David Grimm: Playwrighting for Pleasure

by PJ Gach

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday March 5, 2006

Playwright David Grimm is a 21st Century Moliere. Like Moliere, his plays - whether contemporary or period pieces - wittily skewer man's pretensions, foible, and fears. He treads into darkness with his play Following Wolf; a fable about of Eva Braun and political fanaticism. His black comedy Killing Hilda: A Love Story (about a gay mass-murdering gynecologist) can make you laugh and squirm. And Kit Marlowe, his drama about Shakespeare's rival Christopher Marlowe, premiered at the Public Theatre/New York Shakespeare Festival. It received a GLAAD Award Nomination and the New York Post listed it in their "10 Best Plays of 2000."

Now, he's at it again with Measure for Pleasure, his Restoration comedy for the new millennium. Love and the lies we tell; not only to ourselves, but also to our lovers in order to woo, win, or lose them are under the microscope. And of course there's a twist or two (or three) in the plot. Young Will Blunt is in love with Molly, a streetwalker and longs to save her. Molly, who is really a he, becomes a lady's maid in the household where Blunt works. Molly alas, is in love with someone else. Did I mention that there was another pair of star-crossed young lovers? Or a lecherous old coot? Or a dissatisfied wife? She's much wittier than any desperate housewife you've ever heard.

These characters may be drawn from the Restoration Comedy warehouse; but their emotive colorings, their motivations and yes, their hearts are deep and well drawn. And as much as Grimm pokes fun, he offers hope at the same time. EDGE spoke with the playwright recently, and complimented him on being able to walk the tightrope between such contradictory emotions.

"I think that art without hope is ultimately a lie," he replied, "because then it's just sort of narcissism, or...there has to be hope."

What is interesting is that there isn't any controversy related to the fact that one of the main characters of the play is a tranny- there's not a whiff of any condemnation from the right at all. The poster for the play has, however, had created a bit of drama. The poster, which you can see on the Public Theater website, has two mischievous smiling cupids on it. One is upright, one is bending forward. There is space between the two, and a "Parental Advisory" sticker between them. One newspaper (The New York Times) airbrushed out the bending cupid. Gawker.com ran a news item about the change on February 17th, with the headline, "The 'Times' Will not tolerate Sodomy." In the piece, they show both versions of the official poster and state, "It would seem the Gray Lady finds ass-fucking, even obscured, too obscene for its pages."

I asked how he felt when he saw that the print ad had been censored.

"I was disappointed, but not surprised." He replied.

"Why not surprised?" I responded.

"Because as they like to say, it's a 'family' paper," he laughed, "whatever the fuck that means."

We wondered, whose family? "Exactly. Whose family? The Manson Family? I don't find it really disappointing, but ultimately I shouldn't complain because controversy draws attention..."

When things like this happen, sometimes an artist will get letters from fellow artists- either of support or condemnation. Did this happen to Mr. Grimm after the ad came out?

"Oh yes." He said, "I am a member of New Dramatists. Which is this wonderful organization of playwrights where you're accepted you have a seven-year residency and it's basically a place where you can do readings, experiment with your work...whatever you want for seven years. It's incredibly supportive and a wonderful organization and it's a whole community of playwrights, and the whole playwriting community was really supportive in terms of phone calls and emails and support like that."

It's hard enough to write a contemporary play these days, but to write one that's set a few hundred years ago must be very difficult to say that least. When asked how he does it, Grimm simply replied, "I don't know. It's funny; the playwright John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation, House of Blue Leaves) came to see it last night (2/28). I guess you could call him a pal of mine, and he came up to me during the intermission and said to me, 'how do you do this? You're like an idiot savant or something.'" He paused and laughed at the thought.

"Which I guess I can accept. I love language. I love the possibilities of language. I think I'm always depressed by theater that doesn't take into account that we express ourselves through language. That's how we communicate. It's how we let the world know who we are and what we feel and what we hope and what we dream and to limit that to a very rudimentary or elementary style I find kind of dull. I've always loved Shakespeare, Restoration Theater, Greek tragedies. I love offensive theatrical style. It's just a fun playground. I find great freedom, it's weird, but I find great freedom in the restrictions of that style. The more restricted the form, in a way, I feel free. I guess there's some sort of S&M angle to that" He laughed again.

One thing that we wanted to know was how he manages to create a play with so many plotlines - and it keeps it easy for the audience to follow.

"I guess I've always had a real love for...when I go to the theater," he explained. "I want to experience something theatrical and that can mean a myriad of different things. But...I have to say that I don't want to see theater that belongs on television, or in the movies. I want to see theater that belongs in a theater, and that has a sense of theater and that has a sense of size, a sense of joy, a sense of an event that can only happen in live theater. And I start with character and telling the character's story. I let them take me places and then I try to 'pump up the volume' so to speak and make it theatrical."

But how can you divest oneself of the 21st century? How can you make a period play believable? It's hard to create something that sounds as authentic as Measure for Pleasure, but Grimm says to do so he simply follows the characters, "...these characters start talking and they lead the way and no matter what world it is, that's the only world that sort of occupies my world at the time. It's the same way an actor would approach a role; you have to throw yourself completely into it."

And while he does do period pieces, he recently adapted Moliere's play, Learned Ladies, for a theater production in Hartford, Connecticut. His updated version was set it in 1930's New York City with the Depression as the backdrop. It became The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue, and was written in rhyming couplets. Was this difficult? "Oh, it was quite fun! Apparently it's going to get quite a few productions around the country and may be here in New York City as well."

I mention that it seems that most of his work is classically based. He replies, "Not all. Not all. For some reason those seem to be, I mean I write a wide range - my work covers a wide range of styles - I write a fair amount of contemporary work as well. For some reason, my sort of, I guess, historically based or more stylized plays tend to be picked up quicker. I don't object."

You need not worry that Grimm is resting on his laurels, or biting his nails waiting for the critics' final word on Measure for Pleasure; rather he is in the midst of working on another play as we speak. "It's a contemporary comedy right now about torture. It's set now. Its' actually set in a drama school. And it's to me; it's a sort of attempt at a metaphor to the country's march towards war in Iraq, and how we have dealt with...I still can't get over the fact that we live in a country that has not only legally sanctioned, but has fought to legally sanction torture. It just blows my mind."

This understanding of the power of art, can't really be taught, it's more along the lines of self-knowledge, which makes us wonder about his early works. I'm talking really early works. Grimm's first piece definitely indicated he was onto something. When he was six, and stuck home with a cold, his Mom gave him one of those flimsy blue essay books to keep him occupied. Instead of doodling, he re-wrote "Snow White."

"And it was my version of Snow White in which the Wicked Queen wins in the end... I always thought Snow White was just like goodie-goodie, boring, no character and the Wicked Queen has much more character and is so much more fascinating, why the hell should she end up dead in the end. And little did I know that one day I would grow up to be a Wicked Queen!"

Grimm was born in Ohio and lived there until he was six. After his parent's divorce (Dad taught Philosophy, Mom was a Pyschopharmacologist), he and his sister moved with his Mother to Israel where she was lecturing and had a research grant. The three moved around, following his mother's research grants and lecture schedules at various universities for six and a half years. As an interesting corollary, at the age of 55, his Mother decided enough with being a psychopharmacologist, went back to school, picked up her second PhD, in Early Medieval History, and now she teaches at Yale. Back to Grimm, he moved back to Ohio to finish out High School and lived with his father and Stepmother. It was around that time he turned his hand towards playwrighting. He remembers his first play as "being a mess," but was really proud of another one he wrote. True to Grimm's innate desire to play it safe, the play was about Lizzie Borden; and it came about, you could say, through parental inspiration.

"Well, at the time I was living with my Dad and his wife...his wife was and still is, and I'll be polite and say, a difficult person. And I sort of became obsessed with Lizzie Borden, and then when I found out that she was a redhead, which I am as well, I was like, 'Oh my god this is perfect.' And she killed her father and stepmother, and that was perfect. And it was my own sort of passive-aggressive way of trying to get back at them. I'd sit in the kitchen and be writing, and my stepmother would walk in and say, 'What are you doing?' 'I'm writing.' 'What are you writing?' 'I'm writing a play.' 'What is it about?' 'Lizzie Borden.' And I'd smile."

Since he's been writing from childhood, it seemed only natural to ask if he parents encouraged or influenced him. "They influenced me so far as, I was exposed to a great deal of theater, art, culture and music from a very young age. I was also very encouraged to question things and to have my own opinion, my own mind. Writing? The never influenced me in terms of what to pursue really."

I've always loved Shakespeare, Restoration Theater, Greek tragedies. I love offensive theatrical style. It's just a fun playground. I find great freedom, it's weird, but I find great freedom in the restrictions of that style.

