August Wilson on Playwriting: An Interview

By Heard, Elisabeth J. | African American Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

August Wilson on Playwriting: An Interview


Heard, Elisabeth J., African American Review


How does August Wilson view his plays and the process by which he creates them? Where does he start when writing a new play? Is August Wilson writing with a particular audience in mind? Joan Herrington, in "I Ain't Sorry for Nothin'I Done": August Wilson's Process of Playwriting, attributes Wilson's success in playwriting to his influences, which he himself refers to as the "four 'B's'" (2)--the blues, the playwright Amiri Baraka, the painter Romare Bearden, and the short story writer Jorge Luis Borges. She also discusses what she calls Wilson's "new methodology of playwriting" (113), which entails revising the plays during the rehearsal process. Wilson first used this revision strategy with The Piano Lesson (1995) and decided to employ it again for the 1996 version of his play Jitney, originally written in 1979. Wilson's return to Jitney and the evolution of a significantly different version has sparked an interest by critics in Wilson's playwriting methods.

After seeing the Goodman Theatre's production of Jitney, which ran in the summer of 1999, I wanted to know more about Wilson's playwriting methods and how he came to revise a play that he originally wrote twenty years earlier. Wilson very kindly agreed to an interview, and during our conversation he provided details on how he creates his plays. He discussed the process of how he works, how he views his revision strategy, and his relationship with actors, directors, and set designers. Wilson also revealed that, during the writing process, he sees himself as focusing on creating a piece of art, not as trying to create a text primarily designed to entertain an audience.

A lot of our conversation concerned playwriting. All audiences see is the polished, final product, but below Wilson offers important insights into the steps he takes toward creating that product.

Heard: How do you begin writing a play? Where do you start--with the situation, characters, settings, etc.?

Wilson: Well, I generally start with a line of dialogue. Someone says something and they're talking to someone else. I don't all the time know who's talking or who they are talking to, but you take the line of dialogue and it starts from there. The next thing you know you've got four pages of dialogue, and after a while you say, "Well, let me name this guy; let's give him a name. Who's talking?" And in the process of him talking you find out things about him. So the more the characters talk the more you know about them. It generally starts there. And then I say, "Okay, so where are they?" and then I'll come up with a setting or something. Once you get the set and one or two characters, then it begins to take on a life of its own. Other characters walk in, and I'm not sure how it happens from there, but it's a process. I don't, for instance, start at the beginning of the play and say," what's going to happen," and go from beginning to end. Very often I don't know what the ending is or what the events of the pl ay are going to be, but I trust that these characters will tell me or that the story will develop naturally out of the dialogue of the characters.

Wilson has used this method to write seven plays, which have earned him two Pulitzers, a Tony, and six New York Drama Critics Circle Awards. His long-term goal is to write a series of plays chronicling the African-American experience in the twentieth century, and he plans to write one play for each decade. So far he has explored the 1910s (Joe Turner's Come and Gone), the 1920s (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom), the 1930s (The Piano Lesson), the 1940s (Seven Guitars), the 1950s (Fences), the 1960s (Two Trains Running), and the 1970s (Jitney). Wilson's most recent project is King Headly II, which is set in the 1980s and was produced at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in the fall of 1999. Since Wilson starts his plays in the middle of the action with a line of dialogue, I was interested in knowing if he chooses the decade before his characters begin talking. …

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