Interview with Steven Dietz
Earlier this summer Steven Dietz, playwright of Remy Bumppo’s upcoming production of Fiction, was in town to attend a reading of his latest commission from Steppenwolf and see Chicago Children’s Theatre’s production of his play Honus & Me. Luckily he managed to find time to join Fiction director Nick Sandys for a spot of lunch and to answer some questions.
Nick Sandys: Here we are, opening a season for the first time with a modern American play. But I must say I am somewhat amazed that nobody else in town has picked it up. I mean, this is the Chicago premier – how did that happen?
Steven Dietz: Well, you know, I have no complaints. Chicago has been very good to me as a writer. But the theatres here are pretty fierce about their own writers, the writers that they really support, and that’s great. I’ve been the recipient of that support in other cities. I mean, I know all the people at Northlight [where Dietz’s Lonely Planet premiered], and Victory Gardens, and the Goodman, and they look at my plays. But actually one of the great things about Chicago is that a lot of cities are like, “Well, it was done Off-Broadway, so then it’s worthy for us” – but what I love about Chicago is that kind of: “Well, I don’t fucking care about that” attitude. “We’ll do whatever we really need to do.” I love that about Chicago.
In the Playbill interview you gave for the New York production [at The Roundabout Theatre in 2004], you said that you rewrote a few things after the premier at The McCarter Theatre.
Yes, but not like I normally rewrite. I mean I normally cut characters and scenes and acts. I don’t like to open a play until I’ve made a cut on every page. But I learned a lot from directing the original reading [at ACT in Seattle] and then coming back to direct it with a couple of the actors I had written it for. I feel like you learn a very brief, prepared speech for each of your plays. I mean, I’m getting to chat with you face to face, but on email, if someone has a question about Private Eyes or Lonely Planet or Sherlock Holmes, you kind of pare it down to a couple of sentences of probably self-evident things – and those productions helped sort of confirm what those few things about Fiction are to me. And that basically was: the productions that all worked have one thing in common, which is the actors started with the premise that this is a very, very great marriage – and it seemed so self-evident, and I watched actors outsmart themselves. They started off thinking that, but they didn’t hold onto it. And of course, things should change in rehearsal, and you should get to take the play apart – the play is way tougher than the playwright – but that initial premise of: “We can be this brave and frank with each other to beat this cancer; we can show it to you because we have nothing to hide.” I don’t mean they’re heroes. It’s a great marriage. They love each other to death, and that’s the test for everything else. I’ve seen some productions where it was a play about a marriage in trouble and I thought to myself, “You’ve got nowhere to go.”
And then the self-evident thing of just playing the moment and not letting the actors tip off what they know. There is something, for example, that Abby knows she knows on this page – but she can’t play it earlier. Ideally everybody make the hardest, smartest choices, but then they play their cards close to the chest. That ends up being my prepared speech on Fiction – and you can ask me anything else whether you want to or not.
It seems to me that music or sound is really important in Fiction, particularly with the set up in the first scene [where the characters debate the Best rock vocal performance of all time – Janis Joplin or John Lennon?]. Did you use a lot in the production you directed in Seattle?
I’m a big music buff, so I did a huge sort of “found” sound design, though I would love to have done it with a composer. I used groups like Tin Hat Trio and Bill Frisell and Paris Combo – contemporary stuff, but with some weird instrumentations. I just thought of it as the fourth character. I love an aggressive sound design. I have this beautiful riff that’s actually from Zimbabwe – it’s called the Kankan Blues and it’s this nine minute song, and I lifted out snippets of it. It may be totally wrong for your production, of course.
I said to Josh Horvath [Sound Designer for Fiction] that I would be interested, if we can do this, in maybe using a cello version of the Janis Joplin mentioned in that first scene but not where you expect it.
Oh I get passionate emails from people on voting on that question, and then telling me those aren’t nearly as good as, oh, Otis Redding, or Aretha Franklin, and I often agree with them…
I think we’re going to put that vote on our website too.
Oh, let ’em vote! The Greatest Rock Vocal Performance of All-Time! To me, Janis’ isn’t even that one. “Piece of My Heart” isn’t even as good as “Me & Bobby McGee”, but there are two many words in “Me & Bobby McGee” for the way I wanted to use it in the dialogue, shameless pragmatist that I am.
In my experience, the music is very helpful because it allows you to hit the quiet, the relative quiet when Michael and Linda are back in their house… I mean, we really only make noise in the theatre just to produce quiet – the quiet of a home, the quiet of Drake Writers’ Colony.
I see the Drake colony as very New England, perhaps a distant sea sound, almost like the South Africa trip, but that’s all you can hear, a lulling.
Yes. The sound of your mind not working.
