Donald Margulies is “recuperating.”
In the past five and a half weeks the Yale adjunct professor of English and professor of theater studies has made four round trips with stops in Los Angeles, New York and New Haven. After the world premiere of his play “Time Stands Still” in Los Angeles and the New York premiere of his play “Shipwrecked! An Entertainment,” Margulies is back in New Haven — at least for now.
Though the playwriting professor missed two classes, his students and colleagues discussed the enormous benefits of taking a class from a professional playwright.
Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize winner and renowned playwright with three Broadway productions on his résumé, is a mentor and inspiration to Yalies. And the recent productions of his shows “Time Stands Still” and “Shipwrecked” have created new opportunities for his students to learn firsthand from his work through his personal anecdotes and visits to his production.
A RELATIONSHIP PLAY
Not only is Margulies dealing with the physical effects of constant traveling, but the “stress” of the two openings is also on his mind, he told the News in an interview last week.
“The anxiety of a world premiere is acute,” he said. “The play had never been seen, and thankfully the response was very, very positive.”
“Time Stands Still,” playing at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, is the story of a wounded photojournalist, Sarah, and her reporter partner, James, who have returned home from Iraq. Despite the backdrop of the Iraq conflict, Margulies said the play is not about the political aspects of war, nor does it necessarily have an antiwar message.
“It’s really a relationship play,” he said. “It’s really about the changes that occur over time in a relationship and the backdrop of this story happens to be something that I think is very much on everyone’s mind, which is the war.”
The Geffen commissioned the play about six years ago, said Amy Levinson, dramaturg and literary manager for the Geffen Playhouse. At the time, the Geffen had produced productions of Margulies’ “Collected Stories” and “Dinner with Friends” in 1999 and 2000, respectively.
“[Commissioning him] was essentially about working with Donald,” Levinson said.
FROM NEW YORK TO NEW HAVEN
There is not much decoration in Margulies’ office, save for one row of posters from his plays.
The other walls are essentially bare. Two pushpins on one of his shelves hold up a book cover from an old copy of the 1938 play “Our Town,” written by Thornton Wilder ’20. The book could not stay together on its own so Margulies just kept the cover; “Our Town” is one of his “favorite plays of all time,” and he teaches it in his class.
Margulies, born in Brooklyn, first moved to New Haven from Manhattan over 25 years ago, when his wife came to attend Yale School of Medicine. After she graduated, they moved back to New York, but decided to settle in New Haven for good in 1990, he said.
“[New York was an] exciting place to be when I was young and scrappy, and as I got older and our son was born almost 17 years ago, New Haven proved to be a manageable city and an excellent place to raise a child,” he said. “It has also proven to be an excellent place to write to work. It’s obviously a smaller place and there are fewer options, so there are fewer distractions.”
Margulies, who received a BFA in fine arts from Purchase College, part of the State University of New York, said he initially taught two college seminars in the early 1990s. He was invited to teach at the School of Drama, which he continued for “six or seven” years until he joined the English and Theaters Studies departments of Yale College as a professor.
“It’s quite a coup for undergraduates at Yale to be able to work with a seasoned, working playwright in the field,” wrote Paula Vogel, chair of the department of playwriting at the School of Drama and the School of Drama Eugene O’Neill professor (adjunct), in an e-mail to the News.
LEARNING FROM A PROFESSIONAL
There are a number of benefits to having a teacher who actively works in the field, Cory Finley ’11, one of Margulies’ students, said.
When students in the Advanced Playwriting Workshop were developing their full-length plays, Margulies discussed his own process with beginning “Time Stands Still,” Finley recalled.
His experience in the field leads to greater appreciation for his comments, Matthew George ’11, another student in the seminar, said.
“It means you can trust him,” George said. “His advice is very valid.”
Vogel, who also doubles as a working playwright and a professor, agreed.
“The ability to blend praxis with first pages, theory with theater-making, gives the emerging writer at Yale a rapid ascent into a professional world,” she wrote in an e-mail.
As he has done before, Margulies brought his class to see his production this semester.
“It was like a really fun class trip,” Margulies said of the trip to see “Shipwrecked.” “I know that when I was learning the ropes that being associated with people who actually did what they taught made a tremendous difference to me.”
Margulies mentored Tessa Williams ’10 in writing her play “With Kings in the Back,” which went up last weekend in Nick Chapel.
“He was just wonderful in terms of mentoring — he convinced me to write the play,” Williams said. “I was nervous about writing it, and he said, ‘The reason you’re nervous is because you care so much about the subject … just write it.’ If he hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have written it.”
Margulies also said that by having students read plays that influenced him, such as Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” and David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” he hopes to stir something within them.
“My approach to teaching playwriting is to try to instill in my students the inspiration that I derive from certain plays that I’ve read over the course of my coming of age as a writer,” he said, “and in doing so to teach my students how to identify their own passions and their own inspirations.”