August Wilson is one of the most influential and celebrated American playwrights of the 20th century.
His work has been lauded for its ability to capture the African-American experience, while also resonating with a universal audience.
In this exclusive interview, we get a chance to go beyond the stage and explore Wilson’s thoughts on the craft of writing, his creative process, and his views on the importance of art in our world.
From his inspiring story to his invaluable advice, it’s an opportunity to gain insight into the mind of one of the greatest American playwrights of our time.
As a young child, August Wilson did not have any ambitions to become a playwright. In fact, he didn’t even consider the idea until his college years.
His first aspiration was to become a baseball player, but he suffered a knee injury during his junior year of high school that ended his athletic career.
It was during his time as a student at Indiana University that he decided to switch majors from pre-med to English, which ultimately led to his discovery of playwriting. After receiving his BA, Wilson went on to receive his Master of Fine Arts in Drama from the University of California, Irvine.
Throughout his studies, he focused primarily on playwriting, producing five plays during his time at UC Irvine.
After graduation, he moved to Pittsburgh and taught at Carnegie Mellon University for over 20 years.
It was here that he completed his ten-play Cycle, a collection of plays that explore the African-American experience throughout the 20th century, in order to highlight a shared history among black people.
While there is no set process that all writers follow, Wilson often spoke about his own experience with writing.
According to him, the best way to get into a creative state of mind is to clear your mind of all thoughts.
The best way to do this is by going for a walk, preferably in the woods. While walking, you should consider the direction of your story and what you’d like to accomplish with it.
Once you’ve come up with a general idea, you should write it down. Keep these ideas in a folder, and revisit them later to write.
Throughout his 10-play cycle, Wilson explores a number of themes, but three seem to surface most often: identity, family, and place. Identity is a prevalent theme in his plays, as many characters are either fighting to find their identity or mourning the loss of it.
This is especially evident in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, in which the lead character is a black man who is struggling to find his place in the world.
When asked about the theme of identity, Wilson explained that it was difficult to define. “I’m not sure I could give you a good, concise definition of it. It is something that men and women and all people have struggled with for centuries. Who am I, and where do I fit in the scheme of things?”
For Wilson, art is essential for society to advance. He believed that the development of art is crucial to the civil rights of any minority, and that “the more that any people advance, the more they need art.” For Wilson, art doesn’t just have aesthetic value; it is also a form of social justice.
He believed that it was necessary for minorities to have their stories told through the art of theatre, and that the ability to produce art is something that all people should have access to.
For those hoping to follow in Wilson’s footsteps, he had a few pieces of advice. First, he said that aspiring playwrights should read.
Reading will help you to gain a better understanding of the craft, and it will enable you to better critique others’ work. He also suggested that aspiring playwrights should write as much as possible.
He explained that the only way to become a proficient writer is by writing consistently. He also advised that writers read widely, saying that you should read whatever forms of writing you’re not familiar with.
When reflecting on his work, Wilson was humble. He said he never set out to become famous or to make a name for himself in the art world; he just wanted to tell stories.
He also said he hoped that his work would be remembered, but he didn’t want it to be remembered as the work of August Wilson, but as the work of the playwright.
When asked what he wished to be remembered for, he had a simple answer: “For the honest work. That’s the only thing that one can be remembered for. That the work was honest. That it was sincere, and from the heart.”
In his lifetime, August Wilson wrote ten plays that explored the African-American experience. He received a large number of accolades for his work, including two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and two Tonys.
His stories have been performed on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in various theatres across the country.
In 2001, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal for his work. With his passing in 2005, the world lost a great playwright, but his work will live on as a testament to the power of theatre.
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