A Conversation with Sharr White

Thu, 05/08/2014

Exile recently interviewed Annapurna playwright Sharr White on writing, his influences, and the landscape of his play.


I read that you decided to write Annapurna as a two-hander partially because of the challenges for yourself as a writer. What challenges did you come across in writing this piece?

I did. I very much wanted to write a play that took place in real time, with just two actors. There seemed to be a real purity in being able to give in to a long-form narrative ebb and flow. The challenge is that you don’t have the luxury of bringing anyone else on to help with the story essentials—exposition, comedic relief, or just a needed change in pacing. Audiences need change; they very quickly run around you and head your story off. In a lot of ways, that’s the cat-and-mouse of playwriting. You have to maintain narrative tension between the play and the audience. So the big challenge was really in maintaining two narratives simultaneously: the present with the past. I would say the biggest challenge was in building the present motivations for each small release of information about the past.   


I understand that you have four sisters and your most recent plays, Annapurna, The Snow Geese, and The Other Place all have strong female leads. Do you find yourself drawn to writing central female characters as a result of growing up with so many women?

I’m really not sure. I ask myself that a lot. I personally think women in general are more interesting that men, but maybe that’s just because I’m a man. I do think women in general shoulder a much more complicated share of almost any interaction, no matter how seemingly casual. I’m shocked when my female characters are described by reviewers as ‘bitchy’. And I’m shocked that any editor would actually allow that description to go to print. It really pisses me off. Because really, what does that mean? Aren’t you, the writer of that word, more saying something about yourself? But I think it goes to show that strong women do something to people. They do something to other characters, and they certainly do something to audiences. I was going to say that I love strong women, but really I think I’m just fascinated with strong people. My wife is a strong person. What fun is life if you can actually figure somebody out?


Was it important that Ulysses be a poet? Do you write poetry as well as plays?

Annapurna really didn’t come together until I made Ulysses a poet. At first I was really afraid of making him an actual writer of poetry—I at first made him an academic, a scholar of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, but I couldn’t find a visceral metaphor in it for him, and the play just wasn’t personal enough. When it comes to writing poetry, I work out some not-very-good stuff when I get stuck on a play, but I’m not disciplined with it, and I don’t know the rules, so I’m quite insecure about it.


The relationship between Ulysses and Emma is steeped so in deep artistic respect, do you believe it is possible for love and creativity to be separate for such a couple?

For this particular couple, I don’t think it’s possible for those things to be separate. I think their mutual understanding of each other was the bedrock of their relationship. No matter how horrible things were, there was always a beauty present. Ulysses’ pages were always on the table in the morning, and Emma was always present to edit them. And I think that’s the trap of creative people. They can have a center of gravity that resists your efforts to leave them.


How has the deepest love in your life influenced your work?

Well, look. My wife saved my life. I’ll be very clear about that. When I met her I was thirty years old, and I was eight years into an existence as a waiter, and I was living in a street-facing apartment on the ground floor in Hell’s Kitchen, and I quite literally didn’t have a future—or not one that I could see. And, so she tells me, she knew I was the one. So I guess in a lot of ways, Ulysses as a character comes from where I was then. I’m not sure if having someone believe in you is a threat, or a dare. But it made me sit up and find some way to get off the horrible treadmill that my life had become.


In Annapurna, Emma and Ulysses have been apart for two decades and yet are able jump right back into a familiar banter. Is there anyone in your life that you have such a deep connection with?

Oh sure. It’s interesting when you’re young how twenty years sounds like such a long time. But as I’ve gotten back in touch with friends and girlfriends from years and years ago, I’ve been struck with how easily you fall right back into the old cadences. I wanted Ulysses and Emma to, in many ways, pick up right where they left off. But I think with people you’re close to, or have unresolved history with, this is just something you do.


You have mentioned in the past that you have familial ties to Colorado, have you spent a lot of time there?

Yes, absolutely. My grandmother’s grandfather moved to Colorado during the gold rush of 1859 and built a toll road to the gold fields. And my mother was raised on the Western slope of the Rockies in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s while my grandfather was a mining engineer. So it’s a place I’m very familiar with.


Is there something unique about the landscape in Colorado that lends itself to being a suitable purgatory?

The Western Slope of the rockies—particularly the less-traveled portion nearest Utah—can be a very desolate, incredibly beautiful place. Many people who choose to live there do so because of its isolation, and its extremes. It feels primal and pure and unforgiving. It seemed to be the right place to locate Ulysses. 


Ulysses has created a very specific meaning of what Annapurna is to him. What in your life makes you think of an Annapurna?

I decided on the title of the play, and Ulysses’ poem, when my brother gave me a copy of Maurice Herzog’s account of his ascent of the peak Annapurna. My brother, who had recently survived a back-country avalanche, told me about the concept in extreme sports—especially in mountaineering—of commitment. A climber who shuts off any chance of turning back is left only with the concept of going forward. How could I not write about a relationship with that in mind? The last line of Maurice Herzog’s account of his epic climb is There will be other Annapurnas in the hearts of men. I think he was right. And I think all of us have an Annapurna.  



Annapurna runs through May 11.