Writing plays in the land of films

Interview / Jon Robin Baitz

Standing in the lobby before the premire of his latest work, "Mizlansky/Zilinsky," playwright Jon Robin Baitz wonders aloud if he wasn't too unguarded about his profession during an earlier interview.

"I probably said too much," Mr. Baitz says with a look of worried mischief on his face. "You're not allowed to talk about it," he says, referring to his profession. Among playwrights, "there's a sense that it's sort of a priesthood."

His latest work at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles is a nostalgia play about a Hollywood that's nearly gone. It's an autobiographical valentine to his own days as a gofer to two seedy producers during the 1970s.

The effort presented Baitz with an opportunity. "I sort of accessed a younger version of me and found my memory of the time was clearer both for the good, the bad, the subjugation, and the innocence. I'd been thinking about the way the world has changed from '84 to '98."

Just as the days of the small-time huckster producers of his show are fading, Baitz sees live theater as an endangered species. He feels it most acutely working as he does in the shadow of the film world.

"I'm laboring in a very small vineyard on a rocky outcropping somewhere. It doesn't make a lot of sense culturally to be a playwright," says the Los Angeles-born writer, who grew up in South Africa. "It's not a vivid part of the culture."

Today's young artists, he points out, will become filmmakers because it's becoming so cheap and easy to do. This trend is not necessarily a bad thing, but visiting Los Angeles thrusts this hard reality in his face.

"This only exacerbates the sense of futility I have," he adds, "but it's one I'm conscious of and don't see any way out of."

Occasionally, he adds, this issue overwhelms him. "The sense of futility, the feeling that the culture has passed you by is the most difficult part of being a playwright, that you're doing work that nobody knows about; most of the time I can't bear it."

Why stay? is a question Baitz says he has been bluntly asked by fellow playwrights such as Christopher Durang, with whom he recently conducted a seminar on the future of playwriting.

"I can't pretend I'm happy about it or reconciled or at peace with it, but I'm addicted. I do it out of a very personal sense of language being interesting to me."

Not that Baitz hasn't tasted some forbidden fruit himself. "I'm doing more film work ['Substance of Fire'] and loving learning the craft of it," he says. "I'm hoping to see some way of stepping back and forth and trying not to betray the other."

When wearing his screenwriting hat, Baitz says the goal is to not have contempt for the commerce of it while respecting the craft and people. And when pursuing the lonely task of playwriting, "I have to try not to get into the easy despair over the shrinking pool of resources, producers, actors, writers, or audiences."

A willingness to explore new frontiers is part of the solution to the problem of dwindling audiences, the playwright says. But Baitz points to the great works of recent years and says that experimentation alone doesn't guarantee anything.

"If you look at a great [Pulitzer-Prize-winning] play like 'Angels in America,' at its heart it's a compressed Dickensian tale with a great story and writing that is eminently traditional in its form," he says. "So I grow weary of fake experimentation." To which he adds, with what critics call the characteristic modesty that informs his writing as well, "but I'm not the minister of cultural purity."

The New York-based writer credits an august roster of playwrights as his inspiration, from Samuel Beckett, Lanford Wilson, and Wendy Wasserstein to, especially, the English playwright David Hare.

Baitz, whose work has been called "gratifyingly honorable" by critics, says he has admired the generation of playwrights who preceded him, a generation that was the last to have the full attention of its audience.

"I've watched the audiences get older and older," Baitz says. "I love them because they grew up on [Eugene] O'Neill and Arthur Miller, and they will always be there for real theater."

The next generation of audiences will be smaller, but more hard core, a fact of theater life that both inspires and discourages him. "I'm trying to approach my writing from the perspective of it being a shared passion between me and some holdouts."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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