Podcast Episode 93 Transcript – Bess Wohl
Ken: Hello, Producer’s Perspective Podcast listeners. Welcome back. I am Ken Davenport. You know, I have been so fortunate to have spoken to some of the industry’s most treasured playwrights on this podcast, people who are already in the Theatre Hall of Fame, people who have won multiple Tony awards and a heck of a lot more. Well, today I’m thrilled to have someone on the podcast who I believe, and a whole bunch of us in this industry believe, is going to be one of those playwrights soon enough. Please welcome to the podcast playwright Bess Wohl. Welcome, Bess.
Bess: Thank you so much.
Ken: So Bess is currently repped Off Broadway by Small Mouth Sounds, which was named a top ten of 2015 from the New York Times and a whole bunch of other publications, she is also the author of American Hero, Touched, Pretty Filthy in collaboration with The Civilians and, oh man, my favorite, Cats Talk Back. We’ll get to that later. I remember reading all about that show, though. Her work has been done in the major regional theatres out there – Second Stage, Williamstown, the Geffen and more – and in 2015 she won a special Drama Desk award for establishing herself as an important voice in the New York theatre – and on top of that she was a pretty successful actress before picking up the pen. So, Bess, how did you get started in the theatre? Where did you get bit by the bug?
Bess: Wow, I really think it was when I was a little kid, like in my church musicals. We would do a musical every year in my church choir and I just got obsessed with being in them. We did Oklahoma!, we did Camelot. We did a lot of musicals in church choir and I just started to fall in love with theatre and from there I was always in musicals and plays at school and I started to write after that.
Ken: So when did the writing happen? Did you go to school and college for acting? Were you intent on being a performer early?
Bess: I was. I went to college and I studied English so I always did both at the same time. I thought it was too crazy to try to be an actor so I decided I would write at the same time and then, after college, I auditioned for a bunch of grad schools, didn’t get in, didn’t get in, finally got into Yale Drama where I went as an actor and then Yale has this little sort of side space called the Cabaret, where you can just put up whatever crazy show you want to put up, so that’s where I started writing, so in a way it was while I was getting my MFA in acting that I discovered writing and that was where Cats Talk Back first came to life, was at the Yale Cabaret.
Ken: Was Cats Talk Back the first show you wrote?
Bess: Yeah, that was my first play.
Ken: Tell everyone what it is. I mean it’s Cats Talk Back but tell everyone.
Bess: So Cats Talk Back, I always call it a sort of Waiting for Guffman-style mock post-show discussion with five former cast members of Andrew Lloyd Webbers Cats. Of course they’re not really former cast members of Andrew Lloyd Webbers Cats but they’re pretending, and so it’s basically them sitting on folding chairs talking about their experience in Cats, what it was like to work with Andrew Lloyd Webber, they perform numbers that were cut from the musical because they were too gritty and too real, like this fictitious number where the cats find and maul to death a small child called “Cats Kill”. They basically talk about their experience and it was great, it was really fun, and we built it, when we did it at Yale we pretended that these were real cats, people who had been in Cats coming in and talking to the students at the drama school and it was a big hit and then we did it in New York at the Fringe Festival.
Ken: What I loved about that idea, when I read it, is it was just very unique and it stood out to me – I’m going to flash forward a little bit, and then we’ll go back, to Small Mouth Sounds, which is also a very unique piece in the setting and the theatrical environment that we’re in, somewhat immersive in a way. Where do you get your ideas? Where do they come from when you sit down and you’re like “I want to write a play about this.”?
Bess: Yeah, it’s a good question and I don’t really know. With Cats Talk Back it was so long ago but I was just really interested in doing a show that was a post-show discussion, like the entire play is what normally comes after the play, I was really interested in how actors talk about acting because I was in drama school. With Small Mouth Sounds I had gone on a bunch of silent retreats and started taking notes because I was like ‘This is such a weird and amazing environment and so dramatic in so many ways,’ so I think there’s normally a little spark in my own life, somewhere I go, something I come across, an article I read that just kind of doesn’t leave me alone. That’s where it comes from.
