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Drawn to the Courageous

Accomplished playwright and Oscar winner Horton Foote talks about the 'awe' in his craft and characters

By Jay JostynSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 22, 1995



NEW YORK

He may not be a household name, but the stories he's created have touched film and theater audiences throughout the world.

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Horton Foote is probably best known for his screenplays, especially for the two that earned him Oscars -- ''To Kill a Mockingbird'' in 1962 and ''Tender Mercies'' in 1983. But a quick glance at his resume reveals that the bulk of Mr. Foote's writing has been for the stage. During the course of a career that's spanned more than a half century, Foote has written more than 40 plays.

Currently, New York theatergoers are getting a hefty offering of Foote's work, thanks to the Signature Theatre Company. Each year this Off Off Broadway playhouse devotes its entire season to the work of a single American playwright, and this year, it's Foote's turn.

Since September, the Signature has staged four of Foote's plays, including two world premieres. The productions have been playing to sold-out houses and continue to receive consistently strong reviews.

In an interview, Foote talked about his craft and what is important to him in theater.

Are you always working on a play?

I'm always thinking. When I first began writing, I thought unless I had a pen in my hand and piece of paper, I wasn't working. But I soon learned that part of the writer's job is to think.

What is it that draws you to the characters you create?

The qualities of people that appeal to me are this sense of courage and desire to, sometimes in spite of terrific odds, keep going and try to work things out.... It's amazing what people can go through and endure and can come out on top somehow ... and I don't think they all do. I think some people fail, and that's part of the human equation. That's one of the great questions: why under given circumstances some people survive and some people don't, and that's a question that interests me very much.

Do you try to answer this question in your writing?

I try to answer it in my own life, but I don't try to proselytize in my writing. I want the audience to make judgments about it.

Most of your plays are set in a small town in Texas where you were raised. Did you choose this setting simply because you grew up there, or is there something implicitly dramatic about it?

I really believe in my case, and in the case of writers that I admire, that the material chooses them rather than they choose the material. I think it becomes something that asserts itself and demands that they write about, in a curious kind of way.

You once compared your craft to taking a journey. How did you mean that?

Some writers are very detailed and make specific outlines and don't vary very much from their outlines. I'm of the school that I like to take the journey into the unknown. I have a rough kind of road map, but I'm always amazed at what just comes to me and what's unplanned that's usable. Whether it's inspiration or whatever it is.... I keep myself ready for these unfoldments. I don't know a better word. It's kind of an unfolding that takes place, and sometimes I'm in awe of it.

Is it almost as if the characters are taking on a life of their own?

Yes, and telling me things, and I think, ''Oh my goodness,'' and ''Oh, I believe that.'' But I don't know where it's coming from. It's nothing that I've sat down and planned. When I have tried to do it minutely, I find myself changing.

While you may not outline the action, are there certain themes that you hope will emerge from your plays?

I don't choose a theme. I really try to base [my plays] on what I find to be truthful or meaningful about a given situation, and [I] try to look at it from all sides and try to find the essence of it. There's so much richness of life around that really what I try to do is to find some way to capture that. There are many playwrights I admire that are very didactic and have very thematic approaches to things and insist on that. I'm just not that kind of a writer.

You've observed the New York theater scene for more than 50 years. How do you feel about it currently?

I've seen New York theater go through many, many stages, and the enemy always has been, to me, commercialism. The so-called golden day of the theater, which I was here and part of, I found very stifling, because I found that only the most conventional plays got done. I think there's more experimenting going on now. I have great hopes for the theater. You just have to get away from the fact that the only stamp of approval is to have a play done in the so-called Broadway district.

So it doesn't concern you that your plays may not be considered commercially viable by Broadway standards?

You have to learn the lessons the poets have learned. T.S. Elliot -- when he had the Criterion Magazine, I think the most subscriptions he ever had were 1,500 subscribers, but it had an enormous influence. And his poems, and [Ezra] Pound's, they all the found a way to do their work. And that's all you can ask, is to be allowed to do your work.