David Lindsay-Abaire: The Interview
Tonight is your last chance to see the Different Stages production of David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, the most produced play in the U.S. now. It was a departure for the writer: the first time he's written about his South Boston neighborhood.
To talk with the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Rabbit Hole increasingly busy screenwriter (Rise of the Guardians, Oz the Great and Powerful, the forthcoming remake of Poltergeist) about putting Southie on the stage, the Chronicle caught up with him in an unlikely place: Wharton, Texas. He was spending a month in the home of the late, great Texas dramatist Horton Foote as part of a writing residency.
Austin Chronicle: So how has Wharton been treating you?
David Lindsay-Abaire: It's been a very productive few weeks.
AC: So how did the residency come about?
DLA: They have this Horton Foote Prize that they give out every couple of years, and I won that this year, and after that the Foote family got in touch and said, “Hey, we're thinking about starting a little residency at Horton's old house. Do you have any interest in going away for a month?” And that's how it came about. I think they're going to try and make it – I don't know if it's a yearly thing or a bi-yearly thing like the award, but I am the first person to do it, and I think they will continue to do it.
AC: So you'll tell them what all needs to be fixed in the house.
DLA: [Laughs] I will be mentioning the squirrel in the attic, so they know there's a squirrel in their attic chewing away at things. It's been very comfortable.
AC: Have you been to Texas before?
DLA: Never. No part of Texas. I've never been to Texas.
AC: Seems like that might be a bit of culture shock for a kid from Boston.
DLA: Yeah. I mean, I've really barely left this house, so it's hard to say that I've gotten a good taste of Texas, but the people that I have met have been very kind and excited to have a writer back in Wharton. I did get a haircut on Main Street last week, and there were in fact at least a dozen buck heads on the wall and several posters for gun shows, so I thought, “Okay, now I'm in Texas.”
AC: How familiar were you with Horton Foote's work before this? Did you ever meet him?
DLA: Yeah, I met Horton; a few times we were on panels together, and he was incredibly kind. Yeah, I'm familiar with his plays. I read The Orphan's Home Cycle and The Trip to Bountiful, of course, and other plays. Yeah, very familiar with them. Love those plays.
AC: His work was drawn so much from home. He basically spent his entire career writing about his home town, where Good People is the first time you're writing out of your own geographical background, at least.What was it like drawing on that personal place and history? Was that a different experience for you as a playwright?
DLA: Yes and no. I mean, the craft of it is the same. I'm trying to construct the story the way I always do, so that part of it was just playwriting. That said, I was very aware of the fact that I was writing about a place and people that I knew incredibly well – better than anyone else that I had ever written about, because mostly the characters that I've written about were purely fictional, and these were at least definitely like the people that I knew incredibly well.
It was a very deliberate thing. I'd been wanting to write about the old neighborhood for a long time, because it's such a rich place in terms of character and people and history and location. I knew that there was something really ripe to be written about. But I never felt mature enough as a writer to do that – or as a person, frankly, to do that. Though I knew that if I did write about these people, I knew that I had to do it respectfully and responsibly, because they're not just coming out of my head. People are going to say, "Oh, it's set in South Boston. He's from South Boston." So I wanted to be able to do it properly.
That's one reason why it took me a long time. The other thing is, I wanted to find a story that made sense and was relevant – I wanted a good reason to do it and not just do it.
AC: You're not Tom digging through his memories of Laura and Amanda.
DLA: Good Lord, no. No. No. I mean, it's not overtly about my family in any way, although there are certainly parts of my mother in all of the women in the play in particular, and lots of people are touched upon in the characters, so there's that. I'm not saying that it's totally separate from me. More to the point, I kept hearing, "Why don't American playwrights write about class? British playwrights do it all the time. Why don't American playwrights do it?" And I think that's not true. I think American playwrights do, in fact, write about class. I just don't think they do it in a didactic way, in big capital letters with placards, you know. When people ask that, I think they're going back to Clifford Odets or something. That's what's in their heads when they ask that question.
