Ben Hodges, ed. | The Play That Changed My Life: America’s Foremost Playwrights on the Plays that Influenced Them

Ignition in the field of playwriting is the subject, a collection of essays and interviews with 19 contemporary American playwrights. 

200 pages. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2009. $18.99 (paperback)

As an ex-athlete I still retain an interest in the psychology of excellence and there’s a growing literature, both popular and professional, on the subject. You’ve probably heard of the 10,000-hours thesis: basically that you have to spend 10,000 hours practicing anything (chess, violin, writing) to get really good at it. This literature also points up the importance of something called “ignition,” a psychological change which makes you want to be excellent and convinces you that you can be excellent, hence making it worthwhile to devote all those hours to your chosen field of endeavor.

Ignition in the field of playwriting is the subject of The Play That Changed My Life, a collection of essays and interviews with 19 contemporary American playwrights. The title is a bit misleading, because many of the playwrights don’t cite a single play and actually provide more of an autobiographical essay about how they became interested in the theater. A more accurate title would be something like Experiences from My Life Which Influenced My Choice to Write Plays. But never mind; the title seems to have been chosen to echo that of an earlier book, The Movie that Changed My Life, and you have to admit it sounds catchy.

The playwrights are a varied lot in terms of their gender, race and ethnicity, sexual preference, family background and age. What they have in common is accomplishment: Collectively, they’ve won over 40 Tonys, Pulitzer Prizes, Obies and MacArthur genius grants. Many work in film and television, some are actors, and some do other types of writing as well. You may not be interested in each and every one of them, but a good point about this type of collection is that almost anyone with an interest in the theater will find a few stories that resonate with them, or perhaps more than a few.

Take Diana Son: The author of Stop Kiss was captivated as a 16-year-old high school student in Dover, Del., by Hamlet. She viewed Hamlet as a rebellious adolescent upset by his father’s death and mother’s remarriage and who, like Holden Caulfield, sees through the phonies around him. In return for Hamlet’s mouthing off to Claudius, Gertrude chides him, as any good Korean immigrant parent would, to stop being so emotional and just get over it. Son developed these strong feelings just from studying the text. When her class takes a trip to New York City to see the Public Theater production of Hamlet with Diane Venora in the title role, that really rocked Son’s young world. It also shaped her career: she applied to NYU in order to be near the New York theater scene and the rest, as they say, is history.

John Patrick Shanley grew up in the Bronx but until he was 22 saw only two plays, Cyrano de Bergerac and The Miracle Worker, each student productions at Cardinal Spellman High School. Of those, Cyrano had the strongest effect on him, both because he was watching from backstage and fascinated by all the artifice involved in a stage production, and also because he identified Cyrano as “a poet who was the toughest guy in the room, and the most terrific guy and the most romantic guy and a freak at the same time.”

There are 17 more stories like these, many illustrated with photos from the productions cited by the authors. For some, it was Broadway shows, for others children’s theater (Lynn Nottage has strong memories of a play called Succotash on Ice which featured talking lima beans). Some had parents who regularly took them to the theater; others did not. If there’s a moral to be drawn from these stories it’s that everyone’s path is different and that children deserve exposure to the arts as much as they do lessons in arithmetic and English grammar.

The Play That Changed My Life includes a foreword by Howard Sherman (Executive Director of the American Theatre Wing), preface by editor Ben Hodges, and introduction by Paula Vogel, whose plays were mentioned as influential by several of the playwrights included in this volume. But my favorite section out of the whole book is three short paragraphs by Edward Albee, in which the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner tells us that his life was changed by a production of Jumbo, starring Jimmy Durante and a small elephant, which he attended when he was six years old. | Sarah Boslaugh

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply