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Designed Cacophony

by Playwright Donald Margulies, Artistic Producer Rebecca Rugg

REBECCA RUGG: Donald, Steppenwolf is very honored to be doing your play Time Stands Still—it’s your first time with our company and we are thrilled about it. Can we start by talking about your training? I know that you went to school for visual art—and I have always thought that was an interesting part of your biography. DONALD MARGULIES: I started life as a kid who could draw. I began to get some recognition as a child-artist (winning Scholastic magazine awards and such), and it seemed to define who I was and what I was going to be. So when it came time to apply for college, it seemed pretty much a foregone conclusion that I would go to art school. At the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, with its focus on drawing, painting and graphic design, there were few outlets for someone like me who also wanted to read and write. I decided to transfer to another school where I could try to spread my wings. I ended up going to Purchase College, which was devoted to performing and visual arts in addition to being strong in the humanities. While I earned a BFA in Visual Arts, I decided to try my hand at playwriting. I initiated a tutorial with the critic Julius Novick, who taught dramatic literature. He was an early champion of my writing and a mentor whose support had a completely transformative effect on my life. He said, plainly, “You’re good at this. You should do this.” I was twenty years old. RR: How do you feel that your training in visual art shows up in your playwriting? DM: Viscerally, playwriting feels the same to me as when drawing was my primary outlet of creative expression. Drawing, like writing plays, is all about finding the form of something. RR: Turning to Time Stands Still, this is a play where one of the main characters is a photographer. DM: I’ve written about artists before (Jonathan Waxman, the painter in Sight Unseen) and I’ve written about writers (Eric Weiss in Brooklyn Boy, Ruth Steiner in Collected Stories). Sarah Goodwin in Time Stands Still is a photojournalist. And even Louis de Rougemont in Shipwrecked! An Entertainment is a fabulist, a storyteller. The role of the artist in society is something that has always fascinated me. RR: Time Stands Still is in part about how journalists bear witness to violence. It has made me wonder, what is it, in your opinion, that a playwright bears witness to? DM: I think good writing of any kind must tell the truth. That is also true for photojournalists, and visual artists: they try to express or portray something as rigorously and truthfully as possible. RR: Discussions of your work often describe how you make “worlds clash,” which is my experience of your work absolutely. How is it that you make “worlds clash” inside of apartments and houses? DM: Ever since I was a kid, I found myself trying to make sense of the grown-up world. I think that I detected subtext from a very early age, that what was on the surface was not the whole story and was a clue to unraveling the mystery of family life. In The Loman Family Picnic, for instance, my alter-ego is an eleven-year-old boy who is both frightened and exhilarated by his discovery that Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman reflects his own family. His way to process that is to write a musical based on the play. RR: Have you written a musical of Death of a Salesman? DM: I did in fact! That is absolutely autobiographical. I did write a musical parody called Willy! I used that in The Loman Family Picnic… I just stole from my eleven year- old self. I don’t know if that answers your question about conflict but I think that domestic drama has always fascinated me. RR: Yes, I’m interested in why realism is your chosen aesthetic. DM: I’ve always been excited by seeing real life portrayed in art. There’s something exhilarating about verisimilitude. For instance, in Time Stands Still, there is a lot of overlapping dialogue. I am very specific about where the overlap should occur in dialogue, so that it is not simply cacophony, but a very designed cacophony. Even though it appears to be completely spontaneous. And seems like real life. RR: Where did you find your inspiration to write Time Stands Still? DM: The play came out of a particular time, I guess about four or five years ago, when I was waking up each morning to the clock radio NPR report of the latest car bombing in Iraq. It was like Groundhog Day. The reports of violence were daily and seemingly relentless. Often my plays come out of a “troubled place”—where there is something that I can’t get out of my head. An epidemic of divorce among my social circle prompted Dinner With Friends—at the root of this play, a miasma of war and violence. RR: And yet, one of the things I love about the play is that it tells the story of violence in the context of what it means to return home from it, what it does to relationships and to people’s appetites. DM: I do think the play is ultimately a love story. The domestic, relationship drama is in the foreground—the backdrop is the very specific, high-stakes world of journalists who cover conflict. The stakes are enormous for these people, and good drama comes from high stakes. RR: You take us very far inside this world. DM: The women and men who put themselves in unimaginable situations to capture images and stories, as Sarah says, “to show the world,” aren’t simply doing it for the public good. Their courage is immense, to be sure, but there is an unmistakable kind of thirst for it as well. I think people in those situations would be the first to admit that. It is incredibly difficult to reintegrate oneself into the mundane, relative safety of domestic society after a steady diet of adrenalized, life or death experiences. RR: As much as soldiers, your play suggests to me. DM: Yes. Compared to war, domestic life pales. Life at home lacks drama and denies them a vital sense of purpose. Paradoxically, some people in this line of work find contentment only when they’re living on the edge. Incidentally, I think I should point out that Time Stands Still, like the people it portrays, is often very funny!