Bruce Norris in the Danger Zone

Why does the 'Clybourne Park' playwright put such a premium on the freedom to provoke?

An interview by Beatrice Basso
Introduced by Dan Rubin

Since making his 1992 playwriting debut with The Actor Retires, playwright Bruce Norris has earned a reputation for unceremoniously prodding the uncomfortable truths that lie just beneath the surface of the self-aware, middle-class liberal. "There's nothing better than coming into a room and feeling that something dangerous is happening," he told London's Evening Standard last year upon winning the paper's best-play award for Clybourne Park—just one of a spate of prizes the play has captured on both sides of the Atlantic, topped by the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the U.S. and the Olivier Award for best play in the U.K.

A bracing examination of racism in America viewed through the prism of property ownership, Clybourne Park has had successful runs in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. (where it broke box-office records at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company), and London. And now it's high on the list of most-produced works in the 2011–12 season, with productions scheduled at Denver's Curious Theatre Company, Philadelphia's Arden Theatre, L.A.'s Center Theatre Group, Actor's Theatre of Charlotte in North Carolina, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Trinity Repertory Company of Providence, R.I., and Studio 180 in Toronto. The CTG production is expected to move from the Mark Taper Forum to Broadway in spring 2012.

Playwriting was a shift for Houston-born Norris, who was in the throes of a successful career as an actor when he decided to pen The Actor Retires. After graduating from Northwestern University in 1982 with a theatre degree, he worked at the major Chicago theatres before moving to New York City, where he appeared on Broadway in Biloxi Blues, An American Daughter and Wrong Mountain. He also performed Off-Broadway and regionally, and was, he says, "hired and fired from a number of television pilots." These experiences were fodder for his first play, a comedy about an actor who throws out his headshots, fires his agent and decides to make furniture for a living.

Today Norris is not building furniture (in fact, he originally planned to be a set designer before he discovered it involved "too much manual labor"), but over the past two decades he has built quite a body of work as a playwright known for his ability to make his audiences simultaneously laugh and squirm.

Norris's 2005 hit, The Pain and the Itch, certainly had this effect at Steppenwolf, which has produced six of his premieres, including The Infidel (2000), Purple Heart (2002), We All Went Down to Amsterdam (2003), The Unmentionables (2006) and A Parallelogram. The Pain and the Itch, which landed Chicago's Joseph Jefferson Award for best new work, takes place over a Thanksgiving dinner amid post–9/11 paranoia in a suburban home. A self-professed liberal and well-balanced couple must deal with inexplicably half-gnawed avocadoes and the genital rash of the family's four-year-old daughter, while the husband's brother skewers the hypocrisy of their lives and his Eastern European female guest casually rattles off racist quips.

"I have no cogent manifesto," Norris told London's Observer in 2007 after The Pain and the Itch opened at the Royal Court Theatre. "I just have a whole bunch of psychological kinks. Like the desire to unmask the lies about the American family." Unlike Lorraine Hansberry—whose seminal 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun served as the jumping-off point for Clybourne Park—Norris does not believe that theatre is a particularly good catalyst for change. "There is no political value in having sensitive feelings about the world. I don't think it generates political action. You go, you watch, you say, 'That's sad,' and then you go for a steak. The best you can hope for is to make people slightly uncomfortable. At least if you take the piss out of the audience, they feel they are being addressed," he argues.

This is also why he writes plays with white middle-class characters: "Why should I write something that is not germane to audiences' lives? Theatre has always been an expensive middle-class pursuit. It is a precious, pretentious thing for precious, pretentious people. You drive in your expensive car to the theatre, get it valet parked, and then watch a play about poor people. Why?"

Norris aims to expose the hypocrisies of bourgeois America without indicting or protecting anyone in the process. Whenever we are tempted to side with one of his characters over another, to align ourselves with a seemingly safe and sound modus operandi, or to condemn someone once and for all, Norris pulls the rug out from under that character (and us), and we're left to look for our next psychological alliance. Fundamentally, every one of Norris's characters is trying to do and say the right thing for themselves and their loved ones—but they fail because they are forced into unfamiliar interactions with unfamiliar people. Are our liberal ideals sustainable, he forces us to ask, outside the safety of the middle-class, suburban bubble?

On the first day of rehearsals for Clybourne Park last winter at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, Norris remarked that A Raisin in the Sun, which was part of school curricula in the 1970s, was one of the first plays (along with Our Town) that he became aware of as a young person. "That play has resonated all through my life, because I realized that the only character I could identify with was Karl—I was a whitey in an all-white neighborhood in Houston, Texas." In Clybourne Park, Norris focuses his sharp lens on our past (1959 in Act 1) and present (2009 in Act 2) consciousness of race and neighborly relations.

