Playwright Richard Nelson brings his drafting tools to the Goodman.
Richard Nelson owes much of his theatrical education to inferior architecture.“Thank God for those poles and obstructed-view seats,” Nelson says of the unenviably blocked but moderately priced vantage points that afforded the playwright a cheap Broadway sampler. “That and standing room—do they even still have standing room?—was how I saw plays.”
Architecture also accounts for Nelson’s most recent effort, Frank’s Home, a dramatic snapshot of American master Frank Lloyd Wright in midcareer slump. The convergence of Chicago native Nelson and legendary Chicago property Wright in the heart of the city—in fact, in the Goodman’s theater complex of former downtown palaces where Nelson’s dancer mother once performed—is serendipitous enough. But Nelson is an architect in his own right.
The 56-year-old scribe has a biography that would take up an entire playbill page if he didn’t truncate it. An author of original work (Some Americans Abroad, Madame Melville), books of musicals (the Broadway version of Chess, James Joyce’s The Dead) and plenty of translations (The Marriage of Figaro, Accidental Death of an Anarchist), Nelson has geared a prolific playwriting career that last year landed him the chairmanship of Yale’s distinguished playwriting program (his first academic gig).
Chatting by phone from his home in New York state, Nelson shared his observations about the ever-shrinking condo of the American play, once a genre regarded as a ten-room manse.
“Obviously smaller plays are cheaper to produce. You used to see these well-made plays on Broadway with huge casts, 30 or 40. You can’t do that now.” Anyone who follows Chicago’s theater scene knows the city has seen a bumper crop of such expansive texts this year. But most of them starred nonprofessional storefront actors who received little compensation, or zilch. And Nelson, whose career has been buoyed by nonprofit theater, acknowledges that big works are less likely to see the commercial light of day.
“My play Some Americans Abroad has 12 characters, but that was originally done by Lincoln Center. Two Shakespearean Actors has 27 people in it, but that was produced by the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company],” Nelson says. “Those are theaters with subsidies and limited runs.”
So does the professor advise his students to scale back their work?“Actually, we’re about to premiere a new work here at the school by a student that has a huge cast. But half of the characters in it are kids. So our solution is to do it in conjunction with a local school, and their students are appearing in it. It’s important that [our] writers have a practical understanding of the business that they’re working in, but it’s also vital that they don’t compromise their vision.”
Or, hopefully, obstruct it.—Christopher Piatt
Frank’s Home is running at the Goodman Theatre.