Interview with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Doug Wright, Writer of 'Quills' Opening at Max and Louie Productions
Max and Louie Productions is known for producing bold, brave plays, and their next offering is no exception. “Quills,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doug Wright, is the wickedly witty, erotically charged play about the conflict between the imprisoned Marquis de Sade (you know, the guy that gave us the word “sadism”) and his jailers, who are charged with keeping de Sade from scribing his torrid tales with his quill.
The play runs July 31 though Aug. 17 with a Talk Back after the Aug. 1 performance with author Wright and Missouri ACLU Executive Director Jeffrey Mittman. Topics to be discussed include the role of art in society and the artist’s culpability, censorship vs. freedom of speech, and language and the power of words: Do we support absolute freedom of speech through the written word even though it may be uncomfortable or even contribute to moral degradation?
In the Obie-winning “Quills,” Wright delves into the fragile realm between morality and personal freedom, while satirizing the hypocrisy and convenience of censorship and sexuality; after all, the people who complain the loudest are often the most guilty. Wright himself has stated that he wrote “Quills” in response to conservative opposition to the arts. The play is a metaphor about the roles of censorship and pornography in modern society.
Wright’s accomplishments as a writer are too numerous to list fully, but in addition to writing the book for “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway, his play “I Am My Own Wife” won the Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award for Best Play, the Drama Desk Award, and several others. A more complete listing of Wright’s writing credits appears on the Gulf Shore Playhouse website.
ALIVE caught up with Wright while he was in residence at the Sundance Institute Theater Lab in Utah where he is working on his new play. Due to lack of reliable cell phone service, the interview was conducted by email and is reprinted here exactly as the questions were posed and answered.
ALIVE: You’ve written that “Quills” was written in response to conservative opposition to the arts. What is the danger in arts censorship?
Wright: The arts are the closest thing that any culture has to a “collective conscience;” the arts are a record of how we live, how we perceive ourselves, how we articulate human experience, and how we seek to understand one another. By its very nature, censorship limits our scope; it seeks to define a dominant narrative, often determined by an autocratic or privileged class. When works are banned or forbidden, the voices of dissidents, the economically or socially dispossessed or other seemingly marginal people are silenced. The folks who live in the margins of the culture are usually its most astute, invaluable truth-tellers; they’re also usually first to experience censorship.
ALIVE: Having been quoted as noting that both the Marquis de Sade—the central character in “Quills”—and Marcel Deschamp—the subject of your play “Interrogating the Nude”—both viewed themselves as subversive artists. Do you consider yourself a subversive artist?
Wright: Most artists, I suppose, like to think of themselves as somehow subversive! When I wrote “Quills” back in 1995, I thought it was an unruly, wild, even threatening play. But then it achieved a measure of success, and got made into a feature film by a Hollywood Studio. Similarly, my play “I Am My Own Wife” was highly unusual; it tells the story of a renegade East German transvestite who survived both the Nazis and the Cold War. It opened at a small non-profit theater in New York, then moved uptown, hit Broadway, and won some fancy prizes. Now people think of it as a “commercial property.” I guess that’s the fate of a lot of self-possessed “subversives;” we get assimilated into popular culture pretty fast these days! How can I say it? Genuine subversion has become a very challenging business…
ALIVE: In 2004, you received the Pulitzer Prize for “I Am My Own Wife,” based on Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German who killed her father when she was a young child and survived the Nazi and Communist regimes in East Berlin as a transgender person. Now, ten years later, we see the LGBT community gaining significant ground towards acceptance with the right to marry being granted in several states, greater visibility, etc. How do you think the arts have contributed to changing the narrative regarding LGBTs?
Wright: So many working artists are gay and lesbian; it’s inevitable, I think, that we’d play a part in the evolution of LGBTQ issues. Sometimes I worry that the theater is a musty, old-fashioned medium that lacks socio-political relevance; I fret that I’m the quaint equivalent of a glass-blower or a Gothic stone carver. But then I think of plays like my friend Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” or Moises’ Kaufman’s groundbreaking “The Laramie Project,” and I’m reassured. Theater still has the power, I think, to educate and change attitudes. For several years running, “The Laramie Project” was one of the most produced plays in the country, and now it’s routinely done in high schools. Kids in drama class know what it’s like to walk in Matthew Shephard’s shoes. It teaches them to be more empathetic and humane.
ALIVE: You also wrote the book for Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” which on its surface would seem wildly different from your other work, except you focused not on Ariel’s longing for her prince, but her longing for a world in which she feels truly realized in her own terms. Isn’t that really what many of your other characters want? Isn’t that what we all want?
Wright: Ha! When I was interviewing at Disney, I remember saying, “Come on, guys. Ursula the Sea Witch and the Marquis de Sade have plenty in common! I’m the guy for the job!” It may sound like a stretch, but I’ve always been moved by the stories of outsiders; people who feel they don’t fit in the world, and have to redefine it on their own terms. Edie Beale was a die-hard maverick; she was trapped in her mother’s crumbling mansion, but still saw herself as a glamorous showgirl. Charlotte von Mahsldorf was born a man, but saw herself as a German hausfrau. And Ariel is a mermaid who dreams of running on land. Each heroine is reaching for some imagined, impossible ideal. And that’s inexplicably moving to me.
ALIVE: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
Wright: Sure. I’m at the Sundance Institute Theater Lab in Utah, where I’ve developed three of my plays in the past. Right now, I’m working on a new drama about the last portrait sitting of the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It will premiere off-Broadway in New York at the Atlantic Theater in early 2015. In his own way, Ibsen was another irascible outsider; it’s been fun to grapple with him not as a playwright, but as a cantankerous, brilliant, gloriously flawed human being.
“Quills” will be performed July 31 – Aug. 17 at the Wool Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For tickets and information visit the Max and Louie website.
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