Influences: In the Men’s Room With Wallace Shawn

Photo: Carol Rosegg/Courtesy of The Karpel Group

First things first. Why are you doing this interview from the men’s room of a restaurant?
Either I share all this with restaurant customers taking a piss, or I share it with the entire cast of the play, which I’d rather not do.

Okay. What was the first music you listened to?
Before I was 5, I did have a lot of time on my hands. I had no job and really no career, and I spent an awful lot of time listening to records. It was more the classical ones, really—Prokofiev, and I think there was some Mozart in there, and more impressionistic composers like Delius. My father was a jazz listener, and I think, at least before I was 5, I was not so into that. Although there were records that emphasized percussion that I liked, like Baby Dodds.

What about children’s books?
Andrew Lang was the editor of a series of books—The Blue Fairy Book, Green Fairy Book, Red Fairy Book. These are basically incredibly elegant versions of folktales that were made up anonymously.

But you graduated to serious work pretty quickly.
I was a more educated person at that time than I am today. I led the life of an intellectual up until a certain age. I remember Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was a big favorite when I was 11. It sounded so interesting. And it really was!

Then you were seeing Eugene O’Neill and Beckett plays by your early teens. Do you think you really got them?
I don’t remember that I had a vastly different experience of them than I would have if I saw them now. Children, I always think, are just putting on a performance of being naïve and not understanding anything. I have worked with children in films, and they’re treated as adults and they just drop the pretense of being children.

You played the violin too. What did you like to play?
I always enjoyed Handel. It’s very nicely written for people who don’t play the violin that well.

Did you go to the movies?
I work for Walt Disney, and that’s who I thought I would work for when I was 8. I did love those cartoons—the great big, long epics from Sleeping Beauty on. I didn’t think I would be a voice—I thought I would be drawing the pictures. But my drawings were more like my plays, which are not really in the Disney vein.

So were you interested in the visual arts?
I didn’t really appreciate art until I was in my twenties, and the first thing I ever got was Egyptian sculpture. That was the way in for me for some reason. When I was a kid at school, we were taken to the Egyptian wing at the Met, but at that time I didn’t get it.

What about live films?
City Lights might have been the first I saw. I was 5 or something. But I was a little afraid, and I don’t remember it particularly joyfully. And then I saw a movie about outer space that scared me a lot—Rocketship X-M. But The Living Desert was a close second, with its battle between the tarantula and—maybe it was a scorpion. I’ll never get over that as long as I live.

Were they giant bugs?
You’re goddamn right they were giant! They were the size of the screen. I’m scared now as we’re talking about it.

You were a big fan of Kissinger in your youth.
I read him in high school—Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. This was when Kissinger was seen as a liberal, by the way, by himself and others. I was a student of his work before Nixon was. This was before the Vietnam War. Our views diverged.

You decided to go into drama while at Oxford. Did you see a lot in the West End?
Three Sisters, directed by Laurence Olivier. Gielgud and Ralph Richardson were more meaningful to me as actors, but Olivier’s production was incredible. Another incredible one was Terlawny of the “Wells,” by Arthur Wing Pinero.

Who were your favorite comics?
I liked Jackie Gleason unbelievably much. There was a guy called Menasha Skulnik, the first person I saw on television. He was hilarious. Ernie Kovacs was a god to me. And, of course, Mad magazine—a savior to many people in the fifties. It saved us.

Do you like any pop music?
It’s too personal. There are things that may pass through the radio waves that are having an overpowering influence on me, and even my good friends may not know that I’m having that reaction. I think that popular music reaches us in a place that is very private. Maybe it has to do with sexuality in some way—the types of things that we don’t always discuss with our friends.

Ever been to a rock concert?
I’m rather weak in that area. But I heard the Beatles at Shea Stadium. I adored the Beatles, my God. So now you know more about me than anyone else on earth. Because of being totally defenseless and standing in the men’s room, I’ve answered you frankly about a lot of things. But now I have to go and put on the play!

The Music Teacher, Minetta Lane Theater, Opens March 6

Influences: In the Men’s Room With Wallace Shawn