Five minutes with Bruce Norris – author of CLYBOURNE PARK

jacket image of Clybourne Park

Bruce Norris’s raucously funny and fearlessly shocking racial satire Clybourne Park opened in the West End this week. Since its UK debut at the Royal Court Theatre in 2010, the play has received widespread critical acclaim – hailed as ‘the funniest play of the year’ (Evening Standard), ‘genius’ (Times) and ‘out of this world’ (Independent) – and has already scooped all of the prestigious theatre awards. We tracked down the author in his native USA to ask him a few burning questions, exclusively for the NHB blog…! 

 

Clybourne Park dares to confront the submerged racism of its characters, black as well as white, in a potentially explosive way. Do you think it important to provoke audiences in the theatre as well as make them laugh?

I’m not sure whether or not it’s important, per se, it’s just what I enjoy. I’ve always been argumentative by nature and so anything that might potentially cause a fight in the theatre amuses me, as long as fists aren’t used. I had a friend say to me recently, “you should never say mean things to people because words can hurt as much as a fist.” I asked her if she’d ever been hit by a fist? She said no, so I said then maybe someone should hit you so that you’d have proper basis for your comparison.

How have you found British audiences have reacted to the play? Has there been a notable difference to the reaction in the US?

I think that what’s surprising is that the reactions have been remarkably consistent. I think that that’s because theatre-going audiences in the US and the UK draw upon a similar constituency: Well-educated, privileged and (primarily) white people.  Conservatives also go to the theatre in both places, but they go to see shows like The Lion King or Jersey Boys. Conservatives prefer musicals, (or failing that, Shakespeare) and that’s because they know full well that the creators of the kind of theatre you’d see at the Royal Court are, by and large, liberal – sometimes in the extreme – and they (the conservatives) don’t want to go somewhere only to be preached at by people with different opinions. I don’t blame them; I’d hate to go see a play by some conservative bastard whose opinions I despised. The only problem with all of that is, when there is no political or cultural disagreement in an audience it makes for a rather bland experience where our values are simply reconfirmed by the play that we see.  So I find it interesting to explore what would potentially divide or upset a mono-culturally liberal audience – and liberals, currently, are rather easy to upset, both in the US and UK because we’ve been effectively silenced by a dominant center-right coalition for several decades, and are thus, unsurprisingly, a little edgy.

What are your views on the American model of funding theatre (e.g. private finance/philanthropy), and do you think the British Government is right to encourage the UK’s subsidised arts sector to adopt this model?

That’s a really tricky question. Obviously we theatre people over here in the US are ridiculously jealous of your system and would benefit enormously from having some (less paltry) government subsidy for the Arts. If American theatre actors could make a comparable living to London theatre actors they’d be dancing in the streets.  The problem for me (and this is where I become slightly – oh god, dare I say it? – conservative) is that, in order to advocate for government money to be placed in service of the theatre, I’d have to believe that theatre – including the theatre I create – was some kind of social necessity that justified taking away tax dollars from housing programs or education or health care for those who can’t get it via other means. I’m just not sure theatre is important than those things. Correction: I know it’s not. Of course, others would say but your tax dollars are already going to support unjustified wars…Yes, true. But I don’t think that funding one can contradict the other. I don’t think that theatre promotes political change; I think you’d be hard-pressed to show me a real, concrete example of how it does. Moreover, I think that if you’re looking to theatre to effect political change you’ve chosen the most inefficient means possible. I think theatre reflects and responds to the world we live in, rather than leading it. So, how do you justify its funding at the governmental level?

On the other hand, you’ve got the US model. Here’s an interesting fact: The Chairwoman (or -person) of the Board of Directors at Playwrights Horizons (the theatre where Clybourne Park had its premiere), the woman principally responsible for raising money from various corporate entities to fund the existence of that theatre, is married to…former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, formerly a board member of Goldman Sachs, and arguably someone who holds partial responsibility for the mess our economy is currently in (and, it should be noted, a lovely man and a fan of my play). Yikes. How to make sense of that?  Here our economy is in free-fall, jobs lost, houses foreclosed upon, and we in the theatre are expected to somehow respond to all of this while at the same time our very existence is being made possible by the very people who put us into this situation? And so you have an entirely different question:  If the money that goes to pay our bills is drawn from the same coffers that perpetuate policies with which we disagree, how should we respond? Are we content to be jesters for a court of Medicis? Or do we attack them with our savage theatrical thrust (that was sarcasm) with the aim to somehow bring them down? And what if we could? Doesn’t Playwrights Horizons exist as a function of the largesse of the wealthy? Should we be grateful for that, or resentful? If we could somehow, through the mechanism of theatre, foment a liberal economic revolution (more sarcasm) that would somehow level the playing field, and thus redistribute some of that same largesse to some of the less fortunate, such as theatre people…wouldn’t that, then, eliminate Playwrights Horizons altogether, and simply bring us back around to the previous paragraph? I wish I knew the answer, but I don’t.

