Zen and the Art of Playwriting

Writers like Vladimir Nabokov can approach their stories like an academic thesis, while others can boil their work down to a step-by-step process, as John Gardner did in the young writers' bible The Art of Fiction. Still others rely on feeling and intuition to get the pen moving. When asked about the "process" of creating his plays, Horton Foote, author of The Trip to Bountiful, is at a loss. "It's all very mysterious to me," he says. "I'm not very lucid about my own plays. I depend on strangers to tell me about them."

Questions of whether to begin with an idea, a story line or a character are lost on Foote. For him, each project is its own puzzle, with its own unique set of problems. That sixth sense for knowing how to proceed can be developed only through years of scribbling, and Foote has been producing since the '40s.

The Alley Theatre commissioned Foote to write The Carpetbagger's Children, the latest in a long list of plays set in Texas. He originally wanted to do a sort of homage to Chekhov's Three Sisters, but in the end, the only similarity is that Foote's story has -- drum roll -- three sisters (in this case, the daughters of a Union soldier who decides to live in Texas after the Civil War).

As to his fixation on the Lone Star State, Foote has a similar New Age explanation. "I really don't think one chooses one's own subject matter," he says. When he began his career, Foote was warned that focusing on his home state would prematurely end his career, but he couldn't stop writing about the small-town culture he grew up in. (He was born in Wharton.) "I can't even say I write about Texas. I write about part of Texas. Texas is so varied and so large ... that it would almost be impertinent to say you write about Texas."

Despite winning Oscars for his screenplays of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Tender Mercies (1983), Foote is far more enthusiastic about playwriting. He believes regional theaters are keeping the art form alive; theaters outside of Broadway don't have the same pressures to produce blockbusters, and can take more chances on new plays, like this one.

Foote has assembled a team he's comfortable with. Jean Stapleton, of All in the Family fame, will play Grace Anne -- her seventh collaboration with Foote to date. (She missed her Broadway debut in 1953 when she was cut from the original cast of The Trip to Bountiful, but she harbors no resentment.) His daughter Hallie Foote, now a veteran interpreter of her father's work, plays Sissie, and stage actor Roberta Maxwell plays Cornelia. Former Alley associate artistic director Michael Wilson will direct. All four have worked with Foote before, and Hallie, Stapleton and Wilson worked together on Foote's The Death of Papa.

Was this part of the plan? Of course not. "It happened that way," Foote says. "It was a question of fortune having everyone free at the right time." That's just the way he works. And no one's arguing with the results.

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Dylan Otto Krider