SHOW FOLK: David Ives on “Venus”, Dirty Books & Calls from Sondheim
“There’s nothing in that.”
Those were the sage words of advice David Ives received from his father as the young playwright headed off to the Yale School of Drama. We should all have such nothing. With a career spanning influential comedies like All in the Timing and acclaimed translations of classics like the Moliere “rewrite” School for Lies, to his current Tony-nominated, Broadway hit Venus in Fur, Ives has proven those words wrong and made a life working in the theater.
During a recent discussion moderated by famed critic John Lahr at the 92nd Street Y Tribecca, Ives opened up about the highs and lows of his career in sparklingly articulate and, at times, raucously deadpan stories — from his tragically lost first play to his current much-anticipated collaboration with Stephen Sondheim.
On his unfortunate debut as a playwright:
I got bitten by the theater bug quite early and I wrote my first play when I was nine. I took this three hundred page, sort of noir novel out of my parents’ library and I turned it into a ten minute play. For my cub scout troupe. I was going to play the lead, of course, and all my friends were going to play the secondary roles which were much smaller. But what I didn’t know is that everyone in the play has to get a copy of the script. And so I learned my lines, I passed the script on and he lost it. And it was probably my best work ever. I’m still looking for it.
On the thrill of discovering his love for theater:
The stinger really stuck in my flesh when I was seventeen and I went to see Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in A Delicate Balance. It came through Chicago. I well remember the sensation that I had sitting in the front of the balcony for $3.65 and watching Cronyn & Tandy and feeling like I was in the front car of the Cyclone in Coney Island. Because I had never seen anything like this, something so extraordinarily passionate and eloquent. I might as well have just gone home that day and written my parents a note that said, “Dear Mom & Dad, I’m going to be a playwright. Nothing can stop me.”
On the ins and outs of reading dirty books:
I’d been translating French plays for the past five or six years and so, translating French plays, it’s very good to keep up your French. My French is based on a year and a half at Northwestern and a girlfriend who lived in Paris — visiting her for a week… I started reading and boning up on my French. One of the things I read was Story of O which I’d read when everyone was reading all those dirty books back in the 60’s… all of things that had been coming off of the Supreme Court. The docket was filled with dirty books in the 60’s. Story of O was one of them. And I went back and I read it because it was in French and I remembered it being interesting. I became fascinated by it and I thought, “Wouldn’t this make a great play!” Which is, of course, a terrible idea. If you don’t know Story of O, it’s sort of a grizzly S&M novel written in this pure, Racinian French — a glory to read. But the woman who is the lover, who is O, submits on the first page to her lover and continues to submit for three hundred pages. Which is not very dramatic. Luckily, I found that the rights were not available. And since my mind was running along dirty books, I decided to reread Venus in Furs just for the hell of it… Venus in Furs is probably the dullest dirty book ever written. It’s written in German which gives it already — it’s like velvet sandbags. …I thought, “This really would make a fantastic play.” Because the relationship, unlike Story of O, is constantly teetering back and forth, where you never quite know who is running the relationship at any particular moment.
On discovering that Venus in Fur could have been a blockbuster sequel:
I did a straight ahead adaptation of the novel for four actors, two playing the main characters and two playing all the other parts. I gave it to Walter Bobbie who ultimately did direct Venus in Fur… Walter and I have this extraordinary relationship where you go straight to the truth. He said to me, “You know, I don’t think this works for two reasons. It doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with today because it was set in 1870. And, I don’t know how you put a sado-masochistic relationship on stage without it being ridiculous.” Because…reading the dirty book is all in your mind, but once you put anything literally on the stage you have crossed the line into Monty Python land. So, without realizing it, I had written a wonderful Monty Python S&M play. If we’d gotten Palin, Cleese and the rest of them to do this, we would have had a hit. It would have been Spamalot 2.
