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Chatting With Will Arbery ’15 MFA

Pulitzer Prize–finalist playwright discusses his Evanston-inspired off-Broadway play and what it’s like to write for the hit HBO show ‘Succession.’

Will Arbery 5Qs
Will ArberyImage: Zack DeZon

By Diana Babineau
Spring 2023

What inspired your play “Evanston Salt Costs Climbing”?  

I was in a class taught by [radio/TV/film department chair] Thomas Bradshaw in 2014. We had to write a short play based on a news article, and I thought, “What if I found a local news article that’s deliberately boring?” There were a lot of snowstorms that year, and that headline, which became the title of the play, was unwieldy and bureaucratic. I wrote the play just to fulfill the assignment, but the characters — these salt truck drivers and this public works administrator, Jane — stuck with me. And once I moved to New York, I found myself thinking about them.  

I came back to Evanston in early 2020 and toured the salt dome, met with city officials and did research on emergent road de-icing technologies, including heated permeable pavers. in the play, Jane wants to use the pavers but knows it would make her friends, the salt truck drivers, obsolete.   

What else did you study at Northwestern?  

We wrote screenplays and TV pilots. I wrote four full-length plays and a feature and a comedy pilot. The drama pilot that I wrote for [associate professor of instruction] Brett Neveu’s class — my agents still use that as a sample. I have a meeting with HBO today, and that was one of the samples that my agents sent them.    

Many have praised your knack for writing dialogue — something that is notoriously difficult for many writers. How do you do it?   

I don’t have any secrets about how to write good dialogue. But it feels like the foundation of why I love what I do. From a young age I’ve listened closely to the specificities of how people talk, the highly specific differences in the way we use language. It’s never something that I consciously make decisions about. The actual work of writing a play or screenplay probably has more to do with structure, theme, transitions. Dialogue is just the fun part. 

Your Catholic, conservative upbringing features heavily in your plays. Is there more to explore there?  

My first three productions in New York — Heroes, Plano and Corsicana — all dealt directly with my sisters or my parents. I have seven sisters, and three have yet to be portrayed. If someone portrayed me onstage, I would feel super weird about it, so I wanted to give my family a break. There’s definitely more I could write. But it’s emotionally exhausting and delicate. So I’m giving myself a break, too. I do have projects on the horizon — some movies and an opera. But nothing has been publicly announced yet.   

How have you dealt with that emotional exhaustion?   

From my early 20s on, I was frantically working nonstop. Even if I was just watching TV, the motor in my brain was constantly running. I hit a breaking point when I realized I need to not just rest but redefine my relationship to work and not define my worth by how successful or productive I’m being. It’s really easy to get into that mindset, especially if you come from the middle of nowhere like me.     

Your Pulitzer Prize–nominated play “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” tackles divisive subject matter — former President Donald Trump, family tensions — offering no tidy resolutions. Does theater have a social responsibility then?  

I have a gut reaction when people say authoritatively that theater has a social function or responsibility: That can’t be the only blanket definition of what makes theater worthy or not. There has to be room for play, for experimentation, for going deep into the heart of unknowable questions that turn certain ideas on their heads. If artists are afraid to do that, then I think theater will lose its power as an artform.  

What was it like to write for season four of “Succession”?   

I felt lucky that my first TV gig was on one of the best shows. But I was intimidated and shy. I spent weeks obsessing about how little I was talking.   

Then, one of the writers said to me, “All you have to do is listen to the question that’s being asked in that moment.” And once I did that, I started talking on point because I was actually listening. It seems so simple, but it was a profound learning moment.   

And then in terms of the writers’ room — I was surprised at how much a bunch of polite Brits all love doing karaoke. I would be mortified to do it, but I love that they can really let loose!  

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