BroadwaySelect met with the beautifully inspiring Edla Cusick to talk about Life, Art and Theatre.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about Austin the play?
A: AUSTIN is my fourth play, the first one to be produced. I wrote it in one act because, as a theatergoer I often head home at intermission, realizing that I don’t care what happens next, I didn’t want my audience to have that opportunity. The play is an express; running direct from possibility to nightmare.
Q: What is it that inspired you to write this play?
A: An old family friend revealed a secret to me not long ago. I had been brought up to believe that my mother’s brother had died in his 40’s when I was an infant, because of a heart weakened by childhood rheumatic fever. “Oh no, dear, he hanged himself. Didn’t you know?” My uncle never married; he loved poetry; he shopped for art and antiques with his mother. Was there some terrible unnamable shame? It occurred to me that many families- maybe most?- have a death like that, a generation ago or less.
Q: Are any of your characters inspired from people you actually know?
A: My characters, like the story of my play, are imagined. Each one is a collage of people I’ve known or known about. They say playwriting is a good art form for the older person, because age has made us repositories of so many stories. The common denominator is the corrosiveness of secrets. Secret lives, secrets deaths, Romeo and Juliet- I sometimes think- why don’t you kids go down to the bus terminal and hop a ride to somewhere else, where no one knows the Montagues or the Capulets, start a fresh life together? I’m kidding, of course, that’s a 20th Century American way of looking at things, but salvation, escape, happiness were within their reach. Alas, people don’t do what I think they should do to be happy. I share a birthday with Emily Dickinson, and once read that people born on that day have the ideas to lead but not the temperament to be leaders. A playwright has control over the characters; in real life no one listens. There was a tragedy in my husband’s family which I was powerless to avert. Everyone was powerless.
Q: Do you find that being an artist has an influence on your work as a playwright and if so, in what way?
A: Being primarily a visual artist, I had a lot of specific color and light in AUSTIN from the earliest drafts. The dappled green light in a garden with mature trees, the sadness of a crooked venetian blind, the lightning of an approaching storm, the weird orange glow of a hot night in the city, the flashing rotating lights of a police car. It’s been thrilling to see that realized on the stage. I heard sounds too, right from the get-go. Cicadas screeching in the summer, traffic, sirens, the scuffles and grunts of a real fight. I have a musician son, Michael Clifford, and he made music for AUSTIN to enhance the accelerating crisis and to accompany the hopeless dream of happiness. My daughter, Kate Clifford, designed the costumes for AUSTIN. She had a clear picture of how each of the characters should be dressed. She used costuming detail ( Austin always wears loafers, no socks, even in the coldest weather, mother and daughter have different ideas of appropriate dress, etc. ) to show the differences in the characters. They say that playwriting is a combination of ALL the artforms and in my fortunate case it is also a family affair.
Q: If there was one message that you wished to give to the world what would it be?
A: I’ll steer clear of that. I’ve seen a lot of Chekhov, and I try to emulate the good doctor’s refusal to preach. I do think alcohol is pretty destructive to a lot of people but not to everyone. Relationships, love, talent, responsibility, I’ve seen all of these drunk away by loving, talented and responsible people. As a child of an alcoholic father, and a friend to many drunks, I know the territory.
Secondly, the closet is a terrible place to live. I have wondered, after Stonewall, why (if?) many people opted to stay in the closet. People are forced- by a homophobic culture, community, family, religion- to make painful choices, live secret lives. Keeping the secret- even from oneself- becomes your main job. My message for Austin was: get sober, leave wall street, find love, move upstate. I have no message for the audience, except please do come and see my play.
Q: Why should people come and see Austin?
A: It’s better, more complex, intelligent, and painful than a lot of plays I’ve paid good money to see in a lifetime of theatre-going. It’s far from perfect, in fact I have begun a new draft, restoring some elements that had to be eliminated if we wanted the play to run a clean 90 minutes. But as Cezanne said (or was it Picasso?), when asked which of his paintings was his favorite, “the next one.” That is the pleasure of an art life. The next one. It’ll be better. I hope my characters will linger with audience members, and maybe expand their zone of sympathy for some of the sad complexities of life.
For more information on AUSTIN: http://bit.ly/2aPDvZU