A Few Questions

Tracy Rowlett chats with playwright Doug Wright.

Highland Park graduate Doug Wright is awash in the lights of the Great White Way and loving every minute of it. His play Quills became an Oscar-nominated movie in 2000. I Am My Own Wife, which comes to the Dallas Theater Center this month, won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2004. But the 43-year-old playwright wasn’t always so comfortable in his own skin. He credits an HP teacher with helping to keep a gay kid sane in an environment dominated by jocks and pretty girls.

ROWLETT: Being a playwright is almost like a religious calling for you, isn’t it?
WRIGHT: I think so. When I was very young, about 8 or 9, my parents took me to a production of Life With Father at the Dallas Theater Center, and it was better than a movie because it was in three dimensions. Watching the actors living and breathing while giving us this story sparked something in me, and I knew from that age that the theater was what I wanted to pursue.

THE AUDIENCE IS WATCHING: “With my parents, my family, and my teachers, this is perhaps the most significant audience I Am My Own Wife has ever had.”

ROWLETT: You started writing plays as a kid for your siblings to act out?
WRIGHT: Yes. They were always epic melodramas. A lot of the time they were set in spooky English manor houses, with goblins and poison. Everyone died.

ROWLETT: Do you still have any of those plays?
WRIGHT: Yes. Here in New York, at a wonderful organization called The Dramatist, we read a play that I wrote when I was 11, with a sort of all-star Broadway cast. It was hilarious. It was full of some really choice lines like, “As soon as I get back to college, I’m divorcing you!”

ROWLETT: You have a bright sense of humor, but as I’ve read your plays, I’ve seen more dark humor in them. Do you write to make a social comment or to entertain?
WRIGHT: Ultimately, I think both. The most exciting moment as a writer comes when your personal concerns intersect with social and political concerns, and you blend the two in a good story and create art. Art has a social function, and it’s not simply to entertain. I think it’s to call into question the world around us. It allows us to examine, in the safe space of a darkened theater, the most troubling and pervasive questions that we can ask. Truly gratifying theater not only tickles and entertains us, but also gets under our skin.

ROWLETT: Is it easier to write plays today because you have the mechanics down, or is it more difficult because you want to say things that dig into the human psyche and are poignant?
WRIGHT: You know, every time I start to write a play and I stare at that blank page, I feel like a moron. I’m like a newborn baby all over again because each play seems to have its own logic and its own challenges. So every time I’ve written a work, it has felt like I was doing it for the first time. I think I have a grasp of the craft that I didn’t have before, but you are still counting on that most intangible of things, your muse, and if it doesn’t clock into work, then the day is lost.

ROWLETT: You’ve singled out a teacher at HP, Linda Raya, as the person who kept you sane. What did you mean by that?
WRIGHT: The kids in the theater department were the eccentrics and the oddballs, the kids who weren’t swept up in athletics. She created a nurturing environment and was a real stabilizing presence when you were a kid who didn’t quite fit in. The social aspects of the school could certainly be challenging if you weren’t a leader of the pack. But it was a small price to pay for the amazing academic standards.

ROWLETT:  Was it difficult to be a gay, artistic youngster in Dallas?
WRIGHT: I think it’s difficult to be a gay, artistic youngster anywhere, and Dallas was no exception. But places like the Theater Center and Theater Three, where I spent a lot of my young life playing juvenile roles and doing children’s theater, and even at the high school, you would meet the occasional quiet, discreet, gay man who would be a role model and a ray of hope, someone who had carved out their identity in the community and, in a quiet way, would send the signal that you’re alright and you can forge a life here. So there were a few quiet but heroic voices who let me know that it was okay.

ROWLETT:  In your play I Am My Own Wife, you tell the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who survived the Nazis and the Communists. You’ve called her a true gay hero. What is the background to that play?
WRIGHT: A dear friend of mine, John Marks, was bureau chief forUS News & World Report in Berlin in 1992. John and I were classmates at Highland Park High School and had stayed fast friends. He knew I was traveling to Europe one summer, so he sent me a letter and said there is a very eccentric individual here who I think you’ll want to meet, and her name is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, and I use the term “she” quite loosely. So I went to Berlin, slept on John’s floor, and met Charlotte. I owe it all to a Dallas connection. John today is a novelist living in Massachusetts with his wife and little boy. But it was that childhood friendship that started in Dallas that ultimately led to this remarkable adventure.

ROWLETT: Is this play now your favorite of the many plays you have written?
WRIGHT: I would say that I was an angry young man, and I wrote a lot of willfully provocative plays of which I am terribly proud and I stand by them completely. And yet, with I Am My Own Wife, I wasn’t writing out of anger or confusion or a sense of social inequity. I was writing out of passion for a character I truly grew to love. It was a milestone for me. It was a play born of affection and not rage. So I think in some sense that makes it my most mature play.

ROWLETT: Actor Jefferson Mays won a Tony for his role in this mostly one person play, but he won’t be appearing in the Dallas production. Will the play be diluted without Mays’ star power?
WRIGHT: I will certainly always hold a special place in my heart for Jefferson, but I must say that I have been gratified watching other actors in that role in various productions across the country. I know the Theater Center did a vast search before arriving at Damian Atkins, a Canadian actor about whom they are remarkably enthusiastic. So I am certain he will be able to make it his own.

ROWLETT: Does the Dallas run have special significance for you?
WRIGHT: You know, I am surprised at how important this production is to me and how sentimental I already am about it and the sense of mission that I feel about coming home to Dallas to see it. Also, so many people there know me so completely, and I can’t run and I can’t hide. Their estimation of the play means more to me than any New York critic. With my parents, my family, and my teachers, this is perhaps the most significant audience the play has ever had.

ROWLETT: Your plays have an edge to them, and there is certainly one to perhaps your best-known play, Quills, which you also wrote for the screen.
WRIGHT:
Yes, and I had a wonderful director and great support. I think they understood that to make a movie about the Marquis de Sade was an enormous risk because he was such a provocative figure. But to make a tepid movie about the Marquis de Sade would be pointless because it certainly wouldn’t be true to his character. So, once they signed on to make a film, they accepted its somewhat dangerous content.

ROWLETT: And you worked with a great cast that included one of my favorite actors, Michael Caine.
WRIGHT: I remember the last day that we were shooting Quills in London and it was Michael Caine’s last scene. And I found myself just welling tears. And I went up to him and I gave him a hug and I said, “Michael, I can never thank you enough for doing my first movie.” And without missing a beat, Michael said, “And thank you for writing my 110th.”

D Magazine Contributing Editor Tracy Rowlett is a news anchor and Managing Editor at CBS Channel 11.

Photos: Doug Wright: Courtesy of Dallas Theater Center; Rowlett: Tom Hussey

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