STEPHEN ADLY GUIRGIS with Michael Benjamin
Although he enjoys acting far more than writing, Stephen Adly Guirgis is best known for his work as a playwright with the LAByrinth Theatre Company in New York, of which he has been a company member since 1994. Guirgis, Yul Vasquez and Mimi O’Donnell recently replaced Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz and John Gould Rubin as Co-Artistic Directors of the company.
The Rail caught up with Guirgis and playwright/actor Melanie Angelina Maras during a rehearsal for Maras’ new play, Kiss Me on the Mouth, which Guirgis directs. The play is being produced by InViolet Repertory Theater and premieres at Center Stage this month.
Michael Benjamin (Rail): You started out as an actor, is that right?
Stephen Adly GUIRGIS: I’m still an actor, but I started out just acting, and then, when I joined the LAB, we embraced the idea of multidisciplinary pursuits. So actors became writers, directors, designers, producers, and so on. One thing I really like about InViolet is that they’re doing the same thing. Melanie was an actor, and now she’s writing also.
I taught a class called Playwriting for Actors at the Maggie Flanigan Studio. A lot of the InViolet company members were in it, so I guess I had a hand in encouraging multidisciplinary work. The company in part grew out of that class, which is great.
RAIL: Did you work with those students in a specific way because they were all Meisner-trained actors?
GUIRGIS: Well, because we had all studied Meisner, I think we had a common language. I try to encourage the notion that writing can be just like another form of acting—that some of the same tools that make you a good actor can also make you a more exciting writer.
RAIL: Can you talk specifically about what those tools are?
GUIRGIS: Well, I think actors can have a lot to offer in terms of writing because they have experience being on stage. They know the stage, right? Sometimes writers, they go through grad school, and they never really have a lot of practical experience in the theater. And actors sometimes have the benefit of living in theaters—they can have an inherent sense of what’s exciting on a stage, what’s theatrical.
Also, I think actors are inherently courageous people. You have to have a lot of courage to be an actor—to deal with the amount of rejection that you go through, to be cast in a role and be asked to go out and play it, to become someone else and go out in front of an audience. It’s a profession where courage is like a prerequisite. And sometimes I find, in contemporary writing, a little bit of an absence of courage. Sometimes you see a lot of plays that are like ‘safe’ plays. They’re nice plays, you know, they’re safe. Whereas a good actor already has that willingness to risk.... So why not apply that courage to other disciplines? To writing? Or directing? You know, use those muscles. Not wait around for a job. Create work for your friends as well.
RAIL: Can you talk a little bit about your approach as a director?
GUIRGIS: Whether I’m seeing a play, writing a play, or acting in a play, I’m always most interested in what the actors are doing on the stage, what’s going on—if there’s something at stake and how the actors are going about achieving it. That’s always what’s most exciting to me. And as a director I’m looking for that as well—I’m looking for what ignites the actors’ sense of need. And then I try to activate their passion in getting it.
And then, I guess because I’m a writer, I’m looking for that in the script. Working with Melanie has been great because she has a real sense of who she is as a person, and also who these characters are as people. So she’s not a pushover, but she listens, and she’s been pretty fearless, I think, both in terms of what she’s writing, and then in her willingness to go back and refine and refine and look over it and drop scenes, add scenes. I think that when you’re producing a play at this level, that’s what it’s about. It’s about developing the play.
RAIL: Melanie, can you talk a little bit about the play? What is it about?
Melanie Angelina MARAS: The play is about loneliness. And about all the things that we do and say and convince ourselves of so we can feel a little bit less lonely for whatever amount of time.
RAIL: You and Stephen have been working on this together for a while. Can you talk about how he’s been useful to you as a collaborator and a teacher?
MARAS: Stephen has always set the bar super, super high for me. So if I bring something in, I’ll be like “Yay, I wrote a play! I’m so proud of myself!” Then Stephen’s like, “You know, actually the bar is just up here, it’s not down here where you, like, deposited this work. It’s a little higher.” And then I come up with some other stuff, and he’s like “Well, it’s just another step. It’s just gonna be a little bit more, a little bit higher.” [laughs]
GUIRGIS: But it’s not just that. I think what we try to do when the new pages come in is read it, explore it, and then that will lead to a series of questions which we would then pose to the writer.
