Stephen Adly Guirgis in Conversation with Sofia Moran

Stephen Adly Guirgis is an extremely accomplished playwright with plays nominated for both Tony and Olivier Awards and has won a Pulitzer Prize for ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’. There’s no doubt that Guirgis is a talented writer, and I’m sure has inspired many whom have seen his plays and studied his work.

We met at the Hampstead Theatre after the premier of ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’. Thanks to technology, we met again via zoom. He is in LA and I am in London. The geographical distance disappeared once we started this interview

Raised in New York by an Egyptian father and Irish- American mother, Guirgis takes a lot of inspiration from his life and surroundings.

Guirgis trained as an actor – yet through his company, LAByrinth, “there was a reason to start to write and then there was a reason to continue.”

“You said you don’t like writing?”


“Do you like acting?”

“I like acting, yeah. I mean I like writing after it’s done, and sometimes in the moment, when you’re in the flow, it can be satisfying. But no, I hate the process.”

However, despite this, Guirgis made a good point, “The first person that’s gonna act out all of those characters is gonna be you, in your head, when you’re writing them. So, in some ways you get to play characters when you’re writing that you would never play in real life.”

“At first it was a happy accident, and then it was an unhappy accident and then it was definitely a form of service for my company. But then at some point I realised that I was given some talent, and then I felt I had a responsibility – as long as I had the talent – to write what was meaningful to me and hopefully it’s gonna be meaningful to someone else as well.”

Although I was happy to hear that Guirgis had found talent in writing, I was curious to hear more about his first love: acting.

“What do you like about acting?”

“I like the fact that acting- you gotta show up somewhere and there’s other people and everyone says ‘Hello, how was your night, what did you do? etc’ and then you get quiet, and you rehearse, and you get your demons out. It’s visceral. And also, the response is immediate… You do it with other people, basically. Writing… is a communion with something outside of us as well, but you’re alone. I guess I like being alone, but I don’t like being alone that much”

“Are you extroverted or introverted?”

“I think I’m both. There’s a side of me that’s very introverted and then there’s a side of me that’s very extroverted. I’ve dealt with depression for most of my life, and writing, for me, it mirrors the symptoms of depression. When I’m depressed, I’m by myself, when I’m depressed, I’m up late at night, when I’m writing I’m by myself, when I’m writing I tend to write at night. I tend to write when no-one else is around to talk to. So, it starts to mirror the symptoms of depression and after a while your body can’t really tell the difference.”

“You said your writing process is ‘unhealthy’. Is this what you’re referring to?”

“Yes, and on top of that I’m not one of those people that can’t wait to sharpen their pencils and get some work done… I still don’t have discipline, I’m still trying to learn it… I have this expectation it’s gonna get easier because I’ve done it before, but it gets harder.”

“Why do you think you never built discipline?”

“I think that I have discipline around the things that I love and am motivated to do.”

“Like what?”

“When I was a kid, we started playing roller hockey. (It’s like hockey on roller skates). And when I first started, I couldn’t even stand up on a pair of skates. I was the worse person by far. But I wanted to do it so much that I practised and practised, and I’d fall. By the time we stopped, I was one of the better ones. When I went to acting school, when I first joined the company, all the best actors had studied with a guy named Bill. And I went to study with him. It was the first time in my life, in an academic setting, where I was motivated to excel. To do the best that I possibly could do. And I did. So, I think I have selective discipline. And there’s this side of me that’s childish and immature and I do the best that I can with it, to nurse it along and coax myself to the table and sit down and say a prayer. I also make it a big drama in my head. It’s just hard, it’s hard. I’d rather do something that involves other people, but it’s worth it.”

During this interview, it became evident that Guirgis is a very generous person -particularly his support for his theatre company LAByrinth.

“Certainly, I know I was able to help my company and the experience of going to London and working with the cast a little bit and how they all seemed to really love the play and were all really motivated to want to be good. You get an awareness, so what I’m doing has a benefit and not just for me.”

“Have you ever thought to cast yourself in a role?”

“When I first started, I would cast myself. But then I learned really quickly that if I wanted to learn how to write plays, I needed to be in the audience, listening to the audience watch the play. It’s true that cliche, the audience is a genius. When you’re in the audience, you can tell this is working this isn’t working. But when you’re on stage you can’t do that because then you’re not acting well. So, I made a choice to focus on the writing. But then we did this play, ‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’… the guy that was playing one of the roles was getting married, so I went on for him for two weeks, so in that instance the play was already written, and I just got to go in and do it and that was fun.”

