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Carlos Murillo and Henning Bochert

Playwright, Text, and Director in US Theater

September 8, 2010
From: Henning Bochert
To: Carlos Murillo
Subject: Notation

Dear Carlos,

In translating your play A Human Interest Story (or the Gory Details and All), I am dealing a lot with the way you formally approach the notation of your plays, using line breaks for rhythm and inscribing pronunciations by means of italics and separating syllables by periods.

In your experience as a playwright, do you need to nail the interpretation of your text down to the very syllable? Does that reflect your need to protect your text better against misunderstandings and to give the production team more of a handle as to what you meant to say or rather, how to say it?


September 9, 2010
Carlos Murillo wrote:

Dear Henning,

The thought process behind it is the importance to me of the way the plays should sound. I attempt as best as I can to embed the way I “hear” the language in the way it’s shaped on the page. In my experience with the plays, it seems to have the counterintuitive effect of liberating the actor. In a sense, by writing this way, I provide a “score”—a clear progression of thought that gives the actors some solid foundation on which to hang their hat, and more readily dive into a different, deeper kind of exploration.

You probably have also noticed the absence of detailed stage direction. Insisting on a certain sound, yet providing tremendous latitude for a director in how to stage the plays, seems to negate any question of me distrusting the actor.

I wonder, however, how German actors might experience it—if it rubs them the wrong way or seems to place undue limitations on their craft.


September 21, 2010
From: Henning Bochert
To: Carlos Murillo

In Germany, the discussion about the auteurism of the directors, is as old as the stage directors’ coming to new power in the twenties of the twentieth century, when Max Reinhardt introduced the director’s creative perspective on the text. Very strong and meaningful theatre came out of this through directors like Fritz Kortner in the fifties and Peter Zadek, Klaus-Michael Grüber, and Peter Stein in the seventies and eighties. After 1990, the director’s position grew even more prominent in German theatre, while the stand the author was able to take grew considerably weaker. The almost absolute authorship directors assumed in theatre productions was fiercely discussed. But at the heart of what we are discussing is the effect this has on the writing. Playwriting has equally changed. Authors have been reacting to the directors’ strong influence by giving their texts a stronger spine (thematically and in plot) while more or less yielding the design of the text’s “epidermis” to the production. There has been a dialectic interaction between playwrights and directors in Germany, and looking at more recent US playwrights like you, it is starting there, too.


September 22, 2010
From: Carlos Murillo
To: Henning Bochert
Subject: Format etc.

We operate in such different systems—here in the States “auteurs” tend to gravitate to reimaginings of the classics and adaptations and devised work and work less on new plays. There’s a whole other kind of director here that we refer to as a “new play director.” The tendency for the latter—at least in theory—is to sublimate their vision to the playwright’s. They are expected to work “in the service” of the play and the playwright’s vision. (Of course it doesn’t always work this way...) Weirdly, I think this stems from a kind of unintended patronizing attitude on the part of theatres toward American playwrights. In my opinion, the idea of the director “serving” the playwright is nonsense and tends to produce bland work.

My own tastes as a theatregoer and practitioner lean towards more “auteurish” or “experimental” theatre. I like the director with a vision that goes beyond simply staging the play (read: the director in “service” of the text) to a realm of orchestration —where there is an acknowledgement and deft use of all the elements at the theatre artist’s disposal. In that sense, I don’t think there is a definitive production of any of my plays. There are writers in this country that are uncomfortable with that notion—there is a belief that there is a proper “way to do the play.” On the other hand, there’s an interesting generation of writers now that grew up on MTV, the Internet, and is at ease with multiple narratives and embrace both “high” and “low” cultures. They tend to be more auteurishly directorial in their writing, paradoxically, by leaving a lot up to the imagination of the director. I think a good example of this tendency is Jason Grote’s 1001. The play forced me to think more as an auteur and less as a director serving a playwright’s vision.


The almost absolute authorship directors assumed in theatre productions was fiercely discussed. But at the heart of what we are discussing is the effect this has on the writing. Playwriting has equally changed. Authors have been reacting to the directors’ strong influence by giving their texts a stronger spine (thematically and in plot) while more or less yielding the design of the text’s “epidermis” to the production. There has been a dialectic interaction between playwrights and directors in Germany, and looking at more recent US playwrights like you, it is starting there, too.


Actors on sitting on a bench on stage
Production stills from the orignal production of A Human Intrest Story(or the Gory Details and All) by Carlos Murillo. Photo by Carlos Murillo. 

