Stephen Adly Guirgis could rightly be described as New York City’s bard of the underbelly. Over the last fifteen years, whether set in a seedy Times Square bar or in a funeral parlor in Morningside Heights, Stephen’s plays exhibit a poet’s ear and a hustler’s mind as they chronicle the not-so-quiet desperation of broken lives led in the pursuit of fleeting grace.
His latest work, The Motherf**ker With The Hat, currently running at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, is the first of his plays to appear on Broadway and has been nominated for six Tony awards (including Stephen for Best Play), six Outer Critics Circle awards (with Elizabeth Rodriguez winning for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play), three Drama Desk awards, and three Drama League awards. Stephen’s other plays have been produced on five continents and throughout the United States; they include Our Lady of 121st Street (10 best plays of 2003; Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Best Play nominations), Jesus Hopped The A Train (Edinburgh Festival Fringe First Award, Detroit Free Press Best Play of the Year, as well as an Olivier nomination for Best New Play), In Arabia We’d All Be Kings (10 Best of ’99, Time Out New York) as well as The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and The Little Flower of East Orange. All five of those plays were directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and produced by LAByrinth Theater Company, where Stephen has been a Member since 1994 and a Co-Artistic Director with Mimi O’Donnell and Yul Vazquez since 2009.
Guirgis lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his dog, Papi.
So, where did you grow up?
I grew up on the Upper West Side. Of New York City.
Did you always want to get involved in theater, or did you have other aspirations?
I think that other than obvious boy aspirations of like: cop, rockstar, baseball player – um, yeah. My mom was really into theater and movies, and so from an early age I think she exposed me and my sister to that.
What are your favorite theater memories from growing up?
Well, in the third grade, we did Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the nun [who directed it] was Sister Margaret Mary. We would get our parts by picking them out of a hat. I picked the Evil Queen. And she was like “Whoa, Stephen, you got to pick again, because … you’re a boy.”
But I knew the Evil Queen was a good part. So I lobbied to be able to play it. And I did.
You played the Evil Queen.
Well, you wanted to be an actor at first, right?
I think so, yeah.
And what about since? What plays, or experiences in a theater, shaped your theatrical knowledge?
Well, there was a movie. I saw The Sting when I was really pretty little, I think I was like eight when The Sting came out. My mother was really surprised I wanted to see the movie – I didn’t know why I wanted to see it – but I wanted to see it so bad—
It had a great poster.
Yeah. And so I saw it. And then I got her to let me go see it twice. I bought the album – that was the first album I ever bought, the Scott Joplin soundtrack – and I remember I used to, like, pretend I was a grifter.
I did plays in high school. I was really lucky, when I got to eleventh grade, there was a drama teacher that took a real active interest in me, and he cast me in the leads in a bunch of plays.
The Glass Menagerie, I played Tom. And then Merchant of Venice, I played Shylock. I started out in Macbeth, and I played Macduff.
I was just telling someone the other day, I went to college at SUNY, and I knew I wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t think about majoring in theater. For some reason, I didn’t think you could do that. Or that it made sense. So I tried to study other things, but I really wasn’t doing that well in school, because I wasn’t that interested.
I went home for my birthday, and my sister— who was like a teenager at the time— with her babysitting money, bought me a ticket to a play. When I saw the ticket, it was a Ticketmaster ticket, so I assumed it was for, like, a rock concert. And I was psyched. But when I saw it was for a play, I was kind of bummed out. It was a Wednesday matinee of Burn This, with John Malkovich. I went and I saw that and Malkovich’s first entrance in the play, like twenty minutes into the play, it just… it really rocked my world. I went back up to school and changed to become a theater major. And now, like twenty years later, our play, Motherf**ker [With The Hat], is in that same theater.
Oh. That’s crazy.
Yeah. The first day we were in the theater, I walked in and found the seat I sat in.
Wow. That’s so great.
Yeah, it was nice. And also, I was at this New Dramatists [where Stephen is also a Member] luncheon the other day, and one of the hosts was Jim Dale. You know, the British actor?
So, the first play I ever saw my mom took me to see a Broadway play, and it was this play, Scapino. It was like Commedia dell’Arte, lots of pratfalls, and it was starring Jim Dale. And for the longest time, he was like the gold standard of acting to us. Jim Dale. So, I got to tell him that.
Full circles all over the place.
