As someone who’s dreamed about going to the Oscars since I was 4 years old, I was pretty star-struck when I heard a rumor that John Logan, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter and Tony award-winning playwright of Red (which just extended, by the way!), would be doing a talkback at Berkeley Rep. I mean, this is the guy that Scorsese calls when he needs a good script. Martin Scorsese. And Berkeley felt a little bit like Hollywood last Saturday night when Logan showed up for a post-show discussion with dramaturg Julie McCormick.
Chicly clad in an all-black ensemble, with Rothko-like glasses dangling around his neck, Logan was perfectly at ease as he answered questions about his career, the genesis of Red, and his personal thoughts on the real-life Mark Rothko. Logan was warm and personable, insightful yet unpretentious, and full of genuine admiration for Berkeley Rep’s production. He called the show “beautiful and elegant” and praised it for offering moments that surprised even him. Over the course of the rest of the 20-minute Q & A, Logan was like the best professor you never had, simultaneously educating and entertaining as he described the nature of his “work play,” the difference between the Shakespearean and Chekhovian models of dramatic writing, and the “generosity of spirit and arrogance of mind” that defined Rothko’s personality. There was an only-in-Berkeley moment when a woman asked if Logan ever dreamed about Rothko while writing the play. Logan’s initial response — an amused but thoughtful “whoa!” — suggested that this was probably one of the more unique questions he’s ever been asked. For the record, Logan didn’t really dream about Rothko, but he did have the “playwright’s version of an actor’s nightmare,” when he imagined showing up on opening night and finding out there was no play to go on.
Logan was also really, really funny. When someone asked what the Four Seasons Restaurant displayed after Rothko cancelled the Seagram commission, he instantly quipped, “They bought a Jackson Pollock.” And when a woman asked him who Ken telephones at the beginning of Scene Four, Logan straight-up admitted that the phone call was a “bogus” device for exposition. “I won the Tony anyway,” he shrugged sheepishly, sending the audience giggling. These comebacks, so good they could be included in Red, reaffirmed what I already knew: Logan is an expert with words, even on the fly. I’m very jealous — and still a little star-struck.
Logan was even good-natured when a patron, citing hearing problems, abruptly plopped himself down in the middle of the set and took over Rothko’s swivel chair, just a foot or two away from where Logan and Julie were seated onstage. Luckily, the intruder was well-behaved, and Julie and John went on with the talkback, just as cool as ever. The surprising moment underscored the writer’s self-proclaimed credo: “Don’t bore the audience.”
Some other great moments from the talkback:
-Logan explained that the inspiration for Red came when he visited the Rothko Room at the Tate Modern in London, which features a display of some of the Seagram Murals. Logan was instantly “struck by their seriousness — they’re dark, brooding, powerful works.” Logan spent a year researching Mark Rothko before completing the script for Red.
-Red is Logan’s first play in eight years, and Logan “never for a minute thought it was a movie,” since it explores an “exchange of ideas and shift in power dynamics over time” that’s better suited for the stage.
-Logan considers the priming scene to be the “fulcrum” of the play.
-Logan sees Red as, fundamentally, a “play about my relationship with my dad.” It’s a story that’s less about art than it is the story of old vs. young, protégé vs. mentor.
-Logan wrote his first play at the age of 18 and says there’s “nothing else I could do but be a dramatist.”
-Logan relates to at least one thing about Rothko: his deep commitment to his craft. No matter what Logan’s project is — whether composing Tony award-winning plays or drafting the latest Bond screenplay — he approaches it with “great seriousness.”