By: Curious Theatre Company On: May 19, 2016 In: Uncategorized Comments: 0

Acclaimed Playwright Bruce Graham's latest work, "The Outgoing Tide," will be presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Comapny from March 23 to April 22.

Blunt and Gutsy: An Interview with Bruce Graham
by Artistic Company Member Christy Montour-Larson

*Selections from this interview appear in the playbill for White Guy on the Bus. Here we are printing the entirety of this conversation.

The author of over a dozen plays, Bruce Graham has been produced all over the country. Graham has won several awards from the Pew Foundation, Theater Association of Pennsylvania, Rockefeller Foundation and the Princess Grace Foundation. SOMETHING INTANGIBLE won seven 2009 Barrymore Awards including Best New Play and ANY GIVEN MONDAY won Best New Play the following year. THE OUTGOING TIDE, starring John Mahoney and Rondi Reed, won Chicago’s Jefferson Award for Best New Play.

His TV/film credits include “Dunston Checks In,” “Anastasia,” the Abbie Hoffman bio-pic “Steal This Movie,” as well as the Ira Einhorn mini-series “Hunt for the Unicorn Killer”.  A graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Graham lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Stephanie, and their daughter, Kendall. Graham recently returned to acting, playing Lenny in his play ANY GIVEN MONDAY, Richard in TIME STANDS STILL and Artie in HURLYBURLY.

Denver theatre audiences will recognize the name Bruce Graham. In 2001, in its 4th season, Curious produced Graham’s COYOTE ON A FENCE, about an articulate death row convict who meets an uneducated hick carrying a death sentence for burning a church filled with African American worshippers. Last year, Vintage Theatre produced Graham’s THE OUTGOING TIDE and will be presenting STELLA & LOU this October. Firehouse Theater just presented THE CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE STAKES.

Recently, Artistic Company Member, Christy Montour-Larson and Bruce Graham had coffee via long distance and chatted about writing, acting and what it is like to be a white guy on a bus.

I am always interested to learn how people arrive to a life in the theatre. What was your journey?

I thought is was a  great way to meet girls.  And it was.  (He laughs)  Even as a little kid I was an entertainer of some kind.  I have always been fascinated by the way people speak.  At first, I wanted to be an actor.  That is what my training was in.   However, I was tough to cast at 22:  I was short, I’m bald and I can’t sing.  I wasn’t’ getting a lot of parts.  So I started writing parts for short, bald guys who can’t sing.  A couple of years ago I got back into it.  I love it.  I missed it.  In fact, I am going into rehearsal for Neil Simon’s RUMORS.

I read once where you said all playwrights should have to be an actor at least once. 

Oh, absolutely!  Playwriting 101.   It makes one’s plays more actor friendly.  I try not to make actors do things that they can’t do on stage emotionally.  I have been in some plays where you can tell the author has never been on stage in their life.

How did being a stand up comic help your playwriting?

I was not really cut out for stand up, but is was great timing for a writer.  I am untrained as a playwright, which the New York Times likes to point out. I would try to come up with 5 minutes of new material every week. For the 9 o’clock show, I would be out in an alley behind a dumpster rewriting for the midnight show.  Nothing is more subjective than comedy.  People laugh or they don’t and you have a barometer whether it worked or not. An MFA program doesn’t have you do that.

It has been said that if one put all the works of a writer on a five foot shelf, one could see common themes and ideas. What does five foot shelf reveal?

When I started out writing, I taught myself to write plays by studying other playwrights.  Here is my Tennessee Williams play.  Here is John Guare.  MINOR DEMONS is my EQUUS — my Peter Schaffer play.  MARTY is one of my favorite movies — I have an original poster of it.  STELLA AND LOU is my MARTY play.  But now, I am not always aware of who I am stealing from. I usually stay in a blue collar world.  When I step out of it, I fall on my face.  The director Jim Christy, who has directed 13 productions of mine, has said there is always an element of loneliness and isolation in my plays.  The loneliness of the prisoners on death row in COYOTE ON A FENCE.  I never thought of that until he mentioned it.

You are the second playwright in a row here at Curious who was born and raised in Philadelphia. (The first being Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote ELLIOT, A SOLIDER’S FUGUE) How does this part of the country inform your writing?

I have lived in Philadelphia my whole life.  I have never lived more than 15 minutes from the airport.  There is a bluntness in this town.  A survival instinct that some people don’t understand.  An energy.    LA has a whole different rhythm.  Chicago is too nice.  Philadelphia has an edge.  I have a play about called THE PHILLY FAN about sports in Philadelphia that was so popular, other cities wanted me to write about sports in their town.  But, fans are not crazy like we are here.  We are all walking around looking for a fight half the time

What was your inspiration to write WHITE GUY ON THE BUS?

I read an article a couple of years ago about towns that have prisons, but not a way for people to get there. And how rough it is for families of inmates to get to the prisons to visit.  A lot of these prisons are in the middle of nowhere. You have to take 3 different busses.   If you are in the car, it would take you 45 minutes. But in a bus it takes 4 hours.  I took the Rikers Island (New York City’s main jail complex) bus a couple of times.  I would see the women on the bus putting on their makeup. I would just sit there.  I was the only white guy on the bus.  Once you get there, you have to get off the bus, the dogs come around.  When everyone one else went inside, I stayed out.  The guards came over to me and started talking to me.  Everything that happens in the play, I went through. I couldn’t make that stuff up, I don’t have that much imagination.  I am always looking for a dramatic situation. “OK. I have a mystery. Why is this white guy on the bus?”  People can read a lot into the play’s meaning.  I just thought it was a good story.