January 31, 2011
From: Carlos Murillo
To: Henning Bochert
Subject: Last questions

Dear Henning,

I’ve been meaning to reply to your earlier message. Below, cut and pasted to your questions are some thoughts/replies.


From: Henning Bochert
Sent: Monday, January 31, 2011

I translated Jason Grote’s Civilization early in 2010, and I feel, like you, that he is part of a new generation of writers in the United States who brought forth very exciting developments.

How and where are new plays generated in the United States?


Carlos Murillo wrote:
The vast majority of professional play development occurs through the play development arms of nonprofit theatres, playwright-centered organizations (New Dramatists, Playwrights’ Center, Bay Area Playwrights Foundation, Chicago Dramatists) and organizations like Sundance, the O’Neill, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, The Lark, Ojai, et al, that are devoted to developing but not necessarily producing new work. There of course is also development that happens in a commercial realm—I have little experience with that. And often these days the commercial and nonprofit worlds collaborate through investments made by commercial producers in not-for-profit productions that are intended for Broadway. The “seed money” provided by commercial producers for ventures like this is the source of great controversy here. On the one hand, it’s a boon to a theatre to have the resources to do something large scale that has the potential to transfer. On the other hand, many folks in the trenches think this shifts the original mission of the nonprofits away from doing risky work and centering their focus on their communities towards commercial success.

In the nonprofit world, there are many ways that new plays go through development. Many theatres (though in this economy resources are shrinking) have commissioning budgets, where they will pay writers to write new plays. This is not necessarily tied to production though it can lead to that. Other commissions are more specific in terms of what the theatre wants, and there are production commitments built into the commission.

Literary managers and artistic directors take an active interest in what’s happening at places like The O’Neill and Sundance, as they are frequently incubators for work that will reach stages throughout the country. The down side of this kind of development is that it can become an end to itself. There is a common phrase, “developed to death,” that describes plays that circulate in the development world but never get their chance on the big stage.

You should take a look at Todd London’s book Outrageous Fortune, a recent study about the climate of playwriting in America. I would imagine it’s shocking to someone from a climate where there is significant government support for theatre making.


From: Henning Bochert
Could you expand a little more on the way you use the term “auteur”?


Carlos Murillo wrote:
In the States, when people use that term in reference to theatre, they are referring to one of the following:

1)  A writer/director who has a distinct theatrical approach to both text and staging. A great example: Richard Foreman, the experimental New York writer/director. He writes the texts, creates unique physical and visual worlds for them, and puts his unique stamp on them. Other auteurs of this variety: Richard Maxwell, Young Jean Lee...

2)  There is also the auteur, usually a director, who is known to put a distinct “authorial” stamp on existing texts, and by authorial I don’t mean textual, I mean primarily visual and conceptual. From previous exchanges, this would be a common thing in Germany. Here companies like the Wooster Group, led by Liz LeCompte, highly specific renderings of, say, O’Neill’s plays would fit into this category. People here are less comfortable unleashing their auteurs on new plays (which I think is silly), because in the world of new plays, a priority is placed on “serving the play,” where a director is expected to subsume a personal vision for the sake of realizing the playwrights’ vision. They are meant to “do the text” and often serve as much as a dramaturgical function as a directorial one.


From: Henning Bochert
You also mention an “unintended patronizing attitude on the part of theatres for American playwrights.”


Carlos Murillo wrote:
Most not-for-profit theatres these days are run either by directors or by administrative types—the primary aim is to keep the financial health of the institution sound— which is difficult given the economic crises of the last few years. Producing new plays tends to be a money loser for theatres so they tend to be risk-averse when it comes to producing new plays.

There has been a lot of dialogue since the publication of Todd London’s book about the death of playwrights in artistic leadership roles or being at the table when programming decisions are made. There has long been an atmosphere of distrust, where the playwright is seen and treated as a guest, as opposed to an inhabitant and stakeholder in the life of a given theatre. The book has had an impact—streams of funding have appeared that theatres use to hire resident playwrights to their staffs. It is great in many ways for the writers—they get a steady paycheck and that ever-elusive thing—health insurance (we’re not civilized that way like you are in Germany!) and a seat at the table. For many writers who’ve received these residencies the benefits are also artistic—commission, development, and sometimes production. In that climate, TV has become extremely attractive to playwrights, and Hollywood is actively seeking them out.


From: Henning Bochert
Do you feel your writing reflects the dawning of a new relationship between playwrights and directors in US theatre?


Carlos Murillo wrote:
I am always excited when a director stages something in a way that forces me to understand what’s on the page in a counterintuitive way. And where there is an exciting dissonance between what’s happening in the words and what’s happening visually/physically.




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