Clybourne Park is currently playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London, to 7 May 2011.

AWARDS: Evening Standard Best Play * Critics’ Circle Best New Play * South Bank Sky Arts Best New Play * NOMINATIONS: Olivier Awards – MasterCard Best New Play

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PART 5: Bruntwood Playwriting Competition 2011

image of Andrew Sheridan

Andrew Sheridan receiving his award

Andrew Sheridan is a joint-winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition for his play Winterlong – ‘a dazzling debutGuardian. Set in Manchester, the play explores what happens when a baby is discarded a few nights before Christmas. Sheridan is also an actor, and has appeared in award-winning TV, film and theatre.

How would you describe your play, Winterlong?

It’s a play that wears its heart on its sleeve. There’s no bullshit with it. It doesn’t pull any punches. It’s direct. It’s like Mancunian people. We’re direct. There’s no flannel.

So a sense of place, of belonging in Manchester is important to you as a writer?

I’m Mancunian. I write with a Mancunian voice. It’s important. It always has been. It comes from a tradition, a history of having to search for beauty in the ugly. It has to be shiny and bold and revolutionary. Full of vibrancy and expectation. It has to speak louder than other voices not because it wants to but because it has to. It doesn’t have a choice.

How have you found the experience of working with the director, Sarah Frankcom, on your play?

Sarah Frankcom is without doubt one of the most important directors working in British theatre. She has such an understanding of me as a writer. She has always believed in my play and the characters that populate it. She has never wavered in her support and vigour to direct my play with truth and honesty and daring. I would trust her with my life.

It must be strange – as an actor – to be watching other actors do the job for a change?

Going from actor to writer is slightly weird – almost like trying to walk again or learning to ride a bike. It really hit me when we started casting really. I suddenly realised that I was on the wrong side of the table, and I was so used to walking into the room and seeing these three people, the casting director, the writer and the director.

And the cast?

Every one of the actors in Winterlong is the best there is. They are quality. End of. They all bring an amazing amount individually and collectively to it. I’m so lucky. They’ve all clicked into that Manchester vibe of thinking regarding the play and how they feel about it. “We’re all doing this and we don’t care if you like it or not. We’re doing it.”

jacket image of WINTERLONG

Winterlong by Andrew Sheridan

How does it feel to have your play staged at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre?

The Exchange is where I saw my first play. The Exchange is where I got my first acting job. The Exchange is the theatre that will premiere my first play. I can’t say how much this building means to me. It creates some of this country’s strongest and most daring theatre and all the people who work there are the best there is. They are all totally sound.

How important has the Bruntwood Playwriting Competition been to you?

I think the Bruntwood is the most important new playwriting competition in this country! You can enter the competition completely anonymously. No one knows who you are. It could be your first play, it could be your fifth play, it doesn’t matter, you will be judged on the merit of what you write and that is what’s so good about the competition.

Bruntwood are doing such a good job really considering the hard times that we’re going through economically in this country and the cuts to the arts. They’re  really maintaining what’s important for new writing theatre. It’s just so important at this time that this competition continues… Well done to Bruntwood for doing it and the Royal Exchange for hosting it!

Winterlong received its world premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, February 2011. It will later transfer to Soho Theatre, London, opening on 23 February 2011.

Next week: Bruce Norris on his multi-award-winning hit Clybourne Park – now playing in the West End at the Wyndham’s Theatre until May 2011 after a sell-out run at the Royal Court.

Why Publish Plays?

Do plays need to be published in the first place? Publisher Nick Hern looks at the how and the why, and what lies ahead in the age of ebooks.

