Richard Greenberg is one of America’s most prolific and respected playwrights, having won the Tony Award for his coming-out saga set around professional baseball, Take Me Out. He’s also something of a poster child for the kind of new-play development fostered at South Coast Repertory, where his latest effort, Our Mother’s Brief Affair, is having its world premiere. (See New Reviews.) SCR is the last nonprofit regional theater in Southern California to remain true to a long-standing commitment to develop new plays. Our Mother’s Brief Affair marks Greenberg’s 10th world premiere at the Costa Mesa theater. All of those plays were commissioned. Greenberg’s first commission was in 1986. He claims he didn’t actually turn in that play, The Extra Man, for several years. SCR produced it in 1991.
“Nobody complained,” Greenberg says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Give us something.’ Even back then, they were unusual. They say, ‘Just write the play you would have written anyway’”— on the condition that SCR has the first right of refusal to produce it. “I hesitate to call myself one of the privileged ones,” Greenberg adds, “but they took me on early, and that’s what was good about SCR, that their money went to commissioning young playwrights, promising playwrights, and they still do that.”
(The theater’s 2009 Pacific Playwrights Festival is under way, with full productions of two plays — including Greenberg’s — that were tried out in prior festivals. PPF’s heart and soul — readings and workshops of newly commissioned plays — begins in early May.)
Greenberg says he survived as a playwright by “catering to the most neurotic aspect of my personality; I resisted the most maligned aspects of the developmental process. When I went to [Yale] drama school, everyone there would have to comment on what you’d done. I had three years of that, and I thought, ‘I’m done with that now.’ It seems that the hurdle you have to jump over is everyone’s informed opinion. When you’re a young playwright, you’re probably too precarious in your own technique to understand that when these seemingly informed opinions are contradicting each other, it becomes this paralyzing monolith.”
Greenberg says he’s seen plays wrecked by too much development. “When a consensus does emerge, a play becomes the average of one experience. The best parts of a play can be its flaws.”
Greenberg deliberately constructedOur Mother’s Brief Affair as two plays in one, concerning the relationship of a male gay obit writer and his lesbian sister during the last days of their mother’s life. The dying woman may be delusional, or she may simply be making stuff up, but she reveals details of an affair long ago that, if true, would cement her place in the annals of world history.
“You think it’s about a family, and then it becomes an investigation,” Greenberg explains.
The author collects ideas like detritus. “A few kept recurring to me,” he says, recalling how the play came together, “and they suddenly became members of a family, and enough tension developed among them to form the basis of a play.
“I have an approach that’s so lenient, I have to change it. I don’t write a play from beginning to end. I don’t write an outline. I write scenes and moments as they occur to me. And I still write on a typewriter. It’s not all in ether. It’s on pages. I sequence them in a way that tends to make sense. Then I write what’s missing, and that’s my first draft.”
This creative process is why he has trouble with the studio system of screenplays, he says. “I always felt, well, this [the studio system] is a lie, because I never knew exactly where my ideas are going.”
Suffice it to say, they’re going to Costa Mesa.
Our Mother’s Brief Affair is presented at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, through May 3. (714) 708-5555.