Wallace Shawn has long enjoyed a fruitful career as a character actor in mainstream movies (Clueless, Princess Bride, Chicken Little). He also happens to be one of the world’s most significant dissident writers. His plays The Designated Mourner, Aunt Dan and Lemon and The Fever – to name just a few – have garnered much praise (and controversy) for their unflinching examinations of brutality. Shawn’s plays are political but not polemical; through his writing he questions everyone’s complicity – liberal intellectuals especially – in the horrors unleashed out of sight and out of mind.
One of the most highly anticipated events of this theater season is Wallace Shawn’s solo performance in The Fever, which he originally presented in 1990. It’s a beautifully disorienting journey through the mind of an unidentified narrator who’s stuck in a war-torn country with a terrible fever, which leaves him unable to reconcile the privilege he’s enjoyed with his wretched surroundings.
Gothamist recently spoke with Scott Elliott (pictured here with Shawn), the director of this production and the Artistic Director of The New Group, the theater company that has become a major producer of Shawn’s plays.
The Fever was originally produced at the Public Theater in 1990, where it won an OBIE for Best New American Play. How did the idea to revive the play 16 years later come about?
Well, what you say is accurate but it’s not 100% accurate. In 1990, Wally Shawn went around to a series of people’s living rooms and performed it for audiences of ten people. Then it was performed at La MaMa, Second Stage, Lincoln Center and the Public Theater, where it was reviewed. The original intention was to do it in people’s living rooms.
Wally and I have a sort of long term working relationship that’s very wonderful. I had read but not seen the original production of The Fever. I picked it up again last year after not reading it for 15 years and I was chilled by the fact that it seemed ahead of its time then and what it’s about is scarier now.
Has Wallace Shawn made any revisions for this production?
Yes. When Wally did it originally in people’s living rooms, he wasn’t playing a character, he was sort of going through the experience of The Fever itself. It has very autobiographical implications in it – even though it isn’t him – but he is having a very sort of ‘fever moment’ and that’s why he chose such a non-traditional way to get the play across. He’s since subtly updated it; I wouldn’t call it a complete rewrite but there are subtle revisions that reflect today.
For this production, audiences are invited on stage to join Wallace Shawn for a “sip of champagne” before the play begins. How did this idea come about?
Without giving away the emotional response you should have to the champagne toast, I wanted to break down the barrier between the artist and audience so there would be a comfort level for people to sit and listen to this 90 minute one person monologue and be able to absorb while being entertained – or horrified, whatever you might be. Wally’s playing a character this time, he’s not playing Wally Shawn. But in the cocktail party he’s just merely being himself, greeting the audience, to make everyone feel comfortable, to break down the barrier so it isn’t just audience/artist, but everybody together.
How have audiences responded so far to this invitation to mingle on stage with Wallace Shawn?
We’ve announced that it’s taking place a half-hour before the performance. For other productions at The New Group people usually show up maybe ten or fifteen minutes beforehand. Now we have people lining up at 7:15 to get into the theater.
It was an experiment because it’s not just that he’s mingling with people; we’ve invited people up on stage, onto the set to have this experience. There are clues on the set into who this man is.
I was nervous at first and thought maybe people will be shy and go to their seats. But it’s been the exact opposite; I think people are excited about experiencing something different. If you come to the show you should stand in the back of the theater and watch it for a minute because it’s really sort of amazing watching an audience of 200 people mingling on stage.
John Simon, former theater critic for New York Magazine, seems to have an almost pathological contempt for Wallace Shawn. Reviewing your production of Aunt Dan and Lemon, he wrote: “A vapid play by a rambling writer, Aunt Dan owes its small but undeserved reputation to three facts: (1) Wallace Shawn is the son of an influential former editor of The New Yorker (2) With his grotesque looks and whiny voice, Shawn has had a run as a stage and screen clown. (3) Reviewers are likely to mistake, if not nudity for new clothes, bizarre glad rags for haute couture.” Do you have any thoughts on why John Simon – and perhaps other audience members – react negatively to Shawn’s work?
Well, Wally’s a very provocative guy. I know John Simon; I like John Simon; I would probably ask him if he ever interviewed for a job at the New Yorker and was rejected. I haven’t found theater criticism to be an honest profession. John Simon has reviewed people’s looks and things like that. He’s sort of a militant reviewer. He reviewed Wally very favorable in our production of Hurlyburly. I don’t really know; people react negatively to everything. If you look around for negativity you can find it thrown at any work of art. Wally is an artist; he’s quite revered. But people who are often revered are often intellectually intimidating.
With The Fever, The New Group will have produced three Shawn plays in as many years and cast Shawn in Hurlyburly. You also directed his translation of The Threepenny Opera. What is it that’s made your collaboration with Shawn flourish?
I have great respect for Wally as a man and as a writer. I have similar relationship with Mike Leigh. Sometimes you meet somebody and your values and ideas click, and the things you love click. With Wally it’s been a wonderful thing, not just with me but with everyone who works at my theater. Sometimes somebody’s work hits a nerve with a group of people.
How did you first come to work with him?
I think it was when I wanted to do Aunt Dan and Lemon, John Simon’s favorite play. I think the play is genius; you can quote John Simon but you should also quote other reviews, which were amazing.
I know Brantley praised it highly.
I’ve just always loved Wally’s writing. His ideas come through without severe moralizing. I don’t know what it is about his writing that stirs me so but I’m always shocked by it. I read a lot of plays and it’s not often I have that feeling. I’ve always felt that Wally’s writing is ahead of its time because he thinks about the world as a whole in a sort of courageous way. The Fever is a very courageous play. He thinks about the world beyond anybody that I know, actually. And his actions speak louder than his words. Of course I can’t tell you what those actions are but I’m always stunned by the way he operates in the world, the way he lives his life. It’s really admirable and touching and stirring in a lot of ways.
Is the film version of The Fever (starring Vanessa Redgrave, Angelina Jolie, and Michael Moore) ever going to reach a wider audience beyond the festival circuit?
It’s an HBO production so they control the programming. I don’t think it was ever meant for theatrical distribution.
In an interview for NPR in 2001, Wallace Shawn responded to a question about whether he was writing a new play by saying “God no!” In a 2004 Time Out NY interview he answered the same question with “Writers who talk about the projects they're going to do are whistling in the dark a bit.” It’s now 2007. Can audiences look forward to a new Wallace Shawn play anytime soon?
You know, that would be a question for Wally. I don’t ask those questions, unless I’m commissioning something. He doesn’t talk about his writing. I can only hope he will deliver another play, I imagine he will because he’s a playwright. I have no idea what his writing process is; as close as we are we keep some things to ourselves.
The Fever runs through March 3rd at The Acorn @ Theatre Row [410 West 42nd Street]. Tickets.