Ken: So you were pursuing an acting career and writing career simultaneously for the first couple of years of your career?
Bess: Yeah, so after Yale I did Cats Talk Back in New York at the Fringe Festival, we won Best of Fringe, and then, at the same time, I started getting cast in little movies and TV, just little roles, and so I went out to LA to do that and didn’t write for a year or two and then one of the plays that I wrote I ended up adapting into a screenplay and that was how I got started in a little film and TV writing. So it was always sort of simultaneous although now I really don’t act anymore at all, I’m just a writer.
Ken: Was that a tough decision for you to make? Because you had a pretty successful career as an actress, I mean you were working. You did a couple episodes of CSI: New York, I know that.
Bess: Yeah, I was on ‘CSI: New York’.
Ken: So you were doing fine.
Ken: You were doing fine, and a lot of actors, I think, out there, when they’re doing fine at such a very difficult profession would be ‘Oh, I’m going to keep doing this.’ What made you go ‘Alright, that’s it, I’m putting away my makeup kit and I’m just going to do this writing thing.’?
It was actually a TV pilot I wrote. I’ve often found that whatever I’m writing actually teaches me something that I didn’t know about myself while I’m writing it, it’s a very strange experience. This pilot, I wrote a TV pilot about an actress on ‘CSI: New York’ who was so miserable in her job, she was like fifth banana, you know, that she actually started using her ‘CSI: New York’ knowledge to solve little crimes around Hollywood. It was a one-hour light detective story, and as I wrote that I thought ‘Wow, I’m writing about an actress that hates her life so much that she’s finding missing cats for people with her CSI knowledge,’ and a friend of mine actually said to me ‘Look at what you’re telling yourself. You’re telling yourself you need to be doing something other than what you’re doing,’ so in a way I wrote myself a letter in the form of a TV pilot that told me that I needed to make a change.
Ken: A very insightful comment but I also want to draw attention to the fact that you talked about cats again, so cats are obviously a repeated theme in your life as well.
Bess: I don’t have a cat, I don’t really like cats, the animals.
Ken: You don’t like them?
Ken: Did being an actor make you a better writer? When you write dialogue now do you think about what it’s like to be said or be worked on by someone?
Bess: Yeah, completely. I think in two ways – one was by the time I started writing plays I had been in so many of them that I really understood the architecture of a play and what works and what doesn’t and I had sat backstage as an actor so many times and thought how arrogant actors think, you know, ‘I can fix this. This scene doesn’t need to be in the play,’ I dramaturged all these plays in my head by being in them, and I also think there’s a way you approach a character as an actor, where you really just think about the play from the inside out and, to me, my favorite plays are plays that are really character-driven and you sense that the characters you see on stage are the ones making the choices and you’re not feeling the hand of the writer in some really active aggressive way, so I think I still go into the character like an actor does.
Ken: Do you have a writing process? Do you get up at 6am and write for two hours or do you write when you’re inspired? What do you do?
Bess: I’m best in the morning. By the afternoon, like right now, unfortunately, I’m slightly braindead, but in the morning, that’s when I do my best writing, in an hour. I do wake up at around 6 and try to write until around 8 and those are my best writing hours. It’s almost like I’m still in a little bit of a dream zone and often I’ll go to sleep thinking about a scene or a problem in a play that I’m working on and the hope is that when you wake up it’s started to untangle itself.
Ken: Do you write seven days a week?
Bess: I don’t. I write about six days a week.
Ken: And how long does it take you to write a play? Let’s say you bump into a member of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘School of Rock’ and there’s ‘School of Rock Talks Back’ and you get inspired to write a play about that, from idea to completion about how long do you think it will take you?
