Paul Rudnick On Coastal Elites, Trash-Tweeting Ivanka, and How Bette Midler and Theater Give Him Hope

You’re getting attention for “Coastal Elites,” which was supposed to be a play at the Public Theater, but launches as a film on HBO September 12th, starring Bette Midler, Kaitlyn Dever, Dan Levy, Sarah Paulson, and Issa Rae in five separate monologues about coping with the new abnormal. Less heralded is your role as Tweeter of Trump family foibles; some of these Tweets strike me as mini-plays, and others just draw blood. How did you come up with the two enterprises, and do you consider them connected in any way?

Paul Rudnick: As with everybody else, Twitter lets me talk back to the Trump administration. It’s like an anti-anxiety medication, and I’ve been trying to make my tweets mostly funny, instead of just constant howls of anguish. The Twitter community intrigued me, from every side of the political divide; it’s like a global town hall. It’s insane and filled with crackpots, but I like logging on to follow the world’s reactions to unfolding events in real time. Trump has galvanized Twitter and the weirdest part is, he pays attention to it. He’s furious when #TrumpMeltdown or #TrumpIsAnIdiot are trending.

I wanted to capture some of this rawness and frenzy in “Coastal Elites.” Right after the 2016 election I went to see my doctor for a check-up. He’s a very circumspect, ultra-professional guy, and he looked shell-shocked. He said that all of his patients didn’t want to talk about any medical problems – they couldn’t stop talking about the election. I wondered if this obsessiveness would subside, but it’s only expanded. And that’s where “Coastal Elites” came from. I started writing it about a year ago, and I was able to rewrite up until shooting, which ended a little over a month ago. We filmed the show remotely, with every possible Covid protection, and our director, Jay Roach and the amazing cast were incredibly helpful – everyone was hyper-informed about every nuance of politics.

The piece was always a collection of monologues, which also reflects Twitter, where people can pour out their frustrations without getting interrupted.

Neither of these projects are theater in any normal definition of theater, although it feels like there’s a theatrical sensibility at work (whatever that means.)
I know you’ve had a varied career as a writer [e.g. films such as  Addams Family Values and In & Out; essay collections such as I Shudder], but many people see you primarily as a playwright [The Collected Plays of Paul Rudnick] Or at least I certainly do, given that I’ve been attending your plays since “Poor Little Lambs.” Do you see yourself that way?
Yet now playwrights are focusing online. Do you foresee any lasting effect on the theater of the current period, when “theater” and “online theater” are basically synonymous?

I very much think of myself as first and foremost a playwright. That’s how I started and that’s the world I love. When I started writing “Coastal Elites” it felt theatrical but I wasn’t sure where it would land; I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I’ve written monologues before and combined them into full evenings – this was the structure of my play “The New Century,” which was produced at Lincoln Center. I knew “Coastal Elites” wanted to be monologues, because I was dealing with characters at peaks of emotion and storytelling; they’re all in crisis. Monologues can be like songs in musicals – they’re outbursts.

We were originally going to stage “Coastal Elites” for a series of performances at the Public Theater in NYC, with a live audience, which Jay Roach would film for HBO. When the pandemic hit this became impossible, but then HBO and the show’s production team, which includes Jeffrey Seller, Scott Chaloff and Flody Suarez, all with extensive backgrounds in theater, wondered if there was another route. Once we knew that our cast and crew could be kept safe, Jay and I talked about how the show could be filmed remotely. Because the pieces are monologues, they lent themselves to the intense focus and intimacy of being filmed for TV. It’s like having a front row seat for performances by an incredible cast.

I never anticipated any of this, but the format ended up feeling like a great match for the material, and thanks to Jay, it doesn’t feel limited.

I’ve watched a lot of online theater, and much of it is amazing, especially because the times we’re living in give the shows such yearning. But with all that, I’m like everybody else: I’m desperate for the live event, to see actors onstage, to react as part of a packed theater, and to be in a rehearsal room. I have a new play called “Guilty Pleasure,” which was scheduled for this Fall at the LaJolla Playhouse, to be directed by my long-time collaborator, Chris Ashley. The production has understandably been postponed to next Fall.

I love how theater people are adapting creatively to the shutdown, and trying to stay economically afloat. And online theater will continue to be a world to explore, but nothing replaces, or will ever replace, live theater. It’s too essential and too joyous.

Ok, but do you think this moment of online theater experimentation will have any kind of effect on live theater itself when live theater returns?

