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Playwright Nicky Silver talks family ties, lost plays, and getting back to basics.

By Sarah Stern, Co-Artistic Director Vineyard Theatre, Vineyard Theatre


Nicky Silver is the author of such celebrated plays as PTERODACTYLS, RAISED IN CAPTIVITY, THE FOOD CHAIN, and most recently at The Vineyard, BEAUTIFUL CHILD and the lab of THE AGONY AND THE AGONY.  Nicky spoke with Co-Artistic Director Sarah Stern about THE LYONS and the unforgettable family at its center.

I'm calling to interview you.
I'm ready, and just let me know if you need me to repeat anything. I can repeat everything I say.

There's nothing spontaneous about me.

But you're a very quick wit; doesn't that make you at least linguistically spontaneous?
Nope. I process it all in the moments before it comes out. I'm very aware of the lingual choices I make in life. Someone once accused me, well, I don't think they meant to accuse me, someone suggested that I have no sense of editing. The reality is that I have a very strong sense of editing — I don't employ it all the time but I am very conscious of what I'm saying. I know it's a shock that I would be conscious of the things I'm saying and still say them, but it's true.

That's a good transition to THE LYONS, actually. Rita, the matriarch of the Lyons family, and Ben, the dying patriarch around whom the family has gathered, both tend to say just what's on their minds.  Do you think they know the Effect their words will have?
Hmm. I would say that they are conscious of what they're saying, but they are misguided as to the effect that it will have. It's almost willful ignorance. Rita is not interested in editing, but if she did actually think about the consequences, her conclusions would be misguided. Also, the play is set at a particular time in these characters' lives where a lot of anger is coming to the surface because of the crisis with which they're confronted, and I think that probably short-circuits some of their judgments. Especially Ben. He says horrible, horrible things to his son. Imminent death is liberating.

So many of your works have a complicated family at the center.  What compels you to write about families?
Our most basic relationships are in our families — those are the densest relationships we ever develop, our husbands, wives, sons, daughters. I actually believe at their core that all plays are family plays, whether they appear to be or not. GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS looks like a workplace play, but to me it's a play about brothers.

What was the inspiration behind THE LYONS?
My last play had had a lot of ideas and hyper-theatrical conceit. With my new play, I wanted to get back to basics — to write something that was as simple stylistically as possible. And that meant putting a family in a room and having them talk to each other.

What can you tell us about the Lyons as a family?
I didn't name them the Lyons by chance, I'll say that. I think that they are a combative group, which is not to say that they don't love each other very much. For whatever reason, each of them has been isolated in some way and is fighting pretty ruthlessly to find some kind of completion, some kind of connection that they don't have naturally. I love each and every one of them.

Can you say that about all your characters?
Yes, absolutely. Well, with the exception of one or two. In THE FOOD CHAIN, there's a character who is more of a visual joke — I don't let him speak and I have no idea who he is and what he wants. So I can't say I really love him. My characters by nature are real fighters. It isn't always pretty but none of them ever give up. Some are funny, some are nice, some are smart, but they all fight tooth and nail for what they want and that, to me, is always an admirable quality. I think of myself as a fighter. I experience life as an endless slugfest.

Does that make it hard for you to collaborate with others?
I'll let you know if I ever do! I'm kidding. It isn't hard in rehearsal because I love the community. I love putting something together with other people. It's why I became a playwright.

You implied earlier that loving a character comes from knowing them. Do you think that extends to people?
I do. Real love has to come from knowing. In PTERODACTYLS, Arthur would insist that he loves his son, but Todd knows better because his father doesn't even know him. To genuinely love someone you have to know them, and I don't mean you have to know everything about them, because nobody knows everything about everyone, but you have to know them.  (Whispers: I don't know what I'm talking about.)

You started writing plays in college.  Were your first plays also about family?
Mostly, yes. In the years after college, I would write and direct four plays a year at the Sanford Meisner Theatre. My friends would be in them. I would pay for the space. We did this for six years, leading up to PTERODACTYLS. Some of those plays, like FAT MEN IN SKIRTS or FREE WILL AND WANTON LUST, went on to have real futures, and some of them don't even exist because I didn't have a computer. They were typed, and I don't know anyone who has a copy of SIBLINGS IN PARADISE, or FETID ITCH. It was during that period — I would never say I learned to be a writer — but I learned to write what I would like to see on stage.

What do you like to see?
It varies. And it changes as I get older. I do like plays that make you pay attention, where the theatrical terrain keeps shifting, you think it's this and now it's that. And I like emotion, more than intellect ultimately. At the end of a play, there should be some emotional reward for the audience. That doesn't mean it has to be a happy ending.

What excites you about working with Mark Brokaw?
I met Mark about 17 years ago when he directed the second production of PTERODACTYLS at the Huntington, which was stunning. I'm delighted to be reunited with him. He has unending talent, imagination, and patience, and overlooks my occasional incontinence.

Who are some of the writers who have been an influence for you?
I'm so drawn to the humor of Kaufman and Hart and Philip Barry and Joe Orton, and then the theatrical pain of someone like Edward Albee. And then you get someone like John Guare, who starts mixing that humor and that pain in a new way. I feel like all of my writing from the beginning has been a mix of very disparate aesthetics to see how they coexist. Because, in my life, they actually do co-exist, much more happily than they seem to in most plays.

You've in turn influenced so many up-and-coming playwrights.
Yes, they've all gained weight. I know that there are young wonderful writers, but it's all I can do to tear myself away from QVC to walk the dog, I can't be expected to keep up with the vicissitudes of culture.

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