Theater In Conversation
Power & Punk: New York's Avant-garde Lifers
Mac Wellman with Sara Farrington
In this recurring series, I interview avant-garde performers, writers, directors, and designers who have dedicated their lives to forging New York's contemporary theater. These artists knew the rules and rejected them, gambling on new modes of expression and trusting impulses true to their experience. Each interview explores how they started, what keeps them going, the evolutions they've seen, what it takes, and what it took to make a life as an artist in New York City.
My interview for this issue is with playwright Mac Wellman. Over the course of his nearly 50 year career as a writer, Wellman has taken the form of playwriting and bounced it around the room like a kid with a Super Ball. He is prolific, his voice unmistakable, his plays feats of contemporary playwriting, a modern-day Beckett. He has also released an army of like-minded playwrights upon the world, helming the MFA playwriting program at Brooklyn College for 23 years. I was lucky to study playwriting with him at Brooklyn College, too. He’s a personal hero and dear friend. We recently sat down at The Morgan Library Café to discuss his early life and work in New York and so much more.
Sara Farrington (RAIL): I discovered you when I was around 20. My playwriting teacher at The O’Neill Center, Donna Di Novelli, handed out a photocopy of a monologue of yours to everyone. You had written the same line over and over and over again like 75 times. I wish I could remember the line. And she said, “You guys are allowed to write like this!”
Mac Wellman:[Laughs] I’m treating you to lunch, by the way.
Rail: No, you shouldn’t do that! I should treat you, isn’t that how this works?
Wellman: But I make millions—millions!—writing incomprehensible plays!
Rail: Oh, well, in that case.
Wellman: I’m in the process of retiring. I’m 74. I don’t want to work anymore. I don’t want to do anything! I own a tiny apartment here, which I’ll probably keep because I bought it for $50,000 in 1997. Now they’re going for $450,000. Park Slope is just filled with real estate vultures.
Rail: And mommies.
Wellman: And their dogs. We’ll probably move out of New York. I’d like to go to New Mexico. Or Italy. My wife is Dutch, so maybe the Netherlands. She has a much nicer, bigger apartment a few blocks away from me here, so when we get in fights I can just stomp out. [Laughs] I’m kind of tired of New York.
Rail: You came to New York in 1975. What was it like for an artist back then?
Wellman: When I came to New York it was poor and dangerous, but interesting. I lived on 14th Street, which I liked. And there were famous composers living across the street from me. I interviewed John Cage. He lived in the West Village. I recorded his adaptation of Finnegan’s Wake in his apartment on Bank Street. I just called him up. And I hung out with [poet] Gerard Malanga and all these Warhol people. But New York was a completely different place. It wasn’t just rich people. There were a few rich people, but not many.
Rail: How much was your apartment?
Wellman: Like $350 a month. I wish I’d hung on to it. It’s just nuts now.
Rail: Did you have a day job back then?
Wellman: It was so cheap, I didn’t have to. I inherited a little bit of money, so for a while I didn’t need to work. I inherited like $2,000. I did get a job typing for [director] Robert Wilson. But I got fired because I couldn’t type fast enough. I never even met him there, I was working for his staff. But I’m not a good typist, so I lost the job.
Rail: When you were in that 14th Street apartment, did you have a plan?
Wellman: I wrote a couple plays. I wrote a play called Harm’s Way, which we did at LaMama. It wasn’t a very good production, but on the other hand, it is a scary play. I actually took the script to a major producer. I took it to Harvey Weinstein.
Rail: No way.
Wellman: He was the most obnoxious human being I have ever met in my life.
Rail: Did he come on to you?
Wellman: No! Someone recommended I show him the play. And he thought it was too scary for words. And look at him now. He was very rude and awful. He was just beginning as a movie person. He is my least favorite person in New York City.
[At this point, a massive motorized series of curtains begins to rise up automatically, very loudly, behind Wellman, revealing a wall of windows.]
Rail: Something’s happening behind you.
Wellman: I think it’s because I’m talking about Harvey Weinstein.
Rail: I love Harm’s Way because it falls in line with your manifesto [“The Theatre of Good Intentions”]. You have characters actually accomplishing something in every scene.
