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A Last Interview: Douglas McGrath on Creating His Solo Show Everything's Fine

Just days prior to his unexpected passing, we spoke to McGrath over email to discuss his latest project.

On Wednesday, November 2, Douglas McGrath unknowingly performed his off-Broadway solo show Everything's Fine at the DR2 Theatre near Union Square for the last time. Less than a day later, McGrath was gone, the victim of a sudden heart attack. 

Everything's Fine was a passion project for McGrath, whose two best-known works as a writer are the film Bullets Over Broadway and the long-running Broadway hit Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. It's a true story — his true story — about growing up in Midland, Texas, and his complicated relationship with his lonely eighth grade teacher. 

Directing was John Lithgow, no stranger to solo shows himself. The two men didn't know each other — they were introduced by a mutual friend, Lincoln Center Theater artistic director André Bishop — but they mutually hit it off. Everything's Fine marked Lithgow's first time directing in three decades, and he was determined, as he told us, he didn't want to let McGrath down. "Simply put, I wanted to give Doug the perfect forum for his show," Lithgow said. "He's been waiting a long time to tell his story and I wanted to create a production in the perfect setting that fit him like a glove. It seems to have worked: I've rarely seen a performer so happy at his job."

That happiness radiated in his performance, and you could feel it in his off-stage words too. In what was quite possibly his last interview, McGrath spoke to TheaterMania via email to discuss making Everything's Fine. Here are excerpts from the conversation, presented in tribute to the 64-year-old writer, who died doing what he loved: telling a story to an eager audience and taking them on a journey into the unknown. 

Douglas McGrath
(© David Gordon)

Everything's Fine contains a very personal story in your life. As writer, what is the difference between putting pen to paper for something like this, versus a Beautiful or a Bullets Over Broadway?
Bullets Over Broadway was fiction, of course, and we had the freedom to create any kinds of characters we wanted—whatever amused us and moved the story forward. But as in Beautiful, which is based on the lives of Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Everything's Fine is a true story about my family and friends from Midland, Texas—real people, and so I felt an obligation to honor their memories by being as truthful as I could be.
 
How did John Lithgow's solo performance work inspire the creation of the play, and what it like to work with him as a director?
I was not lucky enough to see John's solo play, but I was introduced to him by our mutual friend, André Bishop. I think of André as my guardian angel in the theater —always there with advice, support, and wisdom. I asked him to read an early draft of the play for his dramaturgical advice, as well as for his ideas on who might make a good director. He had lots of good dramaturgical advice but only one suggestion for a director: John. No other suggestion was needed. John has been my perfect partner in this—helpful in every area, unflaggingly supportive, cheerful, a-brim with ideas and faith. Much of his excellent advice came from his experience doing his own show where, over the years, he worked with two great directors: Dan Sullivan and Jack O'Brien.

As someone who's not primarily known for being a performer, what is it like for you to get up on stage every night and tell this story? Did you have jitters that you had to shake off?
Though I have made my career doing all manner of things—writing for Saturday Night Live; writing and directing both narrative and documentary films; contributing essays to the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Air Mail; and acting in a number of films, including the miraculous piece of luck that three were Best Picture nominees (Quiz Show, The Insider, and Michael Clayton)—above all I think of myself as a storyteller. 

There’s nothing I love more than telling a story to a group of people who are eager to go on that journey with me. The joy of Everything's Fine is that unlike my films or other narrative work, I look right out at the audience, and we connect from the beginning. Because the show starts out in a warmly amusing way but then slowly becomes something darker, scarier, and more moving, it is wonderful to be able to see how those transformations register on the audience’s faces.
 
What do you want audiences to take away from seeing your show?
Behind everything else in the play, Everything's Fine is about the value of trying to understand why some people behave the way they do, especially if they are behaving in a way that is not kind. Finding some comprehension can be a relief, and it can allow forgiveness which benefits the forgiver as much as anyone. I also hope people will come away knowing that if they are in trouble of any kind not to feel that they have to, in the play's words, "carry it all alone." Open up to a loved one or friend or counselor. Getting help is not the act of a weak person, but is a sign of common sense, strength, and self-respect.

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