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October 22, 2018

Artist and Artist’s Advocate: An Appreciation of Playwright Doug Wright


Doug Wright is a formidable force in the field of arts and letters. He is perhaps most widely known as the writer of I Am My Own Wife, honored with both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2004 Tony Award for Best Play. It chronicles the impossible-but-true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the East German transvestite who managed to run a night club in East Berlin right under the nose of the Stasi. Since its premiere production starring Jefferson Mays enacting all of the roles (including the character of the author himself!), the play has become a staple of the American contemporary theater and has received multiple international productions–– in Montreal (translated as Ma Femme, C’est Moi), Stockholm, London, Tasmania, Prague, Athens, and many more.

Any number of these openings were attended by Doug in tandem with his husband, singer/songwriter David Clement, with Doug speaking directly with audiences following the performances. It would appear that in addition to writing drama, Doug is drama’s unacknowledged Ambassador of New American Works. No wonder – with his wit, affability, erudition, open-heartedness and Ivy League intellect (leavened with Texas charm), Doug probably builds more cultural bridges worldwide than anyone in the State Department these days.

Or perhaps Doug is best-known for his award-winning Quills, the impossible-but-true story of the Marquis de Sade’s final years imprisoned in the insane asylum at Charenton during France’s reign of terror. The wildly theatrical play and subsequent film, with a screenplay adapted by Doug himself, is a moving, darkly comedic, and unexpectedly uplifting meditation on obsession, mental illness, art, cruelty, the existence of God, belief, and free expression at any cost including life itself.

Or maybe you know Doug from his superb dramatization of another playwright, none other than Henrik Ibsen in a reimagined encounter with Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland entrusted with creating his likeness in bronze for Posterity, the name of Doug’s 2015 play.

No doubt many of us also know Doug as a librettist for musicals where he created indelible stage portraits of larger-than-life real characters like mother and daughter Edith and Little “Edie” Beale of Grey Gardens, the warring cosmetics titans Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden of War Paint, or the less privileged yet equally determined folk of Longview, Texas engaged in a mentally and physically grueling competition to claim ownership of their lives and a pick-up truck in Hands On a Hardbody. Then there are the fictional characters he imbued with Doug-like characteristics like the steadfast and selfless Ariel, The Little Mermaid, the terrifyingly glamorous Ursula, the sea witch, or Doug’s very first character to burst unexpectedly into song on an off-Broadway stage in 1989, the provocatively named Buzzsaw Berkeley.

As different and varied as these characters are from one another, as far apart as the times and worlds they inhabit may seem, perhaps you notice their shared need to survive and persevere in the face of overwhelming odds, their fierce determination to express their human singularity amidst the mindlessness of the mob and the heartlessness of an ethically-challenged authority, their determination to cling to a vestige of lost beauty in crumbling or changing societies, whether they be caught between twin monsters, the lion and a tiger of fascism and totalitarianism, or trapped in the rubble of a once-grand house now inhabited by fifty-seven cats.

To each of these multi-dimensional characters Doug brings both fallibility and courage, and a resolve somewhere between stubbornness and madness – which is perhaps why these characters remain so vividly present to us in our imaginations.

All of this you likely know already about Doug. But perhaps you aren’t yet as aware of his notable tenure as the President of The Dramatists Guild of America, the national professional organization and community of playwrights, composers, lyricists, and librettists. This is the place where the same qualities that fuel and inform the truth of Doug’s own artistry are employed to help win the good fight on behalf of all American theater-creators in the daily battles they wage to preserve ownership and artistic control of their life’s blood – their work. Doug’s daily drama is the constant need to educate both the public and the business of one basic fact: writers own their work. It is not available for free on an internet download. It cannot be altered willy-nilly by a director, actor, producer, or theater company. It may not be censored by a school board or community council. Artists are owed remuneration and credit for their work where credit is due yet frequently lacking. And so, the Dramatists Guild is the off-stage realm where Doug Wright, the writer, becomes Doug Wright, Citizen – the artist as activist and advocate for free speech, human rights, and the politics of theater on a national and international scale.

During Doug’s tenure, starting in the Obama administration and continuing through the precarious (and nefarious) age of Trump, the Guild has seen its largest period of sustained growth with its current membership at an all-time high.

Under Doug’s steady and inspiring leadership, the Dramatists Guild has instituted numerous new and important initiatives. In addition to existing ones, new committees comprised of playwright-members have been formed including Political Action; Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Press; and Devised Theater.

A new Director of Community Engagement, Jenna Chrisphonte, has been added to the permanent staff of the Guild, and helped to initiate a Power Grid Festival celebrating playwrights of Puerto Rico, and Haitian playwrights in Voices from the Haitian Diaspora.

Guidelines have been issued for Devised Theater contracts, and for Contest and Festival Best Practices, shedding light on previously unaddressed confusions.

The Dramatists Guild Institute has been launched to great success, a program that travels around the country to offer continuing education to playwrights.

The Guild has assisted in the creation of Playwrights Welcome with Samuel French, and held its first international Town Hall in London.

Even before his Presidency, as DG Secretary in 2011 Doug spearheaded a multi-year project between the Guild and the SSDC (Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers) to achieve a template of recommendations for working together.

We have been fortunate to team with Doug on the musicals War Paint and Grey Gardens. He is a dream collaborator: incisive, funny, diplomatic, strategic and profound, and keenly aware of how to help us bring out the best in our work.

How fortunate for all theater writers and composers that Doug Wright is there at the helm of The Dramatists Guild, helping all of us bring out the best of ourselves in these troubled times.

To learn more about the 2018 Samuel French Awards, click here. To learn more about Doug Wright, visit his Author page on our website.