In a phone interview a few weeks before rehearsals began in San Francisco, Clybourne Park production dramaturg Beatrice Basso asked Norris about his views on race relations in the United States and his need to provoke.

BEATRICE BASSO: Clybourne Park is so quintessentially American, yet it has done very well in London. Why do you think that is?
BRUCE NORRIS: The issues are pretty close. They've got a version of the same thing in London. There may be a different ethnic distribution of who's resentful towards whom, but the same thing happens again and again. In fact, one of the guys in the cast living in Brixton told me the story of that neighborhood and how it has changed over the years. It's the same thing, really.

And yet the white-black divide is nowhere more pronounced than in the United States.
Chicago is particularly distinct that way. The South Side of Chicago is a predominantly black area; the North Side of Chicago is white. And then you've got Indian and South Asian and other neighborhoods, but the white and black are pretty much divided along the north and south. You think, this is a function of discrimination or of people being priced out of the housing market or all sorts of conspiracy theories, and yet, at the same time, there's nothing keeping one of us white people from moving into Harlem or South Chicago or Oakland. Or the other way around. Even if prices in white neighborhoods are higher, how come there's not more movement? How come we don't voluntarily integrate? I think it has to do with discomfort—with feeling like you're the minority. It's uncomfortable to live in an area where you are that minority, no matter which way it works.

People who are not from the U.S., and I am one of them, complain that there's so much political correctness about race here that it's impossible to make jokes about it; but then the longer we are here, the clearer it becomes that there are scars that are simply too deep to be made fun of.
I was reading something recently about a person in Germany who made what he thought was a funny remark about Nazis, and of course that's not actually a very funny subject if you're German. There are certain topics like slavery and black-white relations in the United States that are not that funny, especially if you're a black person.

Then to be politically correct is a necessary step in societal evolution?
Yes, theoretically it's a step. So, now that we've all been very careful, you think that after some time goes by things will be normalized. We white people (because we are the oppressors) sit around going, "Is it time now? Has enough time elapsed? Can we now say 'nigger'?" But of course that never happens, so white people feel resentful because we realize the past is going to hang around our necks like millstones forever. There is no end. Even if we gave reparation payments, still it wouldn't be enough.

And yet a lot has changed, in a relatively short number of years.
Well, a lot of superficial changes have happened, to laws and to ways people have access to education and to public services, but what hasn't changed and what stubbornly refuses to change are our natures. We keep wanting to be around those we feel more comfortable with. If only legislation could change what we are actually like, but it can't.

You're saying it's about our basic human makeup.
I think that racism is just another version of the same thing that leads to wars of any kind. Either it's tribal solidarity or it's religious solidarity, or it's people who live within a certain geographic boundary and want to protect it. There are certain economic and cultural groups that we identify ourselves with, and we think others shouldn't be able to interfere.

And yet we are so fascinated by the other.
But it's a constantly changing category. So, for example, Steve and Lindsey [the white couple in Act 2 of Clybourne Park, who are about to purchase and renovate a home in a gentrifying neighborhood] imagine that they're very close to Kevin and Lena [the black couple who are fighting to preserve the neighborhood's history]. They think, "We're just the same: They are in our same age group, same professional level, they seem politically like-minded." They make all these assumptions, and yet from Kevin and Lena's point of view, there is no illusion that they are the same. The one person in the second act whom everyone agrees is not the same is Dan. The guy digs ditches for a living, so no one pays attention to him.

We assign worth to certain values that we think identify us as belonging to a particular category of people, like a certain standard of "taste," which is a charged word in your play.
Taste is an emblem of your group. And it's just a manifestation of the competition that's going on with all people all the time. We are all looking at each other going, "Am I above or below him, or her?" "Does she have an advantage over me, or do I have an advantage over her?" So if you're in any minority group and you look at all these white people walking around with all this privilege all the time, taking it for granted, you don't buy it when they say, "Oh, we're just like you," because, at any given moment, you know that even something as insignificant as taste—"I like this house better than that house, it's prettier"—identifies us as part of a group that looks at another group skeptically or critically.

That is true of the destinations one chooses to go to on holiday, for example, or taste in food.
It used to be that the elites in a city would demonstrate their expertise in food by shopping at expensive stores that sold food from far away—cheese from France, et cetera—but now the way you demonstrate how sophisticated you are is by only eating things from your local area. You have to be a "locavore." You have to keep up with these things, otherwise people will look down on you.