So, that got you involved and interested – when did you know you wanted to start writing plays? I’ve heard you tell the story of [former Artistic Director of LAByrinth Theater Company, John] Ortiz making you write plays…
Yeah, that’s basically kind of what happened. Me and Ortiz took a playwriting class in college. It was like an elective, and we both wrote plays – and he wrote a pretty good play, too – in fact, I think he actually finished his play. I never finished mine. But then, in the LAB [LAByrinth Theater Company], after a year or so of just functioning as a gym for actors, we decided to start producing our own work. And we had a hard time getting people. You know, we might have a play we liked, but the playwright didn’t know if he wanted to give it to us. Or we had the play, but the director didn’t know if he wanted to cast it within the company. So pretty quickly, we were like: “Fuck it, why don’t you write, and you’ll produce, and you’ll direct” – and so John [Ortiz] pointed at me and was like: “Why don’t you write?” And so I wrote a one act.
Which one was that?
It was called Francisco and Benny. And it was starring [current Dexter star and founding LAByrinth Theater Company Member] David Zayas, I think that was his first play, and [LAByrinth Member] David Anzuelo, directed by [LAByrinth Member] Charles Goforth.
I was so green I didn’t even know about rewrites. You know, I wrote the play and Charles was like “Let’s talk about rewrites,” and I was like “What do you mean? I wrote the play. Let’s just do it.” But then, when it went up, everyone laughed at the funny parts and was quiet at the serious parts and clapped a lot at the end.
So, yeah – John Ortiz, Paul Calderon, David Deblinger [LAByrinth founding Members] – they just really pushed me to keep writing. And I did. And I wasn’t even necessarily comfortable with it. It was more like I felt obligated. But that’s how it started.
In those early days, when you were back from Albany, what were you doing to support yourself? What jobs did you do?
I started working in restaurants when I was twelve.
Yeah, I worked in restaurants for over twenty years. I did everything you could do in a restaurant.
Did you cook?
Yeah, I was a line cook, I was a dishwasher, a prep cook, I was a waiter, I was a busboy, I was a bartender, I was a runner… I did everything.
Well, that’s what your dad did, right?
Yeah, he managed restaurants in Grand Central. So, that’s where I started. But then the last few years, when I had day jobs, I was really fortunate to get arts education jobs — doing HIV education and prevention, and violence prevention and conflict resolution workshops with prisons, shelters, schools, and incorporating acting and improv as a way to launch these discussions. And that was really rewarding work.
It’s a big difference between when you got to work a day job where you’re serving a cheeseburger and a martini and when you’re actually using the skills that you have to do something that makes a positive contribution to other people. So that was really great.
When did you find time to write when you were doing that?
I don’t know. I guess if I wasn’t working, or with the LAB, then I would try to write. But actually, I was just telling someone this, when we were getting ready to do Jesus Hopped The A Train, going into rehearsal, I didn’t have any time to write. And I still had a lot of the play to write. We were going into rehearsal in, like, three or four weeks, and I had all these jobs. I was in four different schools, I had all these jobs. And I couldn’t quit the jobs, because I really needed the money, but I didn’t have any time to write. And I had to write.
So I called [former LAByrinth Co-Artistic Director] Phil [Seymour] Hoffman, because he was going to direct the play, and I was like “Listen, I don’t know if I can get this play, we have to postpone it because I’m working, and I have to work, and I don’t know what to do, I’m trying, but I just can’t write.” And then he said … he kind of, like, paused and said: “Well, how much money would you need in order to get through the next three or four months?” I thought about it and I was like “Well …” and I told him how much. And he’s like “I’m gonna send my assistant over with the money.” And I was like “No, no, no, no.” And he said, “Listen, we want to get this play up. It’s not a loan. You can pay it back if you want or you could pay it forward to someone else, but I really want you to write this play. And I think if you actually do write this play, then in the near future, you’re not going to have to worry so much about day jobs.”
I’ve always been really kind of funny with money. Especially with friends, you know? But I took the money, and I wrote the play. And then a few years later, there was another playwright friend, and he was in a similar situation, so I asked him to come to my house to help me with something and I gave him that same amount of money. He didn’t want to take it, but I told him the story about Phil. So he took it. And he’s just recently passed it along to someone else, so…
I gotta find that person.
So, when you were working in prisons and stuff, that sort of became Jesus Hopped The A Train in some ways, didn’t it?
