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“THE BROTHERS, AUSTIN AND LEE, ARE LIKE CHALK AND CHEESE." -JAMES MACDONALD


play was written for a small stage, for a black box theatre in San Francisco. So there’s a technical challenge in this which fascinates me—how do you translate all the psychological detail and tiny moments of imagery and language in the script into something that comes across in a large Broadway house?


TS: Did you read all Sam’s plays that are of the same ilk? JM: Yes, Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, and Fool for Love are all closely related. I knew those plays already, but it was useful to go back and see how the writing develops from one to the next.


TS: What is your understanding of Sam’s uniqueness as a writer? It seems to me that he was a maverick, and when he started out, he was writing in a way that no one else was at that time. JM: I think you’re absolutely right. And I don’t think that comes out of a vacuum. I think he looked very carefully at what was going on in the early ‘60s when he arrived in New York, and he was drinking all that stuff up. He loved drumming. He was working in a jazz club downtown, and he was seeing all the jazz greats of that era. He was living in an apartment with his school friend Charles Mingus III. There’s a lot of music and improvisation in his work that’s new to theatre but that comes out of the culture of the time. And one of his mentors was Edward Albee, whose foundation gave him money to write some of the earlier plays. Albee and Shepard are both writers whose work demands actors to be incredibly brave and emotionally free in performance. They’re both writers who ask for there to be no safety net on stage.


TS: What do you think the play is about? Do you have an understanding of what Sam intends the title True West to mean? JM: I think it’s about the instability of identity, which is something that fascinates us all at the moment. Mental illness is on the rise; we’re all super-aware of that. I think it’s about how fragile our grasp of identity is. The play also suggests that things might well be in the blood—that there’s a genetic element to our makeup. Both the brothers are troubled by that. Sam is also playing games in this play with meta-fiction—as he goes deeper into the play, he starts stripping away reality or heightening it. A story eating its own tail…


As far as the title is concerned, that’s the other thing the play’s very clearly about—how true is the west? Not only the American West, but also the western world. Or are those notions somehow false? And in film, how much truth was there to the genre of the Western? What was true in American culture as it developed—and what was invented, mythological? The play is asking big questions about the truth of the American dream and the mythology of success. The title refers to an idea and a place. It’s about both. The brothers are inventing a new Western movie together and arguing over the reality of that. But it’s also about what Americans live for and by. And lastly it’s—and this I love—Sam’s most personal play, because it’s about writing, it’s about making up stories and characters. It’s very much a play about how we all invent ourselves through stories.


TS: How do you understand the relationship between these two brothers? JM: Perhaps due to the age gap, they’ve had totally different upbringings. The older one, Lee, has always been troubled and has had a deeply problematic relationship with their father. I would say they share the same intelligence, but they’ve had very different life experience. So Austin, the younger brother, has had some kind of Ivy League education. If you wanted to be geographical about it, you could say the older one is a West Coast cowboy and the younger one is more of an East Coast intellectual.


TS: Will you talk a bit about collaborating with your set designer, Mimi Lien? JM: I’m a huge fan of Mimi’s work and have wanted to work with her for years. The thing with this particular Broadway theatre—so much wider than almost any London stage—is that it allows us to refer to the world of film, which of course is the story heart of True West. We thought, let’s make it widescreen. Let’s make a space that’s like a letterboxed movie screen, so the imagery that the audience is looking at corresponds in direct ways with the story that the brothers are inventing.


TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist? JM: I always try to take in new art, new politics, new people. To look beyond the theatre bubble. It’s important for me to have periods where I’m not directing plays, when I’m reading other stuff and traveling instead.


TS: Is there a question you wish I had asked that I didn’t? JM: No. But I should just say I’m thrilled to be at the Roundabout. It’s an exciting moment for me to have a go at interpreting this play of Sam’s—which I love—with four actors I’m hugely excited to be working with.•


Paul Dano and Ethan Hawke in True West TRUE WEST UPSTAGE GUIDE 9


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