Jeffrey Sweet

Playwright, author
Jeffrey Sweet

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Sweet

Transcript of conversation with Jeffrey Sweet

Jeffrey Sweet:  There's several great playwrights who actually have sort of second-rate prose styles. O'Neill said of himself that he had a leaden style as a writer of prose, but Long Day's Journey Into Night is an extraordinary play because the behavior that's struggling underneath the frequent inarticulateness of the characters is so compelling that that's what arrests you.  Which is one of the reasons why some of our great novelists have written some of our worst plays.  They've got language skills to burn but they don't understand that it isn't just about writing language; it's about giving the actors compelling things to do.

That was playwright, Jeffrey Sweet; he was talking about some of lessons he learned from the Second City Improvisational Troupe in Chicago. 

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works, I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

Playwright Jeffrey Sweet is a resident member of the Victory Gardens Theatre of Chicago, which has produced 15 of his plays. Jeffrey Sweet's work includes the musicals What About Luv? and I Sent a Letter to My Love, which was co-written with Melissa Manchester. 

But he is also known for writing dramas inspired by historical/political subjects. Best known of these is The Value of Names, a story set in the aftermath of the blacklist.

In 1978, he wrote a book about the famous comedy theater and school of improvisation, Second City.  It's called Something Wonderful Right Away, and it remains the go-to book on the history of that Chicago landmark   

And that's where I began my conversation with Jeffrey Sweet: with the importance of theater in Chicago and the influence of second city on Chicago theater.

Jeffrey Sweet:  The reason why Chicago has the theater boom is largely because Second City was there, because most of the companies that have arisen out of the storefront theater movement have risen in emulation of what Paul Sills did creating Second City and a lot of the other storefront theaters in Chicago.  So I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, went to New York because nothing was going on in theater in Chicago of any consequence at the time, for somebody who wanted to write.  And then I discovered that there were a batch of people who were doing plays and movies that really spoke to me, and that most of them came out of Second City.  So I thought, "Oh, I want to read a book about Second City," and it turned out nobody had written it.  So I said, "Okay, I'll write it."  So that's what I did for three or four years in my 20s, was run around the country and interview most of the key figures from the early days of improvisational theater-- Mike Nichols, Paul Sills, Del Close, Barbara Harris, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, Gilda Radner, David Steinberg. 

Jo Reed: How did you first hook up with Victory Gardens Theater?

Jeffrey Sweet:  While I was then plugging the book when I came out, I found myself in Chicago, and one of the producers at Second City said, "It says in your bio that you're a playwright.  Are you any good?"  And I said, "Well, I have my hopes."  And she says, "Well, I'm on the board of a small theater that's getting started called Victory Gardens.  I'm going to put you on a bus and tell them to be nice to you."  So I went on the bus, got off the bus, made friends with them, and a year later they put up a show of mine which turned out to be the surprise hit of their season, and I've been working with them ever since.  But I'm a Chicagoan who lives in exile, and people assume that I live in Chicago because I talk about Chicago theater a lot, because I think it's one of the most vibrant places to build new stuff, because it costs way less to do it there; the audiences are extremely sophisticated in that they are looking to see the potential of something rather than to see if every cent of what they've paid for their ticket is on the stage; and it's a remarkable place.  Also the theaters are very supportive of each other.  There's a real community sense there.  So I would put Chicago as the best theater town I've ever worked in.  You can't make a sensational living there, but you can build really, really good stuff and work with really good people.  I'm a big fan of Chicago theater.

Jo Reed:  Well, that was a very broad sketch of Chicago theater, so what I'm going to be asking you to do is sort of fill it in.  And I do want you to talk a little bit about Second City, and one of the things which you mentioned here is that Second City really is responsible for revitalizing Chicago theater.  Explain how that happened.

