The day Molly Ivins died in 2007, Margaret Engel called up her twin sister Allison and told her they had to write a play about the wisecracking Texas political columnist who stuck George W. Bush with the nickname “Shrub.”
No matter that the Engels were journalists who had never before ventured into drama. They were theater lovers from way back, and a one-woman show felt to them like the right form for a tribute. For Ivins’s fans, it would be a less solitary activity than reading her words on the page. Each performance would be a communal experience of listening once more to her voice, channeled through the actress playing her.
When “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins” premiered in 2010 at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, Kathleen Turner was the star. The show has since been performed, by Turner and others, all over the country, and the Engels are now working on two more plays: one about Erma Bombeck, due to debut in October at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the other about Damon Runyon. Both new plays were spurred by requests from the subjects’ representatives.
After years as newspaper reporters—Margaret, a former managing editor of the Newseum who also worked at The Washington Post; Allison, who got an MFA in screenwriting from the University of Southern California in 2009 and also worked at the San Jose Mercury News—the move into playwriting often surprises fellow journalists. They act “like we discovered nuclear fusion in our basement or something,” Allison says. But, she argues, writing for the stage isn’t really so different from writing for a newspaper: “You’re telling a narrative.” Indeed, the elements of journalistic excellence—research, reporting, storytelling—are also essential to writing for the stage.
Certainly, there’s plenty of precedent. J.M. Barrie, the playwright who gave the world “Peter Pan,” started out as a journalist. A Chicago Tribune crime reporter, Maurine Dallas Watkins, wrote the 1926 play “Chicago,” which Kander and Ebb spun into their gritty, glamorous hit musical. George Bernard Shaw, famous for his plays and politics, made his first literary ripples as a critic. Marivaux, the 18th-century French dramatist; Mary Chase, who wrote “Harvey”; Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who penned the classic comedy of newspapering, “The Front Page”—all journalists. Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn, and David Rabe were, too, long ago.
These days, the traditional route to a playwriting career in America involves getting into a top drama school, an approach that also worked for Watkins, who wrote “Chicago” as part of the first class of graduate drama students at Yale. But the Engels are hardly alone among contemporary veteran journalists writing for the theater. It helps that—perhaps ever since writer-performer Anna Deavere Smith’s landmark “Fires in the Mirror,” an interview-based solo piece about the Crown Heights riots, in 1992—the stage has become not just hospitable to but hungry for documentary theater, often political in nature, and other work rooted in the real world.
The Tectonic Theater Project journeyed to Wyoming a month after the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard and shaped its Off Broadway hit “The Laramie Project” (2000) from company members’ interviews with locals, then returned for a follow-up a decade later. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen made “The Exonerated” (2002) out of their interviews with wrongly convicted former death-row inmates. “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” (2005), about a young American peace protester killed in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer, takes its text from her diaries and e-mails, edited by Alan Rickman and the Guardian’s new editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner. The list is long and getting longer. “There’s always been theater looking at current events in a very direct way, in an almost nonfictional way, but I think it’s really taken off in the last 20 years,” says Peter Marks, chief drama critic at The Washington Post.
Even as playwrights have borrowed techniques from journalism to create such work, journalists have recognized an opportunity to transfer their well-honed skills to a different medium. Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker magazine staff writer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” has been writing plays since the early 1980s. Wright, whose most recent play, “Camp David,” premiered in 2014 at Arena Stage, credits “Fires in the Mirror” with changing his idea of what drama could do when he saw Smith perform it at New York’s Public Theater. “I was riveted by the notion that you could marry journalism and theater,” he says. “I didn’t know that that was possible.”
When Wright finally tried fusing the two forms, it was partly in reaction to a favor the playwright David Hare asked of him when Hare was working on a piece about Jerusalem in the late 1990s. “He wanted to use a line that I had written in The New Yorker about Jerusalem, and he wound up not using it, but I got jealous,” Wright recalls. “I thought, you know, ‘I know a lot more about Jerusalem than he does, and he gets to do this one-man show.’”
That envy eventually nudged him to create his own well-received solo piece, “My Trip to Al-Qaeda,” which premiered Off Broadway at the Culture Project in 2007. Intended as a response to questions he kept getting about his experiences reporting on terrorism, the performance wasn’t so different from journalism at its most primitive, he says: “If you imagine a bunch of Neanderthals are sitting around and wondering what’s over the next hill, and one of them volunteers to go and then comes back and stands in front of the campfire and tells them what he saw, well, that’s a lot like standing on the stage and telling people what you saw when you went to visit Al-Qaeda or you went to visit Hamas.”