What's sneaky is that when I shift my habits or taste, I perceive them as a genuine manifestation of who I am, but it makes sense that I'm actually subconsciously subjecting myself to a pervasive new trend telling me how to be au courant.
And of course that's what's dividing red states versus blue states, too, because those of us who live in New York or San Francisco look down on the people who vote for Sarah Palin or eat frozen dinners or go to Outback Steakhouse. We think that's low-class. And they know we think that. So they don't like us because they think we are snobs. We are snobs. The only thing you can do is try not to be part of any group. Maybe.

So you're suggesting a certain sort of independence?
It's hard, because anyone who looks at you will put you in a group whether you think you're in a group or not. So just saying "I'm not part of any group" would immediately put you in a group.

Yes, the group of "the iconoclasts."

It seems to me that in your writing you have a lot of freedom to provoke and to expose certain illusions. Do you have fun with that freedom?
I guess. It's hard to say. That's like asking, "You have brown hair; do you like having brown hair?" It's all I've ever had. Except that now it's gray.

Then what made you a provocateur?
I have no idea. Probably my place in my family, the role I filled. I'm the one who liked to try to start arguments between my two siblings. I did that at Thanksgiving just recently. It's not a very nice way to behave, but there are more important things than being nice, I guess.

So why the provocative revelation of the foibles of middle-class educated people?
I get into these conversations a lot. People ask how come I don't write plays about, say, people in housing projects, and I say, "Well, because those are not the people who go to the theatre." You can say, "We should get them to the theatre," but in actual fact, people who buy subscriptions to theatres like ACT are usually wealthy people. They are almost always wealthy, liberal people. So why not write plays that are about those people, since those are the people who are in the audience? If you actually want to have a conversation with that audience, then you should address them directly. That's what I always think.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company brought the play back to D.C. because of the impact it's had on that community, which stands as proof that the play, though set in Chicago, could work in any metropolitan reality.
Pretty much every big city has some version of this. Even where I grew up in Houston, it's a similar thing. There is no actual Clybourne Park in Chicago. Or, to be strictly accurate, there is a playground called Clybourn [sic] Park on Clybourn Avenue, but there is no neighborhood called Clybourne Park. That is something Lorraine Hansberry made up. If you want to have an example of the kind of neighborhood we're talking about, it would be Wicker Park or Ukrainian Village in Chicago. More Wicker Park. Wicker Park is a neighborhood that was mostly Latino for about 25 years, and it's very close to where Cabrini-Green used to be. Cabrini-Green was a big, dangerous housing project, which is about three or four blocks from where Steppenwolf Theatre is now.

Steppenwolf is a sort of alma mater of yours, having produced a number of your plays. Although you've lived in New York for quite a while now, you're still considered a "Chicago playwright," following a "Chicago aesthetic." What is that, anyway?
At this point, I don't know. If you're talking about 15 or 20 years ago, it probably meant a kind of propulsive naturalism, a very macho style of acting and directing. The playwriting was a sort of terse, clipped dialogue like David Mamet's. Mamet is the person everyone refers to as a "Chicago-style playwright," but there's no other Chicago-style playwriting. You might as well call it the Mamet style. But that's changed so much over the past 20 years because there are so many theatres in Chicago now and such a diversity of styles. I don't think there's any such thing as a Chicago style of writing anymore.

But you still identify with that rawness in some way?
Again, that's like asking, "What's it like to be different from you?" I became an adult in Chicago; I lived there for about 20 years. So I'm sure my taste in theatre was informed by what I saw at places like the Goodman and Steppenwolf and all those theatre companies.

You acted here at ACT in Wrong Mountain in 1999.
Yes, I did. When I was in my twenties, the thing I mostly wanted to be was an actor, but then I didn't really understand that the structure of theatre was such that an actor has virtually no power. I'm not saying that's bad, but it's like being a violinist in an orchestra—you don't have as much power as a conductor. That's how it should be, but I wanted to have more power because I was power-hungry, I think. And I wanted to be able to express what I thought, rather than be the vehicle for the expression of someone else's thoughts. I think that's why I wanted to be a writer instead of an actor.

When you write, do you imagine yourself in some of the roles?
Oh, in all of them. Every single one of them. I don't think I would know how to write a character if I couldn't imagine playing it. In my play The Unmentionables, one of my favorite characters was this black woman, a government figure, and I would amuse myself by trying to say out loud the things I wanted her to say. It's a process of improvising in your apartment—alone—and then writing it all down.

