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Playwright-screenwriter John Guare talks shop on Omaha visit celebrating his acclaimed “Six Degrees of Separation”


Back when the Great Plains Theatre Conference and its founder Jo Ann McDowell brought in a veritable who’s-who of American theater, playwright John Guare was one of those luminary figures who came and dazzled locals. The following story I wrote for the City Weekly was based on a phone interview I did with the artist. The Omaha appearance referenced in the story was not for the festival itself, but for a production of his play Six Degrees of Separation by the Blue Barn Theatre. Guare made himself available to the cast and crew and was reportedly quite impressed with the production. I saw the show directed by Susan Clement Toberer and I must say it was well done.

 

 

 

 

Playwright-screenwriter John Guare talks shop on Omaha visit celebrating his acclaimed “Six Degrees of Separation”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the City Weekly

 

Metropolitan Community College president Jo Ann McDowell’s world class theater ties made possible this weekend’s Omaha appearance by celebrated New York playwright John Guare. Guare is a Tony, Obie and New York Drama Critics Circle Award winner. He’s coming here at McDowell’s express invitation to discuss his best known work, Six Degrees of Separation (1990).

He’ll be in residence at MCC’s Fort Omaha campus, host of the May 26-June 4 Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC) that McDowell co-directs with Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Albee. Guare can’t make that event, but his April visit is a nod to the theater colony McDowell’s forging at Metro and a preview of the GPTC, which is all about craft.

In Omaha Guare will introduce the Blue Barn Theatre’s April 21 production of Six Degrees and participate in a talkback session. On April 22 at Metro he’ll present a noon screening of the same-titled 1993 film he adapted from his own play and attend a 1:30 p.m. reception.

By phone, Guare discussed his work, the state of American theater and why theater angels like McDowell are important.

Six Degrees is inspired by a real-life incident in which a young black man posing as actor Sidney Poitier’s son insinuated himself into the lives of rich, white Fifth Avenuers. The piece unfolds as a breathless tell-all that’s meant to, as Guare says, “go like the wind. It’s a story these people couldn’t wait to tell us. So urgent, we had to grab the audience by the lapels and tell it to them.” Thus, characters directly address the audience at times.

“This is really life or death that they tell this most extraordinary thing that’s come into their lives,” Guare said.

To accentuate this naked need to bare all, the staging calls for a minimalist set that exposes people in stark relief. “I just wanted to concentrate on the story and not get tied down in all naturalistic trappings,” he explained.

For the film version, which he “loved,” he never considered having characters talk to the camera. “You can’t do that. See, movies are essentially…a documentary medium. The color camera is recording documentary reality. The theater is a place of poetry, where the text creating the scenery, the lighting, the costumes creates the life of the play in our engaged, enrapt minds.”

He uses farce to express the greed, ego, white guilt and fear behind these WASPish “victims” compulsive retelling of events. “We see how the story helps them rise up the social scale as more and more people want to hear this story,” he said. “Their main fear is losing their life(style). That they’re just one step ahead of the sheriff.”

Laid bear is the human conceit of ever knowing someone different than ourselves.

 

 

 

 

Even when he focuses on lower class denizens, as in his play The House of Blue Leaves or his screenplay Atlantic City, his work is about lost dreams and disconnected lives. Or, as he puts it, “what people tell themselves in order to get through the day and what happens when that gets challenged, and that’s the same thing whether it’s people in the trailer park or on Fifth Avenue.”

Desperation drives his characters. He’s written that “avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy and probably of our lives.” Otherwise, he leaves the idea of his themes “for critics.”

He enjoys farce. “Well, I just love to laugh. I mean, I love the freedom. You come to the theater to let down your guard and there’s no better way to let down your guard than through laughter,” he said. That liberation allows him to express our modern hysteria. “That’s exactly it,” he said. “I think we live in farcical times.”

That’s not to say all his works are farces. “My Lydie Breeze play are certainly not farces,” he said, “although they have farcical elements in them. You don’t write out of the same mode every time. It’s what the material demands. And that’s what makes it hard for critics because you keep changing your hats all the time. You have to keep changing your hats so you don’t become bored or become stale.”

He adores Omaha native Swoosie Kurtz. She won a Tony for Blue Leaves “and was brilliant,” he said, filling in for Stockard Channing in Six Degrees. He knew this was Kurtz’s hometown, but was surprised it’s the adopted home of playwright Megan Terry (Viet Rock), a Yale Fellow with he and Sam Shepard in 1966. Terry, a veteran of New York’s Open Theatre, was playwright-in-residence at the Omaha Magic Theatre. “I have very fond memories of Megan,” he said. His only previous stop in Nebraska came on a ‘64 cross-country road trip. When he couldn’t pay a speeding fine, he holed up at a Lincoln Y until friends sent him the money.

 

Swoosie Kurtz house of blue leaves

Swoosie Kurtz in The House of Blue Leaves

 

 

Guare’s also well aware Omaha’s a theater haven thanks in part to Metro’s Jo Ann McDowell, whom he credits for nurturing American theater.

“I’ll tell you something,” he said. “Jody is an absolute fountainhead of inspiration. You should know how lucky Omaha is to have Jody, who is this force of nature about ensuring there’ll be a future and bringing the generations together and getting the best out of everybody.”

He said figures like McDowell are vital given the “perilous state” of theater in America, where “things are difficult because the arts get meager support from the government compared to every other nation in the Western civilized world.”

 

McDowell.jpg

Jo Ann McDowell

 

 

Events like the Great Plains allow established artists such as himself to pass the torch. “You’re passing it on,” he said. “You have to let young people know there’s a theater out there waiting for them. I love teaching. I love working with other playwrights.” The Queens native has taught at Yale and previously at Harvard and New York University. He began the playwrighting program at Juilliard.

Despite challenges, he’s encouraged by what lies ahead for theater. “There’s work today that’s absolutely thrilling,” he said. “A student of mine at Yale named Terrell McCraney is just the future. He’s just a magnificent young writer.”

Guare and his wife Adele Chatfield-Taylor live in New York and, for three months each year, in Rome, Italy, where she’s president of the American Academy, a center for artists and scholars doing independent study. Located on 11 acres on the highest part of Rome, he’ll be at work there while the GPTC unfolds here. He has a new play opening at New York’s Public Theater next season.


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