Interview: Wallace Shawn's Real World
Wallace Shawn, courtesy Katie Sokoler / Gothamist.
Wallace Shawn has the face of an aging angel, which has borne itself onto screen in well-remembered roles in The Princess Bride, Manhattan, and Clueless. Yet, on stage, Shawn is a sharp-witted maestro of the theatrical arena, having collected an Obie award and many adoring fans for his thought-provoking, politically-driven pieces. In some cases, such as his one-man monologue The Fever, Shawn strips down the essence of the theatre itself, preferring to stage the show in living rooms and other close quarters.
LAist was fortunate to catch up with Shawn as he prepared for his upcoming show at UCLA's Royce Hall on Saturday, January 22nd. This will mark the premiere of his newest show Real World, Fake World, Dream World, which presents a collection of some of Shawn's favorite written pieces, as well as a few 'scraps' from other writers he enjoys.
LAist: What exactly can we expect from Real World, Fake World, Dream World?
Wallace Shawn: Well, let’s not exaggerate. It is merely a man reading from a book. This is what the audience will see. Actually, I will read from several pieces of paper comprising a whole lifetime of work. So, in a way, it’s a man reading out of book. Another way of looking at it would be a man looking at the wreckage of his entire life and wondering ‘what was that’? What did it add up to? It’s entirely possible that you’ll see a human being falling apart on stage at the realization of what it all came to.
LAist: Obviously it’s a heavily curated show by you. What has led you to these pieces for this particular event?
WS: One always feels, I suppose, that some of one’s more recent work includes and sums up everything that one has learned in the past. So I suppose I’m going to lean more heavily on my more recent things, including my most recent play [Grasses of a Thousand Colours]. Then I’m going to read from my book of essays as well [Essays]. I’ll possibly read a few scraps by other writers just in case people may realize they don’t like my writing at all. It’ll be 95% me, though. We’ll just throw some scraps to those other people.
LAist: You've always been politically motivated. Do any of these new pieces speak to that sentiment, especially in light of today’s America?
WS: Yes, I think probably everything I read will speak to that in a way. The essays speak to it directly; they give my own personal opinions. In the plays that I’ve written, I’ve allowed my unconscious mind and feelings to create some kind of poetic response to what I feel around me, and it has a much more indirect relationship to the real world. Bush and Obama are not characters, per se, and yet their presence is felt.
LAist: I’m assuming Grasses of a Thousand Colours has some political overtones as well. How was that received in London at The Royal Court Theatre?
WS: I’m not sure that I know. Definitely we had great nights when people seemed to accept it, and even welcome it. And we had bad nights when it seemed that wished they’d gone to a nice restaurant instead, and there was a feeling of despair. It’s a strange play, I admit that. To me it does have a political significance, but it’s not overtly a portrait of the real world because it doesn’t even take place in an identifiable place or time.
LAist: Over the years, many of your works have been polarizing. I can’t imagine you set out to make purposefully opposing viewpoints that people are going to walk away from, yet this seems to be the direction it often takes. What seems to be the cause of that?
WS: To me it’s not interesting to write a play that has villains and heroes, because I don’t really see life that way. Often in what I’ve written, attractive people say things that are disturbing, or disturbing people say things that may be quite true, which is how it works in the real world. We all have these vary frightening capacities inside us, and we also have the ability to be good inside us. In the wild hurly burly of life, it’s often very hard to tell what’s going on, and we get very mixed up. So, in my plays, there is quite a bit of depiction of people who are mixed up and confused, lost intellectually. Of course, we’ll all surrounded by confused people, and then there are a select few who are not confused at all, and they’re figuring out how to rob the rest of us.
LAist: It seems like most of your known work is done in character-based supporting comedy roles. Is that a product of you being written for those types of roles, or are you actually happy doing comedic roles when the rest of your written experiences tend to be so much heavier?
WS: In a way, I have been happiest as an actor in lighter material. I’d rather write my own heavy material, quite honestly. Most of the Hollywood movies that are serious are about spies or science fiction; they’re not interested in casting me, and I’m not interested in seeking out parts in that type of film. I’ve been very comfortable in sitcoms. There is some common ground there between the writers and I, which there might not be so much in the spy movie. I actually lament the decline of the sitcom. It was very congenial for me to appear in some of those things.
LAist: So it’s safe to assume you won’t be getting the call for Mission Impossible 4?
WS: Well, they haven’t called me yet.
LAist: Do you have an opinion on the state of stage performances in Los Angeles as opposed to New York?
WS: My experiences have been great in Los Angeles theatre. I’ve heard an enormous amount of complaint about it, but I have no idea what people are complaining about. All of my theatre experiences in LA have been absolutely wonderful. There are two things that are odd about theatre in LA. One is that most people are there to work in film and television, so it’s hard to cast a play because people leave when they’re offered a part. The other thing is: people in the movie business don’t go to see theatre in LA, which is bizarre. People in the movie business travel 3,000 miles to see plays in New York, which in many cases is not as well done as the play in Los Angeles. It’s just a fact.
LAist: Do both coasts pale in comparison to London?
WS: Theatre is a very important part of the culture of life in London. There’s no comparison. Now, I’m not an expert on LA theatre, but certainly in New York it’s very very expensive. The audience is a little bit rudderless in New York. Very frequently, people find themselves at a play that really they should never have gone to in the first place, so that they’re presented with something that disappoints or angers them. In London, at the Royal Court, they only do contemporary plays and the people who go there are very well prepared for whatever is thrown at them. They are ready to give a good hearing to something unexpected or new, and meet it halfway. An awful lot of people who go to the theatre in New York are only willing to go 1/8th of the way, and they expect the play to go 7/8th of the way. They’ve paid a lot of money, and they often go to the theatre in a state of misery and exhaustion, not eagerly looking forward to an unexpected experience. That can be depressing for the people trying to present the play.
Wallace Shawn's Real World, Fake World, Dream Worls will be be at UCLA's Royce Hall on January 22nd at 8pm.