Questions and Words: A Conversation with Richard Manley
By John Rose
Richard Manley is something of an unlikely playwright. He began writing professionally after a highly successful career in marketing and design, and he brought a sensibility and intelligence to his art that mark it with a unique perspective and a singular voice. In 2012 he was one of four winning playwrights with his play This Rough Magic, about a man who purchased incredibly lifelike and realistic robots of his parents. The title was subsequently changed to The Truth Quotient for a full production of the play in New York. Richard became an ANPF winning playwright for the second year in a row in 2013 with his literate comedy A Question of Words.
In February 2015 Camelot Theatre presents the world premiere, full production of A Question of Words from February 4 through March 1 at the James Morrison Collier Theatre in Talent. Saturday, February 7, was ANPF Night at Camelot. Following that night’s performance, I moderated a talkback with Richard, whom I’ve come to know quite well over the past three years. Watch a video of the talkback. I spoke with Richard by phone while he was visiting Los Angeles from his home in New York, prior to coming to Ashland for the premiere.
JR: How would you describe A Question of Words, which is coming up at Camelot next month?
RM: [Camelot Theatre Artistic Director] Livia Genise, who’s directing, asked how I would describe it because they were calling it a romantic comedy and I said I think of it as a literate comedy or a literate romantic comedy. As you know, I love the power of words and the potential of words, and what we have in this play is two characters who both understand the power of words but come to that knowledge in very different ways: one an eloquent poet [Derby], who is more familiar with the classical form of the language, and the other a copywriter [Mary], who uses language in ways that motivate the average individual. Although the poet recognizes the power of the words at this classic level, he’s not really thinking about their power when they’re simply in conversation. And the woman, who is his antagonist and protagonist at times, understands the power of words to motivate the consumer, but she hasn’t given a lot of thought to the eloquence of language. And so they each, to some degree, introduce the other to a broader range of potential, and in so doing get to know each other in a way that allows romance to develop.
JR: Is there something in that conflict of the personal or private versus the public?
RM: In a way. One of my pet peeves over the years has been that poetry, like fine art, is often put on a pedestal and is described so that the average person thinks it’s difficult to access or that it should be reserved for a special time. What I was trying to express is that to some degree this poet lives in his own world; he had academics who appreciated his work, and he had people who were regular users of poetry who appreciated his work, but he didn’t realize on a visceral level how powerful words could be to the average person who was drawn to poetry almost by accident. Meanwhile, Mary explains that she didn’t really intend to get into the book and then suddenly it captivated her. So I think, yes, he’s dealing with the private, but he’s sort of secluded in this academic world where poetry is revered, and I’d like to suggest that poetry be broken out, as fine art.
Recently, I went to see a new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art of Matisse’s cutouts. Late in life Matisse began to cut colored paper into beautiful shapes and tack them up, overlaying one another, and they became fine art—and now they’re treasured. But if you didn’t know it was done by Matisse, you’d think it was simple craft. And there is this division in the world of art: fine art is thought to be amazing and remarkable and on a completely different level than craft, and yet they’re both forms of art, and I think they should be looked at laterally rather than as a hierarchy. The same is true of words: I think poetry is something that can move people at any level if they can approach it without any prejudice, without any preconception that it’s meant only for people with an education or people who read it all the time. So, part of what I’m after is to show that words can be very powerful in a wide variety of settings; and if we approach them with curiosity rather than preconceptions, they can do amazing things for us.
JR: I don’t want to get into spoilers for those who haven’t seen or heard the play, but to what extent is the character of Mary’s mother [Lucille] a bridge in that clash of Mary’s confronting Darby’s approach to words—and for him to move toward a lateral, as opposed to a hierarchical, view of art?
