I don’t know how I start a play.
I probably start with the first sentence.
I know that it’s not going to be there for very long,
but I have to open the door a little bit,
stick my head in,
and see what’s in there.
—Neil Simon, playwright
The theater and arts world lost a bright light on Sunday. Celebrated playwright Neil Simon, whose Broadway hits included Barefoot in the Park, Plaza Suite, The Odd Couple, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Lost in Yonkers, died at the age of 91. The New York Times has released a beautiful 11-minute video tribute to Simon and his unprecedented career (see below).
Scattered throughout the tribute are excerpts from a 2008 interview in which Simon shares wise words about the creative process, about what really matters to an audience, and about keeping your motivations pure. Inspiring words that are so aligned with Transformational Presence and how to make a difference.
Early Career Challenge – Getting Over Being Shy
Simon’s first big break came when he and his brother were invited to join the writing team for the legendary television comedian Sid Caesar. Simon says, “My problem was the shyness. I could think of the line, but I wasn’t going to shout it out like Mel Brooks would, ‘I got it!’ I would have to sit next to Carl Reiner and whisper it. And Carl would jump up and shout, ‘Neil has it, Neil has it!’”
As his career unfolded, Simon aspired to write more than jokes. Yet his more experienced colleagues were having difficulty breaking into writing for the theater, so he didn’t have much confidence in himself. “Why would I have the gall to write a play when these really seasoned people can’t get it on? So I said that I better write about what I know.”
Write About What You Know
What he knew about was urban life and the neuroses of everyday people in New York City in the 1950s and early 60s. He started by writing about growing up in upper Manhattan, about life with his new bride, and about the struggles of ordinary people trying to figure out how life worked. Simon was able to spin these stories in ways that made for great comedy while at the same time touching something deeper.
Through trial and error, Simon learned that just being funny wasn’t enough for the audience. He quickly recognized that audiences want to care about the characters on the stage. And the more they care about the characters, the more they want things to go well for them.
So his intention became to create scenarios and scripts that would draw the audience into relationships with the characters. He wanted the audience to recognize themselves and the people around them in the characters on the stage – to become emotionally invested in what was happening.
Simon soon noticed that while there might be less laughs at particular moments, there were more cheers at the end of the performance. “It’s not all about the laughter. It’s about the feelings that the audience gets. Do they like these people or not? Are they living their lives well or are they not?”
It’s All About Connection and Relationship Between the Characters and the Audience
For Simon, it was all about connection and relationship. And this is the heart of Transformational Presence.
At the end of the day, it’s what people feel when they are with you that they will remember more than the details of what happened. They will remember how they felt when you said what you said or did what you did. Feelings are how we connect. Transformational Presence is about creating spaces and environments where people touch and feel something real and authentic inside themselves and inside each other.
Neil Simon’s last words in this short video sum it all up:
I never think about getting better so that I will be a better playwright, so that I will win a Pulitzer Prize. I just think, “Get the play out there. Maybe it will have a life. Maybe you’ve done something good for other people. Hopefully you’ve done something for yourself, for the actors, whatever – you just want to get the writing out. You want to get the things that you think about life onto the stage.
Enjoy the video.
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