Stuart Gordon: Interview with Hank Nuwer
Playwriting by Committee
Originally interviewed for Saturday Review but for the very last issue which died on the press.
Eventually published in Satellite Orbit and South Carolina Review

    With the overwhelming artistic and financial success of the plays Bleacher Bums and E/R (diminutive for Emergency Room), native Chicagoan Stuart Gordon has perfected the practice of playwriting by committee.  What he has done is to select individual members of his repertory company, the Organic Theater, to sit down and compose plays during spirited creative sessions under his direction.  Bleacher Bums, for example, was written by Gordon and ten other members of the cast. This story of the lowly and captivating bleacher inhabitants of the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field is a comedy written, not in acts, but in nine innings. Gordon’s talents have made the play far more than a regional smash hit; Bleacher Bums played not only in Chicago, but in Peoria, New York, Los Angeles (that city’s longest running play ever), and nationally via a PBS telecast. E/R continues to play in Chicago and other cities, but also had the short-lived distinction of being transformed into a situation television comedy by Neil Simon. E/R was written by Gordon and seven other Organic members.
    In person Stuart Gordon looks like a throwback to the ‘Sixties with his wiry black hair, his tangled nettle of chin foliage, and his fondness for leather jackets and T-shirts. There is nothing pretentious about the man. His glasses look as if they’ve been stomped by a biker gang. His wife, Carolyn, has helped him write both E/R and Bleacher Bums; in addition, she played lead roles in both plays and is regarded as a fine character actress.

    This interview began over several bottles of Dos Equis at a Mexican restaurant across the street from the Organic Theater, and it concluded afterwards in Gordon’s office which is decorated with such items and a phallic-looking sea lamprey and props from the company’s dozen productions.

    Gordon is witty, profane and kind except while dispensing criticism to his actors following a rehearsal, when he becomes businesslike and brusque. As a director Gordon’s main claim to national fame is his 1974 production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago, the play that launched playwright David Mamet to stardom.

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NUWER: How did the idea of making a comedy out of Wrigley Field Bleach nuts originate?

GORDON: One of the considerations in doing a play is to figure out what will get people out of their comfortable living-room chairs and out to see a play. We all wondered about those long lines of people coming to see a team that hasn’t won a pennant since 1945. Our original impulse was, “Boy! If we could just get a few of those guys into our theater!” Then came the idea of writing about the fans in the bleachers. Why were they there? We saw it originally as just a local production. We couldn’t imagine it having success anywhere outside Chicago, but the play ended up being about hope, not baseball per se. In fact, a group of Russians saw it and said, “This is not about baseball; this is about people.” Somehow the play had a universal message.

NUWER: Do your plays reflect your religious or ethical background?

GORDON: I’m Jewish. I think there is something about that in the basic themes of our shows that kind of reflect Jewish themes in a way. Bleacher Bums is the one that struck me as being most Jewish. One of my fiends said that being a Cubs fan is like being a Jew, ‘cause you are always waiting for the Messiah to come.

NUWER: Yes, that’s true.

GORDON: And the idea of the suffering servant—we are always waiting for the day when he is to be blessed and vindicated. A lot of the other shows I’ve done, I’m starting to realize, are about people becoming free—people who are somehow in bondage of some sort throwing off the shackles and being free. A lot of our plays seem to have that idea in them; it seems to be a recurrent theme in our shows.

NUWER: Did you do a lot of reading in theology when you were younger?

GORDON: I went to a religious school. I wouldn’t call myself a scholar by any long stretch of the imagination, but I think Bible stories are great. I have been working on and off to adapt Bible stories to the stage. I really think there is something about those stories that is really powerful. The Old Testament God is such a motherfucker. It’s like if you’re bad you will g o to hell when you die; it’s if you’re bad, he’ll kill you.

NUWER: Right now!

GORDON: The ground will open up and you’ll be dead—or worse, someone you love will be killed. It’s instant vengeance.

NUWER: Liquidation.

GORDON: Yeah, what it was then was like, “My God is tougher than your God.”

NUWER: You seem a bit surprised by the success of Bleacher Bums.

GORDON: Sometimes a play is better than you imagined in your mine—that’s exciting and happens more than occasionally with a company.  Your people bring to a play things that you never thought of and turn it into something bigger and better than you imagined. It certainly is true of Bleacher Bums, a better play than I had envisioned.

NUWER: How did you and the other authors of Bleacher Bums come up that the authentic dialogue?

GORDON: We started going to the Cub baseball fames ourselves and watching he spectators. We saw that it was, in fact, a little community of high stakes betters and other characters. We all picked out one person to play and watch. After a game was over we’d all go back to the theater and improvise.

NUWER: Did the prototypes for the bums in the stands know you were studying them?

