The Playwright’s Playground: The Lonely and The Brave -‘Marie Antoinette’ Playwright David Adjmi Discusses Audience Engagement and the Rigors of Writing a Memoir by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins

There is great passion and intensity with Award-winning Playwright, David Adjmi. “I want to be able to live up to my ambition. I want to feel that I can be a part of the theater in a significant way.” The original, distinctive work of Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette opens the 2014 -2015 season at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. In Part I of The Playwright’s Playground, Adjmi chronicles his contemporary take on the young queen of France, and the parallels in America and the world today.

David Adjmi, Playwright
David Adjmi, Playwright

In Part II of our conversation, David Adjmi shares intimate insights about his writing process, audience engagement, and the joy of writing of his upcoming memoir. “Writing the book is actually one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It’s unbelievable how much I love to do it. But it’s so hard,” says Adjmi.

The life of a playwright is at times a lonely one. Adjmi wrote six plays back to back, the last play being Marie Antoinette in 2006. Adjmi breaks down the rigors of his writing schedule, and with descriptive emotion talks about solitude, burnout and the difficult times when he considered quitting playwriting. “The truth is I was burnt out. I had written many, many plays back to back and I was exhausted,” he said.

Writing is not only personal for David Adjmi it is something that is deeply passionate and all encompassing. In the process of writing a play he says,

“I feel more myself than I have ever felt. It feels like the pinnacle of me being a person.”

Sydney-Chanele: As a Playwright how interested are you in audience engagement? How important of a consideration does the audience play in your creation of a play?

David: I revere (Wallace) Wally Shawn, and he has this quote that says, “the main character in my plays is you” – meaning the audience. I really am fascinated with this notion of the engagement – the sort of strange civic, communal, somehow subliminal, subconscious engagement in the dark – between this mass of people looking at these people on stage.

What happens? What transpires there? How does that become transformative for everybody? I am fascinated with that question. I’ve had experiences like that where something happened. Something changed, or broke, or shifted, when I was watching this play with these groups of people and then I left changed. It’s happened a few times in my life. I’m fascinated with how that works and what it means. The audience is so crucial in the making of a play.

Sydney-Chanele: Your dramas are intriguing. There is always that feeling of ‘breakthrough’ and the breaking down of walls and bringing us fully present.

David: Yes. That’s the hope that you open up that kind of Dionysian channel. There is something quite wonderful – and I’m really playing with this in my new play that I’m working on right now. I did a lot of engagement with the audience and I also did that with my play with Zoe Caldwell in New York where I scripted all of this interaction with the audience.

Was this the Elective Affinities production?

[Elective Affinities premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company and received a U.S. premiere at Soho Rep starring Zoe Caldwell.]

Yes. That was a magical, magical experience and I thought, ‘I want to keep working with this thing.’

Is that one of the reasons why you like writing plays and became a playwright? To have the ability to become deeply involved in the process, and to work with directors, actors and audiences to help shape what you have written. 

Yes, in the theater you own the play. It’s my copyright. In film in television I don’t own it, so I have to sell it. It’s a very, very different thing. So with the theater I’m much more involved. Legally, if they don’t say every word that I’ve written in the script I can’t have a production shut down. It’s a legal thing. That’s very important to me, because if I invest so much of myself – which I do – I really need to feel protected. It makes it much more artistically fulfilling. Absolutely.

Well said, and that makes total sense. David, you studied and majored in Philosophy in college. Did you still know at that time that you wanted to playwright?

I did. I knew it, but I had a lot of anxiety around it I think because I care so much about it. I have so much reverence for the theater. It makes me very anxious because I want to be able to live up to my ambition.

I want to feel that I can be apart of the theater in a significant way. I’ve always wanted that but I never knew if I could do it.

It sounds like you revere artists and it’s a matter of living up to all that means to you.

Very much. I would avoid writing for many, many years. Then there was a Philosophy teacher at school that said, “David, if you’re going to do theater it must be now. Stop putting it off.” I was going to go into this other program for Philosophy, and she said, “If you do that then that’s what you’re going to do. But if you want to be a playwright you have to do it now.” I said, “O.K.”

And boy, did you. You went from Sarah Lawrence to the University of Iowa (the Iowa Playwrights Workshop), and then to Julliard. We hear so little about how specific playwriting skills are honed by training. Explain to me what the training at the University of Iowa and Julliard did for you.

