As his latest play opens Off-Broadway, straight-talking playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis speaks to Howard Sherman about life on the Upper West Side and his friendship with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ characters have been described as dispossessed, struggling and living on the fringes. As his newest play – Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven, set in a halfway house for women – opens this week, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright describes the characters he writes in simpler terms.
“I think I write primarily about New Yorkers,” he says. “A young woman in the cast, who I adore, said: ‘I think I know what this play is about. I think Stephen is writing about how people don’t care about women of colour.’ And I smiled to myself because that’s true, but I think I’m writing more about how people often just don’t care about people.”
Accolades for Between Riverside and Crazy, the play for which Guirgis won the Pulitzer, were plentiful. They followed a succession of notable works, including Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train and The Motherfucker with the Hat, the latter having its debut on Broadway with a cast that included comedian Chris Rock. He also created Netflix series The Get Down with Baz Luhrmann.
Guirgis’ new play is produced as a collaboration of Atlantic Theater Company and his long-time artistic home, Labyrinth Theater Company. It has a cast of 18 – large for a Broadway show, let alone the intimate Atlantic – plus a live goat. He says the large cast is a response to Labyrinth’s previous artistic leadership having at times produced work with no company members involved.
His thought process, he tells me, went like this: “If I’m going to write a fucking play, and if I’m going to do it, I want to do it with John [Ortiz, Labyrinth’s artistic director and Halfway’s director], and I want to fill the fucking stage with Lab members.” The cast includes several Labyrinth stalwarts, including Liza Colon-Zayas, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Elizabeth Canavan.
The new play’s genesis is deeply rooted in Guirgis’ Upper West Side neighbourhood, which was also the neighbourhood of his youth. Having inherited his late father’s dog, Papi, Guirgis ventures out several times a day for walks, and has come to know some of the residents of the shelter up the block, as well as some of the area’s homeless people.
He recalls a particular incident where someone tending the gardens took him to task for not cleaning up after his dog quickly enough for her taste, asking if he cared about the beauty of the neighbourhood. Guirgis says he went off on her, declaring: “You want to do something for this neighbourhood? Look over there,” pointing to the nearby group. “Why don’t you do something to fucking help these people instead of planting stupid fucking flowers that are going to be gone in four weeks?”
While he regrets his harshness that day, the experience stayed with him. “When I was encouraged to write this play, I thought about it. I haven’t entirely succeeded, not yet [Guirgis was still rewriting the play during previews], but I wanted to infuse something of that into the play,” he says.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Restaurant worker at Grand Central Station before I was of legal working age.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Acting in summer stock in Santa Fe, New Mexico in The Taming of the Shrew.
What’s your next job?
Overdue commission to adapt the film Dog Day Afternoon into a play for Warner Brothers.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t be afraid.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My mother. We didn’t have money, but she made sure we saw a play once a year. She let me stay up late to watch CBS television on Saturday nights, the Tonys and old movies at the Regency. Of playwrights, Tennessee Williams, and actors, John Malkovich in Burn This and Mark Ruffalo in This Is Our Youth.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be prepared, make choices, don’t worry if you think you’re not like the character. We want to see you.
If you hadn’t been a playwright, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always go to the bathroom right before I go on stage and I get down on my knees and pray, literally in front of the toilet. I pray to be of service.
Other aspects of the neighbourhood – which has shifted from middle class to gentrified and upscale – were at play as well. He talks about how the neighbours of his youth have given way to people paying exorbitant sums for their apartments. He mentions one person who wouldn’t speak to him when they rode in the lift together, until one day the man said: “Excuse me, aren’t you the fellow who won the Pulitzer?” and from then on was chatty and friendly.
The presence of a goat in the urban neighbourhood of his new play is not a flight of imagination either. A herd of goats was brought to graze on a steep portion of Riverside Park last summer to clear out overgrown vegetation. Guirgis notes that in his youth, the goats would likely have been stolen – or killed.
He also remembers the social teachings from his school days. “This neighbourhood was largely white, Jewish, middle class, intellectual, with a smattering of Puerto Ricans and some black residents,” he says. “I went to school, from kindergarten through eighth grade, uptown, which was mostly black and Puerto Rican. I was aware of my difference and I was always trying to be less different.”
