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Sun July 28, 2013
Theater

Wallace Shawn: From 'Toy Story' Dino To Highbrow Playwright

Originally published on Sun July 28, 2013 10:31 am

Wallace Shawn is famous for his career as an actor, but over the past four decades he has written a handful of plays that are intellectually demanding and rarely produced. His characters tell stories in monologues, rather than acting them out onstage, and they use cascades of words to make dizzying arguments.

His work is being showcased at New York's Public Theater this season. A revival of The Designated Mourner opened July 21 and the American premier of another Shawn play, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, will open this fall.

Highbrow Versus Lowbrow

The Designated Mourner is about the dissolution of culture, along with the dissolution of a marriage. Shawn plays its central character, Jack, the designated mourner for the last intellectual who could still understand John Donne's metaphysical poetry, which Jack himself doesn't comprehend.

"A Highbrow was someone who liked the finer things, you know, saving the Rembrandt from the burning building rather than the baby," the character explains, "while a Lowbrow was someone who liked to take the easy way in the cultural sphere — the funny papers, pinups. You know, cheap entertainment."

For Shawn, it's a tragedy to not spend time with the work of the great writers.

"That's like saying, 'I could have dinner with a wise, brilliant person whose thoughts are consciousness-expanding,' " Shawn says, " 'but unfortunately, I can only really enjoy hanging out with incredibly shallow people who only want to gossip about the latest problems of unfortunate, mentally disturbed celebrities.' "

'A Poet Of The Theater'

Shawn's best-known piece of writing is a two-hour, scripted conversation with a brilliant eccentric — theater director Andre Gregory. The 1981 film My Dinner With Andre, directed by Louis Malle, shows Shawn and Gregory eating, and talking.

Gregory made his name in the 1960s as the head of the experimental Manhattan Project Company. Now he's 79 years old and has been directing Shawn's plays for 40 years. It's one of the longest collaborations in the history of the American theater.

"I happen to feel he's the greatest writer in the American theater," Gregory says. "He's a poet of the theater; he's socially engaged. There's such a thing as a 'passive culture' and 'active culture.' A passive culture is a culture that tells you what to think, how to feel. An active culture is one that tries to wake up the audience to think, to feel and to confront themselves. And probably the main theme of My Dinner With Andre is: wake up."

Making A Living As The Downtrodden Nebbish

Here's where we get to the contradiction in Shawn's life and work. He's the son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn. He studied history at Harvard and philosophy at Oxford, so naturally he understands highbrow culture and great writers. But he's made his living doing quite the opposite.

In the Toy Story movies, Shawn is the voice of Rex, the green dinosaur. He made his debut as a screen actor in 1979 in Woody Allen's Manhattan and has appeared in hundreds of roles since, usually as the comic, downtrodden nebbish.

"I think it's rather fun that compared to Dostoyevsky or many other writers, I appear in cartoons," Shawn explains. "I sort of enjoy the fact that I have made a living in an innocent way. And because I found a way to make a living, I didn't face a temptation to write in a way that would be popular."

Shawn could afford to spend 10 years writing his newest play, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which opens at the Public in October. In it, Shawn appears as a scientist who has figured out a way to solve world hunger by having species eat their own dead. In the opening scene, the scientist recites the epigraph to his memoir, which hints at the violence and poetry to follow:

"It was just after dawn, the air was cold and the ground was damp with my own blood. As I wondered what circumstances could have brought me here, I looked across the vast expanse of the plain on which I lay and it seemed that I could see grasses of a thousand colors."

A Love-Hate Reception

Shawn's longtime companion, Deborah Eisenberg, is one of three actors in the cast of The Designated Mourner. She's also a short-story writer who won a MacArthur Fellowship for her work. Eisenberg says Shawn's writing is provocative and demanding.

"It tends to be so intense that people are either drawn in, whether they want to be or not, or they just drop off quite fast," she explains. "But you can't really be neutral towards it. Either you accept it completely — it overwhelms you — or you flee from it."

A case in point: When Grasses of a Thousand Colors had its world premiere four years ago in London, there was a line outside The Royal Court Theatre of people waiting to take the seats of ticketholders who walked out during intermission.

"It's probably bad luck to refer on the radio to the people who hate the play, or are in agony," Shawn says. "Obviously if there are too many of them, it's much harder to perform. So if you're listening to this and you think you might be one of those people, don't come!"

Shawn says that at his age, 69, he's not looking ahead to any new projects after this season at the Public Theater.

"If we get through this, it's going to be Florida all the way," he jokes. "You know, sitting under the palm tree with the Mai Tais. That's it."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:

Hi, it's WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg. In New York, the sweet smell of success - sort of. This summer and fall, the famed Public Theater is presenting the work of actor and playwright Wallace Shawn. It's a revival of his 1996 drama, "The Designated Mourner," which the New York Times said is not to be missed and, quote, "makes the definitive case for Mr. Shawn as one of the most complex and uncompromising moralists of the American theater, unquote. Nice review. But, Shawn's plays are rarely produced. Tom Vitale reports that while Wallace Shawn considers himself an artist of the stage, he makes his living on the big screen.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Wallace Shawn's plays are different. His characters tell stories in monologues rather than acting them out onstage; they use cascades of words to make dizzying arguments. "The Designated Mourner" is about the dissolution of culture, along with the dissolution of a marriage. The central character is Jack, who is played by his creator.

