Catching Up With… Neil LaBute
Neil LaBute, Featured Guest for Season 6 opening show, Racial Madness took some time out of his busy day to talk with us about the life of a writer.
Photo by Aaron Eckhart
As a fellow writer I can admit that people have confused me with my characters and made assumptions about me that were incorrect, which has been frustrating. What’s been your experience with that and what advice do you have for emerging writers who are dealing with that?
IT’S A FUNNY THING THAT YOU MENTION IN YOUR QUESTION–THE ASSOCIATION OF ARTIST WITH THEIR WORK–AND THAT’S A THING THAT JUST MAY BE INESCAPABLE FOR AN ARTIST NO MATTER WHAT THEY DO TO COMBAT IT. THE BEST REMEDY FOR IT IS TO NOT WORRY ABOUT IT AND TO MOVE FORWARD (ALTHOUGH THAT’S MY ADVICE WITH MOST THINGS, FROM BAD REVIEWS TO BAD RELATIONSHIPS TO BAD MEALS). EVER FORWARD. I THINK THOSE OF US IN PARTICULAR WHO WRITE ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS ARE MOST OPEN TO THIS ASSUMPTION/CRITICISM AND THAT’S JUST THE WAY IT GOES; HARD FOR ME TO IMAGINE THAT PEOPLE WHO DABBLE IN OUTLANDISH COMIC SITUATIONS OR HIGHLY STYLIZED WORKS OR ART WOULD FACE THE SAME SCRUTINY ABOUT BEING THE CHARACTERS THAT WE WRITE OR CREATE OR PORTRAY BUT MAYBE THAT ALSO HAPPENS. IN THE END, I JUST DON’T REALLY CARE ABOUT ALL THAT AND FEEL THAT THOSE KINDS OF THINGS ARE BEST LEFT TO THE PEOPLE WITH THAT KIND OF TIME ON THEIR HANDS TO KILL. I’D RATHER WRITE A NEW PLAY THAN SPECULATE ON WHICH CHARACTER IN TOP GIRLS CARYL CHURCHILL IS MOST LIKE. TO ME, ONE ACT IS CREATIVE WHILE THE OTHER IS A WASTE OF TIME.
You’re a writer known for taking on challenging material as well as having a facility with comedy. When you work on something what is your process deciding subject and style? I realize that can vary depending on many factors, but if so what are those factors?
I DO AS LITTLE AS I CAN TO DICTATE WHAT I WRITE AND HOW I WRITE IT. MANY OF THE MEDIUMS I WORK IN–PARTICULARLY TELEVISION AND FILM–ARE VERY DICTATORIAL IN THEIR PRESENTATION, FORCING AN AUDIENCE MEMBER TO LOOK AT THIS OR THAT (BY VIRTUE OF SHOT SELECTION AND EDITING AND VARIOUS OTHER TECHNIQUES) SO IN THE THEATRE I TRY TO BE AS REMOVED FROM THE PROCESS AS POSSIBLE. OF COURSE I’M THERE WRITING IT ALL BUT I RARELY CONSCIOUSLY SET OUT TO WRITE A ‘COMEDY’ OR A ‘DRAMA’ OR SOMETHING ABOUT SUCH-AND-SUCH THEME. I FIND PEOPLE I WANT TO SPEND TIME WITH, DOING THINGS I FIND INTERESTING, AND THEN OFF WE GO. I DO A BIT OF WORK UP FRONT AND SOMETIMES EVEN KNOW WHERE I’LL END UP BUT AS FOR HOW MANY LAUGHS THERE WILL BE ALONG THE WAY OR WHETHER OR NOT IT TAKES A DRAMATIC TURN LATE IN THE GAME IS ANYBODY’S GUESS INCLUDING MY OWN. I WANT TO SURPRISE MYSELF AS I WRITE AND I WANT TO SURPRISE AUDIENCES WHILE THEY WATCH–NOT IN A CHEAP WAY (ALTHOUGH I HAVE DONE THAT BEFORE, TOO), BUT IN THE WAY THAT LIFE SURPRISES US EVERY DAY OF OUR LIVES.
For many playwrights today we are well acquainted with the reality that being a playwright is not a viable career choice if you’re looking for financial stability. The frontiers of TV and Film call to many playwrights. Do you have any insights into collaborating in those worlds for other playwrights who are considering them?