GORDON: When we first started doing that project we didn’t tell them we were working on anything. We just started king of hanging out. All the people in that group are real, and we started sitting near them and carrying little tape recorders and notebooks. At first, because of all the gambling that goes on there, they thought we were policemen, and they got a little uptight. After a while they realized we were OK. We got involved in betting with the bums, and we were sort of accepted.  Afterwards, whenever we would go to a game, they would say, “I’ve got a new line for me. How about when he says this to me, I say that…” (Laughter)

NUWER: None of the bums resented their portrayal?

GORDON: The guy I was most worried about is the character who is the villain in the play, the player called Marvin. There really is a real-life counterpart to the guy. He loved the play more than anybody. That was strange to me. But I think it was the idea that here he was on stage, and that he felt we had captured him to some degree that was truthful. That’s something I’ve noticed. No matter how you portray somebody in a play, as long as it’s truthful, the response is positive.

NUWER: Do you think a playwright has an advantage when he writes for people in a company whose abilities he knows and tries to take advantage of?

GORDON: The best work has always been where you’ve got a playwright working with a group of actors whom he knows and writes for. Shakespeare operated that way with his own company.

NUWER: What effect does a powerful play have upon an audience?

GORDON: That may be idealistic, but I believe that theater can change your life. It changed mine.

NUWER: Is comedy a change of pace for you?

GORDON: It seems to be something I can do and I enjoy. Comedy is the best way to make people laugh at something that scares them. It’s a great service. The guy from the Saturday Review—what’s his name? Norman—

NUWER: --Cousins.

GORDON: Yeah. Who had cancer?


GORDON: He found that laughter was able to cure cancer. I like that a lot; I believe that. The ability to laugh at something gives you an edge. I’m really in trouble when I lose my sense of humor.

NUWER: It’s like Kurt Vonnegut wrote about in Cat’s Cradle. It’s laughing when the world goes down and thumbing your nose at the Creator.

GORDON: Yeah. Sometimes it’s like all you can do is laugh, but I think there is a power you get from that. It somehow makes you feel like you can triumph. It’s a great weapon.

NUWER: What are your memories of the early days you experienced after founding the Organic?

GORDON: My wife Carolyn is co-founder of the theater. She used to cook for the actors because they couldn’t afford to go to restaurants. I miss all that. There was something about those days that was really pre. Now things are more complicated. There was something very nice about the camaraderie. Decisions were made by the whole group. Now it’s not that way; I make most of them.

NUWER: What, in your opinion, makes the best actors and actresses for a company such as your that occasionally writes its own plays, as well as puts them on?

GORDON: You look for team players rather than individual stars. You find people who share the same ideas about what theater should be. You anticipate each other’s moves and there’s a trust there.

NUWER: Have you written a screenplay all by yourself?

GORDON: I seem to work best when I’m working with other people, so it’s rare than I’ll do something on my own. Sometimes I’ll do adaptations of novels on my own. I really haven’t written anything completely on my own, but anything’s possible I guess.

NUWER: How many so-called hits do you need to not only keep going with a company theater, but to actually prosper?

GORDON: .300 is a good batting average for having hits. You’ll succeed if you hit once every three or four times at bat. I sometimes think of plays as being like children. Some are stillborn and there’s no hope for them. Others, the ones I find most frustrating, are the ones where there is life and hope, but they don’t end up hits.

NUWER: Any other chances you can take as a company that most theaters won’t take?

GORDON: Sometimes we’ll develop work based on books. One of the things that I’ve found out is that theater is considered such small potatoes that it’s very rare someone will acquire theatrical rights to a best seller. We’ve done The Sirens of the Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Mary Renault’s The King Must Die, and Roald Dahl’s Switchblade. We have permission from Anthony Burgess to produce Nothing Like the Sun.

NUWER: How do authors respond to seeing their books staged?

GORDON: The idea of having a work adapted to stage is something an author appreciates. Hurt Vonnegut was wonderful to work with. He said, “You’re taking my work too literally. You have to pretend that I’ve been dead for twenty years.”

NUWER: Do you have to deal with snobbishness on the part of the critics or theater specialists when you have a hit on your hands?

GORDON: The thing that bothers me is the belief that if something is popular, then it isn’t considered art. People say, “Oh, what you’re doing is popular and commercial,” as if doing something commercial is negative. That’s why I like the book Nothing Like the Sun. It paints a picture of Shakespeare concerned about filling his theater and selling tickets, and saying things like, “I know this is shit, but we have to have something on the boards by December.” That attitude is the same as ours. Shakespeare wasn’t trying to write the greatest classics in English literature—he was trying to sell tickets. Wherever the public’s interest was he did a play. There was a lot of interest in the New World, so he did a play called The Tempest.

NUWER: Without an audience your plays are dead, in other words.

GORDON: The idea of doing theater without an audience is not theater—it’s whacking off. There’s always this sense that art has to be boring or intellectually profound so that you can’t understand it. It’s as though if something is clear, accessible, and understandable, it isn’t art. I take great exception to that idea.

NUWER: A play need no be complex to inspire and educate, you mean.

