I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“I found it extraordinarily enlightening, and I’m not as afraid of death. I’m fascinated by death. It’s an equal part of our life; it’s the other end—cover on the book.”
Craig Lucas’s magic as a playwright is to fuse two directions in contemporary theater. In plays like Blue Window and Reckless, Lucas synthesizes the psychological, naturalistic direction of playwrights like Lanford Wilson with the exaggerated comedy of satirists like Christopher Durang. Blue Window looks at a cross section of New Yorkers before, during, and after a small loft party. Different kinds of relationships are looked at—gay, straight, platonic—in a script that is so fresh and unexpectedly nuanced it seems improvisatory. In Reckless, Lucas sharpens his satirical bent in a succession of short scenes that depict the “progress” of a hysterical housewife through wild misadventures toward realization. Lucas’s work is deceptively comic but his meaning is anything but light.
Billy Hopkins Where are you from?
Craig Lucas I grew up outside Philadelphia.
BH Well, it’s better than some other places to have grown up.
CL Why, did you grow up in Cleveland?
BH No, I grew up in Buffalo, New York, which is not much better—but Cleveland is the Midwest and Buffalo is still in the East …
CL Pete Gurney’s from Buffalo.
BH My mother and aunt dated Pete Gurney. It’s very odd because I see him all the time. You know, my mother will go, “Pete? Since when is it Pete? It was Peter in Buffalo.” But in Buffalo I used to see him at the country club and I’d have to say, “Hello Mr. Gurney, hello Mr. Gurney.” You know, all those plays that people think are about the Brahmin set in Boston are really all about Buffalo. My grandmother used to say, “Oh, it’s so awful, everyone talks about everyone else.” And I’d say, “You know you’d be upset if people weren’t talking about you or if you couldn’t talk about them.”
CL My parents also are very conservative.
BH Your play, Reckless, was a big hit—I know it’s very difficult, as a playwright, to make ends meet—did that help?
CL I made a check which was less than what the actors made; but I mean, it was what it was. I remember Sam Shepard saying somewhere that before Buried Child, he never made more than $10,000 a year on his plays.
BH Have you ever made more than that in a year on new plays?
BH Yours are done all over, regionally, so …
CL In the last two years, Blue Window has been done in regional theater and this new play, Prelude to a Kiss, has been done regionally. You can make a living as a writer if your plays are done in more than two regional theaters in a year; but I’m glad I don’t have nine kids.
BH You did a script of Blue Window for television. Was it essentially the same as the play?
CL I rewrote it for TV.
BH Do you write screenplays?
CL I’ve only written one original screenplay, which is now being made. It’s called Longtime Companion. It’s about people with AIDS. After we did Blue Window for American Playhouse, Lindsay Law, the executive director, approached Norman Rene, who’s my collaborator/director, and me about doing another project; this time for release in movie theaters. I’d had this idea bouncing around for several years which was to somehow write about the world that I know from before the AIDS epidemic, and during, and up until now. There was a very short period of time when I was the “flavor of the month” because Blue Window was a big success in California, and all of the developmental people from the different movie studios had to meet with me to find out what I wanted to do. And invariably (I had this meeting many times), I was naive enough to think that they really wanted to know what I wanted to do, so I would say. “Oh, what I want to do is write a movie about people with AIDS.”
BH I’m sure that went over real big!
CL They would sit there, implacable, their faces frozen and nod, “Yeah, but after that, what do you want to do?” I couldn’t get anybody to even blink about it. But Lindsay Law chewed on it for a while, then called me back and said, “Okay, let’s do it.” He’s making it largely with his own money, and donating his profits to AIDS organizations. I’m thrilled about it. It never would have been made otherwise and it’s very expensive.
BH That’s great. When is it going to be shot?
CL We go into production rehearsals April 1; it’s shot in May and June.
BH Where? Here in New York?
CL Here and on Fire Island.
BH Is Norman Rene directing it?
BH Did he direct the Blue Window PBS version? The camera angles and all that?
CL That was all his. That was his first film. Again, Lindsay Law (I can’t really sing his praises enough) saw Blue Window and really loved Norman’s work. We were going to shoot it as a play, and Norman said, “I think it lends itself more to a film, but it really needs to be cut and shot as a film.” And Lindsay went, “Okay.” Like, “Here’s the keys to the car, stay out as late as you want.”
BH What’s your AIDS movie called again?
CL It’s called Longtime Companion, which is the phrase the New York Times in its obituaries for lovers.
BH Can you tell me what the story is?
