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Rediscovering the Hat

Director and ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro and playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis managed to find time in their hectic schedules to chat with Literary Manager Aaron Carter about Steppenwolf’s production of The Motherf**ker with the Hat. The following is an edited transcript. AARON CARTER: How did the play and your collaboration begin? STEPHEN ADLY GUIRGIS: I'm part of the LAByrinth Theater Company and we go away every summer on a retreat. I said to myself, "As long as I'm up here, I should try to write something." When I was writing I thought, "I can't do this because I can't write another play where people are angry, unemployed and cursing. I should start writing plays about the French Revolution or something." But then everyone liked it so I was like, "Okay I'll go with this and move onto my boring period later." When it was time for a director I had only worked with two other people, but I remembered that I saw The Pain and the Itch in New York. I really noticed that this was one of the best directed plays I had ever seen, especially given the different levels of the actors in the play. Then I realized that it was Anna and she had also directed August: Osage County, which made her the de-facto king of the theatrical universe. Then I emailed her and attempted to woo her. ANNA D. SHAPIRO: I always say about Stephen that he should propose to women by e-mail because he is the greatest e-mail writer in the history of the world. What happened for me was I got a call from my agent saying that Stephen had a new play and they wanted me to direct it. I said, "No they don't, he's already got a director. He works with Philip Seymour Hoffman." And in any case, I was already booked. That's when Stephen wrote me an e-mail saying, "I heard you can't do it." I wrote back and asked if it was okay if I read the play because I could not believe that I was hip enough that Stephen Adly Guirgis would want me to direct his play. Stephen, you might always do plays where people are unemployed and yelling but I always do plays where people are in really nice living rooms discussing politics. No one asks me to do stuff like this. When I read it I called my agent and said, "I don't want to lose this. Let's move around anything that we have to move around." I've honestly never had that response to a first read of a play someone sent me. Ever. I thought, come hell or high water I have to do this. Hell and high water came, but we did it. AARON CARTER: What's different about the Steppenwolf production of this play? STEPHEN ADLY GUIRGIS: I originally wrote the part of Jackie for John Ortiz, who is coming to Chicago. Bobby Cannavale was tremendous in New York but I'm delighted to see Mr. Ortiz portray the role. Jimmy Smits did one of the first readings of the play and he was awesome. I think the dynamic between the two is right. I'm excited for this whole cast. ANNA D. SHAPIRO: As Steppenwolf knows, we are rediscovering this play. To me it's always a challenge when you are doing something again with a different group of people, it's important to know that their impulses and instincts are important, that their original interpretation matters. That's the challenge—coming in new, every day... and making sure that my company knows that. STEPHEN ADLY GUIRGIS: I don't have any challenges. I was excited to do the play at Steppenwolf and that Anna wanted to remount it. But I wanted it to be great for her, because she's already done it. I kept saying: cast the people you are truly excited to work with. This is for her, in her house, representing her theater and her community. I mean, I'm coming to see this one million percent as a fan. They should actually put me in the back row because I am going to be laughing my ass off. I'm going to be really moved. I wish I didn't write it so I could go to see it free of any selfconsciousness at all. AARON CARTER: It seems as though creating diverse plays is important to you both. STEPHEN ADLY GUIRGIS: I'm going to write what I want, that's hopefully rooted in my own truth, but I am also going to be free to write any type of character. If I get it wrong, or it's inauthentic or offensive, I promise you I am going to hear about it. If I don't hear about it I guess I did it well. I think I have been successful in being able to create roles populated by a diverse group of people. I'm Irish-Egyptian: I don't know what to claim. If I was only allowed to write plays about white people, I'd be flipping burgers. I don't have Kenny Lonergan's voice. I have my voice. He's one of my writing idols, but I have my voice. I take some pride in the fact that more diverse casts are getting together because of something that I wrote. ANNA D. SHAPIRO: For me I am always excited when I get to be in a room that is asking for a conversation that looks more like the world that I know. What's strange for me is going to plays and seeing all white people: that's not my world and I don't think that's very many people's world. I think there are a lot of parts for people of color in theater, the problem is the roles swing a certain way for me: which is that the person of color always has the moral high ground. That's just not complicated enough for me. So what is beautiful about Motherf**ker is that no one comes out with the moral high ground. For me, the critical job of representation is to show us all as complicated human beings; that we collide at our complications. AARON CARTER: What's next for you both? STEPHE N ADL Y GUIRGIS: I'm writing a pilot based on the play for HBO. One of my main goals is to write a play that will force Anna Shapiro to work with me again. If I've written a play that can get Anna again, that's a good play. I’m trying my hardest to delay my inevitable decline. ANNA D. SHAPIRO: My goal is for Stephen to write a play that is so good that he gets me to do it.