GORDON: I sometimes thing the simpler theater is the better it is. It’s closer to the short story than it is to the novel. A short story can be read in one sitting and goes for an effect. I think my biggest repeated mistake is that I try to do too much on stage or I get too involved. I forget that the things that work best are the simplest. Allowing the audience to use its imagination winds up being far more effective than anything you can do with special effects and bits of business. I sometimes try to compete too much with film.

NUWER: You don’t want to underestimate the intelligence of the American public?

GORDON: Audiences seem to like filling in the blanks. If you fill in too many blanks there’s not enough involvement for them. I have a tendency to fill to many blanks.

NUWER: Are you a good card player?

GORDON: Sometimes I am—at poker I am. I shouldn’t say a good one; I’m an OK card player. In most games I find myself taking too many chances. I enjoy the rush and sometimes I’ll find myself taking too many chances. I enjoy the risk and sometimes I overextend myself. That sometimes comes through in the productions that we do, too. I’ll find myself sometimes a little over my head.

NUWER: Someone in your company told me to ask you how you go the nickname of “Sharky”.

GORDON: my younger brother David calls me Sharky. David works in an aquarium feeding sharks in a coral reef. I got the name back in the days when I was more prone to get angry and yell at people. David called me Sharky because I was always biting people’s legs off. In Sexual Perversity in Chicago [the earliest version], David Mamet created a place called Sharky’s as an inside joke.

NUWER: Were you made angry by such facts of theatre life as a bad review?

GORDON: I used to be much more affected than I am now. I’ve realized that reaching and getting through to an audience is important. I can’t look at most reviews as a measure of my worth. If I get a bad review I don’t want to jump in the river anymore. You know what you were trying to do and whether of not you succeeded. You don’t need a bad review to tell you that you failed, nor a good review to tell you that you succeeded.

NUWER: What were you like in your youth?

GORDON: Well, at the age of eleven I found that I had to wear glasses. Before that I wanted to be an astronaut.

NUWER: Any astronaut tendencies still remaining?

GORDON: (Chuckling) I’m waited from them to shoot artists up into space. I want the Organic theatre company to perform on Mars.

NUWER: How did you come to form the Organic?

GORDON: Long story. When I was [an undergraduate] at the University of Wisconsin—I was always trying to stir things up. I was one of those agitators they were always complaining about. I was arrested while at Wisconsin; the issue being artistic freedom. It sounds absurd now, but at the time it didn’t seem funny. It was a new play funded by the university—Peter Pan.

NUWER: A new play? Peter Pan?

GORDON: We didn’t change a word of the dialogue, but we set it in the 1968 world. Wendy, Michael and John became straight suburban kids who get turned on by those hippies who take them off to Neverland. Peter Pan and the Lost Boys who always stay young became flower children, the pirates the police, and the Indians became the Black Power movement, and Captain Hook was the bureaucrat—“the Man” as we used to say. The scene with the children learning to fly had them dropping acid. The lines stayed the same thought: “Just think lovely thoughts and up you go.” To show the hallucinogenic trip we had a dance sequence which—in typical 1960s style—was a light show done to music projected on the nude bodies of seven women, including Carolyn. This was not the first nude production at the university, but the others had been ignored by the press. A stringer from Associated Press came to the preview and wrote about it. Afterwards, the administration threatened us with suspension. Seven dancers quickly became two then. One other women and Carolyn stayed; the others dropped out for fear of being arrested. The University [of Wisconsin] put a padlock on the theater door and hired guards to keep us out. Fortunately, they [the guards] allowed us to get our personal belongings, including much of the props, and we went off to perform the play in a lecture hall instead.

NUWER: Did you put on a spontaneous show?

GORDON: There was a film society meeting there, and the members voted to spend an evening seeing the play. We ended up offering two performances. When the word got out that we were doing it, the place became jammed with people. Originally we were going to do it for 150 people [in the theatre], but instead we did it in a 500-seat lecture hall. We kept waiting for the arrests to happen at any moment; we had blankets ready to throw around the actresses.

NUWER: Were you arrested that night?

GORDON: Carolyn and myself were called up the next morning and asked to come down to the police station. We were told we were under arrest.

NUWER: Did the charges stick?

GORDON: Out of the one thousand people who saw the play, no one would come forward to say it was obscene except for the district attorney, and he hadn’t seen it. Finally they found a citizen to press charges, but our attorney found out with guy was a convicted child molester; as soon as he made that information known to the D.A., the charges were dropped. The Organic Theatre was founded shortly after that, and we found that whenever we gave a performance, held the audience was made up of the police. In fact, our first Organic Theatre production was Richard III. It was a straight production, but we were shit down because of building code violations, so we knew we couldn’t stay in Madison.

NUWER: Any problems with censorship in Chicago after you moved here?

GORDON: They left us alone here. We’ve never had any problems with censorship whatsoever. The other side of that is that they leave you alone in terms of support. The official City Hall administration has never backed theatre.

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