Wellman: I wrote Harm’s Way after reading Franz Xaver Kroetz. He wrote a play that was realistic, but with no psychology. Just people doing things.
Rail: So how do you present that kind of a play to a modern company who insists upon using psychology and motivation?
Wellman: I don’t know. It’s hard. I’ve never seen a good production of Harm’s Way. Fifty years from now maybe somebody’ll do it right. But there is so much violence in it. New York was very violent back then. I saw people getting shot. But I liked the Warhol people because they were very kind. Andy Warhol took a picture of me and my wife.
Rail: Do you still have it?
Wellman: No. But I met a lot of interesting people, then. I was in New Dramatists and I taught a course there, because I thought I would have to eventually teach, which was wise. And I had a really good bunch of plays, mostly by women. I took them to various theaters and said, “Will you do all these plays?” And they said, “We’ll only do these two or three.” The Women’s Project said, “We’ll only do the women.” I said, “No, you have to do them all.” Finally, I heard about BACA Downtown and about [Artistic Director] Greta Gundersen. She let me do readings. And so in a year or two we had The New Works project there. We did Suzan-Lori Parks’s first play, Tony Kushner’s first play, Erik Ehn’s first play. At first it was just readings, then full productions. I had a play there. I had to pay $1,000 to do it, which wasn’t much. I wish that place was still here. It was down on Willoughby Street near Flatbush. It’s now a church. But it was great. There’s a major artist at MoMA now, William Pope.L, we did him at BACA. He’s brilliant. Anne Bogart directed a play of mine there. All these people. It was great.
Rail: Do you think it’s just space that’s preventing that from happening more often? The commodity of space?
Wellman: Well, Mario Cuomo destroyed arts funding in New York State. There was a fair amount of it until he took over.
Rail: In the ’80s and ’90s?
Wellman: Yeah. I was lucky because I got two grants then, one in 1996, for over a $100,000, and one a few years earlier. So I got $200,000 in grants.
Rail: Wow. You must have just lived off that, right? Lived and worked.
Wellman: I did. But those grants disappeared. Both of them are gone now. It’s terrible because people do need it. It’s terrible in New York.
[The waiter takes our order. We both get wine and vegetarian soup.]
Rail: I went completely vegetarian. I finally came to my senses.
Wellman: Oh really? I don’t eat anything that’s green. I only chew on meat. I eat my shoes when I’m done with them.
Rail: [Laughs] So, I wrote down in my grad school notebook that you said you didn’t write a play you actually liked until you were 40. Is that true?
Wellman: Yep. Actually, later than 40. Because I don’t really like Harm’s Way, or the plays I wrote earlier. I don’t look at anything I wrote then, ever. Then I began writing plays like Cellophane (2001) and Terminal Hip (1989). I did a lot of early writing in the New York Public Library. For years, I’d go over there and try to write badly. I love writing badly. In the library there were all these other maniacs writing. I saw [novelist] Norman Mailer there one time, so I went over with my notebook and said, “Sign this.” And he did. And then I walked away. Then there was this very elegant man at the table where I was writing, and he had a big book. He was writing and writing and writing, and I finally looked at what he was writing, and he was just scribbling. Without any words.
Rail: That’s frightening.
Wellman: It is frightening. But no, I didn’t really figure out who I was as a writer until I was past 40.
Rail: How did you figure it out?
Wellman: I just didn’t know about theater. I had to spend 10 years seeing theater. You can’t actually learn about theater until you see it. And I didn’t really like most of the theater I saw. And then, finally I began to see that the things that I didn’t like about the theater were actually the good things.
Rail: The bad things were the good things?
Wellman: Yeah. I didn’t like Richard Foreman, initially, and then I realized he was actually good. I didn’t like the Wooster Group at first either. And I still think they’re weird because, actually, what they do doesn’t make any sense. And that is the point of it.
Rail: Exactly. We’re losing our ability to appreciate that.
Wellman: Yeah. It took me a long time. I hated American theater. I don’t think I ever would have even gotten into theater except that I met [director] Annemarie Prins in Holland. She was brilliant.
Rail: You wrote your manifesto “The Theatre of Good Intentions” in 1984, which is so crackling and I think cannot be argued with. My favorite line is: “The somber generalized, sleepwalking gait of so much of American playwriting is directly attributable to the fact that any writer who is produced with any frequency at all must sooner or later come to terms with the obdurate and implacable dogma of method acting.” Did you ever feel the need to fall in line and write a well-made play?