Jeffrey Sweet:  Well, first of all, Second City was cheap theater.  You didn't have to pay royalties to anybody because your actors were making everything up.  You didn't have to have a lot of scenic elements because everything was done with just a bare stage and chairs and tables.  So right from the get-go you're starting very cheap.  And it was started on an investment of 10 thousand dollars, which went a lot further in 1959, but still pretty bloody cheap.  Within a year or so of opening in '59, it was headed for Broadway.  So it proved that something that could come out of Chicago could have a national and an international impact, and that inspired lots of other people.  Steppenwolf-- the guys there, the gang there, told me that one of the things that inspired them to start as a company in Chicago was that if Second City could do it, we could do it.  And also, a lot of the artists who came out of Second City then went on to fund other theaters.  My theater, home theater, Victory Gardens, was started partially by two alumni from Second City in concert with some other people.  There are spinoff theaters, like IO-- Improv Olympic. But also, there was a young man who was a busboy at Second City, and listening to how the scenes were built, it influenced how he starting writing, and that was David Mamet.  So Mamet is very much a product of Second City. 

Jo Reed:   Ok, so what can written theater take away from improvisational theater?

Jeffrey Sweet:  When I started working on this, I thought that the theater was about the celebration of the playwright-- I thought this because I was a playwright-- and that the whole point was that everybody else was there to realize my vision.  And what I learned very quickly from talking to Paul Sills, who founded Second City, and some of the other people, is that in fact the only two necessary elements for theater-- I'm not saying good theater, but some kind of theater-- are actors and audience.  You have to have actors and audience, and then you have theater. There are two guys from the improv community named TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, who get up in front of an audience without consulting at all and improvise a full new one-act play every performance.  And they're astonishing, and they get sensational reviews and they sell out houses, and there's a feature film about them.  And it proves that if you are an artist on that kind of level, people will show up and pay good money to see somebody do something that hasn't been planned at all, because these people know how to do this.  Now, that's humbling for a playwright. 

Jo Reed:   How was that realization useful to your work? How did you translate that into your writing?

Jeffrey Sweet:  I realized that the job of the writer is to give the actors the opportunity to face the audience with something interesting to do. The improvisational techniques and theories all can be translated into playwriting techniques, and my own work made a sudden leap in terms of quality and craft when I realized that and I realized what I was doing was creating the opportunity for actors to create compelling behavior.  Not necessarily great speeches-- behavior.    So this is what I and a lot of other people have learned from improvisation in general and Second City in specific.

Jo Reed:  Can you tell me about your long collaboration with Victory Gardens?

Jeffrey Sweet:  Well, the collaboration started, as I say, when somebody on the board recommended me to the artistic director, and they decided to put up a second stage production of a play of mine called Porch, which had had a brief run off-off-Broadway in New York, but had gotten a nice review out of the New York Times.  So they put it up in a 70-seat theater in their very old space.  And I flew out to take a look at it, and I saw a rehearsal, and the rehearsal was just wonderful, and I was paradoxically a little depressed because Chicago was in the middle of the worst blizzard that they'd had in something like 50 years.  I mean, the snow drifts were literally 10 feet tall.  There were people who didn't see their cars for three or four weeks.  And I thought who was going to come out and see anything in this?  I mean, nobody went outside who didn't have to.  And the show opened.  It got a wonderful write-up from a gentleman named Richard Christiansen, who was the was one of the great theater critics.  And we sold out, almost instantly.  The weather wasn't going to keep people from going to see theater that they wanted to see even if it was by somebody they'd never heard of and with actors they'd never heard of.  They instantly sold out.  I thought, "Wow, what a theater town, that people will come out and fight 10-foot-tall snow drifts into this hideous blizzard to see a play by an unknown."  And so it turned out to be a surprise hit for them.  They moved it to their main stage the following summer, and they said, "What else have you got?"  And that's been continuing for years.  I've done 15 shows with them, most of them premiers. The thing that I like very much is although it's not a real repertory company, there are regular players that I like to work with, and there are two main directors whom I love to work with. So the comfort of working with people that I have a shorthand with.  The other thing is that at a certain point, they saw that I had a good casting sense and they let me write stuff specifically for people, and they gave me a lot of leeway that you don't ordinarily get as a playwright in terms of making casting suggestions, which they usually follow, and it generally works out well.  So it's felt very much like a home and I've done most of the work that I'm proud of starting there.

Jo Reed:  Well, when did you decide playwriting was what you wanted to do?