Guirgis set out to be an actor rather than a writer. He played roles on stage and still works on television and in film, having just filmed a TV series pilot. His most recent stage role, at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont in 2017, was playing Donny in David Mamet’s American Buffalo, opposite Treat Williams.
Of acting, he says: “It’s always been what I love to do. I don’t love writing. I’m aware that I’ve been given some aptitude for it and I feel a responsibility to get the best that I can out of that aptitude and write about things that are meaningful to me and hopefully meaningful to other people.”
He continues: “Acting informs writing. Writing informs directing. It’s all a circle. But my playwriting came directly out of acting. I didn’t study it. All the playwriting education came from what you learn in Meisner training, which is all about listening and responding, playing actions and having objectives and improvising. That can be what writing is. You’re writing a scene and if the two people are talking, you just let it happen. You don’t know necessarily where it’s going to take you.”
‘I don’t love writing. I’m aware that I’ve been given some aptitude for it’
Acting introduced Guirgis to Labyrinth Theater Company, an ensemble originally founded as Latino Actors Base. He explains it was there that he forged a bond with Ortiz and with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, calling them his best friends.
Hoffman directed the premiere of a number of Guirgis’ plays for Labyrinth, including The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Our Lady of 121st Street. Of their creative relationship, Guirgis says: “I felt I could write whatever I wanted and he would be able to understand it intellectually and emotionally, and be able to translate it to actors. It emboldened me to write more personally – still funny, but more serious stuff.”
Stressing the importance of Labyrinth to his career, Guirgis says: “I haven’t had the trajectory of any other playwright I know. Basically everything that I’ve ever written has been produced by my company. They had faith in me from the beginning and nurtured and coerced me to keep writing. In turn, there’s certain actors in the company that I work with over and over and over.” He adds: “When you invest in each other, it pays dividends.”
Because of Lab’s Latino roots, Guirgis says it is often assumed that he is Latino and that he speaks Spanish, which he doesn’t. His father was Egyptian and his mother of Irish heritage, though he refers to himself as white repeatedly in conversation. In an era when cultural identity is on the minds of many, Guirgis is very clear about why he characterises himself as he does.
“Someday we’re going to live in a world where we’re not going to have to identify or be identified by race or cultural background,” he says. “Until that day, as a New Yorker, my measure for what’s my ethnicity is: does a cab stop when I hail it at night? The cab stops for me.”
Guirgis returns to his early school experience of switching styles between neighbourhoods. “I still don’t feel like I fit in, really anywhere completely,” he says. “I feel like I’m a guest in any ethnic group that I’m in. But it was so important for me to fit in that I listened, because I was always trying to figure it out. If I could talk like whomever I was with, anywhere, if I could sound like them, then I’d be accepted.”
He continues: “My ideas, I think, came from listening. What was my role? I’m not a fucking ladies man. I’m not a great athlete. So I can be funny. How you can be funny is you better listen and you better watch and you better observe. That served me as a writer.”
Born: 1965, Kearny NJ
Training: State University of New York at Albany, 1990
• In Arabia We’d All Be Kings, Center Stage, New York (1999)
• Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train, East 13th Street Theatre, New York (2000)
• Our Lady of 121st Street, Center Stage (2002)
• The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Public Theater, New York (2005)
• The Little Flower of East Orange, Public Theater (2008)
• The Motherfucker With the Hat, Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York (2011)
• Between Riverside and Crazy, Linda Gross Theater, New York (2014)
• Whiting Award drama winner (2006)
• PEN/Laura Pels Theater Award (2006)
• Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award (2014)
• Pulitzer Prize for drama (2015)
• Lortel Award for outstanding play (2015)
• New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play (2015)
• Outer Critics Circle Award for best new Off-Broadway play (2015)
• Lortel Award for best revival for Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (2018)
Agent: John Buzzetti at WME
Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven runs at Linda Gross Theater, New York, from December 9-29. Full details: atlantictheater.org