Wellman: No, because I didn’t like that stuff. Occasionally people told me to, but not really. My work has always been strange. I would see Arthur Miller and other mainstream playwrights around New York back then. I used to see Tennessee Williams on the street, on LaGuardia Place, in The Village. He dressed in white, he looked like he does in the pictures. But I don’t like any of his plays. And none of his weird plays ever got any attention. Once you start getting too much praise from The New York Times, you’re dead. There used to be more press. The Voice is gone. Time Out is gone. There used to be other newspapers.
Rail: In the ’70s and ’80s, when you put a show up, did people expect to get paid or was it just crazy people who wanted to make stuff?
Wellman: The latter. The first play I did in New York was done at American Place Theater, and it was directed by Carl Weber, who was the stage manager for Brecht. He was great. The play wasn’t very good, it was called Starluster. We had good actors, and I got a little bit of money. The designer we had was a German who Carl had worked with in Europe named Wolfgang Roth. I remember Wolfgang Roth came in, and said, “Carl, I only verk in zis shithole because of you.” And he spat on the floor! I thought, “Oh, this is going to be fun.” My set was nothing, just tape on the floor. Wolfgang was also designing the set for the playwright upstairs. They say he got down on his knees before that playwright and said, “Please, my dear, never write another play!” So he was an interesting character. He was doing a play in Boston, and he heard one of the stagehands make a racist remark. So he went to the director and said, “You have to fire that man.” The director said, “Why?” Wolfgang said, “I grew up in Germany in the ’30s. I know what these things lead to.” But yeah, Carl Weber was great. He taught me a lot. I paid attention to him because he worked with Brecht.
Rail: How did you meet him?
Wellman: Bonnie Marranca from PAJ [originally Performing Arts Journal] introduced me. It was an easier time to meet people. And theater hadn’t been taken over by dramaturgs and critics. A lot of critics back then were interesting people. I remember at New Dramatists you used to have a committee respond to your play readings directly after. I remember one time, I forget whose play it was, I was on a committee with [playwright] Eric Overmyer, and we just set up this dramaturg. We destroyed him by denying everything. We kept saying, “But this is a work of genius!”
Rail: You were gaslighting him?
Wellman: Yeah! Originally, in Germany, the purpose of a dramaturg was not to fix plays but to help them in more interesting ways. It wasn’t this corporate theater mentality that we have now. In New York, everything is about marketing and making money.
Rail: It’s very distressing to me. I only do it because I love it.
Wellman: What, making money?
Rail: Well, yeah, duh. When did you start teaching?
Wellman: Oh, I knew I had to. I wasn’t going to make any money playwriting. Like I said, I taught first at New Dramatists. I had asked [playwright] Len Jenkin, “What should I have them do?” And he said, “Have them write a monologue.” So I had them write a monologue with exactly the same word count as “To be or not to be.” I got the job at Brooklyn College from [playwright] Jack Gelber. He was teaching at Columbia in the ’60s. In ’68 or so there were a lot of riots at Columbia because of the Vietnam War. So the president of Columbia abolished the entire theater department—because a lot of the rioters were theater people. So Brooklyn College offered him a job teaching playwriting in ’72. He asked if it could be in the English department not the Theater department because they don’t abolish English departments. I knew him for a long time. So in 1997, he called me up and said, “Do you want to teach at Brooklyn College?” I didn’t even know they had a playwriting program there. But I liked him. It was the first full time job I had teaching.
Rail: If you were starting out now, what would you do different? What would you do exactly the same?
Wellman: I’d go to another city. For instance, Omaha. There are no Equity Theaters, but there are seven major theaters. I think theater needs to be reinvented where it’s less expensive. New Jersey’s too expensive, it’s just like New York. But I also think it’s important not to view theater as a career. So I write fiction. I write poetry. When I get sick of writing one thing, I drop it and go do something else.
Rail: Similar experience?
Wellman: Well, the poetry world is even more depressing than the theater world. If you get published in The New Yorker, you’re successful. And the thing with the poets is: they all get very bitter when they get old. Because the actual discussion between mainstream poetry and avant-garde poetry died completely. There was one in the ’60s. And fiction is not much better. Now fiction is all about money, too.
