Madeleine George is an award-winning playwright and author. Her plays include Hurricane Diane, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, Precious Little, and The Zero Hour, and have been produced across the country. She was a founding member of 13P (Thirteen Playwrights, Inc.), the Obie-winning playwright’s collective, and is a resident playwright at New Dramatists. She won the 2016 Whiting Award and was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. George has also written two novels, published by Viking Children’s Book. Her first book, Looks, was one of Booklist’s 2008 Top Ten First Novels for Youth and a 2009 ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Her second book, The Difference Between You and Me, was a Kirkus Best Teen Book of 2012, a Junior Library Guild selection, and an ALA Rainbow List selection.
Her most recent play, Hurricane Diane, will be performed at New York Theater Workshop from February 6-March 10, 2019. Read an excerpt here.
You were writing plays from a very early age; what advice would give your younger self?
The things you make are not you—but try telling young artists that. I was first produced in New York at age sixteen and was not produced again until my thirties. For the twelve years in between, I assumed I would quit every day, but I kept writing, bit by bit. I was endlessly interested.
Was there any particular play that served as an early influence for you?
When I was eighteen, I saw Angels in America by Tony Kushner. That play detonated my head and floated in like a piñata.
What can you say about failure?
It is the biggest component of art. The time when your plays aren’t being produced—when they’ve been written but no one is doing them—can feel like failure. But the main thing for a young playwright to remember is that this time allows for privacy. Sometimes young playwrights who find success too quickly can lose their voice; they start trying to write in order to seduce an audience. Having privacy can help you avoid this, can allow you the space to be formally ambitious.
Are you talking about yourself or other playwrights who seem to be exploding in the scene left and right?
Both. I was sixteen when I was produced. In hindsight, I am so happy that nothing happened for a while after that. It got me back my privacy and helped me hone my point of view.
What was it like being a member of 13P?
It was an incredible lesson in doing something and not waiting around. During that time, when I started with this group of playwrights, we wanted our work produced . So at that time, a bunch of us playwrights decided to do 13P. It was a good antidote, this ten-year project, where the plan was to produce our works – at least one per year.
You are a fellow for the Bard Prison Initiative. Can you talk about that experience?
It makes me feel like I’m doing something real in the world. This work is real in the way that theatre isn’t. It gives you perspective; when you witness the struggles of incarcerated people, it becomes hard to see the loss of a lighting designer, for example, as a disaster. Teaching also does this for me. It gives me another way of creating relationships with a group. I taught at NYU, Bard. It’s a lot about creating a critical thinking culture with a population that isn’t exactly there yet. Seeing that radical transformation is important. That’s what most deeply affected me. I admit that I’ve been sometimes jealous of people whose sole focus is theater. But then I don’t want my vision to be so telescoped, monomaniacal…I never want to lose that broader perspective.
What advice do you have for early career playwrights?
Write plays that delight you. Disregard the realities of current production parameters. Write exactly the thing that needs to be written for you. Train your own ear. Cultivate your curiosity. Cultivate the sense of yourself as an artist. The terrible irony is that people in power want to choose things that are new to them, but those things have to be new to you first.
Have a mindfulness practice. Get to know what the real things in your life are. Learn what’s real and what’s not. What’s not real is hoping to get into the O’Neill. What is real is going to see you friend’s show. What is real is what’s tangible, what brings tangible relationships into your life. This is the stuff that combats the emptiness, the longing, the bitterness that comes when writing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.