Features NYC FeaturesQ&A and Interviews Published 11 September 2012

Will Eno: A Very Human Thing

Will Eno's plays include Oh, the Humanity and other good intentions, which was produced in the UK by Northern Stage'in 2012, and The Realistic Joneses which had a Broadway run in 2014. His play Title and Deed has a run at the Print Room in London this month. Back in 2012 he spoke to Exeunt about Beckett, the permeability of the fourth wall, and the response to his work in the UK.
Richard Patterson

We’re sitting in the lobby of the Signature Center, where you’re one of the playwrights in residence. How did that opportunity come about?

I remember exactly; I was out in San Francisco, working on a play out there, got a phone call from Jim Houghton, who’s responsible for the whole thing, the residency at the Signature Center, and he described this thing that they were starting up, which was the Residency Five, which is a five-year thing where they agree to produce three plays [each by five different playwrights] in that time, so it didn’t take too much talking. I really admire Jim a lot and I admire the way he goes about things, so I was pretty quickly in.

When they commissioned you to write three plays, did they give you any guidance about what they wanted?

I think they tried to take a pretty good look at who they were wanting to work with, and so the short answer is no. The slightly less short answer is I think they had a sense of what type of writers people were, and that’s what they were interested in.

Are you finding it difficult to work within a set of deadlines?

I have one done [Title and Deed], and I have four years to do two more. I’m terrible with deadlines, but I’m making some scribbles. I hope I’ll do it, and I think I’ll do it.

You’ve had quite a number of plays published, by Oberon Books, Dramatists Play Service, and Theatre Communications Group. How important is it to you to have your plays published?

Every once in a while I’ll hear from someone who’s just read something, and they came across it in some random way – I remember one time it was a rainy day in a bookstore, and I forget who that was, but that’s a sort of an old-timey way to have someone find your work. You know, the people at TCG and Oberon – the guy who runs Oberon over in London is one of my favorite people in the world. It feels like a few generations ago, the way he acts, which is sort of – I’ve been over there in London, and he’s said that I look skinny and shook my hand and put a hundred pounds of British currency in my hand, and that sort of feels like old-time Hemingway in Paris publisher sort of behavior. So it’s nice; Oberon does beautiful books, and TCG does beautiful books.

Do you think that reading plays has a different kind of value from seeing a play? Can that ever be preferable, to read a play instead of seeing it? Would you begrudge someone that they read your play before seeing it?

I certainly wouldn’t begrudge someone, and I think it’s a difficult thing to read a play. It’s a kind of skill, I suppose. It takes a while before you can – I don’t know if you can ever instantaneously transform it into a semi-three-dimensional occurrence in your mind, but just to keep track of who’s where, it takes a while to read a play and to get the feel of the play.

"Title and Deed"

Conor Lovett in Title and Deed. Photo: Joan Marcus

Your first Residency Five production, your one-person play Title and Deed, recently played here at the Signature Center in the Griffin Theatre, and that was a co-production with the Gare St. Lazare Players. How did that collaboration come about?

I’ve known those guys, [actor] Conor [Lovett] and Judy [Hegarty Lovett], for a bunch of years, and I always really liked what they did, and we talked for years about working together on something. I did a little workshop of another play; they have this amazing spread over north of Paris, on the Seine, so I went over for a week and worked on something there years ago. I saw Conor doing something in New York – it was a Beckett prose piece, not First Love but the next one they did – and I just started imagining him in New York beginning something saying, “I’m not from here,” and that ended up sticking around as the first line. That was how that started.

Can you talk a little more about your inspiration for that play? Obviously it’s not your first one-person play. Was it different for you writing this one than it was writing Thom Pain (based on nothing), which was really your breakout play?

I know that with Thom Pain, one of the things that was driving me in writing that play was that I’ve always kind of disliked one-person shows, and I’ve always found them a little – not even anti-dramatic, there’s a certain energy in something being anti-dramatic – but I just found them very dull and stable, and they seemed impossibly to take the audience more for granted than a fourth-wall sort of realistic play. So in writing that one, I really was thinking about – from very early on, I had some notion of the breaking of the fourth wall, but I just always pictured it breaking in the other direction, with the weight of the consciousness and the humanness that is an audience breaking through that wall to affect the guy on stage, so there were all sorts of things I had on my mind and was messing around with in that one, and this, I suppose, was much simpler, and I had less anxiety about the whole notion of the one-person thing, so it probably dealt with a lot of the same things but I hope in a different way. Just because of the nature of Conor as a performer, I trust that it would have a different temperature and a different feel.