But once I put that idea aside – because I knew I didn't want to write that soapboxy kind of play – I did think, "Well, if I did write about the old neighborhood, then no matter what, it's gonna be about class." That's gonna come up, because it's so part of the fabric of the neighborhood, but it's also so part of my own experience. I grew up in Southie, but when I was 11, I got a scholarship to a private school in the suburbs. So I got on the subway every day and went out to this beautiful campus filled with mostly rich kids and got this wonderful education and got back on the subway at the end of every day and went back to Southie. So I was aware of class differences from a pretty early age and have wrestled with all sorts of thoughts and ideas around class and class mobility since that time, and a lot of that came up in a good way in writing the play.
AC: When you were making that trip out of and back to Southie, did you catch any flak from anyone in the neighborhood? Were you ever treated as if you should have stayed where you belonged?
DLA: The answer is no. I mean, whatever conflicts were going on were entirely of my own making. You would think, especially based on the play, that there would be some sort of resentment – "Oh, this kid's goin' off to the fancy school now. He thinks he's Mr. Smarty Pants." Maybe some of that was there and just not said to me to my face. I think there was something incredibly foreign about Milton Academy to most of my friends and family, so I don't think they quite understood what was going on, and I did everything in my power to keep my head down and not put on airs, because that would be a cardinal sin in the neighborhood. And I was smart enough to know that. If I ever behaved like I was better than anyone else, then I would get it in spades. But I think because I did everything I could to be humble and not bring attention to myself that I was able to maneuver it. In the same way that I maneuvered Milton, that I didn't want anyone to know I was a poor kid from the poor neighborhood. It only took a couple of days to look around and see, "Okay, everyone's wearing khakis and a button-down, so that's the uniform, I guess. I can get a cheap version at Filene's Basement and see what I can do to pass." So when I say the conflict was mostly internal, that's exactly it – especially after a couple of years at Milton, I felt like such an Other in the neighborhood, and I had always felt like an Other at Milton, so I was an outsider in both of those environments. You know, I had a foot in both worlds and never really belonged to either one of them. Which sounds much more tortured than it really was, of course. [Laughs] But I do think that makes a writer out of a person, you know: the quintessential outsider. I think it shaped me in significant ways that I'm still avoiding, I imagine, but it makes for good writing.
AC: Were you ever able to reconcile those differences, or is it one of those things you wrestle with all your life?
DAL: I'll never reconcile it, but I've totally embraced it. You know, growing up in Southie has totally defined me as a person, as a man, as a father, as a writer. Look, I'm 43 now, so who knows what will happen in the next 50 years, but I feel like that working-class kid is just who I am, and I'll never let go of that person. So that means several things: This could go away at any moment. If I have a good life, I never feel settled in it or that it will stay. It means always having several irons in the fire. It also means appreciating what I have. So there's all that, which is about sort of my psychology as a person, but I also think if I write a very serious play like Rabbit Hole, for example, or Good People, even though they're straightforward dramas, that humor that is so the neighborhood humor, alll those years later still makes its way into a play about the death of a child, for example. You know, the humor that is just I don't even try anymore, that is just there – that comes from those people in the neighborhood that would process their hardships with humor, by laughing at it and saying, "God, it's so horrible and so awful, the only solace that I have is through humor." So, you know, I could go on for a long time about how South Boston will never be taken out of me. I don't want to reconcile it. It's who I am, and that duality allows me to write in a specific way that I enjoy.
AC: So in telling this specific story, I imagine that it wouldn't be difficult for you to get the sound of it right, but did you ever feel like for it to work you had to say things that you wouldn't actually say in the neighborhood?
DAL: Oh yeah. Yes. That was a complicated process that I wrestled with for a long time. Where I started was that I knew that I didn't want to write the kind of story that had been put out there about South Boston, and by that I mean the movies that had been coming out, and some books, too, that were making the people of South Boston into stereotypes and caricatures. And it was really bothering me. If you tell somebody you're from South Boston, they're like, "Aw yeah, Whitey Bolger, right?" Not everybody from South Boston is in the Irish mob. Not everybody is a boxer. Not everybody is a racist. Not everybody is involved with drugs. But these are the things that have ben put out there, and I thought, "Ninety-nine percent of the people I knew just got up and went to work in the morning and tried to feed their kids." Obviously, that doesn't make for an exciting Hollywood movie, but they're just regular people, and a lot of them struggled, and a lot of them just wanted to do better for their families. So I knew that that was the story that I wanted to write about, and then I started writing it. And one of the exciting things that happened while writing the play was I realized, "Oh, this is what the play is actually about" – that the phrase "good people" … to be a good person in Southie is to be the salt of the earth, selfless, a good-time person, nice to be around. When the play started, all of the characters defined themselves as good people, and they had different definitions about what that means, and for everyone watching the play or reading the script, the definition of what a good person is differs from person to person as well. Then, in the course of writing the play, [I discovered] the characters living through the play have to reassess what it means to be a good person, and we realize that that phrase is a very malleable thing.
