PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Sharr White, Playwright of Broadway's The Other Place

By Mervyn Rothstein
19 Jan 2013

Laurie Metcalf and Daniel Stern
Photo by Joan Marcus
The play is only about an hour and ten minutes long. That's an unusually short length for a play on Broadway. Was anyone concerned about that? I guess after David Mamet's Anarchist the length isn't unique. But was anyone concerned about that during the planning?
SW: No, there was no concern at all. In earlier incarnations of the play it was about an hour and a half, including an intermission. It's a fairly intense play. As we kept workshopping the play and bringing the story out more directly it just naturally became shorter and shorter. I think if the play were much longer it might wind up being too much. Because again, it does pack a punch

The play concerns a disintegrating mind. The word Alzheimer's is never used in the play. Is there a reason? Was it in an earlier draft?
SW: It was. It was in all the earlier drafts until we started finally heading into the rehearsal process at MCC. Joe thought, "Let's go through it just to see what happens if we take the word Alzheimer's out." It was in there three times, I think, in the final rehearsal script. Again, that was really about not making it an Alzheimer's play but making it a play about this woman within the circumstance that she's in. We very much didn't want to make it about what she's got.

You've written several other plays, one of which, Six Years, was performed in 2006 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Are they very different from The Other Place? Are you interested in a range of subjects and styles?
SW: They're very different. I've tried to change my structure, my focus, with every play. When I'm done with something there's definitely an afterglow that goes on for a long time, and I get very afraid of repeating myself. I'm also looking for the challenge of a new structure and a new format. Six Years was fairly epic in nature [its five scenes cover 24 years of one couple's life after World War II]. In the following play, Sunlight [about a liberal president of a university and a conservative dean of a law school], I was trying to work on a very-well-made-play structure, and then for this one I wanted to just blow the structure out. I felt the story itself demanded that it be approached in a more fractured way that still felt reliably like a three-act structure. I think that on a visceral level it's a three-act structure. I feel I want to work in a different format with each play.

The Other Place is a very specific, small-cast (four actors) character study. Do you think of the economics of theatre when you write?
SW: I think on a certain level you have to. But at the same time I think this was a play that called for fewer actors rather than more. The new play I'm working on now [The Snow Geese, about a family in Syracuse, NY, during World War I] started with 12 characters. I've whittled it down to six. But there is certainly an economic factor in theatre producing that you have to take into account. It's possible to find a first home for a large cast but it's really hard to find more homes for a large cast after a first production happens. There are very few places in the country where you can actually do it. I'm glad for the life of The Other Place that it's a small-cast play, but I think that this story is one that needed to be done with actors playing multiple roles, because of the condition of Juliana.

Do you have a sprawling, large-cast play somewhere in your files? Or in your future?
SW: I think part of a playwright's career can also be proving one's worth or produceability enough with earlier plays that you're slowly given more trust in building more and more complex pieces. I think that's ultimately what I'm working up to. I think I also look at myself as someone in the middle or beginning of really honing my skills. I want to learn how to write larger plays too.