Or just talking about the genesis of your plays, I remember you told me the story of how your friend got abducted by the Moonies [an outsider’s less-than-affectionate term for members of the controversial Unification Church, founded by Sun Myung Moon], and—
Yeah, the sort of genesis of the play was that a really close friend of mine joined the Moonies, and there was a period of my life when I devoted a lot of time to trying to get him kidnapped and deprogrammed, and I went on stakeouts and I was planning to…but it never ended up working. And then I went to therapy, and I learned you can’t really… that people are going to do what they’re going to do, and that I was so into getting him back because it was such a strong connection to my childhood. And I think I was kind of in a place where I wasn’t ready to move on into adulthood, so I was holding on to him in that way. And then, you know, in therapy, I just started kind of getting on with my life a little bit. But I knew I would write about it someday. A few years later, when we did the play, the guy Joe that inspired the story came to the play.
Really? Was he still in the Moonies?
Oh, yeah. He still is. He’s married. He got married in one of those big Moonie weddings, and he came to see the show with his Moonie wife, who was like nine months pregnant, and they went and saw the show and then his wife had the baby the next day.
But the part about working in prisons was that obviously you pick up things being in that environment, and there are certain things – like the sound of those doors shutting is kind of chilling, no matter what. Even if you’re leaving.
How would you say that you learned to be a playwright?
By doing it. Doing it, that’s all. I mean, I think my education as a playwright came from studying acting at William Esper, going through that program with Maggie Flannigan, and then doing a lot of plays, acting in a lot of plays in little theaters, bigger theaters – doing really bad productions of plays, doing okay productions of plays, doing good productions of plays – so, when I started writing, I started thinking about, like, “Well, what would I want to see on the stage? Or what kind of story would be interesting to me, or like what kind of part would I like to play?” As an actor, you’re limited. Like, you and I, it’s more than likely that we’re not going to play women, we’re not going to play Asian men; but when you’re writing you get to kind of live that out.
So is that how you go about it? Like, you see it on stage in your head, you live out each part?
Well, not really. When I write, it usually starts from something that I’m feeling. Something that I’m wrestling with inside, something that’s going on in my life that’s not working. It tends to get sorted out in the writing of plays. So, there’s something that’s going on that’s bothering me, or keeping me up, and eventually I’ll start writing and the characters will start talking. And I can just start to hear their voices and write it. And then it sort of emerges from there.
But the biggest trick, what I’ve learned about writing, is that the difference between people who write and people that don’t write – even though everybody, most everybody, seems to want to write, or think they could write, or that they have a story tell – is that the ones who write eventually sit down and write. And the ones who don’t write never quite make it to sitting down. And the ones who write repeat that process again and again until they end up with a draft, or a play.
How do you bring yourself to that blank page?
It sucks. I mean, I think there are some people I know that love writing, that look forward to it – I know that John Patrick Shanley enjoys the writing process. Tennessee Williams used to. First thing in the morning, he’d write until noon, no matter what. For me, it’s not necessarily something I look forward to. I would challenge anybody in the whole world to show me an avoidance technique that I haven’t already done, you know? I think I’m as much a procrastinator as anybody, but, at the end of the day, at some point, you sit down and you start.
And, most of the time, I pray. And that’s what gets me started. It’s not so much that I’m a religious person, because I’m not – I don’t even know if there is a God – but I think that writing is not a solo venture. I think that writing is a collaboration between you and something else. And I think that the act of prayer — whether you’re praying literally to someone or something or not— that the act of prayer is a form of practicing humility. It’s a sublimation of the ego. And once I’m able to do that, then it allows whatever’s out there to come in. It gives me a release and gets me started.
What do you find to be the hardest part of playwriting and what do you find to be the most rewarding?
The hardest part of playwriting is sitting down and staying down. No question. If you’re fortunate and your play gets produced, and published, then what’s going to happen is that your play is going to get produced other places. And the most rewarding thing for me – because I will occasionally go see productions outside of our original ones – is the thought that a group of people that I don’t even know get together and meet each other and have an experience because I wrote a play. Somewhere far away from them. And that, to me, is something I feel proud of.
And also, often, because the plays I write tend to have an ethnically diverse cast, the other sort of fringe benefit is that different kinds of people, people that don’t always get a chance to work together, are together and are having an experience because of something you wrote. That’s rewarding.