CL There are several smaller characters, but it’s basically eight people whose lives are not all connected. You see them separately, starting in 1981 on the day that the first article appeared in the New York Times “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” The film spans nine years, one day in each year. So you see July 1, 1981, what these eight people are doing. You see March 22, 1982, what several people are doing…It’s really about the culture of our lives before and after. I tried to tell the truth, as opposed to a propaganda film or a TV movie. I admire how those things can educate the audience, but I wasn’t setting out to educate anybody. I was setting out to tell exactly, like a witness, what I had seen. These eight imaginary people, who resemble people you and I know, try to deny that it’s happening, but slowly begin to accept it, as many of the characters get AIDS.
BH I was going to ask if the people are victims in some way?
CL “Victims” is not a word people with AIDS like to use.
BH I’m sorry. You’re right. Some of the main characters do get sick though?
CL About half of them do. We wanted to tell the truth about something and show the way it really is. That includes showing people’s lives the way they really were before the epidemic.
BH You’ve not written a play on this subject, have you?
CL No, I haven’t. This took a long time to do, actually. Once I agreed to write it, it suddenly dawned on me that I really didn’t know enough to write about it. I knew my own personal experiences: my first two lovers both have had AIDS; one of them is dead. So I went to work with people with AIDS. I started doing volunteer work.
BH Where did you work?
CL I worked, and still work, with GMHC as a buddy. That dispelled many of my fears. I was very fearful because if there’s anybody who should have AIDS or not be here today, it’s me.
BH Well, a lot of people say that.
CL But it’s really true. I was very much at risk considering the kind of life I led. I mean sex life.
BH How long did it take you to do the screenplay?
CL The research was longer than the actual writing. I started a script and wrote it for many months and threw the whole thing out. I called American Playhouse, distraught, and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to tell this story, it’s too hard to make.” I wasn’t enjoying it. They said, “Well, start again, then. If you’re not happy with it, don’t worry.”
BH So they were supportive?
CL Oh, you can’t ask for any more support. I’d say, all in all, it took me about nine months to do the script. People were dying around me and it was hard because I didn’t really want to go from my volunteer work to the writing desk—which is the place where I live out my fantasy—and have to relive it again.
BH You’ve continued with the volunteer work since you’ve written Longtime Companion.
CL Yes, my last client just died and I’m taking a break.
BH Is that hard?
CL (pause) Yes. Sure. It’s very hard. Here in the United States we’re so divorced from death. Even if family members have died, it’s usually off at the hospital. I’ve never been permitted time with the body. It’s a secret that’s been taken away from us. I found it extraordinarily enlightening, and I’m not as afraid of death. I’m fascinated by death. It’s an equal part of our life; it’s the other end-cover on the book.
BH Actually, the whole thing opens you up to it; because, as you said, everyone is afraid of death and afraid of hospitals.
CL It’s very precious, the time that one can spend with anyone who is dying, anyone that you care about who is leaving the world. And to take away from people the opportunity to say goodbye—or to take away from the dying person the people that love them! Lately, because I’ve been in this field, I’ve been hearing such eloquent stories. A friend of mine and her sister sang their mother out of this life. She’d been sick for many, many months and she woke up one morning and said, “I know I’m going to die.” They could tell from the way she looked so they said, “What would you like?” And she said, “I’d like you to be singing to me.” Isn’t that just the most amazing thing?
BH Well, they always say that …
CL You actually know when you’re dying.
BH They even say you know sometimes for quite awhile before. I think it’s really important that a mainstream film be made. People in places like Buffalo had no idea what you were talking about when you talked about AIDS—now they do. Everyone is aware of it now.
CL I hope we can get it distributed. My main concern is that we get enough financial support so that it’s out there to be seen in places besides LA and NY.
BH If nothing else, because it’s an American Playhouse, it will at least be …
CL It’s going to be difficult for them to show this film on television not only because of the graphic nature of the sexual material, but also because of the graphic nature of caring for someone who’s dying. I noticed today in the newspaper that this vigilant woman in Michigan has written enough angry letters to sponsors on Married with Children that they are withdrawing their commercials. She’s angry over what she considers to be the lewd and sexist material on that show, and the sponsors are afraid enough that they are going to withdraw their commercials. There is this standard that has to do with television across the country. And in fact, when Blue Window was shown, there were certain stations that did not want to show two women kissing as lovers. They considered that inappropriate material for a Monday night at nine o’clock.
BH And did not show it?
CL Right. There’s such a disparity in the lifestyles in this country—what people consider appropriate or not appropriate, from the fundamentalists to Jim Jones. TV is a dangerous area. It makes people crazy. So it might be difficult to show Longtime Companion on TV without major cuts.