On nine days that turned a miss into a Broadway hit:
I went off and I thought about [Venus in Fur] for a few months actually. The thing is these characters, this central relationship would not leave me. I could not let go of it. And so what I did was one day, I took out my adaptation and I crossed everything that wasn’t drama. I crossed out all the side characters. I cut out anything that was not conflict. Once I had that, I had these sort of dramatic nuggets and then — I don’t really know how I got from there to Venus as it begins — but I just somehow set it in a rehearsal room. And all I had to do was put the two modern characters in collision, in conversation with the play I had written. And so, what’s on Broadway now I actually wrote in about nine days.
On turning down stars to play the leading lady:
What we found was that casting the part of Vanda was almost impossible because it’s very hard to find an actress who has the qualities of both of those people: a contemporary East Side, very streetwise, tough [woman] and a woman of 1870 who is continental, cultivated and literate… And we had names who wanted to do this play that we had to turn down because we did readings with them and they could do one or the other but they couldn’t do both. So we were really in despair and we had spent probably six months, I would say, trying to cast the woman.
On finding a new star in the most unlikely of scenarios:
We were at the end of our rope and then James Calleri, the casting director at Classic Stage, basically had a day that was the equivalent of a cattle call, when he had people come in that we didn’t know and had never seen. And so we were in a room exactly like the one that is on Broadway, the same bad floor and the ceiling falling down. We had little hope. We ran our eyes down the list of actresses coming in and no name was familiar. And this woman walked in named Nina Arianda and I remember looking at her resume and the only thing she had on it were school plays and special skills. It was like school play, school play, school play, speaks Ukranian and great legs or something. So she walked in and Brian Kulick, the artistic director of Classic Stage, told me later that he made a mental note to tell the casting director to never send anyone as hopeless as this into the room again.
And so she threw down her bag and she said, “What do you want?” And Walter said, “Well, why don’t you try the first side?” Exactly as Thomas does in the play. She started reading, and she was reading the contemporary girl, and she was amazing. Everybody sat up when they heard her, but we had been through a lot of actresses who could do that. So she finished and she said, “What do you want?” And Walter said, “Why don’t you try the second sides?” And so she launched in and I have to say that when she got to the point that Vanda transforms into Dunayev and we are suddenly in 1870, I think every hair on every body in that room stood up, because it was an extraordinary transformation. She was just suddenly there, a totally different person. We knew that this was it. And so, we were very cool and she said, “Thank you very much.” “Your name is?” “Nina Arianda.” “Well, great. We’ll get back to you.” The door closed and it was instant bedlam. It was like people were throwing chairs around, papers were flying and Brian was saying, “Who’s her agent?! How do we get a hold of her agent?!” I believe that Nina got the call that she got this job on the way to the subway. We were calling her agent as she was going down the steps form the audition studio.
On the depth Wes Bentley brought to his role in the Off-Broadway production:
He was great. He was fantastic in the part. He had also, interestingly enough — Walter and I didn’t know it until we read it in the New York Times when the play was running, they ran a front page of the Arts piece about Wes — they said that he had just been through detox, heroin, divorce, bankruptcy. We knew none of that. The thing is, we had caught Wes just at the moment when he was changing his life. And that change just continued. It was like we were seeing a man crawling out of the ocean saying, “I want this. This life preserver is what I want.” And so his insane commitment to the play was coming from a place of having gone sober, having gotten off drugs, having found a woman who he was in love. In a weird way, we had a man who had been way beyond where the play takes you and who was at a place of extraordinary centeredness. So he brought all that to the play. If you saw it down town, you know he brought all that intensity… So when we moved to Broadway, Wes was filming The Hunger Games. His whole life has turned around. He’s gotten great parts, partly because of Venus in Fur.