Jeffrey Sweet:  Oh, I knew I was going to do that from about the age of 13.  And my first professionally staged show was while I was still a senior in college.  It was a musical for which I wrote book, music and lyrics loosely based on Aristophanes' The Birds called Winging It, which was done up at the Milwaukee Rep as a special project.  And in fact, the one thing which has been a little surprising was my original focus was musical theater, and although I've indeed written some musicals, I find that they're so hard to get on, and I don't want to have to wait that long to get something on that I shifted my focus to writing straight plays and now I'm primarily known, if I'm known at all, as somebody who writes straight plays.  I still always have a musical project or two that I'm trying to pursue, but they're so very difficult to develop and so much more expensive to put on, particularly in today's climate-- just harder to launch, so.

Jo Reed:  Theater of course is collaborative no matter where you place yourself in it-- but when you're doing musicals there are so many other elements to take into account.

Jeffrey Sweet:  It's logistically so much more complex.  If plays are algebra, musicals are calculus.  I still love musicals, and I have written lyrics-- I wrote a musical with Melissa Manchester called I Sent a Letter to My Love, which she wrote the music and I wrote book and lyrics, and it's one of the things I'm so proud of.  I thought her music was some of the best theater music I've ever heard by a debut writer.  And I'd like to write a lot more.  I also compose a little myself, but on that project, she was the better composer than I was for it.  But I want very much to write book only for people as well, because I think there aren't a lot of people who love writing musical theater books, partially because the big moments are usually taken by the composers and the lyricists.  People very rarely applaud the book.  But without a solid structure in place, you don't have a show.  And I love the form, and I'm not seeing as many good books for musicals as I would like.  I'm hearing a lot of talented composers and lyricists, but I don't see as many strong books as I would like these days, and I would like to wade back into that a little bit more actively.

Jo Reed:  What is it about musical theater you think that accounts for that passion you have for it?

Jeffrey Sweet:  I think it's partially because it's so stylized and it's so unrealistic.  You can frequently do things which you can't do in a straight play. Jerry Bock just died and he was one of my heroes.

Jo Reed:  He wrote Fiddler on the Roof.

Jeffrey Sweet:  And-- yeah, composed that-- and Sheldon Harnick, who's the lyricist with Jerry is a long-time friend and mentor.  But I think of the song "The Bum Won" in Fiorello, which they won their Pulitzer Prize for.  If you were writing that as a straight scene, a couple of depressed politicians would sit for about 10 or 15 seconds and say, "Do you believe that, that this guy actually won-- this naïve guy actually won?"  "Yeah, I don't believe it either.  You got a Pepto-Bismol?"  And that would be it.  The number is an extraordinary number, on the level with "A Fugue for Tin Horns" from Guys and Dolls.  It's that same kind of complexity.  And it turns into this contrapuntal machine of hysterical complaint of these hard-bitten polls who have been sandbagged by somebody they consider to be an amateur.  And so something that would take two or three lines and not register much of a laugh or much of an impact turns into a showstopper.  But the complexity of that moment-- it lands with greater force because it's been amplified by song.  Songs either-- I think there are two-- there are probably more kinds of songs than this-- but I tend to look at songs either as songs that advance plot or songs that enhance and deepen and amplify moments.  And you have to have a good mix between the two.  You can't have a show which is just nothing but plot-advancing songs, and you can't have a show which is nothing but enhancements of moments. You have to have a mix of them, and that's also where frequently I think a lot of contemporary musicals go wrong, is they're top-heavy with one or the other.  But you can frequently get very complex intellectual ideas in place.  For instance, in Ragtime, there's a trio that's the second number, when Father is going to go journey out on this exploration; Tateh is coming to America, so he's arriving; and Mother, who's Father's wife, is standing on a dock, and she's not moving anywhere.  And the juxtaposition of the three perspectives-- it's one of the genius numbers in American musical theater. I'm intrigued by what you can do only in musical terms in musical theater, that you can get certain ideas across in all their complexity and emotional heft only by turning these moments into musical numbers.

Jo Reed:  As you were talking, of course I was visualizing the examples you were giving, and what was also clear to me was, back to the collaborative nature of theater, how the staging is so important, especially with musical theater.