GUIRGIS: Sometimes I think at a certain point when you’re comfortable with each other, you can speak in shorthand. But, you can’t tell an actor, “This is what it is, this is what you have to do.” Because then they’re just trying to recreate a result. And I think it’s the same thing with a playwright. You can’t say like, “This is what it is, this is what you have to do.” You might give suggestions or questions or thoughts but it has to come out of the writer. Otherwise, you know, then any one of us could write the play. You want it to—it has to—come out of them. If you overstep that line, then you’re not helping to facilitate someone else’s journey. You’re like trying get them to move over, and you’re going to steer.
[addressing Melanie] Would you say that that’s fair? That I haven’t really…
MARAS: That you haven’t steered?
GUIRGIS: Yeah. Think back. [laughs] Not just the past…week.
MARAS: [laughs] To your backseat driving techniques on my play. No, definitely. All the questions Stephen proposes to me are always like, to expose loopholes or things that don’t make sense, that I hadn’t seen, because I’m just one person looking at it one way.
RAIL: Can you talk about the nature of those questions you ask the writer?
GUIRGIS: Well I think there are probably two types of questions at the end of the day. And usually the first questions are like, “What is this character doing?” “What does she want?” “How does she want to affect the other person in this moment in order to get what she wants?” So there are the ‘what’ questions, and then there are the ‘why’ questions—the same for writers as for actors.
It’s like I want to… [looks around for a target and finds Kiss Me’s Assistant Director Jennifer Makholm, who is drinking coffee] get that coffee cup from Jen. Why? Uh, because I’m…because I don’t want her to have it. Why? Well, because….
With acting, usually you ask yourself a series of ‘why’ questions until you get to the very bottom of it, and usually the very bottom of it is just like, “If I don’t get it, I’m gonna fuckin’ die.” And it’s the same thing I think with writing.
That’s something that I sometimes do as a writer when I get stuck—it’s like, “Alright, why did I start writing this play?” “Well I wrote this play cuz blah blah blah.” “But why?” “But why? “But why?” And if you keep backing up those ‘whys’ long enough you get to a point where your response becomes emotional, not intellectual. And that’s what we try—what we all try—to do, I think, in our work.
RAIL: You’re an established playwright and actor, and you’re now co-artistic director of the LAB, one of the most highly regarded theater companies in NYC. What made you decide to take on this project with this young company and this young writer?
GUIRGIS: Well, as an artist I think it’s important that you change things up and try different things. The idea of helping a young writer to give birth to a play, and then to direct a young company of actors and help them realize part of their vision of, you know, of having a theater company that produces their own work is exciting to me.
And then, secondarily . . . it’s important that there are people at all stages of their careers working together. I gain a lot from working with a new writer. Young writers haven’t been brainwashed with what’s right and what’s wrong. So they can come up with things that are really fresh because nobody told them the rules. Young producers are inspiring because they help remind you that it’s about the act of creation. So working with enthusiastic people united for a purpose is just, it’s all to my benefit, but then also to pass it on.
What do they say? “It takes a village to raise a child.” If I can have some small part in helping to raise the child that’s Melanie’s play, and if in a few years Melanie will help someone else too, and meanwhile there’s someone else that’s helping me to raise my next child—my next play with LAByrinth—then everybody…we’re all connected. We’re all connected whether we acknowledge it or not. So that’s the reason to do something like this, right? I mean, what’s the reason to start a company? What’s the reason for producers to choose a new writer as opposed to like—you know, there’s a lot of writers out there. It’s about making commitments to each other and taking risks, and taking ownership. That’s really, this is really exciting. So why wouldn’t I want to be part of it?
Now I’m gonna go talk to the actors.
Kiss Me on the Mouth, by Melanie Angelina Maras, directed by Stephen Adly Guirgis, produced by InViolet Repertory Theater, runs November 3-21 at Center Stage (48 W. 21st Street, Manhattan). For tickets, visit invioletrep.com or call 212-352-2101.
Michael Benjamin is an actor, musician, and occasional writer who lives in Brooklyn.