BH AIDS is dramatized on daytime television, but more often than not, the character is the wife of an IV drug user. But at least they’re dealing with it.
CL Have you read Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time? It’s an amazingly well-written piece, very brave. I was especially impressed by how much he was willing to divulge about his own behavior, fears, thoughts. I wrote him a fan letter.
BH A fan letter?
CL I’m one of those cranks who sits at home writing letters when I see something I like.
BH Now, I’ll segue for a second. Reckless had a great run Off-Broadway. I was saying to someone, “You know, it’s too bad it has to close or it can’t go to Broadway,” and everyone said, “Well, despite how good a play it is and despite how wonderful Robin Bartlett is, it would never run on Broadway because Robin Bartlett’s not a name that’s going to get people from New Jersey to come and see the play.” Does that make you angry? I mean, here you got good reviews. Do you read your reviews?
CL Yes. I tend to skim them all when they come out, just to find out whether I’m going to be making a living or not. Then I will read them more carefully if there seems to be a serious point being raised. I’m not one of those people who says all critics are stupid and you never learn anything from them. You usually learn more about the critic than you learn about what you’ve done—because they’re not writing for you; they’re writing for the readers, and most of them consider their job a consumer-advocacy position. But I do read them.
BH Reckless certainly got very good reviews and it seemed to have a healthy run.
CL Oh yes, we ran as long as we could and we sold out. But when you do a play in a not-for-profit theater that has a subscription season, they need to go on, they need to continue. So you can’t tear your hair out about it. It would have been great if the play had moved. I have no illusions about Broadway being a place where a play like that could live now. Maybe 20 years ago, maybe 40 years ago. But it got seen here and it will get done in other theaters around the country, and that’s the most you can hope for. It’s very easy to get seduced by all of the hype of “Oh wow, you’ve got the magic key—you were given a great review by Frank Rich, that’s all it takes.” Well, that’s not true.
BH Oh, that’s not all it takes at all.
CL It doesn’t matter, anyone can say what they want. They can rant and rave. For instance, Mimi Kramer of the New Yorker did not like Reckless at all; it seemed to push a button and she wrote at length about it. Then, later in the season when Brilliant Traces opened, which she did like, she went back to talk about what was so offensive to her about Reckless. And the only thing she said that made me really angry was that the play was only written to make the audience feel hip—so that they could congratulate themselves on the fact that they were hip. Well, I would shoot myself before I would sit here and spend a year writing a play to make an audience feel hip! I wrote that play out of the deep experience of being an abandoned baby. I may have dealt with it in ways that she found untenable, it may have failed for her, it may have failed for other people, but it was the bravest attempt that I could make at that time. It’s an early play of mine. I wrote it almost seven years ago to deal with, in dream terms, important personal issues. I take umbrage when someone says, “It was insufferable and its only point is to make people more complacent about going to the theatre.” My feeling is: how dare you? It’s harder to sit here, put yourself on the line and expose what you do than to sit in the audience and go, “Feh.” Maybe not here in New York, but my experience across the country is that most critics understand that the creative act is a daring one and a difficult one.
BH A lot of your contemporaries write plays that are wonderful, but get horrible reviews. Some of them don’t want to write a play for a while because it’s too hard.
CL My first play was absolutely trashed by Frank Rich, and I thought “I can’t go through this.” But come on! It isn’t about the critics. It’s about one’s own need to work out certain things through the art, and hopefully, to reach people. The critic isn’t always an obstacle. In many instances, they can help. I mean, because of the good notices of Reckless, many people got to see that play and I’m very happy about that.
BH Well, as you said, it was your best attempt and you went out on a limb. Every writer, as far as I’m concerned, goes out on a limb. The more you go out on a limb, the more criticism you’re going to get, but that’s the way it is. So you were an abandoned child?
CL Yes. That came burbling out. I’m an abandoned baby.
BH You were left on a doorstep?
CL I was literally left on the back-seat of a parked car in a gas station.
BH It’s just like the Oscar Wilde play.
CL I know it is. With a little note pinned onto me. Fortunately, I was adopted as a very young baby, a ten-month-old baby. I have great parents, and learned of this early enough to be able to deal with it, but not so soon as to not be able to deal with it.
BH So your parents told you about this?
CL Yes. When I was about four I was told that I was adopted. More details I discovered as I got older. Then, when I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I went into analysis and started to deal with whatever might be the unconscious feelings I was having about that. I tried to find out who my natural parents were, but that’s hard when you were abandoned, because they don’t necessarily want to come forward. And no one has.
