Winnie Holzman and Paul Dooley have been married for twenty-nine years. Shortly after getting married they had an idea for a play. They finished the first thirty pages and put it aside. One of them wrote a musical. The other didn't. And one day, they stumbled upon their original notes. Hurricane Sandy hit. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. And reluctantly, with heavy hearts, they finished their play. So blame it on the weather.
I won't lie. It's a rare treat to sit in an audience where you get to reexamine your life in real time through such beautifully drawn characters.
Paul Dooley: A good play does that, though, doesn't it? Or I guess a good novel or movie. I'm glad it resonated with real life. There were a lot of themes from our own lives, of course, that we tried to weave in to what Frank and Emily go through in Act I.
What do you feel is the central theme of Assisted Living? That you don't have to be alone to be lonely?
Winnie Holzman: That's the cautionary tale within the play. Emily reads that line in Heather's fan letter to Frank and it really lands for her. That's one of the reasons we love the title Assisted Living. We don't ever live alone. Even if you don't know it, we all live real lives, connected to others — but the ways we help one another along are often mysterious or hard to see right away.
PD: The moments we take for granted are often the ones that mean the most.
WH: Yes! And realizing that leads to transformation. We don't change alone, either. We change because another person reached out. They gave us the room we needed to change.
You've created some beautiful brush strokes in the script about the legacies we leave behind. As actors and writers, do you sometimes feel like you may be thought of as the sum of your Playbill bios?
WH: Too often! You always worry that you might be just your résumé. But the truth is, your résumé is also all about the lives you touch and the people [who] love you. It's the experiences you had in this play or that movie.
PD: In a small way, that's why we do what we do. We want to be an active part of people's lives, even for a little while.
You've both done so much work in television and film over the years. Do you ever feel the need to leave a legacy behind is what draws actors to "putting it on tape" instead of treading the boards?
WH: Well, that's how Paul and I met, you know. We were scraping by, working in live theatre. And when we rediscovered the first thirty pages of this script, we had this great aha! We began writing this thing twenty-five years ago.
PD: It was like finding a dinosaur fossil! It was written on onion paper! You could see clear through it. We wanted to perform together again.
And it came together quick. Rehearsals started at the end of March.
WH: Fast and slow, fast and slow. The first act was in a shoebox for twenty-five years.
PD: Then when we found it at the end of October, the last two acts were finished by Christmas.
WH: We just looked at each other and knew. After a quarter of a century, why wait? So we called our good friend, Larry [Biederman, director] and jumped in with both feet.
Is there any other way with a labor of love?
WH: There's not! And we have such a great comfort with Larry. We'd worked together on the TV show I did with my daughter, Huge, and he just felt right to direct.
PD: Oftentimes, when you start something from that place of love, things just fall together. A creative life is all fits and starts.
Nothing for years and everything in minutes.
WH: It's been a quarter of a century and we're both still pinching ourselves saying, "I can't believe we did this."
PD: Plus, when you write it yourself, there's no fear you'll let down the playwright.
As a couple who's survived the successes and stalls of a married life in the business, would you recommend those rare fits of reorganization that lead to such shoebox discoveries?
WH: Absolutely. I think sometimes the universe keeps things lost until you're ready to find them again. All of a sudden, you're fifteen years older, you have new insight, and it's like—
PD: —how did I not see that before?
WH: And what a joy to go from feeling so completely lost to found. Just because you feel lost sometimes is no reason to give up or quit.
PD: That is the theme of the show, for me.
And when the universe locks you in a hotel room for forty-eight hours?
WH: That always helps!
After such wonderfully dovetailing careers, is there anyone else you'd rather be stuck in a hotel room with?
PD: Not a chance. That's the right answer. Isn't it, dear?
WH: Yes. That's right.