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Stephen Adly Guirgis

Philip Fisher interviews an important new American playwright

Stephen Adly Guirgis is clearly a man who loves theatre. He has been successful as a writer, director and actor in the USA and was recently the subject of a 4-page feature article in the New York Times Magazine.

He is also fast making his name in Britain. Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train was selected by many people here as one of their top plays of 2002. This included the Olivier judges who nominated it for Best New Play. It was the presentation of someone with a very original theatrical voice and effortlessly maintained pace and tension from start to finish.

Guirgis is a laid-back, humorous man who relaxes you as soon as you meet him. This interview took place in the back bar of the Parkside Lounge in downtown New York which was also acting as a communal dressing room for the cast of his friend, Brett C. Leonard's latest production, Scotch and Water. This comedy took over the main bar on a nightly basis at the end of 2002.

Guirgis and Leonard are part of the LAByrinth (originally Latino Actors Base) Theater Company. It is a kind of artistic collective but often seems more like a bunch of friends than a serious endeavour. However, their relaxed demeanour and closeness clearly work well. In addition to Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, LAByrinth has also produced two more plays by Guirgis as well as work by Leonard, John Patrick Shanley and other members of the collective.

Guirgis is the child of an Egyptian father and an Irish American mother. Now in his thirties, he is a dark haired, chunky man with a beard and a gold earring. He was brought up on the Upper West Side of New York and went to school in Harlem. As he expresses it, "the neighbourhood was straight from This Is Our Youth but I was in the working class bit, living in a rent-controlled apartment that my dad got for us by giving the janitor a case of Scotch, not like those rich kids, I really hated them". When he finally saw Lonergan's play, his reaction was something of a surprise even to himself: "I found an empathy and compassion for them once I saw Kenny's play".

He then became possibly the worst ever student at college in Albany, New York State. He studied theatre, occasionally, and spent seven-and-a-half years over his four-year degree course. The degree that he came out with was as much in Partying as Theatre.

While he was at college, he met John Ortiz who subsequently played Angel in Jesus. After leaving college, Ortiz started up LAByrinth with Philip Seymour Hoffman (who recently described Guirgis as "one of our great writers") and amongst others, they recruited Guirgis. Another of the early joiners was playwright John Patrick Shanley, who sums up so much about the company when he says "imagine you're going to get a cup of coffee and you're joined by 40 of your closest friends: that's what it's like". Anyone who has seen one a LAByrinth production can understand what he's saying.

LAByrinth started purely as an acting company. It was a "gym and a support area for budding actors", initially only open on Wednesday nights and performing an important role as a breathing space in a crack-infested area. The members became very close-knit and after a year or so began to produce plays. All of the work was self-generated with members of the company acting, writing, producing and directing every show.

At the start, everything was very disorganised. The company's greatest asset was that its members really pulled together. As Guirgis says "Teamwork meant everything - people have turned down film and TV and Broadway work for their commitment to each other and the work with LAByrinth". They continue to do so today.

Guirgis had not originally intended to become a writer. Similarly, his regular director, Hoffman, who has directed Jesus and In Arabia as well as appearing in dozens of movies, had never directed and the producers had never produced. This background has led to a remarkable versatility. Guirgis has now written three full-length plays that have been produced professionally. He has also acted and directed prolifically and written scripts for TV shows such as NYPD Blue.

Guirgis' first major play, In Arabia We'd All Be Kings, really put LAByrinth on the map. It played with an English cast at the new Hampstead Theatre in April. It was described by the New York Times as "a grim and sad portrait of life on the streets". It started under the direction of Hoffman at Center Stage, a 60-seat theatre in Chelsea, NYC. At its peak there, after strong reviews in the New York Times and Time Out, 85 people somehow squeezed in each night.

Guirgis was very optimistic that it would go down well in London. He said, "In Arabia seems to be a play that actors love to act. Audiences seem to get engaged in the journeys that the characters in the play take. The characters are losers, but they are fighters. Their plans may be misguided, but they do have a plan; and self-pity isn't part of the plan"

His next play was the Olivier-nominated Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train. The production history is a cheering tale of the success of an underdog who doesn't know when he is beaten.

As Guirgis tells the tale, "people see Jesus as a success but it would never have made it to Edinburgh or London if it wasn't us that were producers. The general managers said that it reached its limit off-Broadway. It was LAByrinth under John Gould Rubin that took it to Edinburgh and then to the Donmar and the West End". In a few performances there, Guirgis himself appeared as the prison guard. It also did no harm to the production to have Madonna as one of its fans. With a different cast, it has also been a success at the prestigious Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.

The story behind Jesus is interesting. Guirgis had a close friend who "joined a cult and together with his brother and father we tried to kidnap and deprogram him. He's still in the cult today. I had to let go of this, and start facing beginning my own adult life. I had anger!" It was this anger together with a reconsideration of his attitude to God as a lapsed Catholic, that led him to write Jesus. He added to this his experiences as a violence prevention specialist and HIV officer working in a prison.

Guirgis subsequently wrote a third play, Our Lady of 121st Street, about a dead, alcoholic nun whose body mysteriously disappears. This is soon to open at the Union Square Theater, which is the largest off-Broadway. This shows how far the company has come. As Guirgis says, "now producers will take a risk on us". He would love to bring this show to London as well, but fears that with a cast of twelve, economic constraints, not to mention UK Equity, may make that difficult.

Another earlier play, Den of Thieves was also produced in Guirgis' bumper year of 2002. This very black comedy about a burglary that goes horribly wrong played in a converted shop front in Los Angeles to critical acclaim.

Guirgis' enthusiasm and energy are irrepressible. In addition to bringing In Arabia to England, he is also writing a movie about exonerated death-row inmates for a TV cable channel, writing new plays for LAByrinth and others, and, just to keep himself busy, acting too. He will be starring in a new film by Leonard, Jailbait. His film-acting career to date peaked with an appearance in Meet Joe Black starring Anthony Hopkins and Brad Pitt.

Guirgis feels that he has established himself in a range of artistic fields and may now have now reached a turning point in his career. "It's a really exciting time of my life but I'm always cautious. People have offered to film Jesus - maybe soon I'll adapt it" - if he can find the time.

At the end of the conversation, Guirgis was really keen to acknowledge the debt that he owes to Brett C Leonard. "Scotch and Water has been really rewarding to work on. The whole cast are good friends and Brett is a deep thinker and feeler. This is just the beginning of an important new American playwright who can reflect the times with humour and pathos". This might as easily have been written about Guirgis himself.

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©Peter Lathan 2001