Grimm went to Sarah Lawrence as an undergrad. There he acted, wrote and directed his own and other's works. Subsequently he spent a year at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) studying acting. He was there for a year and a half, but realized that he preferred writing. "I have such respect for actors, that's why I write for the theater. I can't handle the idea of one's self being one's own product."

We had a brief debate on who is more vulnerable: an actor or an author. I said an actor because he's onstage, and a writer can more or less hide; but Grimm had a different view. "However, with plays I find you actually end up having to reveal a lot more - if you really want it to be good and truthful, you have to be completely ruthless and completely naked and completely honest and...it's funny, I never understood, for years, I never understood the whole stereotype of writers being drunks, and then when I started really digging into and when my work really started to grow, um, it suddenly started to make sense to me.

"Cause It's really frightening and it can be painful. It can be joyful, but it's scary and the fact that you're all alone, at least with actors; an actor acts with other actors and there's a community. But as a writer you sit in a little room and work and yeah, it's kind of like screaming into a void...

"Truthfully, actors can hide because even though they are out there, it's not their words, they're putting on a character, it's not them. A writer can hide because, especially a writer for the theater can hide because they have actors to say the words they're not saying the things themselves, so everyone can hide a little bit. It's probably specious to compare and say who's worse off, but it's all potentially painful and difficult. But it's beautiful, I love it, I really love it."

And so our talk turned to what's going on in theater right now. Ticket prices keep climbing upwards and the state of the theater isn't that wonderful. So, I asked him what his hope and dreams for theater to be.

"I would love theater to not be elitist. I'm talking about American Theater - I would love American Theater to have a sense of relevance to people's lives and a place where people can come together and experience exciting theatrical events whatever the nature of that is. People of all backgrounds and to me, there's something beautifully democratic about theater, about the experience of theatre, and...there is so much theatre right now that's either a museum piece or it's like a Vegas Show...so much of Broadway is all this glitz and 'let's see the money, let's see the money...' People spend a hundred bucks on a ticket and they want to see what that money has bought them. It's not really about an experience, it's about razzle-dazzle and I'm for razzle-dazzle, but it's got to have some heart to it, it's got to have some truth to it, it's got to have some hope to it. I want to see people that...I want to see theatre that doesn't talk down to the audience, I try to write plays that talks to the audience as an equal, and assumes, as I believe, that people are smart and loving, and beautiful and hopeful, and witty, and that we all have that. We're not stupid. We're not...our lives are not run by glitz and glamour or reality shows. We're human beings, we're human, and that's a beautiful thing. I guess something like that" (laughs)

And what's it like to work in such an ephemeral field? "It makes it all the more precious and all the more beautiful. I mean precious in that sort of rare and wonderful thing, but it's also sad because you end up feeling even more like you're screaming into a void. Because a particular critic doesn't like a particular piece of yours- that's it!"

Unfortunately, I have to throw in a bad joke, "They stab you in the heart and go off into the night."

"Yeah," Grimm said agreeing with me. "They take your little child out of its stroller, they kick it in the head, and they go home... But I also want to see theater... so many theaters...I know it comes down to economics and finances, but I wish theaters were braver, um, and just more daring and there's so many amazing writers out there whose work is just not being seen and it makes me really angry."

And as we're talking about the state of theater today, I mention that so many critics have claimed that this is the year for "Queer Theater." That Gay themes are becoming mainstreamed. And as a playwright who has addressed gay themes, gay characters and is gay, I really want to know what he thinks.

"I think that part of it is we've gone through...I think we're coming out of a phase of feeling 'terminally unique,' and embracing our commonality and our humanity in a way that's really important because I think it's the only way that I think we can actually make any progress rather than sitting around and saying, 'Oh, I'm so special and no one understands me.' To actually say, 'No, I'm a citizen like anyone else, and I'm powerful and I'm queer and I'm going to infuse that in my work in a very natural organic way'... I grew up when it was a major event on my calendar when there was a gay character on any television show or anything like that or in any movie. It was like maybe once every two or three years something like that would happen, it was like 'Oh my God!' Now it's just everywhere and it's fabulous!"

I remark that it seems to be accepted now. Grimm disagrees; he says that it's getting there. But it seems to me, to an average movie watcher, that bigger budget films are more "Gay Friendly": it seems that if you're gay in a movie these days, you don't die at the end of the flick.