Jeffrey Sweet:  Yeah, but one of the things you have to do when you're writing is you have to have a theory of how your number will be staged.  In this new book that Sondheim has out called Finishing the Hat, which is-- I'm halfway through it-- but it's one of the great books on writing for the theater.  It's a sensational book.  And he talks about when he was a young man and he wrote the lyric to "Maria" for West Side Story.  And Jerome Robbins, who was the director said, "Okay, now how am I supposed to stage this?"  And Sondheim said, "Well, you're the director.  That's your job."  And Robbins refrained himself from slugging him, which he was perfectly capable of doing because Robbins was not a very nice man, and he says, "No, if you don't have a theory of how I'm supposed to stage this, how the hell am I supposed to stage this?"  And after being dressed down by Robbins, Sondheim said, "He's right," and every time after that, he had a theory of how to stage every number he wrote.  Now, he didn't volunteer his ideas or his theory unless the director asked him, but he also knew how a number could be staged, which meant that it could be staged.  Even if it wasn't staged the way he had imagined it, he knew that it was stageable.  And he was right.  "Maria" is a very difficult number to stage, because it's just a guy obsessing over the sound of a woman's name, and it goes on and on, because that's all he knows about her.  Now, the music happens to be glorious, but it's a very tough number to stage.

Jo Reed:  So you're saying that what the theater requires is more than just the ability to work with others. One needs the ability to wear many hats.

Jeffrey Sweet:   Yeah. One of the things that's important is you don't just write a book or lyrics or musicals; you have to have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the disciplines of your collaborators and understand something about staging the technical aspects too in order to write well for that medium.  You can't just be compartmentalized off to the side: "Well, I've done my little bit.  You guys go off and do yours."  It doesn't work that way. 

Jo Reed:  As you mentioned, when you work with Victory Gardens, you work often with the same directors.

Jeffrey Sweet:  Yeah.  And frequently the same actors, although in very different parts, which is-- the fun is to challenge an actor you've worked with with a role that's very different than what you've had them play before.On the other hand, you don't want to just only work with people you've worked with before.  You need new people in the mix to come in with new colors and sounds and ideas.  So this is one of the reasons why I'm just totally promiscuous-- one, in my interest in writing books for musicals.  I'd love to write for a lot of different teams, because I would write differently for different songwriters.  And also one of the reasons I do this is every show is another family, I write in order to get into a rehearsal room.  Writing for its own sake has its pleasures and satisfactions, especially when you're on a really hot streak.  But the real fun of it is to be in rehearsal.

Jo Reed:  Talk about that.  Talk about the alchemy that happens in a rehearsal room.

Jeffrey Sweet:  It's just a-- it's just a joy.  I mean, I've had the pleasure of working with a lot of the people I admire, watching their inventiveness, watching their choices, laughing with them, and belonging in the room.  I just-- the pleasure of working with good people and watching people do good work that has been triggered by your work is almost beyond description.  I don't mean to get too corny about it.  But to get into the room, to get into the rehearsal room, is the reason I write.  I know that there's some writers who just-- okay, after the first reading, "All right, see you later.  I'll see you in the run-through."  Why?  Why are you writing plays then?  Why aren't you just writing novels if you don't want to work with actors?  What's the point?  If you don't love actors, then why write for them? 

Jo Reed:  Well, in your straight plays you often use historical or political events as subjects.

Jeffrey Sweet:  That's my latest play which I'm trying to find a home for actually, is-- the new play is called Texas Boot, and it's about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Senator Richard Russell.  When Johnson arrived in the Senate, he attached himself to Russell, who was a senator for Georgia.  And Russell was a very lonely man and very quickly saw Johnston as a surrogate son.  And Johnson became his lieutenant and helped Russell on a number of the things that Russell was working on.  Unfortunately, Russell, although he was personally a very honorable and courtly man, he was also fiercely opposed to civil rights legislation, and he used Johnson to block civil rights legislation for years.  So Johnson became Kennedy's vice president.  After the assassination, he became president.  And the first thing he did was start ramming through all the legislation that he had helped Russell block for years.  It was on a political and historical level one of Johnson's greatest and most admirable acts.  On a personal level, it was a complete betrayal of Russell and what he had represented himself to be to Russell. So it's simultaneously -noble and politically admirable.  And on a personal level, it broke Russell's heart.  Now, Russell was a racist.  But on the other hand, he was also a guy who had adopted this man as a son, and who, as soon as he got in a position, turned on him.  And eventually, the relationship sundered completely.  So it's a father-son play.  And I think, if it's done correctly, the audience's feelings are going to be very conflicted.

