Stephen Willems, literary manager for MCC Theater (of Wit and Frozen fame) never thought about the ideal function of a literary department till now, when we asked him about it...
The L Magazine: For those outside the clique, what is a Literary Department and what does it do? Stephen Willems: (Laughs) I don’t even know what a dramaturge is! It’s weird to think of a Lit Department in theory; I can only speak to what we do at MCC. Ideally, it’s like the conscience of a theater, where the mission is most informed. I’m charged with the responsibility of keeping MCC on track with its mission statement, seeking and developing new material within that aesthetic, while allowing that aesthetic to grow. The L: So you’re like the hunter-gatherers of the theatrical community? SW: Exactly, we’re finding and nurturing both the artists and the art. With MCC’s Playwright’s Coalition, for example, we help the artists develop their ideas from perhaps scribbles on a page to full-length dramatic work. We really believe in the talent of writers and that’s where we do a service to big theater, in cultivating the writer.
The L: So which literary departments in New York would you consider your peers? SW: The New York Theater Workshop, in particular, does a great job of nurturing American and European voices with admirable eclecticism and no small amount of bravery. The Atlantic and the Vineyard are also quite good.
The L: So what’s wrong with playwrights? SW: I think the biggest trouble playwrights have is that sometimes they don’t trust collaboration. They lock themselves in an ivory tower. The caveat is that reluctance is often understandable — all great work can be impeded by bad collaboration and there are plenty of people giving bad advice out there. But theater, unlike most other art, is based on community; it’s every playwright’s responsibility to reach out and find a community, find someone trustworthy and embrace the challenges collaboration can bring.
The L: What, then, makes a really great play? SW: I’d have to say the genius of the playwright, or a better word for it is grace. This grace can’t be taught; it’s something innate that compels every artist to create. By grace and sometimes huge will power, that person may be lucky enough to find the proper art form — that’s the hope, anyway, since any genius thwarted can become alcoholic or destructive. Sometimes, it’s just chance. But that’s what I love about my job: helping genius that might not come fully-formed to achieve its potential, to transmute that energy into something beautiful. MCC is really good at asking the right questions. The L: Sounds like serious stuff. SW: I feel like I should stress how fun it is! It is really such a pleasure. I feel truly privileged to do this job and participate in the process itself.