The University of Iowa was where I really learned how to be a playwright. It was just unbelievably invaluable for me because I thought I didn’t need the training. I thought, oh I know what I’m doing, I have this grasp of language and I can figure it out on my own. But I actually learned about discipline first of all because they had you writing so much.

The way Iowa worked at the time I was there is that they had some permanent faculty members, and then they had a group artists who would come in for a month, a week, two weeks . . . and we would get incredible artists like Athol Fugard, Anne Bogart, and on and on – ten to thirteen people a year to do workshops and study with. I was exposed to so many different ways of approaching craft, process, and ways of approaching theater and what a theatrical event is.

It was very heterogeneous. We were all very different writers. I went to school with Kirsten Greenidge and Allison Moore was in my class. And, we didn’t have a “guru” – someone saying “do it this way.” They just said, “Here’s how I do it and see if anything resonates with you.” I thought that was really incredible. I don’t like the approach when people say, “here’s a character, here’s the obstacle, here’s their action,” very much like something you read out of a book. I just knew that’s really not good for me. It’s good for later when I’m re-writing. I look at my characters and obstacles and actions and all that. But when I’m making something, it’s way too mysterious. They really respected that at Iowa.

At Julliard, it was great and a lot of it was talking about the business of being a playwright. It wasn’t so much an instructional program but we would get a lot of stuff in the trenches. We’d bring in work once a week and read it – that really is the core of the program – this one three-hour workshop every week. It was like a writer’s group, very informal. I was there for one year and was at the University of Iowa for three years. So they’re both really great in different ways.

I want to talk about time and process. It’s been eight years since you’ve written Marie Antoinette or a new play. What did you do in those eight years in terms of writing?

Kimberly Gilbert. Courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
Kimberly Gilbert. Photo by Stan Barouh

It would seem like I gave up playwriting. What happened was I wrote about six plays back to back over the course of eighteen months very, very quickly. Marie Antoinette was the last of the six. Then none of them got done. And, I thought O.K. I’m giving up. As soon as I gave up, suddenly I was going to Sundance, I had a production at Yale Rep., and I had my first production at Woolly with Stunning (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Lincoln Center Theater, 2009.) I got the Whiting Award, I got the Guggenheim, and suddenly everything started to snowball and I got a production at Lincoln Center in New York.

I found myself rewriting these drafts of plays that I had done very quickly. They were very big plays. Stunning is three acts. The Evildoers is three acts. So I just had a lot of rewriting work that needed to be done. After that, I thought O.K. now I’m really going to quit. I got a book deal with Harper Collins, which I’m still working on that book. It’s a memoir that I’m writing.

Is that book not coming out later this year?

(David laughs.) I’m still working on it. It’ll probably be the following year. I’m not sure when exactly. I have so much I’m working on.

You’re busy writing plays! As well you should be.

The book is thrilling. Writing the book is actually one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It’s unbelievable how much I love to do it. But it’s so hard.

So I’m doing the book. I wrote a couple of screenplays, and I wrote a couple of television pilots. I’ve tried to break into that thing and I have kind of started to break in, so I’m developing some TV stuff. Now I have all of these play commissions, so now I am doing everything… SoHo Rep – I am developing a play for them.

I realize the time that I thought I was going to quit the theater was because I felt angry and so neglected.

When was this? Was this after Marie Antoinette opened at Soho Rep?

No, I wrote Marie Antoinette in 2006, so it was written even before the Sofia Coppola film was out. Once the Coppola film came out, I realized, “Oh, crap.” I haven’t seen the film but I know about resonances and the approach to the character and I thought, “This is bad.” Then no one would do the play because the film was kind of reviled. Her film came out in 2006, six months after I had written this play. After 2006, I thought, “I’m giving up.” Then in 2007, everything happened.

Isn’t it interesting how timing just works out in its own kind of way? It shows us that we are not in control. There’s a higher force at work.

It’s hilarious actually. It’s like a big cosmic joke. Every time I say I’m done – a door opens. It is only after I am brought to my knees by the universe, that suddenly the door opens. There are other forces in place. Absolutely. You have to respect that.

The truth is I was burnt out. I had written many, many plays back to back and I was exhausted. I have given so much of myself emotionally. I have very complete emotional experiences when I write and it’s draining. I got very sick. In 2005, I got very ill and I think that it was because I was so drained and exhausted, and I hadn’t made any money writing these plays. So I was living off of almost nothing. It was very, very difficult.