WHITE GUY ON THE BUS looks at race and what white privilege means. Is it possible to have an honest conversation about race in this country today? How can we pull off the veil of political correctness?

I hate a lot of things I hear, but I will defend the right for people to say it.  I am teaching playwriting and if a kid wants to write a play about a racist, like in COYOTE ON A FENCE, I am not going to tell him he can’t write something like that.  If you have a racist on stage, you better have him saying certain words.

I think a good play is when every character has their positive moments and negative moments.  No one is all good or all bad. I am sick of going to plays that discuss race and all the white people are evil. That is too simplistic.  In the world premiere in Chicago, some people are pissed off at the ending.  People said “she shouldn’t do that!”  In Philly, we would be saying, “Why didn’t she ask for more?” Political correctness does not allow speakers that have different opinions, so no one can be offended. Yet, people need to be offended.   If you are going to walk around in a bubble your whole life, you are not going to think.   I’ve seen plays that have gotten me angry and that’s good because it makes me think. That is what theatre is for.

How is WHITE GUY ON THE BUS different than any other plays you have written?

This is first play I have ever written where there are more women than men.  I didn’t realize until we went into casting.  It wasn’t like I sat down and said I am going to write a female majority play.  I just thought, “What characters do I need?”  Today I am literally two hours away from finishing another, unless I decide to take a nap and finish it tomorrow.  And I have more women than men in that play, too.

You have said that audiences need something or someone to root for.  What or who are we rooting for in WHITE GUY ON THE BUS?

I think we are rooting for Shatique to make her life better.  In rewrites, I have gone back to play up the importance of her son.  That is a primal thing.  Her decision at the end is based on that and I knew I had to motivate it.

I was trained that a good director must identify the universality of every play – that what is true about a play can be true here and across the world. Today, 500 years ago or 500 years from now. What is universal about WHITE GUY ON THE BUS?

Ending racism is never going to happen.  People are always going to be suspicious of other people.  People are always going to feel more comfortable amongst themselves and need a scapegoat.  Look at Donald Trump.  I don’t think these things are ever going to change.  I know people like to talk about this utopia where we are all singing kumbaya, but we are capable of more evil than anything on the planet.  We are supposed to be this higher form of life or not?  I wish people would just accept this.  Not the happiest world view but that is the way I see it.

WHITE GUY ON THE BUS is the second play of yours being done at Curious. How did you come to know Artistic Director, Chip Walton?

I was  going to come to see COYOTE ON A FENCE, but I had movie opening and went to the premiere instead.   And it turned out to be the week of 9/11.  So, at first, Chip and I talked on the phone and emailed a lot. I saw a kindred spirit in Chip, we have a lot of things in common.  We talk a lot of football.  I had to tell him I was rooting for Carolina and felt like a traitor.

How do you like to work with a director, designers and actors on one of your plays?

I am a firm believer that this is a collaborative art.  For 95% of my career, I haven’t had a problem.  Sometimes, I might have done things differently, but I am not going to walk in and be a dictator.  Jim Christy said that I am the closest thing to being a dead playwright.  I show up the first day or two and then say “Call me when there is a run through.”  If you are there all the time you have no distance.  If I leave, I come back and can see what I need and what I don’t.    If, I am in the room, I think the actors get nervous.  I was in TIME STANDS STILL and the playwright, Donald Margulies came down to see it.  It was 7 weeks into the run and I still got paranoid.  Let the actors have fun with it: make crazy choices, make mistakes, fall on their face. To do whatever they have to do.  I don’t think they are going to make as many mistakes if I am in the room.  I stay away and start on the next one.

At Curious we always say “No guts. No Story” What is gutsy about Curious producing WHITE GUY ON THE BUS?

In Chicago, it went very well and no one called me a racist, so you would think that would  be the seal of approval.  But I know other theatres are scared of this play.   Everyone in Philly is scared of it. Curious is one step behind the second production in Trenton, New Jersey. That is pretty gutsy.

What do you want the audience reaction to be? What do you want us to be thinking as we walk out of the theatre?

I am just happy to have you thinking.  I hope the audience walks out thinking “I was entertained for 2  hours.”   My job is to transport you to another world, to get caught up in these characters.  The best scenes are the ones where you feel like you are looking in the window, seeing something private that you really shouldn’t be seeing.  It feels real and hits you.  I want the audience to go on a journey with these characters.  I want them to get angry about them.  To fall in love with them.  To worry about them.   The best plays, the plays I like the most, are the ones where I am talking about the characters the next day.  If I am wondering what happened to them the next day, that is a good play.  I saw a play recently and 10 minutes into it I thought, “If all these characters died right now, I would be thrilled” and that is not a good way to be.

I always believe the worst thing we can do to an audience is to bore them.

Yes, that is the greatest sin.

It is OK to make people angry.


Well, it only took 15 years to do another one of your plays.  Now go finish that new play and here is hoping it doesn’t take another 15 years.

I better get another cup of coffee.