Your stuff has been done on five continents, right?
Yeah. Five continents. You know, they don’t tend to get done so often in the big theaters, but all the little theaters and colleges and high schools… yeah, it’s pretty cool.
Do you remember the first time you got paid for something you wrote?
I guess it was Den of Thieves. We did Den of Thieves at the LAB. And then we did it with HAI Theater Festival, which was the arts organization I was working for when I was doing arts education stuff, and I got paid. I don’t remember how much it was. Probably like five hundred bucks or something. But we did the play on Theater Row for a month, and it was a lot of fun.
Other than that, I got a job working for David Milch on a TV show called Big Apple that didn’t last very long, and that was the first time I got paid enough money that I didn’t need to do anything else.
What was it like to see your writing published for the first time?
The first thing that got published was Jesus Hopped The A Train, but also In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings, together. After Jesus came out, they wanted to publish it. So we made a deal to publish both of them. Yeah, it’s really cool to see a script with your name on it. And then open it up and see the picture from the production and everybody’s names. Yeah, it’s a cool thing. But mostly it’s coolest because you can go show your mother. You know? And then she feels good.
Sure. Do you ever write in other forms beside playwriting?
No. Well, I wrote for television. So, I’ve written teleplays. And I’m just starting to get into screenwriting, so I’m working on learning that. Emails.
You were talking about Francisco and Benny. What are some Stephen Adly Guirgis plays that no one has ever seen?
Wow. Well, there’s Francisco and Benny. There’s a play called Moonlight Mile. That was the first full-length play I wrote, and that was me and John Ortiz, Liza Colón-Zayas, [LAByrinth Company Member] Liz Canavan, [LAByrinth Company Member] Chris McGarry, and Dave Anzuelo. We did that down at HERE [Arts Center] in ’95 or ’96. There was a play called Race, Religion, Politics, which was where I met Phil [Hoffman]. Phil joined the Company, and he played the lead in the play. It was Phil and [LAByrinth Company Members] Richie Petrocelli, Jinn [S.] Kim, and Johnny Sanchez. And that’s where me and Phil became good friends and discovered we had a similar sensibility, artistically. There was a play called Boom Boom, Boom Boom that we did at Center Stage, with Yul Vazquez, who’s in The Motherf**ker With The Hat right now [and nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor] – it took place on a cruise ship, on an Egyptian cruise ship, and there were these five Egyptian brothers that worked on the ship, and Yul played all five brothers. He was really brilliant.
So, from those early days of those plays to now, being on Broadway, and getting all the recognition you’re getting, what remains the same through all that?
It’s the same process every time. Because every time you write a play, it doesn’t matter how much experience you have – you don’t know if it’s going to be a play, you don’t know if it’s going to work. It’s the same struggles. It’s the same difficulties, challenges – the same desires to write honestly and put your whole heart and all your shit into it.
You know, the only thing that’s different is that once you’ve written a few plays, the experience doesn’t help you write, the experience doesn’t make it any easier to write, but when I get stuck and feel like I can’t go on, or when I feel despairing, I do have the knowledge that I’ve felt that way before, and that I got through it and got to the end and was able to produce a piece of work. And also, it was the same rehearsal process.
You know, people ask me a lot about what it’s like to be on Broadway and stuff, and the truth is we rehearsed the play in the same place where we rehearsed other plays. It’s the same struggle to make a good play. Once you get into the theater, and you’re in midtown, you realize “Oh, I’m not at Center Stage, I’m not at a seventy-seat theater.” But, again, the same things have to happen for the play to go well, and the same things, if they happen and you can’t avoid them, will make a play go bad. So, it’s kind of the same, but in midtown there’s a lot more attention if you succeed or if you fail. You know, it’s like – you remember the movie Hoosiers?
Remember when they get to the State Championship Game and Gene Hackman says like, “Hey Shorty, take this measuring stick.” He’s like, “What’s the height of the rim?” You know, “What’s the dimensions of the court?“ He’s like “The same as the gym at Hickory.” That’s true.
Just everything surrounding it is different.
Well, what about growing up in the City, going to see Burn This and now having your play performed on the same stage? How do you think about that? What does that feel like?