WALLACE SHAWN: (as Jack) A highbrow was someone who liked the finer things, you know, saving the Rembrandt from the burning building rather than the baby, while a lowbrow was someone who liked to take the easy way in the cultural sphere. Oh, the funny papers, pinups, you know, cheap entertainment.

VITALE: In the play, Jack is the designated mourner for the last intellectual who could still understand the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. But Jack, himself, can't. Still, for Shawn, it's a tragedy to not spend time with the work of the great writers.

SHAWN: That's like saying I could have dinner with a wise, brilliant person whose thoughts are consciousness-expanding, but unfortunately, I can only really enjoy hanging out with incredibly shallow people who only want to gossip about the latest problems of unfortunate, mentally disturbed celebrities.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MY DINNER WITH ANDRE")

SHAWN: (as Wally Shawn) But the worst thing of all, I had been trapped by a series of circumstances into agreeing to have dinner with a man I'd been avoiding literally for years. His name was Andre Gregory.

VITALE: Wallace Shawn's best-known piece of writing is a two-hour, scripted dinner conversation with a brilliant eccentric. In Louis Malle's 1981 film, "My Dinner with Andre," Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory eat, and talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MY DINNER WITH ANDRE")

SHAWN: (as Wally Shawn) We're walking around like zombies. I don't even think we're aware of ourselves, our own reaction to things. We're just going around all day like unconscious machines, and meanwhile there's all this rage and worry and uneasiness just building up and building up inside us.

ANDRE GREGORY: (as Andre Gregory) That's right, just builds up. And then it just leaks out inappropriately.

VITALE: Andre Gregory made his name as a theater director in the 1960s as the head of the experimental Manhattan Project company. Now, he's 79 years old and has been directing Wallace Shawn's plays for 40 years, one of the longest collaborations in the history of the American Theater.

GREGORY: I happen to feel he's the greatest writer in the American theater. He's a poet of the theater. He's socially engaged. There's such a thing as a passive culture and active culture. A passive culture tells you what to think, how to feel. An active culture is one that tries to wake up the audience - to think, to feel and to confront themselves. And probably the main theme of "My Dinner with Andre" is wake up.

VITALE: Here's where we get to the contradiction in Shawn's life and work. He's the son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn. He studied history at Harvard and philosophy at Oxford. So, naturally, he understands highbrow culture and great writers. But Wallace Shawn has made his living doing quite the opposite.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TOY STORY")

SHAWN: (as Rex) Were you scared? Tell me honestly.

TOM HANKS: (as Woody) I was close to being scared that time.

SHAWN: (as Rex) Oh, I'm going for fearsome here but I just don't feel it. I think I'm just coming off as annoying.

VITALE: In the "Toy Story" movies, Shawn is the voice of Rex, the green dinosaur. Shawn made his debut as a screen actor in Woody Allen's "Manhattan" in 1979, and he's appeared in hundreds of roles since - usually as the comic, downtrodden nebbish.

SHAWN: I think it's rather fun that's compared to Dostoyevsky or many other writers, I appear in cartoons. I sort of enjoy the fact that I have made a living in an innocent way. And because I found a way to make a living, I didn't face a temptation to write in a way that would be popular.

VITALE: So, Shawn could afford spend 10 years writing his newest play, "Grasses of a Thousand Colors," which opened at the Public in October. In it, Shawn appears as a scientist who has figured out a way to solve world hunger by having species eat their own dead. In the opening scene, the scientist recites the epigraph to his memoir, which hints of the violence, and the poetry to follow.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "GRASSES OF A THOUSAND COLORS")

SHAWN: (as a scientist) It was just after dawn, the air was cold, and the ground was damp with my own blood. As I wondered what circumstances could have brought me here, I looked across the vast expanse of the plain on which I lay, and it seemed that I could see grasses of a thousand colors.

VITALE: Shawn's longtime companion, Deborah Eisenberg, is one of the three actors in the cast of the "The Designated Mourner," and a short-story writer who won a MacArthur Genius Grant for her own work. Eisenberg says Wallace Shawn's writing is provocative and demanding.

DEBORAH EISENBERG: It tends to be so intense that people are either drawn in, whether they want to be or not, or they just drop off quite fast. But you can't really be neutral towards it. Either you accept it completely - it overwhelms you - or you flee from it.

VITALE: A case in point: When "Grasses of a Thousand Colors" had its world premiere four years ago in London, there was a line outside the Royal Court Theater of people waiting to take the seats of ticket-holders who walked out during intermission.

SHAWN: It's probably bad luck to refer on the radio to the people who hate the play, or are in agony. Obviously, if there are too many of them, it's much harder to perform. So, if you're listening to this and you think you might be one of those people, don't come.

VITALE: Wallace Shawn says at his age, 69, he's not looking ahead to any new projects after this season at the Public Theater.

SHAWN: After this? My dear fellow, if we get through this, it's going to be Florida all the way, you know, sitting under the palm tree with the mai-tais. That's it.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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