You are so highly motivated, but it sounds like you just needed a break from that work rhythm.

Yes, Yes. You know I would sob every day – these characters are in a lot of pain, a lot of them.

Are you saying that you go through the emotional life of the characters your writing about?

Very intensely, to the point where it really made me sick. In my plays people are dying, killing themselves – it’s very intense and very life or death.

Let’s talk more specifically about your writing: your writing process and your daily writing routine. What are your day-to-day writing challenges? What is a typical day for you in terms of your process?

It all varies depending what I’m working on and what I feel I need. As for the process for the play I’m working on now, I get up at 5:30am in the morning, and go to a café (because I’m in Los Angeles.) I’m there at 6:00am and I usually write for about four hours and then I take a break. Then I write for a few more hours. Then I take a break, and then I work on my book.

So I am usually writing all day and night, but I have breaks that I have to throughout the day just because I have to because I am so behind on everything.

It sounds like you are still really pushing yourself. I read at one point you were working on two plays a day. In the morning you would work on a new play or rewrites and in the evening you would work on the other. What is that breakdown today? How much time do you allocate for rewrites?

(There’s a sigh and slight laugh)… When I come to it. Right now… I can’t actually create two things at the same time. I don’t have enough bandwidth for that. But I can do rewrites on the book while I’m making the play. Then once I finish the play, I’ll do rewrites on that. Then, I’ll be developing something else.

It’s really not my favorite way to work.

My challenge really is focus. I’m very ADD and I also get very overwhelmed with the intensity of my emotion, feelings, and thoughts when I am working. I’ll go, “Whoa.” It’s almost like I’m looking directly into the sunlight, like I need to get away from this and take a breath and walk around.

Such intensity – you are literally writing all day. Are you actually at the café in the evening too?

Sometimes. Sometimes, I go back to different cafes – sometimes you get fatigued in one place and I need to shake it up. Usually for my book I have to write at home because I can’t focus. It requires too much of a certain kind of focus.

Writing a play I actually benefit from a tiny bit of distraction because for some reason there is just something about dialogue that it’s O. K. I don’t like my characters making too much sense and I like them to have jagged arcs. So it’s O.K.

Right. It’s more authentic. That’s how real people talk. 

I love it. I love it when they make a non sequitur that I don’t design. Sometimes it’s too much, and I edit it.

How do you balance your rigorous writing life with a personal life?

I don’t have a personal life right now. I literally haven’t seen anyone in weeks. I can at times manage it depending on where I’m at with my schedule. It’s a struggle. Right now I’m really at a place in my life where I feel like I’m in an isolation tank. It’s just very strange. I think this will come to an end at some point, but I need to do this right now. I’ve got to keep pushing.

Writing a book is just… I don’t know how people write books. I think of Joyce Carol Oats and I am completely gobsmacked. She can turn out a book every year and it’s just unbelievable, because it’s so comprehensive. You’re basically doing the scene for the costumes, the set, acting, everything. You’re doing everything, the whole thing. It’s very, very immersive in a way that is very unusual for me. I love it but it’s also very hard.

Well if nothing else, it has to be mentally draining at times because your writing something autobiographical – your memoirs. There’s no detachment if you are going to be honest. How has it been for you?

I am the main character of my book. So it’s a version of me. Someone gave me a book by Vivian Gornick called The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, its for nonfiction writers, and it states when you’re writing a memoir you have to create a persona for yourself. You can’t just be you. That was really, really helpful.

The writing is challenging but rewarding. When you come to a point in your story when you have to confront something about yourself it’s terrifying. My characters can handle it better than me.

Kimberly Gilbert as 'Marie Antoinette'. Show pictures by Stan Barouh
Kimberly Gilbert as Marie Antoinette. Photo by Stan Barouh

So is this David Adjmi saying, ‘Plays are easier to write than memoirs’?

Oh my God. I don’t want to say that right now because this play ( a new commissioned play) is making me completely crazy. It’s so hard. It’s all hard. But this book, is it more, yes. I have never experienced anything like this.


Marie Antoinette plays through October 12, 2014 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

The Playwright’s Playground: Part I – The Lonely and the Brave – David Adjmi by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

Marie Antoinette review on DCMetroTheaterArts by Robert Michael Oliver.

The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwrights and artists in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Column, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights and artistic teams in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art. Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


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