Jo Reed:  You like complications; you like putting the audience in a position of being pulled in multiple directions.

Jeffrey Sweet:  Well, you know, it's very interesting when you can have the head and the heart going in different directions.  There's going to be a reading of it in New Jersey at the New Jersey Playwrights Theatre on-- I think it's December 11. But it's one of my political historical plays.  I alternate between doing things with some kind of political or historical cast with doing more personal stuff.  And then every now and then I'll just write something silly.  Because I write what I want to see, and I don't want to see nothing but heavy drama, and I don't want to see nothing but silly comedy, and I don't want to see nothing but musicals.  I like a nice mixed diet.  So I like to write a nice mixed diet.  I think that there are stylistic and thematic things that are consistent from project to project, but still, I like to mix it up, because if I did nothing but brow-furrowing stuff, I'd have permanent furrows in my brow, and this would not be attractive at all.

Jo Reed: Given that there's been so much said about the graying of audiences and the difficulty of getting fannies in seats, what is it about Chicago?  Is it the relationship between the theater and the audiences?  Why are audiences invested?

Jeffrey Sweet:  It's partially that.  I mean, there's a hardcore theater audience that goes to a lot of stuff and supports an awful lot of theaters.  But it's a more adventurous audience than the audience that I'm familiar with in New York, if just because you can see shows for a great deal less money.  So if you pay 20, 25 dollars and, out of a two-hour show, you've seen a really terrific half-hour in there or an actor you've never seen before, that's been worth it for 25 bucks.  If you do that for 100 bucks on Broadway, you feel that you've been ripped off.  So people, depending on how much they pay, look at the cost-benefit thing and they bring a different attitude to the evening.  If you paid 100 dollars to see something and it doesn't knock you out, you're going to be angry. 

Jo Reed:  So when you go to the theater and you're sitting in the audience, what are you looking for in a play?

Jeffrey Sweet:  Well, somewhere along the line a question has to engage me that I have to have the answer to.  Not an answer like, "Oh, this is the truth."  But usually the question is: Is so-and-so going to achieve what he or she wants?  That's the structure of most plays or musicals, and that's what you wait to find out is: Is Hamlet going to achieve justice?  Is Mama Rose going to feel validated in the way that she wants to?  Is Sweeney going to get his revenge?  Is Daedalus going to get his freedom?  Is Blanche going to find a safe haven?  And so I look to see that a play has a sense of structure and direction like that, and if I am invested in that journey.  I sometimes read very interesting plays that where scene by scene the scenes are very interesting, but there isn't a sense of "Why are we taking this journey?"  So I want to have a sense that there's a purpose to the journey. It all comes back to the same fundamentals and the same stuff.

Jo Reed:  And Chicago, apparently.

Jeffrey Sweet:  Chicago.  Yeah.  No, it's-- as I say, I do consider myself to be a Chicagoan in exile, and I go back whenever I can, and I follow very closely who's writing what. It's an extraordinary community.  Everybody has worked with everybody, and people are very supportive and get along, and cheer each other on.  It isn't competitive.  It's not Ben Hur. When Victory Gardens won the Tony award, the entire community congratulated us and seemed genuinely thrilled, just as we were thrilled when Steppenwolf and Goodman and Chicago Shakespeare won.  It is really kind of a remarkable place, and I will go back for as long as they're willing to put my stuff up and willing to lend me a sofa to sleep on.

Jo Reed:  And I'm sure that'll be for many, many more years.  Jeffrey Sweet, thank you so much.

Jeffrey Sweet:  Oh, it's really been a pleasure.

Jo Reed:  I really appreciate it.

That was playwright, Jeffrey Sweet. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpt from Foreric: piano study, from the release Metascape, composed and performed by Todd Barton; licensed through Creative Commons.

Excerpt from "Chicago," composed by Fred Fisher, performed by Frank Sinatra, from the album Come Fly With Me, used courtesy of EMI-Capitol Records.

The Art Works podcast is posted on Thursdays at www.arts.gov. And now you can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U….just click on Beyond Campus and search for the National Endowment for the Arts.  

Next time, a conversation with choreographer Parker Esse.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeffrey Sweet talks about the revitalization of theater in Chicago through the Second City and other theater companies, as well as his own experience as a playwright and the art of theater and musical theater.  [26:50]