When I tell playwright Neal Bell that I "enjoyed every micro-second" of his latest play, Splatter Pattern (or, How I Got Away With It), which is playing at Playwrights Horizons, he says he feels "blessed with the spectacular group of actors who were not only wonderful but nice as well, working under director Michael Greif's strong vision." Bell tells me he, "couldn't be happier."

It occurs to me that Bell is the only playwright to have been produced under three different artistic directors at Playwrights Horizons. Bell attended the University of Iowa's graduate school, and it was there he met talented, enthusiastic directors "who produced everything I wrote." Bell feels that playwrights really learn by "having their works done on their feet in production." Bell wrote for several years before having a work picked up by the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights group in Connecticut. Lynn Meadow directed his Two Small Bodies with Swoozie Kurtz and Frank Langella.

Bell says, "I loved theatre as a kid and recently found an essay I wrote in the third grade. It was a 'what I want to do when I grow up,' and I aspired to be a science fiction writer and make a lot of money." Bell did pen a sci fi novel, "Gone to be Snakes," which has been published by Modern Library.
When I ask him to discuss his "evolution as a writer," he replies, "this is difficult, but I will describe early influences when I got started. It was the late 60's! John Guare, Sam Shepard and the Open Theater created a time of excitement. That excitement is still out there, but theater has become marginalized. It's not part of the large cultural establishment. For example, I saw a play, The Elephant Vanishes, done by a British troop at Lincoln Center. It was based on a Murakami work - the Japanese writer -- and it was spectacular. It caught the essence of his vision, and it implemented multi- media techniques. It played for only four days, and no one saw it! Thirty years ago people would have heard about it and flocked to it. Now theater is a special fringe event at the edges."

When I ask Bell to talk about the kind of plays which 'should be written now,' he exclaims, At Princeton, I teach in the spring, and at Boston University where I teach in the fall, I ask students to describe the difference between movies and plays. What can drama do well as art? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the medium? I feel that when theater is working, it can be the most powerful -- more powerful than anything! Movies can do things, though, that the theater can't. Theater should stop trying to compete with movies and TV. TV is the lowest common denominator. Too many theater artists try to aspire to TV. They must recogmze the ways theater can ignite and inform!"
Years back, I did a lengthy interview with the late playwright Thomas Babe for Theater Week. I ask Bell, "what influence did Babe have on you?" "He was a wonderful cntic and a different kind of writer than I am," he replies. He was my partner, you know. Some kind of influence was exerted on me over time. he was a much more 'operatic' writer than I am. In this new play the writer (who somewhat in some way might resemble myself) talks about ' a gusher and a dipper.' Tom directed several of my plays, such as Two Small Bodies. His skills as a director influenced my work. Tom was a creature of the theater. He directed a summer theater program at Harvard with actors such as Stockard Channing and Tommy Lee Jones. He went to law school and completed but never practiced it, as theater was in his blood."
Surrounded by actors of that calibre, is a playwright better able to write?" I ask. Babe replies, "Maybe. Actors who are committed and passionate..extraordinary people like the ones in Splatter, and have given their lives to theater and not run off to Hollywood to make a bundle of money are an honor to work with."
When I ask Bell, "did you deliberately try to create the flavor of our Zeitgeist in this new play, or did it just slip in?," he replies, "when a playwright really tries to deliberately do that, he may just trip himself up. It just slipped in." In a more personal vein Bell confesses, "I had made a decision to not write about what happened to Thomas Babe, and other things just hadn't come to fruition when I was working on this play... I was writing about an alleged killer but came to the idea of adding a characater who was dealing with a different kind of grief and guilt, someone who came out of some personal experiences."

I ask Neal "are you impasisonmed about any other contemporary playwrights composing new works now'?" He answers, "Craig Lucas and Caryl Churchill -- particularly her new Number play. It is hard for playwrights to interpret and view other contemporaries."

"In your Pnnceton classes, how do you 'guide' your student playwrights? " I ask. "I tell them," says Neal that they must keep in mind the medium they are writing for. It is not just literary but is written to be performed. Playwrights must use the audience's imagination to complete the event. Words must create an entire world. Of course, the scenic designer makes his/her contribution, but I tell them to write as if they are putting together a play for a group of actors to do on a beach or a deserted island. They must see how evocative they can be. Theatre happens through language. The direction then must find the audience."

"Today's theatre is a vicious circle," says Bell. "Only the rich can afford to attend plays regularly. Peter Brook wrote in his "Empty Space" book that eventually theater will end up being a millionaire sitting alone watching a play. I read this Brook book every year as it is profound. I recently received a 'bargain' flyer to see the Democracy play from England for a bargain $80 instead of $100." It is the economics of doing theater which defeats new works."
I add that "People just can't afford to move to Manhattan and be an artist anymore." Bell agrees, saying, `You just cant scrape by anymore like it used to be.This all has to be figured out. It would be alot easier if the public were more pasionate about theater." "In other countries, isn't theater functioning in a different role?" I ask, "whereas here you get Gays, Seniors & enlightened Jewish Folk?" Bell agrees saying, "It is extraordinary to see someone under 30 at an Off- Broadway show! Education campaigns must be instituted in the schools. Our present government administration and the quality of life in our time is not making theater happen. We are so atomized and isolated as individuals. Why do people not enjoy experiencing a communal experience? Is it uncomfortable for them? Sharing an intense experience is it too much? Theater at its best is very intense. It has to create an electrifying, terrifying feeling like it used to. Theater is no less relevant today or less able to do so, you know. We must make audiences feel comfortable.." "Or uncomfortable." I add.
"Yes," Bell concurs, "we must change the mood of the country and not be about cowering in front of a TV or computer. This hiding out is a symptom of our times " When I tell Neal Bell I call 'e-mail euthenasia mail or enema mail, he laughs. He wonders, "why must people feel more comfortable being connected at some superficial level? Why is our world about uncertainty over what the world is about? What the family is about...what the country is about? Why does the government make us afraid of these issues - the theater must examine these issues. Theater needs to make us squirm."
"Larry," he adds, "aren't you excited about seeing Ten Angry Men again?" Neal asks. I reply, "I'd rather see Ten Little Indians.

Neal Bell tells me his "schedule involves writing from 9 to 1 and then taking a couple hours and resuming after lunch when he is smoking (as in percolating) again. He doesn't write every day but grants "some-fill-up the-well periods to replenish."

The question: "what are your other passions?" makes him laugh. "That is a good question because writing is so all consuming that even as you read a book, you wonder 'do I have time to do this?', and one eye is always looking to see how this is feeding you."
Bell is quite excited about two student productions of his adaptations of Zola's Therese Raquin and his Frankenstein are being done at Boston University. He says, "The Times hasn't always been good to me," but I assure him that I feel "an over-the-top review will be granted to this extraordinary new work and that it makes me want to read all his other plays immediately."


Key Subjects: 
Neal Bell, Thomas Babe, Playwrights Horizons, Splatter Pattern, Boston University
Larry Myers
October 2004
Neal Bell Extols the Theater