"Thom Pain"

John Light in “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” at The Print Room. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Would be fair to say that if Thom Pain was your anti-one-man show one-man show that Title and Deed was your one-man show, or was it also your anti-one-man show one-man show?

I think the first one you said, because it just was a different project. I think I would have been surprised if people hated that character just as it was embodied by Conor, whereas I think a lot of people in an entirely sensible way hated the character of Thom Pain.

Can you tell me a little about your recent play The Realistic Joneses up at Yale Rep, which starred Parker Posey, Glenn Fitzgerald, Johanna Day, and Tracy Letts as two couples who’ve escaped to a rural town for similar, mysterious reasons; are there any plans to bring the production to New York?

There’s talk about it coming to New York some time in the next year, year and a half. That was a commission from Yale. I’ve only done two of those in my life, and both times I’ve had a play well underway, just because I have so much anxiety with deadlines. So both times I’ve said, ‘Oh, I sort of have this idea about…,’ and in fact there would be forty pages of that idea already, and still nevertheless I still was about a year late in both cases, but I just had a great time working with that cast and Sam Gold. I just printed that play out to go through it to fiddle around with it a bit, but I had a really great time with it.

Much of the play is about a failure to connect; characters express conflicting thoughts in conversations with one another. How did that come about; were you trying to mimic conversations?

To me that’s communication. I wasn’t really trying to create that. It’s either a fortunate thing or it’s just a thing in my life that that just tended to be what human communication is a little bit like. Ultimately, somehow it all comes out. It just might not come out exactly chronologically, but by the end of the conversation – or let’s say the next two conversations – if you sort of average them out – this person is saying x and this person is saying y. It actually never occurred to me that that would be a frustrating thing or a statement about communication so much, although a large person of the play was to me about the denial of certain acts, but that again I take as a very human thing rather than as an idiosyncratic tic.

Toni Collette and Michael C. Hall in The Realistic Joneses. Photo: Joan Marcus

Toni Collette and Michael C. Hall in The Realistic Joneses. Photo: Joan Marcus

Another notable element of the production of The Realistic Joneses at Yale Rep was the prominence of nature in the soundscape and language of the play. I remember hearing plenty of crickets; everything was very outdoorsy, backyard-y.

I called for all of those in the script, and I thought they were pretty well done, and I just had some sense of man versus nature in a very quiet sort of way. The kids sit on the porch and make our little sounds, and off in the woods there are tree frogs and coyotes making their noises.

When Middletown was at the Vineyard Theatre, there were a lot of comparisons in the press between the play and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Was that an intentional tipping of the cap?

It was not intentional. I admire and love the hell out of that play, Our Town, and I certainly don’t think it’s something that needs updating. I think it really lasts and it sticks around pretty well. I guess I can understand people making that connection; I think the stage manager is a pretty crucial part of how that play operates, and by the second act of Middletown, there’s a little bit of direct address at the top, and then that all stops. So I was trying to make conscious efforts to differentiate the play from Our Town.

So it wasn’t your Clybourne Park take on Our Town – well, obviously it wasn’t.

It was not. I wouldn’t dare to try to do that. I may have accidentally done that, but I wouldn’t dare to try to do that, and I wouldn’t – like I say, Our Town is just fine. It doesn’t need anyone coming around to perk it up.

If you had to write a play to write a sequel to, which would you choose?

How about Hamlet? I guess we just, we’d find out what kind of guy Fortinbras was, have the pile of corpses on stage the whole time. If there’s a play I wish I had written it would, I think, be Endgame [by Samuel Beckett]. I just think, gee – I wouldn’t mind having written that one.

Are there any writers you feel are your influences; who would those writers be? Obviously Beckett.

Certainly Beckett and Don DeLillo and Thornton Wilder. I studied writing with a guy, Gordon Lish, who’s just a great writer and teacher and a best friend. I know a lot of the things I know I know because of learning from him.