IF YOU LOVE WRITING, THEN WRITE. FIND A WAY TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THOSE MEDIUMS AND TRY TO DO IT ON YOUR OWN TERMS (OR AS MUCH ON YOUR OWN TERMS AS YOU CAN). IF YOU’RE NOT WRITING MUSICALS, THERE’S A CHANCE THAT IT WILL ALWAYS BE HARD FOR YOU TO MAKE A LIVING AS A WRITER IN THE THEATER. I HAVE LIVED WITH THIS TRUTH FOR MOST OF MY CAREER AND TRIED TO EMBRACE IT RATHER THAN FIGHT IT. I’VE MADE MOVIES AND I’VE ADAPTED BOOKS AND I’VE RE-MADE MOVIES AND I’VE DIRECTED OTHER PEOPLES’ SCRIPTS AND CREATED MY OWN TV SERIES AND ALL THE WHILE CONTINUED TO WRITE AND DIRECT PLAYS. YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE JUST ONE THING BUT IT’S ALL HARD WORK AND YOU SHOULD TRY TO DO YOUR BEST. THAT’S ABOUT ALL ONE CAN DO. THEIR VERY BEST. I LOVE WHAT I DO AND I TRY TO DO GOOD WORK AND I KNOW THAT I HAVE TO TEACH OR WORK IN OTHER MEDIUMS TO BE A FULL-TIME WRITER. IT’S A FACT FOR MOST OF US WHO DON’T WIN THE LOTTERY OR HAVE TRUST FUNDS OR DON’T MIND LIVING IN SQUALOR OR WITH SOMEONE ELSE. THERE ARE MANY LITTLE TRICKS TO LEARN IN EACH MEDIUM BUT ALL OF THEM ARE FORGIVING OF TALENT AND A GOOD SCRIPT USUALLY RISES TO THE TOP OF SOME PILE IN THE END. ‘KEEP AT IT,’ THAT’S MY ADVICE.
Very often your plays deal with intimate human relationships rather than being what some might call issue plays, but I would argue in the words of Shulamith Firestone that, “the personal is political.” Do you see yourself as being a ‘political writer’ and how do you feel about that title?
I’M INTERESTED IN HUMAN POLITICS–THE POLITICS OF ‘HE AND SHE AND WE AND THEY.’ VERY FEW OF MY PLAYS ARE PUT INTO A CONTEXT OF WORLD EVENTS OR A TIME PERIOD THAT DATES AND CONNECTS THEM TO SPECIFIC EVENTS (THE MERCY SEAT BEING ONE OF THE FEW EXCEPTIONS ON MY RESUME). I OFTEN TALK OF NOT WRITING WITH ‘THEME’ IN MIND AND YET I HAVE WRITTEN ABOUT RACE AND SEXUALITY AND GENOCIDE AND CENSORSHIP AND ALL KINDS OF THINGS THAT DON’T HAVE TO DO WITH JUST MEN AND WOMEN TRYING TO GET ALONG WITH EACH OTHER. STILL, EVEN IN THE FACE OF SOME GLOBAL CRISIS I USUALLY FIND MYSELF (AS BOTH A PERSON AND A WRITER) TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT MAKES A CERTAIN PERSON IN THAT CRISIS TICK RATHER THAN THE LARGER EVENTS THAT CAUSED THE CRISIS IN THE FIRST PLACE. THAT’S JUST MY NATURE–I’M DRAWN TO THE HUMAN SIDE OF THINGS. AS FOR TITLES, I REJECT MOST OF THEM WHETHER THEY’RE GOOD OR BAD. I JUST WANT TO WRITE A LOT AND DO MY THING. I DON’T NEED A NAME BADGE OR A TITLE OR A LITTLE CERTIFICATE THAT SAID I WAS A ‘PARTICIPANT’ WHEN THIS IS ALL OVER.
What projects do you have coming up that you are excited to tell us about?
I HAVE A NEW PLAY THAT IS BEING READ AT MCC AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER CALLED HOW TO FIGHT LONELINESS AND I’M IN THE MIDDLE OF WRITING ANOTHER TELEVISION SERIES. I HAVE A COUPLE MOVIE SCRIPTS THAT ARE FLOATING AROUND BUT I DON’T CHASE AFTER THEM LIKE I USED TO–MOVIEMAKING IS A YOUNG MAN’S GAME AND I LOVE THE STAGE MOST OF ALL SO IF I CAN DO A LITTLE OF ALL THESE THINGS THEN I’LL COUNT MYSELF A LUCKY MAN INDEED. I ALSO HAVE A NEW COLLECTION OF SHORT PLAYS AND MONOLOGUES COMING OUT BEFORE CHRISTMAS CALLED EXHIBIT ‘A’ WHICH IS VERY FUN BUT HARDLY A STOCKING STUFFER. IN FACT, IT’S PROBABLY BETTER FOR THOSE KIDS WHO USUALLY GET COAL IN THEIR STOCKINGS…