Bess: It really depends on the play and it depends on the process, because I rarely just pick up a play and exclusively write that for six months or write that for a year. I’m always juggling different projects and I find that time away helps me come back to it with fresh eyes so I would say, all in all, it’s generally a couple of years but along that path there will be work jobs. I might have a draft after three months and then do a workshop and then realize after the workshop that I have to start over and take three more months, so by the time that process has played itself out it’s normally a few years.
Ken: And you mentioned that you’ve done a bunch of work in film and television – how different is the writing process for film and TV versus the stage?
Bess: It’s so different. One big difference is there’s no workshop development process a lot of the time, so often you don’t get to hear your piece aloud until someone’s decided to shoot it and you have the first read through with the cast. Everything else is a bunch of conference calls with a lot of people who have read it and are responding. So that’s one big difference. My experiences have been that it’s a much more collaborative group process in the development of the script – you’re taking a lot of notes and synthesizing them, and there I’m talking about things like a studio movie job or a network TV show or something. I think if you just wrote you own little indie then you could make it however you want it. So it is very different and it’s interesting to go back and forth.
Ken: So let’s go back to after you win the award at the Fringe here in New York – whoo hoo! What was the next step in your career? When did you get ‘discovered’, to use that clichéd term? How did it happen for you as a writer?
Bess: Does that happen? Do people get discovered like that?
Ken: I don’t even know what it means. Everyone usually says ‘No, that’s not what happened. I put ten years of my life into this and then something happened.’ Was there a moment, though, where you were like ‘Oh, this is starting to work now for me. People are interested in me doing this.’?
Bess: It’s been little fits and starts. Maybe in the future I’ll have a moment where I feel like ‘Okay, I’ve arrived!’ That would be amazing, but for me it’s been very much I had the play at the Fringe, that was how I got writing agents, so then I had agents and that was helpful. There have just been little markers along the way – selling the first TV pilot, getting a first studio movie writing job, getting my first play produced in New York, which was at Second Stage uptown, getting my first musical and then this. So there hasn’t been a big transformative moment as much as little markers on the path along the way.
Ken: Did you have any writing mentors as you came up?
Bess: Mostly I have to say my peers have been, for me, really the most important thing. My class at Yale, even though I went and got an MFA in acting, the other actors and the directors – Trip Cullman was in my class, Jackson Gay, who’s a wonderful director, was in my class and Will Frears was in the year above me – there were all kinds of great directors and actors and other writers in my class and we all sort of taught each other, I think, we came up together. Trip, for example, was one of the first directors who I said ‘Would you read this play and tell me what you think?’ and ‘Would you do a reading of it?’ and then we worked together last winter on ‘Barcelona’ at the Geffen, so they’ve really stayed my collaborators, and the other actors are the ones that I call and say ‘Hey, would you come to my apartment and read this script for me. I don’t know what it is yet but I’ll get free food for you if you’ll do it.’ So it’s been much more peer based for me.
Ken: Since you bring up directors, how early do you like to bring directors in to your plays when you write them? Very early, do you like getting dramaturgical advice? Do you want to wait and let it breathe for a little while?
Bess: I will take all the advice I can get from anyone. I really appreciate feedback and I’m in a writers group and that’s really helpful too so I would say it really depends on the project but I generally like to start talking with a director about a piece pretty early and I like to have them there for the early readings, I like to develop with them, I like to have a collaborator, I really crave that. When left to my own devices I can spin out in some very, very strange directions and it gets weird really fast so I need somebody creating some parameters for me most of the time.
Ken: Do you attend all rehearsals? Do you sit in the rehearsal room or do you need some space?