For Margie in particular, she has defined her entire life by one event – she has done a favor for this one guy, and that has made her a good person. Then, without giving too much away, in the climax of the play, that man's wife says, "Now wait a minute, I don't quite understand this. Either you're lying, which means you're not a good person, or you're telling the truth, in which case your daughter has suffered because of the choices you've made and your pride, which also means you're not a good person. So no matter what's going on here, you're not a good person. You just have to decide whether you're a liar or a bad mother." Those words aren't exactly spoken, but that's the gist of the scene between them, and so [Margie] has to reassess not just what's happening in the moment but how she's defined herself as a person for her entire life. I think all the characters go through that to some extent. Mike feels like he worked incredibly hard and made good choices and made sacrifices and feels like he's entitled to the life that he is now living because he is a good person, and hasn't really come to face some of the people that he stepped on and some of the bad choices that he made or acknowledged that luck has actually played a role, that he was dealt a much better hand than other people. Anyway, all of that goes around this idea of "What is a good person, or what is goodness?" and once I realized, Jesus, that's what the play is about, then I had to worry less about my friends and neighbors saying, "Wait a minute, she's not so nice sometimes."
But I never got that. A lot of people from Southie have seen the play – they saw it on Broadway, or they've seen it in Boston. The night after opening night in Boston, there was a special benefit performance for the Boys and Girls Club, and half the audience was people from South Boston, a lot of them people I had grown up with, and they loved the play because it told the truth, and it wasn't all about drug addicts. The only negative comment that I got, and she was my favorite person of the night, was a 90-year-old woman – maybe she wasn't 90, but she was well into her 80s, the mother of a gal I had grown up with, who said, "You had too many swears in that play. Nobody swore like that in South Boston." I didn't say it, but I thought, "Lady, I grew up with your daughter. I know her mouth." But I loved that there was this generational pride that was so about, "Don't air our dirty laundry." But then she backed up and said, "But the second act was very good." [Laughs] So she could be proud of the neighborhood kid doing well, but she really wished that there weren't any swears in the play. But that's the thing; I don't know if she knew that she was lying or not. There was just something about this pride that we're all going to agree as a community that this lie that we all know is true that we shall never speak about is really the truth. And that's central to the plot in a huge way. Of course, it's not about swearing, but just hearing her accost me about the bad words made me go, "See, this is South Boston."
AC: That has me wondering if this play is so specific in its portrayal of place that it's very easy for people outside of that place to identify with it. I think again of Horton Foote's plays, which capture a Southeast Texas small town in such specific ways and yet those plays can travel and everyone gets what he's writing about. Do you feel that way about Good People?
DAL: Several responses. One: I never felt alienated by Horton's plays ever. And I think that's the genius of them, that, as specific as they are, there is just something universal about the human spirit. That said, being in this house and being in this town, I feel like "Oh, the ghosts are everywhere!" My connection to the work – and I have been re-reading the plays since I've been here, too, so that helps – is just much deeper being in the town, of course. To that, when I started writing Good People, a part of me did think, "What are you doing? Will anybody get this? Will it just be a piece of exoticism to them? Are these people relatable?" Those were all of my concerns, and then I sucked it up and said, "Well, you know, I gotta tell a story. Let's see what happens." And then, as soon as we started putting it in front of people, audience members would come up to me and say, "You know, I'm not from South Boston, but I did grow up in this neighborhood outside Seattle that is so similar" or "I grew up in North Dakota, and those women around that table were my mother and my two aunts, and I've never been to Boston." So I would hear these stories over and over again about people saying, "I'm not from Boston, but …," "I'm not for Boston, but …" And that was the mosty gratifying thing. It made me breathe this huge sigh of relief that, yes, I've put my people up on stage, but they were other people's people, too. Take the accent away, and they belong to other people.