Marks, who called the show “a first-rate piece of theater,” reached to a less distant past for a comparison: “It was almost a throwback to the days when explorers used to go around the world and come back to New York and give a lecture on what they found, and people would be kind of mesmerized.”
There’s always been theater that looks at current events but it has really taken off in the last 20 years
A sampling of plays by journalists and based on true events
“Pygmalion,” George Bernard Shaw
A basis for “My Fair Lady,” which lampoons Britain’s class system via lessons in speech refinement
“Chicago,” Maurine Dallas Watkins
Watkins gleaned material from cases involving female murder suspects she covered as a reporter
“The Front Page,” Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Tabloid newspaper reporters take on the police beat
“Sticks and Bones,” David Rabe
A black comedy about a blind Vietnam war veteran
“Every Good Boy Deserves Favour,” Tom Stoppard
Set in the USSR, a criticism of the Soviet practice of treating political dissidence as a form of mental illness
“The Guys,” Anne Nelson
A fictionalized account of Nelson’s experiences ghostwriting eulogies for firefighters in the wake of 9/11
“Democracy,” Michael Frayn
An examination of the Guillaume Affair, an espionage scandal that rocked Cold War Germany
“My Name is Rachel Corrie,” edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner
Based on the diaries and e-mails of Corrie, who was killed by an IDF bulldozer while protesting the destruction of a house in the Gaza Strip
“The Accomplices,” Bernard Weinraub
Historical drama suggesting that the FDR administration failed to do everything it could to rescue European Jews during World War II
“Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” Margaret and Allison Engel
A staged celebration of the liberal Texan columnist and the glories of the First Amendment
“Camp David,” Lawrence Wright
Explores the 13 grueling days of the 1978 Mideast Peace Talks
Anne Nelson wasn’t looking to write a play in the days after September 11, 2001, but she was feeling “utterly stymied” as a writer. A former war correspondent in Central America who had transitioned into academia in New York, she was surrounded by a huge, unfolding story—and watching the international students she oversaw at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism report it for news outlets back home. She didn’t have a way to contribute to the coverage.
Then Nelson met a fire department captain who needed help crafting eulogies for the men he’d lost at the World Trade Center. Coaxing out of him the details of their lives, she wrote the tributes the captain would give and in the process found a September 11 story that would become her first play. “The Guys,” which she finished in nine days, premiered 12 weeks after the attack and was an instant hot ticket, starring Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray at the tiny Flea Theater in Tribeca, not far from Ground Zero.
Based on Nelson’s experience with the fire captain, “The Guys” is a fictionalized account. At first, Nelson considered telling the story straight, in a magazine piece, but her shame at the behavior of other journalists—such as the television reporter who asked the grieving captain, on camera, how it felt to lose his best friend—checked that impulse.
Nelson wasn’t willing to intrude on the captain’s privacy, but she also knew she wouldn’t be able to shield his identity in a work of journalism. When she happened to sit next to Sigourney Weaver’s husband, the theater director Jim Simpson, at a dinner, “the wheels started turning,” Nelson recalls. “I said, ‘Oh! I can change anything I want to in a play.’”
That realization freed her to give “The Guys” a dramatic shape, unconstrained by the bounds of documentary. “I remember this moment, at like 2 o’clock in the morning, where I was writing and I said, ‘Oh my God, this is getting too dark. I think it needs a tango.’” So Nelson added an interlude where the lights dim, the music begins, and the captain and the editor dance.
Theater people talk a lot about dramatic truth, which is different from truth in the everyday sense: less about facts than about capturing an essence, even if that comes about by changing or obscuring facts. That’s what Nelson believes she was able to do with “The Guys,” which premiered at a time when hero worship of firefighters—maudlin press coverage included—was a post-9/11 norm. Her play, by contrast, conjures images of flawed, honorable, regular people who died on the job.
“I felt that in a lot of ways, it was more true than the journalism people were writing,” Nelson says. “Society needed heroes, and they needed to put the heroes on a pedestal, then whoever you put on a pedestal, you have to tear down. And all of these expectations were being imposed on them, and they were dazed by it, because it wasn’t who they were. And they came to this play and said, ‘Thank you. That’s who we are. We’re guys doing our job.’”
But for journalists-turned-playwrights, creativity can be the trickiest part—the element of theater that is most in conflict with their training. As Marks puts it, “‘Invention’ is a sacred word among playwrights, and it’s kind of kryptonite among journalists.”
