By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"A fairy princess!" he said.
To her credit, his mother kept a straight face. But when she gave the boy a big box containing a costume, it didn't hold a pink dress, white wings and silver wand. Inside was a bright red devil outfit. "Better I be Satan than a run-of-the-mill fairy princess," Wright says dryly.
Even before he could utter words such as "sexuality" and "desire," Wright knew that he was homosexual. And so did his playmates. "Children were so cruel and direct," he says. He retreated into literature. At the library, he'd check out plays by Tennessee Williams and biographies of Sir Laurence Olivier and find kindred spirits.
The torture he endured in elementary and middle schools gave way to something else in high school: acceptance. Wright got active in theater, appearing in juvenile roles at Theatre Three. "There was something kind of larky about his performing," says Jac Alder, director of Theatre Three. "I saw him as the kind of person who could be a keen observer. I would have been surprised if he'd gone on to be a suffering actor. I did think he was a potentially very important theater artist, but I thought it might have been as a director."
It was performing that got him through high school. "I was good in plays, and I was funny and I had a sense of humor," Wright says. "I carved out a niche for myself." His friends cut through all of the schools' demographics, from cheerleaders to athletes to brainiacs to nerds. Though he squired a girl to every school dance, Wright kept a tight lid on his sexual feelings. He'd later find out that most of the girls he "dated" would come out as lesbians.
Remarkable teachers at Highland Park High School opened up literature and history to him, showing Wright the value of a life of the mind. "I could think, and that was as legitimate as kicking a soccer ball," he says.
Accepted at Yale University in 1981, Wright knew that he wanted to create theater, by acting and directing. He went into New York as often as he could to "gorge" himself on plays. "I was maniacally focused, maybe to a fault," he says. But in addition to a degree in theater, he needed something practical "to fall back on." Obsessed with the Renaissance and the Dadaists, he also majored in art history. Now he'd have two unmarketable degrees.
As a senior, Wright snagged a bit part in a play starring Christopher Walken. Each night, Wright, dressed as a servant, had to walk onstage carrying a tea tray. And each night, Walken would fill each tea cup to the brim, leaving Wright struggling not to spill anything before his exit. "He was a charming sadist," Wright says. Instead of being angry, Wright felt privileged to be noticed by Walken. "Every time I'd walk by him he'd give me this knowing grin," Wright says.
Though onstage with a star, Wright panicked when he thought about his future. "I took a long hard look at myself in the mirror," he says. He knew the man staring back would never be cast as Romeo or Hamlet. As a character actor, he'd have to wait years to look eccentric enough to get many roles. And actors had to wait on others to cast them to get work.
To write plays, all he needed was pen and paper.
Wright had written his first full-length play at age 10, filling several hundred pages of Big Chief paper with his printing. Ever encouraging, his mother typed it up.
So while waiting in the wings to appear in the play with Walken, Wright began writing a two-person script called The Stonewater Rapture, about the sexual fantasies and conflicts of a teenage couple, each repressed in their own way, and the bizarre result. "I took it to the Edinburgh Theater Festival" in Scotland, Wright says. "Now it's still produced in community and educational theater 40 or 50 times a year."
At graduation, Wright realized what he was really good at was going to school. He enrolled in a graduate program in playwriting at New York University, earning spending money through odd jobs. He also earned a few bucks reading scripts for studios and theaters, writing "coverage" and making recommendations. It was a first lesson in the world of screenwriting. One script he liked, called Born Jaundiced, was about a death-obsessed girl whose family had a funeral home; it was sinister and sarcastic. A watered-down version would get made as My Girl, a sweet and not at all sinister 1991 film starring Macaulay Culkin.
Wright's master's thesis was a play called Interrogating the Nude, about the Cubist Marcel Duchamp, painter of Nude Descending a Staircase, who turns himself in to police for dismembering his female model and scattering the body parts on the stairs. Performed by the Yale Repertory Theater, Nude was the first of his full-length plays to get any attention. (The next would be Watbanaland, about a woman who compulsively adopts Third World children when her husband refuses to impregnate her. "I think the review in the Times was so negative my friends advised me not to read it," Wright says.)