Rail: If your motivation is money, I think everything good falls away. But I’m a theater evangelist like that. Completely tiresome to everyone I talk to.
Wellman: No! My favorite writers are someone like Peter Handke—writes fiction, writes poetry, writes plays. They don’t do that in this country. Everybody wants to be a careerist. It’s nuts. I didn’t do that because I was influenced by people outside, by Europeans. I think the most important thing is leaving the country when you’re young. I took my junior year abroad, studied in Bristol, England, hitchhiked all over England. Then I went to the continent, hitchhiked all over France. There were youth hostels all over Europe, probably still are. For 69 pounds sterling I got a train ride to Moscow and Leningrad, in Russia. I went with a group of people. And halfway across Poland our train turned into a Russian military train.
Rail: Army guys got on?
Wellman: Yeah! All the Russians were drinking vodka out of a soap dish. They got into fist fights. At one point, somebody threw somebody else off the train—[enacts one Russian soldier pushing another off a train] “Ha! Ha! Ha!” But at the next stop that same guy got back on the train, punched the guy who threw him off in the face. In Leningrad, the warmest it got was 20 below. Yet people were eating ice cream in the street. They were wearing short sleeves. I remember in Warsaw we took a bus trip to the Warsaw Ghetto. It was just a big white square of snow. And after the war there were only three things alive there: three trees. That’s it. Everything else was dead. But I liked Warsaw, too. I just think it is so important to get out of this country. It changed my life completely. If I had not done that, I would have ended up a lawyer in Cleveland. It completely changed my life.
Rail: When did you leave Cleveland?
Wellman: When I went to American University. I went to a very fancy private school as a kid.
Rail: What were you like as a kid?
Wellman: I was weird. I went to this very conservative, fancy private school, which was paid for by my rich grandfather. The school was so conservative, the school anthem was the same as the Czarist national anthem. So every time I hear Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture I go—[fervently grips his heart]. I had very good grades, and I applied to Yale, but I was turned down because I wanted a scholarship. But then my classmates who didn’t ask for a scholarship got in. So at that point, I decided I would never listen to my elders again. So I went to this weird school in DC, American University. Everything in Washington is run by the CIA. My favorite bookstore in Washington was run by the CIA. I applied for a job at the CIA. I didn’t get the job. The guy asked me one question. He asked me, “What is an adverbial objective?”
Rail: What is that?
Wellman: In the sentence, “I know that,” the “that” is the adverbial objective. They just didn’t want to hire me because I had been a Vietnam War protester. Then I went to grad school in Madison, Wisconsin, where I got my masters in one year, at age 23. Didn’t owe a dime.
Rail: My favorite thing you ever said in school about the theater was, “Stop dreaming.”
Rail: There is so much truth and action in that. When I tell people you say that, they say, “What disgraceful advice!”
Wellman: No, no! It’s just so important just to do things.
Rail: Yes! That’s how I interpret it.
Wellman: Theater needs to be reinvented every 10 or 20 years. We are at that point now. These commercial theaters are dead. The students that interest me right now, are like, Kate Kremer, I saw her play at JACK [in Brooklyn]. I didn’t understand anything in it. But it was great! I had no idea how it worked, but that’s good. Way ahead of the curve.
Rail: And there will always be people who hate that.
Wellman: Yep. It’s why I like studying fascists.
Rail: [Laughing] Why?
Wellman: I wrote a play called The Offending Gesture (2016).
Rail: I actually think that’s your best play. I absolutely love it. I cannot believe you found a play in that premise.
Wellman: Oh, really? It was about such a crazy thing I found on the internet: this dog in Finland who did the Nazi salute. The Nazis hated him. [Director] Meghan Finn is good. It is interesting what people will do with your plays when they don’t ever talk to you. That’s important for me right now. I want to see what people do with my plays when I don’t tell them what to do. When I used to tell them what to do, it was mainly: “Don’t act too much,” and, “Stop acting.” You don’t need to act. My work’s not weird, it’s just the way people are. Just wander around a room like this—
[He gestures to the crowded café.]
Just listen to what people are saying. It’s amazing.