You mentioned Don DeLillo. Would you ever write fiction?

I’ve tried messing around with it. He writes great plays as well. I’ve tried writing fiction, and I would love to have one of those great ideas. My buddy Sam Lipsyte has a book called The Subject Steve, and it’s just about a guy who – doctors tell him, all right, you’ve got something. We don’t know what it is, how long it’s going to take to kill you, but it’s mortal. And that’s kind of the beginning of the book and the set-up, and I thought that’s a pretty snappy place to begin.

You could just write a novel like Beckett that just has no paragraphs.

I like paragraphs.

Are there any writers being produced today that you feel are maybe not getting the notice they deserve – or maybe ones that you do feel are getting the notice they deserve that you particularly like?

I like the little gang that’s going on in New York – Amy Herzog and Annie Baker and Young Jean Lee. I always really loved the play Attempts on Her Life by Martin Crimp, and there was a really nice production a bunch of years ago at Soho Rep, and I think that’s a great, strange play.

Did you see Annie Baker’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya?

I did; I saw it twice.

Would you ever consider doing an adaptation?

I have a thing going on at the spring in Louisville, at the Humana Festival, a Peer Gynt adaptation, which – it might be too troubled and aggressive a take on the play to be called an adaptation, because I have a lot of problems with that play, but I’m still working on it. I’m excited about that production.

How is that different for you than writing a new play? Obviously, it’s pretty different.

I guess it’s pretty different. I mean, for a long time I’ve been working on it. What I was trying to do was trying to move it into a contemporary consciousness, sort of trusting that I have a contemporary consciousness, but then at a certain point I did very much leave the play, so I guess you just have to think up more stuff if you’re writing a play.

Are you working from a literal translation of the play?

I read one literal translation, and I read a bunch of different translations?

What was it like having success in England before you really took off in the U.S.?

For a while, everything I had was on over there first, and it was a lonely but interesting feeling in some funny way. It still felt very good, it felt good to be having a play on somewhere, and I’ve never known how to explain that to myself without demeaning this country or fetishizing that one, but it just sort of happened that way, and it’s nice – one of the things I’m going back for is a production of Oh, The Humanity, which is five short plays, and it’s directed by Erica Whyman, who was the artistic director of the Gate Theatre, which is where I had Tragedy: a tragedy on, and she directed a play called The Flu Season over there too, so it’s nice to have kept an intercontinental friendship going.

How did that first production in the U.K. come about?

It was an amazing thing. I just dropped off a play at the stage door of the National Theatre with some crazy note saying, “Written with my left hand.” And within a couple of weeks Jack Bradley, who’s the literary manager at the National, called up and said he wanted to do a reading at the Studio Theatre, and very shortly after that a production came together at the Gate Theatre, and then a BBC Radio production. That was a guy called Chris Campbell, who was the assistant literary manager, who grabbed it out from the pile, so I was always sort of grateful for that. It’s sort of an amazing thing that the National Theatre in London – the Royal National Theatre in London – will get back to you, but you can send something to Theatre Under the Stairs in Baltimore, Maryland and never hear back. On that trip I was going over to meet with Conor and Judy and work with them; it was 1999 or something like that. At that time, I worked doing proofreading, so I just Xeroxed a bunch of plays before I left, and went around dropping them off.

Will Eno’s Title and Deed is at The Print Room, London,  from 14 January – 7 February 2015

Exeunt’s review of Oh, The Humanity, and other good intentions

Exeunt’s review of The Realistic Joneses

Exeunt’s review of Thom Pain (based on nothing)

Exeunt’s review of Title and Deed

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Richard Patterson

A graduate of New York University with a degree in Dramatic Literature, Richard was deputy theatre editor at musicOMH.com from 2008-2011 and New York Editor of Exeunt from 2011-2016. He is excited to continue on as a contributor. With a penchant for Sondheim, the Bard, and Beckett, as well as for new writing, theatergoing highlights include Fiona Shaw's Winnie in "Happy Days," Derek Jacobi's Lear, Jonathan Pryce in "The Caretaker," and Chiwetel Ejiofor's Othello at the Donmar. Richard's criticism has been published in The Sondheim Review.

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