Do you see Fiction also as a metaphor for our current culture? A culture of “non-realities,” of fake “reality” shows, a culture of lies?
Well, somewhat. I have plays that point at the culture more than this play does, but obviously it fits in the culture and has to play against the culture. On the personal level, and I’m sorry if I’ve said this in some interview you’ve already read – you can never sound original anymore because of the stuff you’ve already said that’s on the web, but you know I’ve grown interested in the fact that there are really three “pasts” – the past we remember, the past that we record, and the past that actually happened. I think they are seldom the same thing. And I suppose culturally it’s similar to, you know, things that we are told, the way that they are then presented to us, and the things that actually happened. And so there is this gulf between memory and reality and how we’re able to, probably, “spin” our own lives.
Especially with all these current scandals about authors who apparently write a biography and it turns out to be a totally fictional account, and the woman in New York recently, JT Leroy, who was actually Laura Albert, who created a whole fictional novelist persona, and is now being sued for not “being” this other drug-culture character, under which name she signed movie deals etc.
Which is the great reaction to “You can only write about your own life, blah blah…” So this person being very savvy said, “They really love, like, you know, fucked-up-life people and drug-addiction and I-was-abused-by-all-of-my-foster-parents,” so she’ll just become that person. That is the reality show culture and you have to sort of admire the nerve to embrace it with abandon.
You know, I’m an author. I’ll do anything to get my story told, I don’t care what it is. So I tend to say, if the writing is good, well who cares? I am sorry that some people got bummed out, that they read that book and had this picture of this person in their mind, and then they found out, and “Well, that’s not who I thought it was.” But who cares?! Did the sentences land with you or not? End of topic. It shows, I suppose, how we conflate our creators, how we turn our authors into the people we think or need them to be.
Like when we turn actors into the characters they play – people think you are that other person.
Absolutely, and I think at some point that’s when I added that line, I don’t know if it’s still in the play, about, “You don’t have to put yourself in your book. People will find you in your book, whether you’re in there or not.”
That desperation, that need for truth at the bottom of fiction, and people will sue when confronted with that “betrayal.” I see it as a wonderful metaphor for where we are right now. But also, ironically, the play’s playing with narrative realities reminded me very much of my own research into the history of the early novel form itself. In the midst of a volatile social world of the 18th century, the early capitalist/middle-class/industrial revolutions, that battle over questions of morality and truth, of how do you create a reality that is not there without lying, which is deemed sinful – a dilemma which caused the invention of all those narrative forms and experiments from the likes of Defoe, Fielding etc.
Yes, I’m finally getting around to reading David Copperfield. You know, you take so much for granted in a “classic text”, then you realize it’s also so completely ground-breaking. Like the narrator saying, “O I don’t know this yet, I can’t really know this yet, I’m not an omniscient narrator, but I kind of do know it, but I’m not going to talk about it in this chapter, I’m going to tell you later.” And now we just kind of read that like, “Oh, okay.”
Do you read a lot of novels?
I do, but not as many as I would like.
Were there particular writers you thought of when you were writing Fiction?
Certainly. But I’ve never managed to be invited to a writers’ colony – I’m trying to get an invitation, so I can research my play retroactively, now that it’s published. One of the great disappointments of the New York publicists of this play was that, you know my wife [Allison Gregory] and I are both playwrights, and so the angle they wanted to write was this must be like a really dramatic story of my own marriage. And they were SOOO disappointed when I told them it wasn’t. And they seemed actually disappointed that my wife did not have cancer (knocks on wood) and we didn’t share each other’s diaries and tear each other to shreds emotionally. I’m not kidding! They felt so betrayed, I guess, that I had made stuff up. I just wanted to say to them: “Did you read the title?” But, obviously having said that, you know, I am writing about the life of a person who has responsibilities in the real world, and also has responsibilities to the fictional world of his writing – and the line between those is always wonderfully problematic; both gold mine and land mine. Also, I was in South Africa, like the characters in Fiction. I did see that line of the water – it was amazing. And I knew I’d want to write about it someday. But I certainly didn’t think it would turn up 11 years later in a play about writers and diaries. These things find their own homes.
When were you there?
I was there in 1990. I was seeing a production of my play God’s Country in Johannesburg and it moved to Pretoria. I was able to spend time in the townships. I was in Soweto for a full day – a wild, unforgettable day in my life – and got to Capetown and to False Bay, which is described in the play. But, again, somehow it felt like the right story to fold into this play. You asked about how this play fits into the culture, etc. and that is hard to talk about as a writer, because once you tell it, it’s no longer yours. You write to give over. Period. So, I don’t know how successful the play is, or needs to be, about addressing or answering any of those larger societal questions, but I feel like the fierceness and love of those three people going headlong towards each other is the central point… and those other questions are the stuff we debate on the drive home.