Bess: That’s been a learning curve for me. At the beginning, the first few out of town productions, I really wanted to be in the rehearsal room every day and, I think probably having been an actor, I was sort of in this mode of ‘Well, we have rehearsal tomorrow, I have to go.’ Even though I was the writer I still thought of it as an actor – ‘Oh my God, I’m ten minutes late for rehearsal!’ When you’re the writer nobody cares, they just start, but I was really feeling like I was important somehow in that process. So now, since that, I’ve sort of learned that it’s really good to step away for me and then to come back for the preview. I find that if I’m there the whole time I can kind of lose perspective and if I leave for a week and then come back or if I miss tech and come to previews I can offer more objective help and actually be a good partner for the director, so say ‘Oh, I didn’t see how you came to this choice but here’s what I’m getting from it.’ Sometimes if you know how the sausage is made it’s a little hard to really see things clearly.
Ken: And what about rewrites in previews, how do you deal with those?
Bess: I have a bad habit of over rewriting. I know some playwrights refuse to rewrite their work and I would imagine that could present one set of problems but my problem is sort of the opposite, like I’ll rewrite anything and I have to be put in a corner and told to stop because I’m a tinkerer, I love to tinker with everything and see what it would be. I get bored easily so I like to just make it different, which the actors love, especially when they’re in previews and they have to go on that night! It’s funny, with ‘Small Mouth Sounds’, in the original production at Ars Nova there was this giant monologue that one of the characters had and I think during previews or maybe during tech I said to the director ‘That monologue’s not working, we just need to cut it,’ and she was like ‘I don’t think we should cut it. I think it’s kind of important to play.’ I was like ‘We’ve got to just get rid of it,’ so she was like ‘Okay, I’ll try it.’ I made them do a run-through without it there and the fury coming off of the cast during the run-through was so intense because they were like ‘Why are you messing with this play?’ but I saw it and it was helpful for me to see it.
Ken: And then it went back.
Bess: It went back the next day, yeah! I got a conference call of worried producers and directors saying ‘Please put this back in the show. You’re destroying your play.’ They did an intervention, basically.
Ken: Do you read reviews?
Bess: You know, it depends. I’ll read one or two of the bigger reviews sometimes, just to get a sense of basically how the play’s going to sell, kind of, how it’s going to live in the landscape, but I don’t compulsively read everything that’s written about a play. I often will have somebody else in my life read the review of me instead of me reading it myself and I’ll say ‘Give me the highlights or the lowlights and just tell me if it was good or not.’ The practicality of being a playwright is, even if you try to avoid them, you find out because if they’re good, somebody tweets it to you or puts it on Facebook or sends you a text and if they’re not good you get that vibe too because you get an email from your aunt or uncle saying ‘That was so unfair!’ so you just can’t avoid having a sense of what the conversation around the play is.
Ken: You wrote a musical – what was that experience like? Do you want to write more?
Bess: Yeah, I do, I loved it, I really did. I had great collaborators. I worked with Michael Friedman, the composer, who’s actually a friend of mine from college and I loved working with him – he also did the music for ‘Cats Talk Back’.
Ken: Of course.
Bess: Of course, the play that started it all. So, yeah, I had a great time and Steve Cossons, who runs the Civilians, was wonderful to work with. It’s really fun to feel like you have can music as another tool to create an emotional result in the audience and after you go back to playwriting you sort of feel like, I don’t know, you’re running on one foot or something. It’s hard to take it away again. Now, when I write a play, I wish I could just sing right now, it would be so much easier than having to write this scene. So, yeah, I loved it.
Ken: If you could be a playwright trying to make it today versus a playwright trying to make it twenty years ago, which would you choose? In other words, is it harder, do you think, to try to get your footing today versus how it was twenty years ago or is it easier?
Bess: I think for women it’s probably a lot easier now. There just seems to be a lot more focus on making sure that women are produced and obviously there’s a long way to go but it does seem like there’s an openness to women’s voices that’s exciting now in a way that there wasn’t twenty years ago. I think what would be nice is people’s attention spans seem shorter now than they were twenty years ago and I think it would be nice to be able to speak to an audience that’s not on their phone half the time or without cellphones going off. I’d love to write a play where no cellphone ever went off in the audience and that’s just not possible anymore.