BH Are your adoptive parents supportive of what you do?
CL Absolutely, in every way, which is all the more amazing considering how different we are. My father was an FBI agent.
BH Oh …
CL They’re very conservative people. I was a Marxist for several years and I’m still involved with what they would perceive as left-wing politics. And I went through a period when I was taking every drug you could take. Then I called up and said, “We have to sit down and talk because, also, I’m a homosexual.” And they were loving and supportive. They come to New York and see all the plays.
BH Do they come for the openings?
CL Yes, they do. They love my lover.
BH Wasn’t Prelude to a Kiss supposed to come to Broadway?
CL It still may.
BH This season or next season?
CL No, we’d have to go to next season now.
BH And what’s that about, or shouldn’t I ask?
CL It’s a fairy tale. A fable, if you will, about a very young couple that fall in love and get married quickly and a terrible, mysterious thing that happens to them.
BH It sounds intriguing, like the beginning of Reckless. I don’t know when I’ve seen such a great opening to a play. It was so imaginative and then the play just took off from there.
CL When we did it originally, the play was more unwieldy and it didn’t quite keep itself in the air. The hard thing was having that opening and trying to keep the audience on the hook.
BH I think it was successful.
CL Norman Rene helped a lot, as he always does.
BH Was he the first director you ever worked with?
CL He was not only the first director I ever worked with, he’s one of the few that I have worked with. My experiences with other directors have not been as satisfying, although there are plenty of people that I would love to work with.
BH But you’ve had a long-term collaboration, which is unusual in that a lot of other playwrights who start out with a director or collaborator usually have a falling out of sorts, and then the writer goes on to another director. Sometimes they come back to that one, sometimes they don’t.
CL So far, knock wood, there hasn’t been any need for that. Norman can speak for himself, but I’m very happy with our collaboration. He’s also a close friend.
BH Do you find that if you do disagree over something, it’s easy to discuss because you’ve worked together so long?
CL Yeah, we discuss it. Channels of communication have stayed open. There are times when we’ve been furious—maybe that’s overstated; we’ve been angry with one another—but what seems to work for the best is if it’s clear who’s responsible for what. People can tell me to rewrite anything they want. They can say, “That doesn’t work, do that, cut this, change that,” but as long as I’m responsible finally for the text and Norman is responsible for the direction, that seems to prevent deeper problems. There are things in his productions which I might have changed.
BH And there are probably things in your scripts that he might have changed.
CL Absolutely. On this movie that we’re doing now, we’ve been sitting down every couple of days now for over a month, going through it word for word. Not so that he can give me exactly what I want, not for …
BH You to tell him exactly what you want.
CL Yeah. It’s more about: what does this mean to you? How do you see it? Where would the camera be? I’ve been doing a lot of changing because of the kind of questions that Norman’s been asking. He’s a really very bright person, and although he’s not an intellectual, he’s not a reader, he has the most highly developed sensibility of anyone.
BH Visually, his productions are always interesting, whether the text or the play works or not. I always think it’s a director’s job to best serve the play and the playwright. I think he does that for you.
CL Norman has taken plays that he didn’t necessarily believe in, but he wanted to find out something from, he wanted to try something—a technical challenge—which also interests me, because he’s not career-oriented.
BH Yet he works all the time.
CL That’s new. And as I’m sure you know, working all the time in New York in the theatre is not a way to make a living. That is a whole problem that hasn’t been looked at: making a living as a director in this town is next to impossible. I’m in the fortunate position of living with a doctor and not having to go out and take a TV script I don’t want to do or write a Knots Landing or any of that stuff. As a result, I don’t have very much money. But as result, I’m very happy to stay here and do the kind of work I want to do, and I don’t think that’s possible for most people. Walter Kerr was always screaming, “Where are the playwrights? Where have they gone? What are they doing out in California?” What they’re doing out in California is trying to make enough money so they can send their children to a school where they won’t get stabbed.
We somehow think, as writers in this country, we’re supposed to make a “killing.” There’s that famous Robert Anderson quote, “You can’t make a living, but you can make a killing.” I think there are a lot of playwrights and screenwriters in this country who make a very, very decent living.
BH You’re making a living, put it that way.
CL And I think complaining is unseemly.
BH I agree. It’s hard whether you’re an actor, director, or writer. Everyone is in the same boat.
CL I worked for years in a publishing company and I wrote at night. I wrote Blue Window and Reckless at night between my office hours and going to bed. Big deal! John Irving wrote his first four novels at night. In other countries, they tell you what you do for a living.
BH You’re doing what you want to do, that’s what’s important.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee