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Playwriting can be a lonely occupation. But if you’re Stephen Adly Guirgis, that’s exactly the way that you want it. “I gotta be home alone,” he says. “I can’t even– a lot of people like to go to Starbucks or go to the library. I can’t.” The focus that comes from isolation is a huge benefit while writing, even in such a collaboration-friendly form as theatre.
Guirgis, though, has realized an important truth: it’s easier to churn out pages in your room at midnight when people are waiting to perform them. For Guirgis, those other people are the company members of New York’s LAByrinth Theatre Company, which has produced the world premieres of every one of his plays since 1992. As an original member, and now co-artistic director, of LAByrinth, Guirgis has long used the self-described “gym for actors” as a place to work out and bulk up his plays-in-progress until they’re ready for the stage.
The journey of The Motherf**ker with the Hat began in the summer of 2008, when Guirgis brought the first 20 pages to one of LAByrinth’s summer intensives, a workshop where members present work and receive feedback from the company. He then took the play home and continued writing through the following year, with frequent return trips to LAByrinth to hear it aloud. With the exception of Elizabeth Rodriguez, for whom the part of Veronica was written, there was no fixed cast at these readings. Roles were read by different actors at different times, allowing Guirgis to hear new takes on the characters he was creating. After each iteration, he would return to his room, write a new chunk of pages, and then bring them back to LAByrinth.
A brief break in the cycle came in August 2009, when Guirgis was invited to bring the play to the annual Ojai Playwrights Conference in Southern California. Founded in 1998, this ten-day conference provides visiting playwrights with a director, dramaturg, and actors for the piece they are workshopping in order to support the development of new work. It’s one of many similar residencies offered to playwrights around the country every year, and Guirgis used his time to further polish the play. His ten days culminated in a staged reading (actors presenting the piece with script in hand and with limited blocking), followed by a feedback session with the audience. He then returned to New York and continued to work.
At the time, Motherf**ker was on the same trajectory as all of Guirgis’ plays: continued development of the script at LAByrinth, followed by a downtown world premiere by the company. But Producer Scott Rudin read the script, and contacted Guirgis about bringing the play to Broadway. Guirgis jumped at the opportunity, but also let Rudin know that he wanted LAByrinth actors in a number of the roles: Rodriguez as Veronica, Bobby Canavale as Jackie and Yul Vasquez as Cousin Julio. Rudin agreed, and preparations for Guirgis’ Broadway debut began. After three years of feedback, staged readings and late-night writing marathons, Guirgis and his Motherf**ker were stepping out of his isolated apartment and on to the Great White Way.
– Walt McGough