of interested in shopping. This is a good idea." So we went there and I actually had the good fortune of having a great college teacher. A man named Len Berkman, who still teaches at Smith, was my playwriting teacher, and really I think in terms of finding a voice or even thinking I could have a voice very much came from my time with him.
BRYER: At that point, did you say to yourself, "Hey, this is something maybe I could do"?
WASSERSTEIN: Well, the first play I wrote in his class was called "Velvita Goes to Taco Bell." It's true! It's about a girl who went to a Taco Bell stand and the machine broke and she got torpedoed by five hundred burritos and had to eat her way out. Len Berkman told me I'd have a hard time finding someone to do this every night and I'd be better off doing it as a film. But I so much enjoyed my time with him that I did independent work in playwriting the following year but still without any thought of a career. It's very hard to say, "I'm going to go be a playwright." My parents weren't saying, "Oh, darling, we dream of you being in the nonprofit theatre. Do us a favor and not have health insurance." That was not what was going on.
BRYER: The summer after you graduated from Mount Holyoke, you went to California briefly, didn't you?
WASSERSTEIN: I did. I moved to Long Beach State, to a dance program.
BRYER: You were still harboring possibilities of dance as a career?
WASSERSTEIN: Harboring possibilities, and I thought, "I'll just move to LA and write for television." I actually thought I'd write the Rhoda show. I was always funny, so I thought that's what I could do. But I can't drive. I grew up in Manhattan, so the thought of me in California just didn't make a whole lot of sense; it seemed pretty clear to me. So I came back to New York, and my friend David Rimmer, who is a playwright who I went to Amherst College with (when I left Mount Holyoke and went to Amherst for a year), was starting to take playwriting at City College from Israel Horovitz. They were starting a creative writing program; it was Israel Horovitz and Joseph Heller. So I did that.
BRYER: You got a graduate degree there, didn't you?
WASSERSTEIN: Yes. I also had odd jobs. I had this crazy job, taking inventory for the Board of Higher Education. I personally went around the New York City higher education system with a ruler. Can you imagine? I went and I measured the desk of the chairman of the Board of Education in New York. That's what I did, and then I wrote it up. To this day, I can walk into a room and recognize a Steelcase desk with the measurements.
BRYER: Is it about then that you wrote a play that was optioned by Playwrights Horizons?
WASSERSTEIN: It's a funny story. Joe Heller, who was really such a smart man, grew up in Canarsie and had a thick Brooklyn accent. Because I'm from Brooklyn too, I liked him very much. I remember I had lunch with himI was twenty-one, he was fiftyand before the lunch I tried to think of every intelligent thing I could think of to say. I'm thinking of Gravity's Rainbow and things like that, and Joe Heller said to me, "Wendy, writers talk about real estate." Then he also said to me, "Wendy, don't you have a real name? What's your middle name?" I said, "It's Joy." And he said, "Forget it." Israel Horovitz told me I had a beautiful name and I told him, "Only someone named Israel Horovitz could think that!" I wrote short stories for Joe, and I wrote a play called Any Woman Can't in Israel Horovitz's class. It was about a girl from Smith College who came to New York and made a bad marriage. How my first play came to be done was my mother Lola, who's a dancer and figures in a lot of my work, was walking down the street and she ran into a lady named Louise Roberts who used to be the secretary at the June Taylor School of the Dance and Louise said to my mother, "How's Wendy?" And my mother started hyperventilating and saying, "She's not going to law school. She's not marrying a lawyer," and just breathing heavily. Louise said, "I work at a new dancing school called the Clark Center in the Y on Eighth Avenue and across the hall is a new theatre called Playwrights Horizons, so if you give me Wendy's play I'll give it to them." That's how my first play was done.
BRYER: It's all about contacts!
WASSERSTEIN: Contacts. It's Lola Wasserstein.
BRYER: What made you decide to go to drama school after you had gotten the graduate degree in the city?
WASSERSTEIN: I think it was having that play done. The thing I think about being a dramatist is once you see it done, once you hear it, that's very exciting. I applied to business school and drama school, and I thought, "Whoever takes me, that's what I'll do." I'm from a business family, so I thought, "I'll go to business school. I'll move to Chicago."
BRYER: Then at Yale Drama School, you of course fell into an incredibly rich period in that school's history.
WASSERSTEIN: I did. I credit Yale with a lot. I met Christopher Durang my first day at school, and actually the first thing that Chris said to me was, "You look so bored, you must be very bright." That's the first thing Peter Patrone says to Heidi in The Heidi Chronicles, and that play is dedicated to Chris Durang. Not just that play but a lot of me and my own feelings of confidence in my own work and in humor had to do with that friendship.
BRYER: There were others too, weren't there? Albert Innaurato, Meryl Streep?