Ken: Have you experienced, as you were coming up, any challenges from being a woman in this industry, on the other coast even?
Bess: It’s hard to say because I don’t know what it be like not to be a woman so I can’t say how my experience would have been different but I think there are times when, especially making the transition from being an actress to being a writer, it feels like, as an actress, you’re seen as more of a reactive part of the process – you got the part and then you’re there to serve the process – and as a writer you’re much more there to be in charge of the process and direct it, not literally but be leading, so I think it’s sometimes hard for people to see an actress in that role. It seems like there’s a lot more freedom – then again, this is a giant generalization – but my experience is there’s a little more freedom for men who are actors to go from writing to directing to acting and back again and actresses, at least when I was making that transition, they’re a little sort of stuck in ‘But you’re a pretty actress!’, that sort of box, and I was much more interested in the Sam Shepherd trajectory.
Ken: Would you ever direct your own work?
Bess: Probably not in theatre but I would love to in film someday.
Ken: Would you ever direct someone else’s theatre work?
Bess: I don’t think I could, I really don’t. It would be interesting, but I don’t have that chip that can take something on a page that I haven’t written and really invest it to that degree. A director has to have such an incredible generosity of spirit because they take this piece of material and they treat it as if it’s their life’s blood, they put their full imagination into it, and I think it’s incredible that they can do that and I think that would be hard for me because I would be multitasking on my own project. I’d probably be calling the theatre and saying ‘There’s this great Bess Wohl play you could be doing instead of this other play!’
Ken: How important is it for you to have a play on Broadway? Do you think ‘I’m going to write a play now; I’m going to write something that could be on Broadway.’? Broadway is its own strange ecosystem – is it important to you; do you think about it when you write?
Bess: I never have but recently I’ve started to think about it a little bit more and I don’t know why. For the longest time I just said ‘I just want to be in the conversation. I don’t care how, I don’t care if it’s 70 people in a little room, if it’s 20 people at a reading, I just somehow want to be in dialogue about the work,’ and now that that’s started to happen I think I’ve started to imagine ‘Well, what kind of Broadway play could I write? What would it look like?’ I’ve started to ask people ‘What do you think works on Broadway in terms of a straight play?’ It’s such a hard formula, it’s such a hard thing to crack, but I’m interested.
Ken: I want you to flash forward decades, decades ahead now, and you’re getting a lifetime achievement award for your work in the theatre – what do you want people to say about you that night, why you’re getting that award and that recognition? What would that mean to you?
Bess: Wow, that’s such a great question. To me, hopefully without sounding cliché about it, I love the sense of community and collaboration in theatre, I love the family aspect of it so I would love it if people thought of me as a great collaborator. To me, the most gratifying part of writing a play truly, truly is seeing the actors step up and shine and seeing people do their best work together so I would really just want to hear that I was fun to work with.
Ken: I tracked you down for this podcast via Twitter.
Ken: You just grimaced a little bit.
Bess: I’m a reluctant Tweeter. You’re great at it, I’m not. I’m learning, it’s a learning curve.
Ken: So talk to me about that learning curve – do you find this is something you should be doing? ‘I have to be doing this, I have to put myself out there to promote myself a little bit,’ just because of the writing aspect? Why learn it?
Bess: Why learn it? I know. I’m not sure about the answer to that question because I’m very conflicted about whether I even want to be on it at all because there’s so little time in the day, just with all the busy lives that we lead, to write anything. I feel like the things that I write should not be tweets. So it is conflicting but partly because it’s so hard to market a play I felt like it was worth it to do a little bit of that, especially doing this commercial off-Broadway transfer of this play, I thought ‘Okay, well I’ll try to be on Twitter a little bit,’ and the part of it I do love is hearing from people if they enjoyed the show, it’s really nice to have that connection to the audience where they can just tweet, they don’t even have to be tweeting at you but you can read their tweet and know that they had a good experience, that is really great, but coming up with pithy little things to say is not my strong suit.
