For this month’s The Wright Stuff, writer Jamila Reddy caught up with playwright Jeffrey Hatcher in the midst of rehearsals for his adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic, a comic spree through the wacky world of 18th Century theatre. Catch it on a double-bill with Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, at The Shakespeare Theatre Company from January 5 through February 14.
When and how did you decide to become a playwright?
I stumbled into playwriting by way of acting. It’s pretty good training though, because if you act in enough plays, you learn a lot of things about playwriting by osmosis. You internalize some of the lessons about structure; all the stuff you read about in books later, you pick up by doing.
What questions and curiosities inform your writing, and why is the theatre the best place for them?
I come at it from the opposite end – what makes something a theatrical story as opposed to a story that can be told in any other form? Edward Albee once spoke to a group of us when I was much younger and he said, “How would you define a play?” His definition, of course, was the answer we were all waiting for, and it was: “A play is that which can be best expressed only on the stage.” Of course there are stories you can tell on stage, but if they can be told as well—as succinctly or dramatically—on television or on film or in a book, say, then why not do that? I’ve always been drawn to the theatrical first, and then the question of questions, themes, and issues—that’s almost secondary. My instinct is for the theatrical before almost anything else.
Tell me a little about the process of adapting. Where do you start, what distinct challenges do you face, how do you make your own voice heard when drawing on another’s work?
You have to come back to that Albee question: Is there something already in the original material that is theatrical or that will lend itself to theatricality? When it’s something like The Critic, which is already a play, it’s much more of a technical exercise. What things from the 18th century are no longer going to make sense even to a very educated, sophisticated audience? What things are going to be very similar and, with just a little bit of tweaking, resonate even more fully with a contemporary audience?
When you talk about one’s own voice and the voice of the original, I think that’s really a question of picking the right project. You end up matching yourself with material that you think is already in your wheelhouse, so to speak. Sheridan was very, very funny and loved writing about the theatre and loved critiquing critics and contemporary cultural issues. Those things already appeal to me on a contemporary level and they appeal to me in a historical way, too, so I feel like I’m halfway there.
When it comes to making sure that one’s own voice is heard along with the voice that you’re adapting, I think that’s not unlike a situation that actors find themselves in when they’re playing a character role. When you’re adapting someone else’s work, you try to absorb their style—their diction, their language, the way they make a joke, the way they deal with a line of dialogue—and you try to internalize it to a such a degree that when you’re adapting and you start to write your own material—a speech or a line of dialogue that doesn’t exist in the original at all—you’re kind of wearing Sheridan’s big and best coat and cane. It’s the writer as character-actor.
Do you read criticism of your work?
I do. There was a time when I tried to avoid it. There’s a line in the play where someone says that if you read criticism for the sake of shallow vanity, it’s bound to simply puff you up, and if you don’t read criticism because you suspect the reviews will be bad, be certain that someone will tell you what they are. They don’t have the same power they had over me years ago. I don’t think my skin’s any thicker, but whenever I read a bad review, that’s the one I believe, unfortunately, and whenever I read a good review, I think, “Well, that must have been someone who knew my mother.”
One of the great joys of working on The Critic is that you’re setting up a theatrical disaster, and audiences really like going to see plays where the play that’s being put on is actually falling apart. I think they enjoy the frame within the frame, and its fun to puncture the frame too.