RM: I think that’s a good word, bridge; I think Lucille becomes a bridge because she tried to convince her daughter to go down that road early in life, but—as is often the case with early influences—we rebel; we want to make our own decisions, and so we head in a different direction, not necessarily because it’s a better direction but because it’s independent of the people who are telling us what we should do. Her mother appreciates the power of words at a really deep level; she loves what words can do. And as a result of putting her daughter together with this man and giving her, so to speak, a reason to try out these other kinds of words, she sets her up with a kind of approval to look further into this. She gives her a bit of background; she gives her a reason to go a little further, to investigate a little further, and I think that she is a bridge.
JR: And Mary’s mother has that depth of experience because she’s been looking at it like that all her life; it’s who she is at this point.
RM: Right, and I’m hoping Lucille’s eloquence also reaches the audience in that she’s this sarcastic, funny woman who uses language in some cases just for sarcasm but who also appreciates the true power of eloquence at a gut level.
JR: I think the real lesson for the audience is that she’s clearly more grounded, in a sense—more realistic. She sees the world with much greater clarity than any other character in the play.
RM: Absolutely, that’s why she is a bridge: she gets what Derby represents, but she also gets—even though she doesn’t like it—what her daughter does, and she is able to pull both worlds together.
JR: Where did the idea for A Question of Words originate?
RM: I came out of the advertising and design business, and I was often hired because of my love of the language. I was hired by companies to create a variety of things that involved using words in clever ways because I tended to turn down any jobs that were mundane; I looked for opportunities to do unusual things. So, I came to the language already. As I began to see what I could do with words, and having been an avid reader from an early age, when I decided to give up the working world—that working world—and start to write plays, I simply went back to my own experience and my own love of the language and put these two people together. I was an avid poetry reader, and I was a copywriter, and I put those two together in this play.
JR: Did you find yourself more interested in these characters or in their narrative?
RM: That’s a really good question—the age-old question about playwriting: do you start with the character or with the narrative? I generally start with the characters. I believe it was [Harold] Pinter who said, “Put two people in a room and see what happens.” I start with a couple of people and an idea, and I just have them start talking to each other. I see where that conversation goes, if you will; and if it looks like it’s going in a direction that makes sense to me and I believe them, I start to fashion a story around it. The story will often change, although not dramatically, once I get going, but generally I’ll start with a couple of characters whom I find interesting.
JR: It sounds like what you’re saying is that you know the people and you let them tell you the story to some extent.
RM: It’s hackneyed but it’s true: at some point the character will turn to you in your head and say, “No, I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t do that.” So you go back a ways and you see where you screwed it up and you try again.
JR: What’s the origin of the title, A Question of Words?
RM: In the play it’s Lucille’s literary quarterly’s name, so she mentions it later on, toward the end of the play. When someone says, “What’s the name of your quarterly?” she says, “A Question of Words.” And in reality the whole play is a question of words.
I think the title is a kind of double entendre in that all the questions that words force you to think about are part of it, but also poetry is a question of words—how they’re arranged, how they are punctuated, etc. To me it was the essence of the idea; it is a question of words: What do we do with them? How do we approach them?
JR: Is there a personal stake for you in these people and this story? How much of yourself do you feel you put into the play in terms of your own life and your personality?
RM: I don’t know a lot of writers on a very personal level, but I don’t think it’s possible to write something like plays and novels without putting yourself into it. I don’t know how you could, unless you just tell a story. You know, if you’re content with just a story and not really a lot of character depth, maybe you can do it, but for me there’s a piece of me in almost every character. Christine and that whole relationship of the couple who want to get Derby thrown out—that’s not me, but it’s people in my experience, people I’ve known. There’s a part of me that’s Mary and a part of me that’s Derby and a part of me that’s the mother. I think that’s true throughout: they’re not exactly me, in that there are pieces of other people as well; nothing is purely autobiographical. But there are key elements of me in every play I write.
JR: Tell me about your experience when you saw the play performed as a reading at ANPF 2013.
RM: It’s an overall experience that’s hard to exaggerate because, one, you’ve got good actors doing the readings, so you hear the play well. And there’s some conversation with them beforehand, so if they have any question, they ask you and try to correct it if they’ve gotten it wrong, but generally they don’t. And then I get up onstage with someone like you or the host playwright, and I get all these great questions, where it’s clear that the audience gets the play and they like what I’m trying to do. So, again, it’s hard to exaggerate how positive that experience is from start to finish.
