The Life and (SCR) Times of Playwright Donald Margulies

Tania Thompson
 | Apr 21, 2017
Long Lost PPF rehearsal

From left to right: Playwright Donald Margulies, Dramaturg Jerry Patch, Stage Directions Reader Travis McLean, actor Steven Culp, director Casey Stangl, actors Jon Tenney and Dana Delany and ​Production Assistant Colby Sostarich in rehearsal for the 2017 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of Margulies' Long Lost.

Margulies at SCR

Donald Margulies

  • Sight Unseen (SCR commission: 1989 NewSCRipts reading; 1991 production; 2012 production)
  • Collected Stories (SCR commission: 1995 NewSCRipts reading; 1996 production; 2009 production)
  • Dinner with Friends (1998 production)
  • God of Vengeance (1999 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading)
  • Brooklyn Boy (SCR commission: 2003 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading; 2004 production)
  • Shipwrecked! An Entertainment (ISCR commission: 2007 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading; 2007 production)
  • Long Lost (2017 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading)

While Playwright Donald Margulies first came to South Coast Repertory’s Pacific Playwrights Festival in its second year (1999), for the reading of God of Vengeance, his relationship with the theatre started much earlier—with Sight Unseen (world premiere at SCR, 1991; off-Broadway, 1992; on Broadway, 2004; SCR revival, 2012) and strengthened through the years. In 2017, he returned to PPF for the festival’s 20th year and the staged reading of his latest play, Long Lost.

Theatre was ever-present for Brooklyn-born Margulies, thanks to his parents, who took the family to see countless plays. But it was his strong childhood talent for drawing that first guided his education and he started to study graphic design at college. As time went on, he took to reading great literature and writing and then transferred to another college where an influential professor set Margulies on the course of his life.

In a wide-ranging conversation on the eve of PPF, Margulies talked about influences in his life, his writing process and more.

Tell us about your early influences—for both theatre and writing.

My parents introduced my brother and me to Broadway at a pretty early age. The first play that I ever saw was Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns, when I was nine years old. It was just a seminal experience. But I didn’t become an actor, and I didn’t become a writer right away. When I was a young child, I was very good at drawing, which more or less determined the course of my education and my identity. I first went to the Pratt Institute, but was kind of restless there and I increasingly became interested in reading literature and writing, so I ended up transferring schools. When I was an art student at Purchase College, I began a one-on-one playwriting tutorial with Jay Novick, a drama critic, who became my first mentor and my first champion. He was unequivocal in his enthusiasm and he had a really tremendous impact on my life.

Was there a specific moment with him that was life-changing?

I think it was when he evaluated the first semester that we worked together; it was one of those standard questionnaires that the teacher gets to fill out. On a “Do you recommend that this student continue in this genre?”-type question, he wrote “YES”—with about five exclamation points. Those five exclamation points mean a lot to a 20 year old, so that was very significant.

What plays changed your life?

I would say there were three significant plays. One was A Thousand Clowns. Another was seeing Death of a Salesman—the Lee J. Cobb production—on television when I was about 11 years old. And the final was rediscovering Our Town when I was an adult. It is one of the great American plays and it was a play I didn’t fully appreciate until I was in my 30s. I teach it every year and I marvel at every time.

You mention teaching—how do your students help you learn?

I love teaching and I’ve been doing it for 26 years. One of the joys of teaching is that you get to share works with your students that inspired you and I think it’s a very useful pursuit to try to convey to students what you found inspiring. And in communicating that, you get to re-experience it vicariously through them. That, for me, is very meaningful and very refreshing, and it keeps you honest.

When you’re in the process of getting ready to write a play, what do you return to as a kind of “palette cleanser”?

Well for me, it’s Our Town. Most people are exposed to Our Town when they’re children or middle-schoolers and usually they see some sort of hackneyed production. It’s a wonderful play to teach to young people—to reintroduce them to something they may have been cynical about or dismissed as sentimental, Normal Rockwell Americana. I like to convey to them the artistry and the kind of radical nature of this play and put it in the proper context—nobody was doing what Thornton Wilder was doing in playwriting at that time. So for me, Our Town really is a kind of palette cleanser because it just gets the juices flowing again.

Your first PPF reading was God of Vengeance—what memories do you have of that?

It was such an enjoyable experience and we had a really good time working on it. It was the biggest play I that I had ever written and it was just great fun to see it on the stage here—with so many bodies on stage!

And now, it’s 18 years later—the 20th festival.

I’m thrilled that I had a new play to bring to the 20th PPF. Long Lost began as a commission from Nashville Repertory Theatre as part of their Ingram New Works Festival almost two years ago. I like accepting commissions because they give me the impetus to move forward and write a new play. It means a lot to me to know that people are waiting for my next play. Last year, Daniel Sullivan, the director with whom I’ve worked numerous times over the last 20 years, brought me out to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where he teaches, to work on ​Long Lost. We rehearsed it for two or three weeks and played it for two weeks, which gave me a chance to see it. John Glore [SCR associate artistic director, PPF co-director] came out to see it and said, “We’d love to have you [at PPF], if you’d want to come back to SCR with it.”  

What was the inspiration point for Long Lost?

My plays always come from something that’s kind of eating away at me. I was processing a friendship that had imploded and that informed this play tremendously. And, of course, in looking for ways to raise stakes, I made the characters of Billy and David brothers, and not friends.

Let’s wrap up with your thoughts about SCR’s place in the American theatre landscape.

South Coast Repertory was really at the forefront of the regional theatre movement and has spearheaded this play commissioning program. SCR has a really keen sense of burgeoning talent. Look at the people they’ve plucked out of obscurity and ​given commissions that led to breakthroughs. That happened for me when I was not yet a nationally known playwright in the late ‘80s​: I received my first commission from SCR that became my breakthrough in 1991 and the year after. I think it all attests to this theatre’s very a stout sense of talent and that has been a model for theatres all over the country.

The PPF reading of Long Lost is at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, April 21, 2017. For information about the festival and to purchase tickets, go here.