In the art world, every overnight success will tell you there’s no such thing as overnight success. Playwright Sharr White knows this better than most.
“I’ve been very lucky that it only took me 25 years to get established as a playwright,” he says with a laugh. “When The Other Place was produced at MCC Theater Off-Broadway, with Laurie Metcalf acting and Joe Mantello directing, that was a huge break for me.”
The Other Place is arguably White’s highest-profile play to date, earning a Tony nomination for Metcalf and a number of awards, including the 2010 Playwrights First award, the 2011 Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation’s Theatre Visions Fund award and an Outer Critics Circle award nomination for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play.
Making its regional debut at Live Arts this month, The Other Place centers on a brilliant scientist named Juliana whose life is falling apart (think divorce filing, runaway daughter, terminal health scares). It’s a tightly crafted mystery, a first-person narrative that blurs the lines of truth, time and reality, and that’s about all you can say without spoiling the plot.
“I find that a lot of my plays become about people who are lost and on some very simple level are found or discovered or helped or saved,” White says. It’s a theme that bubbles near the surface of his own life, a reflection of his formative years as a struggling playwright.
“Strangely, it was when I committed myself to acting that I realized that I was a writer,” White says. After moving to New York City following his graduation as an actor from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, he took the standard creative route, waiting tables to support his writing. But he didn’t anticipate the challenge of making it without formal training, a degree or a network of working peers.
“I really ran into some very, very difficult years,” he says. “When you go through a grad school program, especially in something like theater, which is so collaborative, you graduate with a lot of peers who are directors, who are actors, who are writers, who form your world. I didn’t really realize how difficult it was going to be not to have that peer group.”
He began doing a lot of self-producing, but by the time he turned 30, “I was still a waiter and I hadn’t had any major productions. I was writing all the time, but there was a long period in which I would write, I would finish a play, and I wouldn’t have anybody to send it to because I didn’t have representation,” he says. “Things got pretty dark.”
In an act of desperation, he sent an e-mail to all his friends asking if anyone could get him a job working as a copywriter. At a minimum, he figured, it was a corporate job that would allow him to work with language.
As luck would have it, a friend of a friend hired him to work as a writer for J. Crew catalogues. “Then I started developing this side career as a fashion advertising copywriter, which was sort of a bizarre world for me to be in. I didn’t have any corporate training at all,” he says.
But that connection with a steady paycheck, health insurance and stability meant he began a better life. He got married, had kids, and “I think as my life got better my writing got better because it was less angry,” he says.
These days, White no longer has a nine-to-five. Instead, he writes for the stage, for colleges, even for the Showtime series “The Affair.” But he ground it out as a corporate copywriter for 14 years. “I look at it as sort of a private corporate sponsorship of the arts,” he says. “It was a winning gig. I didn’t have to think about it when I got home. As a matter of fact, the hardest part about the job was concealing how much I didn’t care about it.”
In 2006, White had his first real break: the production of his play, Six Years, in the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky. At the time, he says, “We had a newborn and I was writing in the hallway and getting up at six and then five, trying to beat everybody up. Not beat everybody up, like get back to life. You know? So I could get work done. I was exhausted.”
But instead of faulting his lack of sleep, he sees it as a litmus test. “The right piece takes you out of bed and forces you to sit down in front of it. It becomes something you can’t stop picking at until it becomes fully formed.”
White’s desire to scratch the artistic itch is how he determines whether he’s onto something. “I’ll have a catch, a sort of profound emotional reaction to something in the storytelling. That’s when I know.”
That emotional drive, White believes, is the mark of work that will truly resonate—for both the artist and the viewer.
“You have to know that you’re working towards catharsis,” he says. “It has to be cathartic for you as a writer or an artist or whatever medium you’re working in in order to know that it’s going to be cathartic for an audience.”
Ironically, his work on The Other Place began as a purely intellectual exercise.
“A friend of mine challenged me to write on the subject matter,” he says. “I don’t really care for the one-person format, and I felt certain that nobody would want to see a play about [this topic]. But I took it on as a challenge, thinking, ‘If I were to do this, how would it be done?’”
White layered the monologue with a Greek chorus of characters who appear across time and space, transporting Juliana in the process. Only after several months of work did he discover his own heart in the piece—where the story got personal.
“It’s a very hard thing for me to talk about,” he says, “but it really became a play about forgiveness. Self-forgiveness.”
As its title suggests, The Other Place centers where its characters aren’t. This notion of absence surfaces as the memory of a beloved beach house, a fractured mother-daughter relationship and the threat of adultery. While Juliana swoops between remorse, anger and fierce control, lack of clemency tugs like undertow.
Juliana needs catharsis whether she knows it or not. And, in that way, her life mirrors White’s at the outset of his career.
“I certainly wanted to be anywhere other than where I was,” he says. “At the end [of the play] there’s an act of caring committed by a perfect stranger. I think in certain dark hours in the very early stages of my career, yeah, I just wanted someone, anyone, to help. Very simple gestures can mean a lot, I think, to people in dire straits.”
On the long road to catharsis and creative success, perspective also helps. Looking back, White says, “You adjust your definition of success. You adjust a successful day. I think a successful day as a writer is any day when you can sit down and have half a page that really works. I think the bottom line is I’ve always been stuck on that.”