On finding a new leading man for Broadway:
We had to find someone else to do it and Hugh Dancy, an extraordinary actor whom I fell in love with watching Journey’s End, came to us and Hugh was willing to audition… Hugh was willing to audition for us because we knew that in order to find the right person for that part we could not do it on the basis of making an offer… Hugh was willing to do that, which is a sign of who Hugh Dancy is. He is another, total, whole human being. He came in, he read, he was brilliant and it was over. It was cast instantly. He’s amazing and brilliant. He has all of that extraordinary English technique which is very nice.
On the best/worst phone call a writer could ever get:
There was a day in my life which was simultaneously the happiest and the worst day of my life. I was living in New York way back in 1990. I was just bottoming out. I was tired of the business and I was tired of being poor. And I was tired of writing plays. And I had a play done in San Francisco and I just loved it. I was there for a week or two and I was working at The Magic. I thought, “What a great place to live. It’s clean. It’s beautiful. Next to the ocean. All these nice people. Totally delusional, of course. I was under that thing that San Francisco does to you — for ten days. I decided on the spur of this insane delusion that I was going to move from New York to San Francisco. Big theater town, right? I packed up all my books and moved — knowing nobody. Knowing nothing. I went cold. But I found this nice apartment. I seemed to be surrounded by the same nice people I had run into before. And I think my phone had just been hooked up that day or the day before and it rang. Nobody knew I was even there. I picked it up and it was Stephen Sondheim. And he said, “David. Hi. It’s Steve Sondheim. What are you doing in San Francisco?” And I said, “Well, it’s a long story but I’ve moved here.” And he said, “Oh, that’s too bad. I have a new idea for a musical and I was thinking maybe we could work on it.” And so, there I was standing in my empty apartment with my book boxes around me with Stephen Sondheim on the other end of the phone saying, “I thought maybe we could work together.” I hung up and I think I checked into an asylum for the next two years.
On getting a second chance to work with Sondheim:
About two years ago, I got a call from Stephen Sondheim and he said, “Listen, I was wondering if you’d like to come over for a drink and talk. It’s not about anything important.” I said, “Sure.” I’d never been over to his house… beautiful house filled with puzzles. So we’re sitting and drinking and chatting away. And I’d been there an hour and I said, “So, what did you want to talk about? You said it was nothing important.” “Did I say that?” “Yes.” “Well, it is important. I was wondering if you’d like to work on something. I’ve had an idea that I’ve been kicking around.” He told me the idea and I said, “That’s a really great idea!” And he said, “Well, actually, I also have this packet of notes that I’ve typed on it. Would you like to take these home and read them?” And I said, “Sure. What the hell?” I’d had a glass of wine.
On where his project with Sondheim stands today:
When Stephen Sondheim comes calling, you give it your attention. And the thing is, not only did I give it my attention but it was really a good idea. I started going over there and we would meet and we would talk. We brainstormed every couple weeks, every three weeks. And then his book, his two books, started happening, which sort of interrupted us. I was continuing to take notes and so I would send them to him and then we would talk on the phone or I would go over. Ultimately, he finished his books and he started writing some music and that’s where we are now. I was on the phone with him today. He sent me some pages. I have no idea if this will turn into anything. I can tell you this: it is the most amazing fun in the world to sit and brainstorm and dish with Steve Sondheim.
On Sondheim, love and the joy of theater:
You know, I’ve spent so much of my life thinking, “What would it be like to meet Shakespeare? What would it be like to run into Mozart? To meet Verdi?” The thing is, we have Verdi living with us. We have Mozart living with us. And his name is Stephen Sondheim. The extraordinary thing is that Verdi/Mozart is an incredibly practical man of the theater. It is all about making something good, which is really the thing I love about the theater. It is this little democracy, you may have heard me say this before, but what I’ve always loved about the theater, ever since I stepped into my first rehearsal room, is that you go into a room with a bunch of people with no ulterior motive except this thing good. You can’t be doing it for the money or you’re an idiot. You are working and meeting new people who do something for love and because they’re good at it. And so this is sort of a continuation, with Stephen Sondheim, of what I’m been doing out of love for forty years.