Ken: Says a celebrated playwright.
Bess: I can’t do 140 characters or less, I need 140 pages. It’s so funny because people tell me stories about how actors get cast based on how many Twitter followers they have, like if there’s two contenders for a role they’ll cast the one with the most Twitter followers, and all of that is a little bit terrifying to me.
Ken: It is, and I can say I’ve been in auditions myself where I often just Google the person to see, frankly, whether their resume is matching up with reality and, yeah, you look at Facebook friends and usually someone, artistically, always trumps so it doesn’t matter but, yeah, you look at those things and you can’t help it influence you, for sure.
Bess: Yeah, and some people use it really beautifully and have really funny, great Twitter accounts and we met through Twitter so it’s all worth it.
Ken: Advice to playwrights out there that are coming up with Fringe Festival shows about famous composers and their shows, I don’t know, what they should do?
Bess: It’s so funny because I think, for playwrights, there are two tracks – there’s making the work and then there’s the marketing yourself part – and for the making you really just have to lock yourself in a room with your favorite snacks and come up with something, you just have to sit there and write it and, I guess, get a group of supporters around you who can offer feedback and help you make your work better, whether it’s actor friends who come to your living room like I did or dramaturgs or smart directors, and then the marketing part, I think, is getting in writers groups and going to readings and going to plays and being on Twitter, if you want to be on Twitter, or Facebook and getting into the community in a way where you know enough people so that somebody could email you and say ‘Hey, I’m doing a reading series in such-and-such a space, do you have anything to read?’ or ‘Hey, we’re putting together a writers group, do you want to be in it?’ That I find really helpful. To me, the writers’ groups that I’ve been in and the other artists that I’ve worked with, there is absolutely no way I could have written my plays without them.
Ken: Okay, my last question, my Genie Question – I want you to imagine that the genie from ‘Aladdin’ comes to visit you and thanks you for all the great work you’ve done so far and all the work that’s yet to come and says ‘I want to grant you one wish.’ What’s the one thing that drives you so crazy about Broadway, or about the New York theatre scene in general, something that makes you really mad? You’re such a nice woman, you’ve had a smile on your face the whole time, I wish my listeners could see, so what makes you mad, what makes you bang your fists against the table, swearing, that you would ask this genie to wish away?
Bess: About theatre or about the world in general?
Ken: Start with theatre, maybe we’ll segue into the world.
Bess: I think ticket prices. I just wish it was accessible to more people, I really do, and I’m sure you’ve had a lot of people who have come on and said that but I wish that there was a way to get people to the theatre for less money and I wish there was a way to pay actors more and I wish the whole economic machine functioned more easily – but that’s your job, not mine!
Ken: Great! Anything about the world you want to change?
Bess: Oh, so many things! How long do you have? We can’t fit that into your podcast.
Ken: Well we’ll wait for your next play, I’m sure it will address many of the things you’d like to change in the world and address them beautifully. Thank you so much. I’m a huge fan. Small Mouth Sounds, go check it out and check out whatever’s coming next. What is coming next?
Bess: I’m writing a few plays I’ve commissioned from Lincoln Center and a commission from Second Stage. A bunch of commissions.
Ken: So I’m going to ask you one more question now – commissions versus your own ideas – is it more challenging to do, is there any difference for you?
Bess: Most of the commissions I’ve taken they say ‘Just bring us any idea you have.’ They’re pretty open ended so the best of both worlds is you have your own idea but you’re also supported by a commission, which is a little money but there’s also a development strategy where you’re going to do a reading or a workshop, you have partners along the way. It feels really good to have someone waiting to read your play.
Ken: Well I look forward to seeing all those commissions and everything else you’ve got coming. Thank you so much for being here. Thanks to all of you for listening, we will see you on the next one!