I was, and remain, fascinated by the idea of an audience as a community of people who gather willingly to bear witness. A novelist writes a novel and people read it. But reading is a solitary act. While it may elicit a varied and personal response, the communal nature of the [theater] audience is like having five hundred people read your novel and respond to it at the same time. I find that thrilling.
What you do is set up a character who has certain beliefs and you establish a situation where those beliefs are challenged and the character is forced to examine those beliefs and, perhaps, changes. That’s the kind of dramatic situation which engages an audience, forces them to go through the same inner struggle. When I teach my workshops I tell my students if a guy announces, “I’m going to kill Joe,” and there’s a knock on the door, the audience is going to want to know if that’s Joe and why this guy wants to kill him and whether we would also want to kill him if we were in the same situation. The audience is engaged in the question.
Once when I was writing on a paper napkin, the waitress asked, “Do you write on napkins because it doesn’t count?” It had never occurred to me that writing on a napkin frees me up. If I pull out a tablet, I’m saying, “Now I’m writing,” and I become more conscious of being a writer. The waitress saw it; I didn’t recognize it, she did. That’s why I like to write on napkins. Then I go home to another kind of work—taking what I’ve written on napkins in bars and restaurants and typing it up, rewriting.
I had dinner with Charles Johnson, the novelist, who is a Buddhist, and he was quoting his favorite passage from the Bhagavad Gita which says that you have the right to the work but not the reward. I just love that. It says something I’ve always felt — that I’m not entitled to anything other that the work. Which is sufficient — a joy unto itself. I feel it a privilege to stand at the edge of the art having been gifted with the triumphs and failures of countless playwrights down through the ages. It’s a privilege I don’t want to squander.
All quotes from Wilson’s Paris Review interview with Bonnie Lyons and George Plimpton, The Art of Theater No. 14: August Wilson (1999).