So much of what you write makes one laugh or makes one cringe...
Tim Sanford—who runs Playwrights Horizons in New York [where Clybourne Park premiered]—was referring to a critical theorist he's read, who says that tragedy is only possible in a community where everyone shares the same sense of themselves, where everyone has the same identity, and they're part of a shared community. In a modern society as fragmented and atomized as ours, that's not really possible. Interestingly, in Clybourne Park, the first part is a tragedy and the second part is a comedy, [because] the people in the first act all understand each other much more than the people do in the second act. In the second act, everybody makes assumptions.

And everybody seems to self-edit much more...
Absolutely. Everyone holds their tongue, because we live in a society where speech is much more dangerous than activity—than action. Look at the WikiLeaks thing. All we're talking about is that someone said out loud what we already knew or have been thinking, but now it's on the record. That's a terrible thing in our weirdly polite society. No one knows that they should be embarrassed in the first act; everyone knows they should be embarrassed in the second act. We're embarrassed about everything.

Do you like to see people laugh, or cringe, in recognition?
Cringing and laughing are two really good things. So if audiences do them at the same time, that's great. I always like it when the audience's response is really mixed up, when they don't know whether to laugh or to cringe.

Having seen three productions of this play, do you find each very different from the next?
They've all been surprisingly similar, actually, and that's gratifying when you work on a new play. I mean, every production is going to be necessarily different because of different actors and different everything, but I notice the similarities more than the differences. For example, all the people who have played Russ [the husband who owns the house being sold in the first act] tend to be the same sort of actor and seem to find many similar things in the character. In the second act, the people who play Kathy [the lawyer defending the house renovation] also tend to find similar things. In terms of new discoveries, I don't really know.

Are you usually pretty involved in rehearsals, or are you the quiet playwright in the corner?
Oh, you can't shut me up. I'm like a secondary director. That developed at Steppenwolf with a director named Anna Shapiro. I just got very comfortable shooting my mouth off in rehearsals. During a first production of a new play, that can be very helpful because there is no body of knowledge to draw upon. No one has any idea what the play is supposed to be. And I think it's useful not only for the cast but also for the playwright to have to articulate again and again what he meant. I feel there are a lot of playwrights now who have only a vague understanding of what they've written. They write in a kind of instinctive, fuzzy, poetic way, and they don't actually know what they want it to be. I'm very, very specific about what I think a story is supposed to be.

I agree that there's some cultivation of the aloof writer these days—the writer who doesn't answer questions in rehearsals.
And I think that's been helped by a sort of director movement, where the director becomes a kind of co-author of the play. I've actually gotten into trouble with that when a couple of directors decided that they wanted to add to or fix my play. I said to them, "That's not your job. It's not your place to add things to my play. You're not a collaborator in that sense." I know this sounds incredibly arrogant and antidemocratic, but the hierarchy in theatre is very clear. A person writes a play, and then the other people are there to execute that play.

In the States it is. That's not true everywhere.
I know, I know. Believe me, I'm well aware that in Europe, for example, the director can be a kind of auteur. But then my position is, "Get yourself a different play. Not my play."

Do you prefer writing specifically for the theatre?
I haven't written for anything else, so I don't know. I don't really want to write for film or TV, again because of power. I don't want to lose control. I don't want to share. I don't want to have some film director say, "I have a vision for your script." I was an actor, and I think theatre is where my instinct is. I don't actually even enjoy novels very much.

Yet writing for the theatre is so much harder and more unforgiving than any other medium, I believe.
I have a friend who writes both plays and novels, and I asked him what the difference is. He said that with a novel you just keep writing, you don't stop. With a play, you go, "Well, I have to take that out, I have to cut this, and I have to remove that." He said that playwriting is a process of subtraction, whereas novel writing is all about addition. You can write a 2,000-page novel and it's acceptable.

Do you subtract a lot as you write?
Oh, yes. I would say I throw out twice as much as I write on any given play. I always start with a lot of stuff, and I just take it away. With Clybourne Park I threw out an entire second act and rewrote it from scratch.

With the same structure, though, with the jump from 1959 to the present?
It was based in the present and some of the characters were the same, but it was just very different, and the end was terrible. So I threw it out and started over.

Is there something new you're working on now?
Yes, I've been commissioned to write three plays in the next three years.

And you have ideas already?

Secret ideas?
Roughly speaking, I'm hoping to write about three things: sex, evolution and economics.

This interview first appeared in American Conservatory Theater's performance guide series, Words on Plays. Beatrice Basso is a dramaturg, translator and actress in the Bay Area and an artistic associate at ACT. Before moving west, she was the resident dramaturg and literary manager at Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre. Dan Rubin is the publications manager at ACT.