Few mothers tell their children to grow up to be an artist or playwright.
Parents give their daughters dance lessons and pay for acting classes
so that they will, in the words of famed playwright Wendy Wasserstein,
"grow up to become well-rounded doctors who love ballet."
Yet, somehow, the girl who had no idea that someone could grow
up to be an artist is hailed as one of the great writers of our
Wasserstein, who gave the annual Vivan R. Shaw lecture Wednesday
night, addressed New York City living, her life in theater and how
the two mesh.
Born in Brooklyn and raised on the Upper East Side, Wasserstein
attended the Calhoun School, where she says she "began writing to
get out of gym class." Wasserstein went on to earn a degree in history
from Mount Holyoke College in 1971 and post graduate degrees from
the City College of New York and Yale School of Drama, which the
playwright says she attended after applying to drama and business
school, and going to the one that accepted her first.
In 1989, she became the first female playwright to win a Tony award
for "The Heidi Chronicles." She also won a Pulitzer Prize for that
work. In addition to writing plays, Wasserstein has written books
for children and adults and two collections of stories. She has
served as editor for numerous magazines and has taught at Columbia,
Princeton and New York universities.
Though she has lived other places, Wasserstein loves New York.
She says the city has an infrastructure that allows a family to
flourish, and she hopes it remains that way in the future. The daughter
of an immigrant owner of a ribbon factory, Wasserstein grew up going
to shows on Saturdays because her parents wanted her to experience
all the city had to offer. This exposure to theater helped form
her imagination and planted the seeds for her future career, she
In addition, Wasserstein saw the importance of female writers and
their works. But she wanted more women's voices in plays and other
writings, and she wondered "where were all the women?" she said.
Her goal was "to have an all woman's curtain call in the basement
of Yale Drama School." She began writing comic works about women
and their choices because she felt "comedy, especially women's comedy,
is very serious. ... It's about deflecting and why we deflect."
Wasserstein also wanted to see characters with whom she could identify,
so she wrote such acclaimed works as "Uncommon Women and Others"
and "The Heidi Chronicles." She said her works, particularly "The
Heidi Chronicles," are meant to show "how the times you live in
affect personal choices."
Wasserstein's life, involving both New York City and her career
in theater, came together in a program that she created for young
people. Years ago, she started the program in which she took eight
students from a New York City public high school to eight plays
throughout the year. The students, all of whom primarily focused
their school careers and extracurricular activities on math and
science, came to have a better understanding of their city through
Wasserstein said one student best summed up the experience when
she said she previously felt New York was distant, but after going
to the plays, she felt like a true New Yorker for the first time.
Wasserstein also recalled an anecdote from a trip to Washington
a few years ago, when she lobbied Congress for artist grants. While
having lunch with a former congressman, she was told that her efforts
were futile, and the congressman noted: "Arthur Murray never needed
a grant to write a play."
"If the people in charge of the arts don't know the difference
between Arthur Murray and Arthur Miller," Wasserstein said, "the
community needs to get involved."