Grimm disagrees. "I just read this really fascinating article that I totally agreed with, in the New York Times Review of Books about the critical response to Brokeback Mountain. How all of these critics have been saying that it's a universal story, it's a love story, it's not a 'gay' movie, it's a universal love story. The article said, which I totally agreed with, was that no it's not. It's a movie about being in the closet. It is a gay story. It may be universal because it's a human story so if it's a human story and it's well told then we can all identify, we can all enter that world. But don't cut out the fact, and don't try to hide the fact that this is about two men who are in love who are deeply in the closet. This is a gay story."

Well do you think they're saying that to try to make it more palatable?

"Absolutely I think so. I think there while there are more stories out there that are being told with a Queer perspective, I think there's a real sort of conservative puritan element that is sort of "how do we package this?" I mean all you have to do is look at all the TV commercials for Brokeback Mountain when it first came out; there was no reference at all. And it was like, "oh this is a cowboy movie."

I think about it, and agree. It took them awhile to have a commercial showing them cuddling.

And Grimm points out, "It's interesting how there's an unspoken apology."

One of the funniest and unapologetically Gay moments in Measure for Pleasure is when the audience first meets Molly Tawdry, who makes a memorable entrance. "Which is why I love the audience's response to the first time you when you see (in my play) Molly Tawdry under Blunt's shirt giving him blowjob. I love seeing people's response to that, because it's just interesting."

I have to agree that it's unexpected. I mean, how often do you see that in any play? And then I wonder, will Grimm's unique vision, his sense of fun, his excellent wordplay, and peculiar brand of acerbic compassion just be limited to the stage, or does he want to branch out to film? It turns out that at one point, he did have a development deal with Jerry Bruckheimer, but nothing came out of it (rats!). He's written a few screenplays that sadly weren't produced and he does have an upcoming meeting about a TV movie. Keep your fingers crossed.

He does have a dream project, to create a movie version of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Grimm goes on to explain what's been happening with this dream.

"That there is a producer who actually has been pursuing doing this for a long time and it's just a matter that financing keeps falling through...It's such a gorgeous, gorgeous novel. It was written in the 1930s in Stalinist Soviet Union. It's a love story and it's a gorgeous love story. But it's also hysterically funny and really kind of wild. It's basically the Devil comes to Moscow and you have to check it out, it's just an amazing novel. It's my dream project would be to do the film of that; it's such a beautiful story. It's just incredible and it's one of those books that you just can't put down"

And speaking of books, who is his favorite author? "I don't have favorites. I don't have favorite anything; I have a lot of things that I like. That whole sort of, I never quite got this whole culture of superlatives where it's you've got a favorite this or a favorite that. "

I pester him with another question, who's the author that you go to time and time again, then?

"I know it sounds trite, but I mean Shakespeare to me is sort of like the playwright's Bible. In many ways I think he's sort of like the bible, you don't even have to define it or it's just the bible, because every sort of human experience is just there. And the beauty of the language is quite mind-blowing. I mean there are a lot of writers I adore, I mean, as I said Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, I wrote a play about Christopher Marlowe, that Public did a few years ago. I love Joe Orton, love Oscar Wilde, I love Caryl Churchill, Chekhov, Congreve, and I could go on and on and on. It's so much fun having all these writers to read, all these minds to enter."

And you can enter the mind of David Grimm when you see his hilarious and touching play, Measure for Pleasure until March 26th, at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, Anspacher Theater in Manhattan. Tickets by phone, (212) 239-6200, online go to www.publictheater.org. If you're on myspace.com, you can even link to the play's characters. Simply go to www.myspace.com/vanitylustforth and through her you can add Dick Dashwood, Peter Lustforth, Tiberia Sickle, The Public Theater, the play and even Will to your friends.

PJ Gach is a Contributing Writer for the Style & Entertainment Sections of the EDGE group of publications.She also freelances for Lemondrop.com. PJ has styled, shot and written fashion pieces for Hamptons.com. PJ writes about beauty, fashion, and lifestyle topics for national publications. As an entertainment/rock journalist her pieces have appeared in the US and Europe, including The New York Post, Rolling Stone (web & mag), Ing?nue Magazine and Drill magazine. She's a Manhattanite, a proud dog owner, gal about town, and freelance writer. In her spare time, she rescues orphaned shoes. You can reach her at [email protected]