A lot of his work is inspired by people and events in Guirgis’s life, an interesting one being ‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’ that was based on his friend that joined a cult (and is still in the cult). ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ was partially inspired by Guirgis’s own father as well as a news story where a black cop was murdered by a white one.

“Was the son, in ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’, a representation of yourself?”

“Yes, partially it was me, and partially it was this friend that lived with me at the time who ended up playing the part at one point, my friend Ron Cephas Jones, who’s a great actor, who just passed away in the last year. So that character was sort of a combination of me and him, and he had a lot of immature qualities like I do. Basically, just like a lack of completely growing up.”

Guirgis referred to himself as immature multiple times, and yet he has an amazing ability to look introspectively, with a self-awareness that is arguably rather mature.

“Would you say you’re hard on yourself?”

“Yeah, I’m probably pretty hard on myself. But there are probably other areas where I should be hard on myself but I’m not. When it comes to writing and work, I think it’s important to try and do your best and be as truthful as you can be. But at the same time, I don’t think we have a right to bore the audience especially with streaming services. In America, it’s not like people are running to the theatre. If I put something out, I want it to be not just people that go to the theatre automatically, but if your father comes, I want him to like Riverside and Crazy. So yes, I can be hard on myself. To some degree its helpful to be hard on yourself, in another degree it can cripple you and it’s no good.”

“What’s your favourite part about seeing a play come into fruition?”

“Watching the play, I’m focusing on the actors. What’s really gratifying is that moment where you just get lost in the story and are able to take it in. Part of the reason I started writing too, was to do what I would like to see on the stage, and the people I want to see and the kind of stories I like. So, there’s a really wonderful feeling where the show is working and you’re just watching it, and you’re involved in it emotionally and you look around and you see that the audience is too. It’s a nice feeling, it means that you did your job. People don’t go to the theatre to be bored. People go to the theatre to laugh, to cry, to think. So, if you do that, if you create something that allows them to do that, it feels good.”

“What’s been your greatest achievement?”

“I think my greatest achievement is that I make a living from the arts. I did every kind of job you could do. I was a bus boy, I was a waiter, a bicycle messenger, I handed out flyers. I did all that stuff until ‘Jesus hoped the A train’. So, I was 35, and still wasn’t making a living. But for the last 20 something years I make a living just doing this and that’s an achievement because that’s not the case for everybody… Not many people get to do what’s their dream. So, for me, being able to act in the West End – even if it was for a week – was realising a dream. To be on a TV show I was just on, even in a small part but it was every week. That was a dream. I did this play called ‘American Buffalo’ a few years ago, in this little theatre in Vermont with this actor called Treat Williams, that I grew up idolising. In fact, when I was a busboy, he was a famous actor at the time, and he would come to the restaurant, and I would bus his tables. Then 20 years later I’m in a play with him… Then I guess the other thing is I have a lot of friends and a lot of colleagues, and I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of people care about me. There’re many areas of my life where I feel like a failure, but at least there I must be doing something right to have those people. Like I don’t have a driver’s license, I don’t own anything really… I’ve never had children, I never thought I wouldn’t have children. I’ve never been married. I hope that happens, there’s a lot of that stuff that I didn’t do, or I haven’t done yet.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“I think that’s a question for my therapist. I don’t know, I think that there is a side of me that is still immature, like I’m a kid and I’m growing. I don’t know how to really explain it. I could drive a car, like if you were sick and needed to get to the hospital, as long as it wasn’t stick-shift, I could get you to the hospital.”

I can’t help but notice when listing his achievements, Guirgis doesn’t mention any of the awards he’s received. Instead, he humbly acknowledges his luck within such a difficult industry. Furthermore, he mentions his acting credits as opposed to his writing ones.

“Between Riverside and Crazy was written 10 Years ago now, what’s next?”

“I started 4 new plays, and one of them will be on Broadway next year. It’s called ‘Dog Day Afternoon’. There’s a famous movie with Al Pacino, so this is the stage version… Now we have director Rupert Goold, he runs the Almeida and he’s gonna direct it in New York. This actor named Jon Bernthal is playing the lead.”


I had an inspiring conversation with Stephen and love the authenticity he brings to his work, as well as the honesty when talking about it. Although he is a fantastic writer, I would love to see him in a play himself soon!


Between Riverside and Crazy is at Hampstead Theatre until 16 June.