JR: Did the performed reading here have any influence on any changes that you made? How did they affect this version of the play?
RM: ANPF has done three of my plays. Two of them won at Ashland and one [Quietus] was done as a fundraiser. Each time I come away with some sense of I didn’t get that character right; I need to hone it or polish it. I haven’t made any wholesale changes as a result of the readings here because I think by the time they arrive they’re in pretty good shape, but I’ll go away saying, “Okay, he’s talking a little too long there,” or “That didn’t need to be explained in that way”—things like that. I’ll get those comments, too, sometimes from the director or from an actor. They’re not big things, but I’ll certainly come away sometimes and I’ll shorten a scene or tighten up some dialogue.
JR: What do you know about this production, and what are you hoping for from it?
RM: It looks like they’ve spent a good deal of time preparing, so I’m excited about the potential there. It’s great to be back among a lot of the Ashland New Plays Festival people, so I’m looking forward to that and just being in Ashland. I’m just a short walk from all the cafés where I go to do work, and from restaurants and the Plaza, so I’m looking forward to the whole experience. I’m hoping that the audience is looking for this kind of play.
JR: Aside from having won two years in a row, what is it about ANPF that you appreciate so much?
RM: ANPF embraces the playwright with things that matter to the playwright: you’ve got an audience that is well read, that looks forward to seeing plays, that knows about plays, so they understand what a play is. You’ve got an audience that’s eager to see your work and that, because they’re knowledgeable, asks great questions after the performance. You’ve got an organization that really appreciates the playwright, so every need is thought of in advance and taken care of. And one of the things that is really unusual in this world is that you’re organized. The people at ANPF are like a business in that they think of all the things you need. They know what all the questions are; if you need something, they get back to you right away. I’m amazed because in the theatre world that’s so unusual.
So, one is organizational skill, which is really important, but two is this formula that represents the playwright turning his work over to the interpretation of the director and the actors, who then turn it over to the interpretation of the audience, and it filters back in a circle to the author. That circle has been polished at ANPF in that you learn to trust that the audience gets what plays are all about and that the people they generally choose to put in front of that audience—the director and the actors—are people who get what theatre’s all about. So, there is a great chance that that circle is going to be completed in a very satisfying way.
The first time that happened, I was suspect because I’ve been to some awards and some productions where it’s just a mess, so the first time at Ashland I was wary of that. I had to leave two or three days early because I had an award in Massachusetts for the same play, and I felt I was just beginning to get a sense of who ANPF was. Then I came back the next year with this play and I got the full experience. I was there the whole time and I didn’t want to leave—I wanted to stay another week. I said, “This is wonderful.” I’ve been there three times and it’s been true every time.
JR: Is being an active participant in that artistic circle you mentioned, as you are at ANPF—working on the play with the director and the cast, interacting with the audience—a richer experience for you in some ways artistically?
RM: Yes, it is. There are three experiences in my past five or six years that are truly memorable. One is winning the Pillars Prize at Georgia College and State University. And then the production in New York of The Truth Quotient. It had won at ANPF [as This Rough Magic] and then it was produced in New York, and that experience was marvelous. And the third was the overall Ashland experience: it’s not just one time at Ashland, it’s the ANPF experience. So, as for what I take away from that or how does that inform my work, it’s not that it changes what I write or how I write, but rather it gives me what I came to writing for: It makes me feel hope. It gives me a desire to write more because I’m reaching people in the way that I wanted to. They’re getting what I have to say; they’re getting the way I say it, and their feeding back to me their imagination that has been stirred, their curiosity that’s been awakened. That’s all coming back to me in such a way that it reinforces what I do, but it also introduces me to those people whom I’ve touched and, to some degree, we’ve now expanded that world. And that’s just a marvelous experience.