WASSERSTEIN: Albert Innaurato, Ted Talley, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, William Ivey Long, the great costume designer who did Hairspray, Cabaret, Nine, and Chicago. I was on his costume crew; me on a sewing machine is not something you want! William Ivey Long did his all-caftan production of Twelfth Night, and the costume crew was me and Stephen Graham of the Graham family and we were supposed to take care of the caftans. I told Stephen, "This is crazy; we can't do this. We're going to take William's clothes to the dry cleaner because it'll just be better. These are beautiful caftans." So I took them to the dry cleaner. I showed up to pick them up before the show and the dry cleaner was closed. From that time on, William Ivy Long had me and Stephen painting styrofoam balls gold.
BRYER: There were a couple of long-since-forgotten shows that you wrote at Yale, weren't there?
WASSERSTEIN: Yes, Christopher and I wrote When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth, an excellent show, and we did Any Woman Can't, Montpelier Pizz-zazz, and a lot of shows.
BRYER: Going to New York from Yale, did you feel as if you had a group that you could be part of ?
WASSERSTEIN: Yes. Also what I did was when I was graduating from Yale I sent my play Montpelier Pizz-zazz to Playwrights Horizons; Playwrights Horizons had just moved from the Clark Center to Forty-second Street. They were the first theatre on the new Forty-second Street. They were in the old Maidman burlesque house and upstairs was the Sex Institute of Technology. They did this play of mine and there were some people in raincoats who wandered into the wrong theatre.
Then I got a job working for The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. I was the director, Lloyd Richards's, "go for." I used to take dictation from Lloyd and I used to deliver the scripts for the O'Neill [new play] competition on the subway to the various readers. That was the job.
BRYER: Didn't you also have one of your plays done at the O'Neill?
WASSERSTEIN: I did. I submitted Uncommon Women and Others to Playwrights Horizons; they did it as a reading, and I submitted a rewritten version to the O'Neill.
BRYER: Uncommon Women was based on your experience at Mount Holyoke. It's about a group of women who were together in college and what has happened to them seven years later. It was eventually produced in New York, wasn't it?
WASSERSTEIN: It was done very soon in New York, in 1978, with Glenn Close, Swoosie Kurtz, and Jill Eikenberry. Then we did it for television and Glenn got a job in the musical Barnum, so Meryl Streep was in it. If you ever see it, as a document it's really interesting because it was done in 1978 and all of these actresses are around twenty-seven, twenty-eight years old.
BRYER: Then you wrote Isn't It Romantic, which takes the female characters a little further along in their lives. Isn't there a story about your mother and the opening of Isn't It Romantic?
WASSERSTEIN: Oh, well, there are so many Lola storiesand all of them are totally true! Isn't It Romantic is about two girls and their mothers. In a way, Isn't It Romantic is a real precursor to Sex in the City. It's two girls on the town and their two mothers. The Jewish mother calls her daughter every morning to sing "Sunrise, Sunset" to her and to ask her when she's getting married. That is autobiographical material. We were turning thirty and my best friend was getting married. This is my best friend who told me, "You've got to live alone. You've got to work." She was set on this feminist doctrine, meets a guy, and three weeks later is getting married. I didn't know what was happening, so I wrote this play. There are many stories about Isn't It Romantic. It starred Betty Comden, who I adored, playing my mother. She went up to my mother at the opening night of Isn't It Romantic and said, "You must be so proud of your daughter." And Lola said, "Yes, we're all so proud of Georgette." But if we're on a Lola diversion, that's not her best line. It's so hard to even think of writing a Lola play because she's always written it better herself. Lola's best line ever was at the opening night of The Sisters Rosensweig on Broadwaybig party at Tavern on the Green. I'm a New York kid and I think, "This is a big deal. I have a play on Broadway, read all about it." It's nice. The dramaturge at Lincoln Center, Anne Cattaneo, who's known my mother since I was at Yale, at least twenty-five years, goes up to Lola and says, "You must be so proud of Wendy." And Lola says, "Yes, this is nice, but wouldn't it be nicer if this was Wendy's wedding?" That on an opening night! On a Broadway opening night! That's classic. That's better than "We're so proud of Georgette."
BRYER: Then you wrote The Heidi Chronicles mostly while you were in England on a grant, didn't you?
WASSERSTEIN: I did. I got a letter from the British-American Arts Association telling me I had won a grant "for mid-career stimulation." I thought, "How do they know I need this?" Actually, Marsha Norman and Lloyd Richards had nominated me for it. So I went to London and I lived in a place called the Nell Gwynn House, which is actually in a very nice neighborhood now but it was then a kind of transitory apartments kind of place. A friend of mine said, "Does your father know you're living in this place?" But I just loved it and I wrote The Heidi Chronicles there.
Excerpted from Theatre History Studies Copyright © 2009 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.