The online experimentation during the pandemic will certainly affect subject matter, in terms of plays or musicals taking place during this period. It’s part of the internet’s and social media’s ongoing effect on theater; artists are inventing ways to include the online world in live events, with regard to everything from dating apps to TikTok. The world lives online, and theater had already begun to reflect that. Also, auditions and meetings were already taking place virtually, but this may become even more commonplace. Zoom readings will probably remain a useful tool for writers, actors and directors, as a shorthand during the development of theater projects. Maybe the pandemic has normalized a new form of rehearsal, especially for performers whose personal lives and schedules don’t always allow everyone to be in the same room.

Even more than the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement is already having a huge and welcome effect on theater. Artists have been using this downtime to examine how theater, at every level, can become truly inclusive. Whenever life returns to something resembling normal, theater may, in many necessary ways, be changed forever.

What was lost in “Coastal Elites” by having it become a film on HBO rather than a play at the Public Theater?

I’m not sure what was lost in transforming Coastal Elites from a theatrical experience to a filmed one. On one hand, comedy benefits enormously from audience response; but I watched our cast navigate this potential obstacle with incredible skill, and the script gained an intensity. Most of our cast has stage and film experience, so they drew on both. Also, on a sheerly practical level, it most likely would have been impossible to assemble this particular group of actors for a stage run, due to their schedule demands and other commitments. So while I miss having a live audience, and the thrill that can provide, I’m so grateful that these performances have been captured on film.

In the monologue The Blonde Cloud in “Coastal Elites,” Issa Rae portrays a former schoolmate of Ivanka, who calls her “Dracula with a blowout!” In your writing (especially in your feed), you focus more attention — more venom and more wit — on Ivanka than Donald. Why? Is there a strategy in that?

Trump has become a hopelessly easy and infuriating target. We know he’s a horrific tyrant. I’ve tried to approach his ongoing damage from an angle. Ivanka, who claims to empower women, has denied all of her father’s sexual assaults, and when asked about his war on women’s reproductive freedom, she smiles brightly, and refuses to answer, claiming such matters aren’t in her “portfolio.” She, along with her family members, have wholeheartedly supported Trump’s bigotry, lies and his many other crimes.
Ivanka has tried to remain in an untouchable bubble, which is insulting to all Americans. She’s constantly retweeting praise for herself, along with hopelessly privileged and out-of-touch advice: in the early days of the pandemic, she posted photos of herself making pillow forts with her kids at her Washington estate, and flew private to her family’s resorts. None of this is okay and a lot of it is ripe for satire. In Coastal Elites, I examined this situation through a character who’s every bit as rich and powerful as Ivanka, but her moral opposite. The brilliant Issa Rae plays Callie, who attended boarding school with Ivanka, but who’s been raised with a sense of responsibility and service. Their reunion, at the White House, raises the stakes for everyone involved.

The five monologues of “Coastal Elites”  each seem to represent different aspects of the new abnormal. Which are you most hopeful about?

I can be as anxious and pessimistic as anyone, but this can be self-defeating. I’ve been inspired by the millions of people, all over the world, who are figuring out work, family, love and basic survival right now. One of the Coastal Elite characters is a young nurse from Wyoming, superbly played by Kaitlyn Dever, who comes to New York to volunteer as a frontline worker, The courage of doctors, nurses and healthcare workers remains astonishing. Even in the early days, without any protective equipment, they worked around the clock, providing care and whenever possible, saving lives. This degree of sacrifice is both staggering and hopeful; these workers are an inspiration to all of us.
In addition, I wanted Coastal Elites to be a tribute to the sense of humor that’s helping everyone cope. Bette Midler plays Miriam, a public school teacher and hardcore New York liberal who’s very much a tribute to my Mom and her sisters. Their passion and wisecracks always gave me hope, and I see their spirit in so many people. Bette Midler herself gives me hope: she’s a legendary performer whose tweets are hilarious and outrageously committed to changing the world for the better. Theater artists always give me hope. No one pursues theater to make a fortune or have an easy life. People work in the theater because they can’t imagine doing anything else. The pandemic has made theater almost impossible, but the theater community has stayed in constant touch, Theater people don’t give up, and that’s hope itself.

Last question:What line you’ve written during this awful year do you find the funniest?

I’d never try to pick a funniest line because I’d immediately hear a chorus of Twitter users in my head howling THAT’S NOT FUNNY!

The funniest stuff on Twitter is usually the responses: someone who identifies as Christian, Patriot, Mom will always say “Melania is the most elegant, caring First Lady in American history. Fuck you, libtard!”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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