So it was for Bernard Weinraub, who grew up reading plays and dreaming of a life as a playwright. He spent his career instead at The New York Times, but when he retired in 2005, he finally acted on the fantasy. A story he’d covered provided the seeds of his first play, “The Accomplices,” about what the United States government and the Jewish establishment in this country failed to do to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ben Hecht are among the 14 characters.
Having taken playwriting classes at New York University as a young man, and again, gearing up for retirement, at the University of California, Los Angeles, Weinraub understood the demands of drama: Conflict and tension are essential, which is not the case in a news story. Steeped in Hollywood—he covered it for the Times, and he is married to the producer Amy Pascal—he sympathizes with the makers of historically based movies, such as “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, who almost invariably get into some kind of trouble for reworking real-life events. Nonetheless, Weinraub’s conscience pricked whenever he deviated from reality in “The Accomplices,” which the New Group premiered Off Broadway in 2007.
“In the beginning, it can be a slightly awkward line to walk over, because you still want to deal with as many facts as you can,” he says. “You eventually realize you have a story to tell, and some of the details either have to be omitted or altered to make it a palatable two-hour film or play. But there’s a constant tension there—for journalists. It’s sort of a delicate balance, and you’re always feeling a little bit guilty if you’re making some changes. But then you realize, this is a drama, and I have no idea what X said to Y. You have to make up the dialogue.”
Wright had to do a bit of that, too, in “Camp David,” his play about the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace conference Jimmy Carter held at the Maryland presidential retreat. Much of the dialogue spoken by its four characters—Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter, Menachem Begin, and Anwar Sadat—is taken from life, but not all of it. “When I’m going out on a limb and making stuff up, I wanted to make sure that it was true to their characters and true to their beliefs,” Wright says. “Jimmy Carter came on opening night. I doubt that he would have been able to tell, at least not very clearly, what he really said and what I imagined he said.”
The way Margaret Engel sees it, there’s a feeling in America that people must choose one field and stick with it. “If you are 23 years old and right out of drama school and wrote a play, that’s considered totally fine,” she says. “But if you switch from a different profession—if you’re a reporter and now are doing a play—there’s a big, how do I say this, skepticism of that. There’s not much tolerance for people multitasking.”
Playwriting provides plenty of unfamiliar challenges for journalists new to it: writing dialogue that comes alive when spoken aloud, drawing characters who seem like flesh-and-blood human beings, keeping the number of required actors low enough that a production budget wouldn’t be astronomical.
But journalism is good preparation for doing quick script rewrites and collaborating with directors. “If an editor tells you, ‘You gotta change the lede,’ you change the lede,” Weinraub says. “So if a director asked me to do something, nine times out of 10 I did it. I’m a very easy guy to work with as a playwright—maybe too easy.”
Journalists also tend to excel at research. Before the Engels wrote “Red Hot Patriot,” Margaret Engel ordered 51 solo plays from the publisher Samuel French Inc., and the sisters read them all. “That was a good introduction, because it really felt that it was doable,” she says. “We liked a lot of the plays, but some of them weren’t fabulous, and so we thought, ‘Well, we can at least meet that low bar.’”
Journalism is good preparation for doing quick script rewrites and collaborating with directors
Wright researches his plays the same way he does his books: extensive interviewing, voluminous reading. In fact, he spun his 2014 book, “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David,” out of his research for “Camp David.” In “Thirteen Days,” he stuck to the rules of nonfiction; in “Camp David,” he laid invention on top of fact. “When I become deeply acquainted with the characters and I have a sense of what really happened,” he says, “the real things become the girders upon which I can build this abode, and then once I have those real things in place, I can go inside it and start imagining it.”
Imagination, according to Marks, is where many plays by journalists fall short, sometimes because the authors haven’t spent long enough learning “the tools of entertainment” that vital theater requires. If subjective observation and breadth of character are lacking, a play can feel too tethered to the page. “There’s a kind of flatness sometimes to plays by journalists because they’re basically interested in imparting information; that’s what we do,” he says. “The big picture of what turns this into meaningful drama, what makes this dramatic, is often the thing that falls away.”
As the Engels ready “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End” for its autumn opening, Margaret says she’d like to see even more theater based in journalism: “Journalists uncover amazing, spectacular stories always, and so much of it vanishes after the story is written. You don’t have to be making up wacky scenarios when true life shows you all the drama you could handle.”