Publishing plays is an odd activity – and at Nick Hern Books we publish a lot of plays: there are about 900 in print, and we add another 60 or so each year. It’s not glamorous like fiction publishing where you can be the one who actually discovers a brilliant new novelist. Nor is it essential, as it is to most writers, for whom publication is their only means of contacting their readership. A playwright’s chief conduit of communication is – and should be – the theatre. But a play publisher does fulfil a useful function in giving permanent form to an evanescent art, and thereby allowing many more people to have some kind of experience of a play than could ever see it in the theatre.

I’m often asked who actually buys playtexts. First, and most obviously, there is the audience. I have worked hard over the years to persuade theatres who stage new plays to participate in a ‘programme/text’ scheme whereby the text appears in the same volume as the theatre’s programme pages (with cast list, actors’ biographies, programme notes etc.). Anybody who has visited the Royal Court in Sloane Square since 1980, when they first made their appearance, will have been offered one of these ‘programme/texts’. Because of economies of scale and because by delivering direct from the printer to the theatre all the middlemen are cut out, we are able to reduce costs so that a book retailing at £9.99 can be offered to theatre audiences at less than half that amount. It’s a win-win situation. The audience gets a bargain, and the play finds its way into literally thousands more hands than it would if published without such a scheme in place. And this in turn means that producers, directors, actors, and above all teachers from all over the world have access to a play that they might want to make use of later – either in the theatre or in the classroom, or both.

Most of the plays we publish are, perhaps inevitably, premiered in London (though we do work with many touring and regional theatres as well, most regularly the Traverse in Edinburgh) but we need to stay aware that not everybody can get to the one theatre performing such and such a play for a relatively short run. Antony Sher writes in Year of the King (a Nick Hern Book, needless to say) that, growing up in South Africa, he was only able to feel at all in touch with theatre in England thanks to the plays being published.

Year of the King jacket

Year of the King by Antony Sher

It is amazing, looking back over thirty years, that anybody ever discovered what books were published when we had to rely on printed catalogues and the huge, encyclopaedic annual called simply Books in Print. Now, a visit to our website or indeed to Amazon will tell you in a minute – and if you want to stay right up to date, you can even go to our homepage and sign up for our monthly e-newsletter!

Playtexts also have a ready market amongst theatre practitioners, drama teachers and students, and amateur drama groups. Then, if we’re lucky, the play will start to show up on reading lists, set book lists and, when the stars are really in alignment, on exam syllabuses, which is recently the case with Kindertransport, a play we first published when it premiered on the London Fringe in April 1993. More than seventeen years later it’s a prescribed text for GCSE English. If you are a play publisher, you are in for the long haul.

KINDERTRANSPORT jacket

Kindertransport by Diane Samuels

Plays are by no means the whole story. We have an ever-increasing library of theatre books, almost all of which are written by theatre practitioners for theatre practitioners, whether these be professional actors or drama teachers in secondary schools. But plays will probably always be our bread and butter. The first Nick Hern Book was Nicholas Wright’s play, Mrs Klein, which opened at the National Theatre in August 1988 and went on to the West End and Broadway. It was particularly pleasing to see it revived so beautifully at the Almeida just over a year ago. And who knows, maybe that revival came about because the playtext was sitting on somebody’s shelf, attracting the notice of a younger generation. I like to think so.

The first edition of Mrs Klein, and the current one

As for the future, we are always on the look out for outstanding new plays from the professional theatre and for promising ideas for new books from theatre practitioners at every level. And with digital publishing now coming of age, we are about to launch our first ebooks, amongst them Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park. Will this mean a sea-change in the rehearsal room as actors are required to bring their e-readers to rehearsal? I doubt it. But we know there’s an appetite for digital editions of our plays and theatre books, and not only amongst students.

JERUSALEM jacket

Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth

Meanwhile there’s still a lot to be said for the good, old-fashioned book. It’s a pretty good invention. You can scribble on it, pull it apart, throw it across the room at the director, what you will. You can rely on it. For many people, it’ll take some beating. So for the time being, as well as ebooks, we’ll continue to publish editions you can put on your shelf. And from time to time I remind myself that there are more plays in print today than at any previous moment in history. It’s a comforting thought.

Look out for forthcoming posts on the NHB blog: Bruce Norris on his play Clybourne Park and administering a good punch in the face; Steve Waters on getting over a bad review; plus exclusive advice from winners of the Bruntwood Playwriting Prize. Sign up for RSS now.