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In Contemplation of Giant Questions

by Martha Lavey, Anna D. Shapiro and Bruce Norris

Martha Lavey: The inquiry in A Parallelogram is different from what is explored in a lot of your other plays. Not that they don’t all share similarities, but certainly The Pain and the Itch and The Unmentionables both very clearly are social critiques in a way that this play is not. Bruce Norris: I would say the same applies to Clybourne Park too. All three of those plays concern themselves with how people frame their social and political selves in language. I don’t think that A Parallelogram is the same kind of play. I think it is a bit closer to The Infidel or to some extent Purple Heart. I think it is a return to a style of writing I was trying to pursue before 2000. ML: One of the things that those earlier plays share is a focus on an individual and his or her psychology. BN: I certainly didn’t set out specifically to be a political satirist or a satirist of any kind. It just happened that, over the last 10 years, the political situation in this country was so dire that it demanded this kind of play. I think that I felt a little relaxation in the last year and a half. Even though A Parallelogram precedes the current administration, I knew the old administration was leaving. ML: When you are writing a play like A Parallelogram, what does it do for your presiding consciousness while you’re in the work process? BN: It makes me uncomfortable to try to write a play like A Parallelogram. My instinct is to try to point toward things in society that are stupid and to laugh. I don’t think that’s what I’m doing in A Parallelogram. I’m trying to frame something I think about and to have characters discuss it in a way that makes some sense to me. Even if I haven’t succeeded fully in articulating that through these characters, it has been a different process for me than my usual finger pointing. ML: We started working together at Steppenwolf 13 years ago, in 1997. In that time, a lot has happened in our lives. How do you experience that as a playwright? Is it harder or easier to write plays now? BN: Harder, because there’s a better sense of what’s good and bad, and what there is to like in your own writing. Earlier on, there isn’t as much self-judgment. Anna D. Shapiro: We have this repeated conversation where Bruce will say to me, “I’m afraid I’m just in the same trope.” And then I will say, “Didn’t Chekhov talk about the same thing?” We have this mantra-like conversation every couple of years where he gets alarmed that he is revisiting in a way that is not new. My argument - and I think that I am right - is that he is in contemplation of giant questions, and I don’t know that even if he wrote 20 plays he’d be done. ML: I absolutely agree that Bruce brings a richness to each of his visitations in his work. But there is something sickening to experience in oneself, “Oh my god, me again.” BN: It’s horrible. It’s Wally Shawn’s question: “Why can’t I wake up tomorrow and not be me?” Every morning I wake up, and I’m here again. It’s a horrible thing to have to confront. The director’s experience is somewhat different from the writer’s and the actor’s who both deal with their own material all the time. Actors don’t get to direct the other actors or choose what the scenery looks like; they are just dealing with themselves. They don’t get the kind of periodic refreshment that you feel, Anna, when working on a play. AS: I think that’s right. ML: I am very fortunate because I have another job, but certainly being in Endgame I was reminded of something I’ve thought of in the last number of years: that acting is a kind of death rehearsal because of the routine and ritual of it. Which is actually beautiful, because one can be feeling physically shot, but along comes half hour... 15... and you’re fine. Inhabiting a physical and verbal text with finality night after night has something to do with what we’re talking about. AS: I think so, too. From what I observe, there’s an erasing of self that has to happen to actors for short little bursts of time, and it can either add up to something that helps you, depending on the time of your life, or add up to something that’s problematic. ML: With playwriting, where one is in the progress of one’s own life certainly has an impact on the vision of the play or its expression. How did A Parallelogram arrive in its form? BN: When I was writing The Infidel, I was coming out of a period of crisis in my life that involved a sense of recalibration about where I was going to wind up, how I would land on my feet, and so forth. That influenced what kind of play I wrote. Similarly, in writing this play, I think I was coming to the end of a cycle of writing a certain kind of play, and I was at a loss as to what to do next. I was also going through some personal life stuff that put me back into contemplation of certain questions. And those questions always lead to a contemplation of something more finite than a satirical play would point to. ML: What do you mean finite? BN: More life and death questions than life questions and the manner of living. That’s what I think satire addresses, the manner of living. ML: Can you describe what the construct of a “parallelogram” is? BN: I want to make sure I don’t give anything away about the play, but I also want to say that it is in the mind of the person who is talking about the parallelogram in the play, Bee. There is a notion that she has constructed for herself: that, because of the physical construction of the universe, all moments of her life are accessible to her at any given moment. All moments of her life are going on simultaneously. She could be in conversation with herself as a child or in conversation with herself as a very old person. ML: Bruce, why do you think it is important to receive the play without any information? BN: I think it is delightful for an audience to be surprised by hearing a story for the first time. My father was a big fan of the TV show Columbo. He liked it because they paid attention to what the audience was watching. There were clues scattered throughout, and, if you could add up the clues, you could figure out what was going on along with Lt. Columbo. I feel like that aspect - even if we’re talking about Hamlet - you find out things about Hamlet as you watch it. Unfortunately, when you see Hamlet now, you’ve probably already read it or seen it before so you can’t have that experience of newness any more. That is one of the thrilling things for me in seeing a play for the first time: you get to learn a new story. ML: I remember when Anna was directing The Crucible here - she just happened to be sitting behind a couple of young girls on a preview night. They had never seen The Crucible before, and when the doll came out they screamed. I remember you saying that you couldn’t watch the show because you were so delighted watching them. AS: There are two different kinds of people in the world in terms of the way this play could be looked at: people who wish certain things could happen, and people who know certain things can’t. I am really interested to see what people think just happened. It’s going to be really fun to talk to people about a Bruce Norris play and not be having a political conversation, but having an emotionally revelatory one where you go, “Wow, I didn’t know that about you.” BN: I don’t want to say that there is nothing political in the play at all because there is a political dimension to the play. But it interlaces with the personal in a different way. AS: Exactly - because it interlaces with the personal you do not get to stand back and have a detached conversation about it. “Which side are you on in the group?” is a different discussion than “What did you just see?” ML: You can talk about the issues in Bruce’s other plays without self-indictment. You could say, “Oh those people and these people.” I think if you are talking about the issues in A Parallelogram, you’re going to pretty quickly ask, “What actually do I think about my own death?” BN: Chances are pretty good that everyone has to come to confront their own death at some point. Unless they’re lucky enough to be shot in the head before they knew they were going to be.