[An extended pause.] I guess it’s a good feeling. You know, when the play was in previews, and whether the play was going to succeed or fail was still up in the air, the theater was full every night with people that looked like New York, you know? It wasn’t just Park Avenue. It was all kinds of people, together, watching this play, and they seemed to really like it. And that felt really good. If the play had gotten bad reviews and closed, I would have been bummed out, but I know that we all felt during previews like if it just ended after a few weeks, we would have felt good about what we accomplished.
There was a night a few weeks back, after Lanford Wilson died, where they dimmed the lights on Broadway, and I was outside with Japhet [Balaban, Stephen’s assistant on Motherf**ker], and he was going back inside, and I was like, “No, come out, they’re gonna dim the lights.” And we watched the lights dim, and I realized “Oh.” I’m in the theater where I saw his play, and then I went in to see the show, and … you know, yeah, it’s a good feeling.
But, at the same time, I guess I’ve been doing this for fifteen years now, so what you learn is that the good feeling comes from the fact that we have a pretty good show, and we’ve all done the work and we’re showing up and delivering. And…
It’s not so much about you.
Yeah. I mean, I would have felt just as good at Center Stage. Or at The Public [Theater]. The fact that it’s on Broadway is… again, it’s means something, it definitely means something. But I try not to get too caught up in it.
It’s about the play.
Yeah. I mean, I wish my parents were here, you know? It would mean so much to them. It does mean a lot to me, but it’s like they say – what do they say? Like when the kid comes up into the Major Leagues, it’s like “Act like you’ve been here before.”
Right. Or when you score a touchdown.
Yeah, you score a touchdown, you don’t like take off all your clothes, you know? You act like you’ve been here before. But it’s really amazing. Jerusalem is across the street, and it’s such a great show. And The Normal Heart is down the block. And we’re here, and we’re a part of it. And I think we’re delivering a good show to the people, so… yeah, it feels good.
Do you have any advice for playwrights or for writers just trying to find their footing and starting out in the world?
Like I said, I didn’t study writing formally, so there’s a lot that I don’t know. But what I do know is this: If you want to write, if you believe you’ve got something to say, if you believe you can write, then write and don’t be afraid to sit down. It’s all about sitting down and staying down, keeping at it. And then calling your friends and saying “Hey, can we get together on such and such a date and read these pages?” Even if you don’t have the pages yet. You make that arrangement and then people are going to show up at a certain time and you’re going to have to have some pages. That will help.
And also, I would just say, you could write a comedy, you could write a farce, you could write a piece of experimental theater, you could write whatever you want, but my suggestion is that you make sure that you write from your heart. As much as you can. Write about the real stuff that’s going on inside of you, write about the stuff that keeps you up at night – don’t lie, tell the truth, expose yourself and then you can disguise it in your characters. If you are willing to take the stuff that you’d rather keep private and put it into a piece of work, and if you write about it honestly, truthfully – even if it’s a comedy – the chances are really good that there are going to be people in that audience that feel the same way or think the same thing or are afraid of the same thing, and then you have a chance to really put out some work that’s worthwhile. Because you can have all the technique, craft, wordsmanship that exists in the world, but if it’s not about something that’s real to you… Because if it has meaning to you, then it’ll have meaning to us.
A good example – occasionally, I’ll lead a writing workshop, and I do an exercise where I have people write a letter to someone they have an unresolved relationship with, in which they express to that person what that is, just based on their actual lives. And there was a guy, this guy who had been in prison, and he was writing his letter to his victim. Which, on the surface, sounds really dramatic, but he wasn’t really emotionally connected to it. So, what he wrote, it didn’t resonate. And then there was this other guy, who wrote a letter to a dog. Because when he was a little kid, he had this dog, and he didn’t feed him, and then the dog ran away. Or something like that. And it was about a stupid dog, but as soon as he started reading the letter, it was so clear that it had real and personal meaning to him. And so the hairs on your arms stand up and you get emotionally involved. That’s what I mean about trying to write about something that means something to you. Even if you’re gonna make a farce. Like Oscar Wilde, what a witty guy, but he’s writing about stuff that sticks in his craw.
So, do that, and try not to judge yourself too much, and create a forum where you have to present your work to others, even if it’s around a kitchen table. And if you believe in yourself, then just keep believing. And do the work.
At the end of the day, it’s the person that sits down and stays down who will write a play. And the rest will talk about that thing they want to write when they’re drunk.
Interview by Willie Orbison
Photo courtesy of the artist