Playwright as Architect

A Conversation on Art & Craft: Two Playwrights Talk

Playwright as Architect
Photo By Bret Brookshire

(This is part of a series of conversations between artists about craft, that is, how artists do what they do: the impulses they follow, the techniques they employ, the experiences they draw from. The artists talk as peers, people with a shared sense of the technical challenges involved in creating art. This installment involves playwrights; future installments will feature dialogues between dancers, directors, visual artists, choreographers, musicians, designers, comedians, and actors.

-- Robert Faires)

The first time I met Dan Dietz, he'd just finished pretending to engage in vigorous, chair-straddling sex with my wife. This was because he was playing Santa Anna in the 1997 Salvage Vanguard Theater production of Ruth Margraff's Centaur Battle of San Jacinto, and my wife -- well, she was only my girlfriend at the time -- was playing the Yellow Rose of Texas. I should also mention, in the interests of precision, that Molly was doing the actual straddling; Dan was merely sitting there, thrusting.

These days, most of Dan's public thrusting involves moving his own scripts onto the stage -- often with the support of Salvage Vanguard, the company of which he (along with founder Jason Neulander) is now the co-artistic director. The sheer magnetic force and nonpareil craft of his work as an actor, audiences are discovering, are almost completely reiterated by his talents as a writer. His last full-length play was Dirigible, a sort of dramatized lecture on the possible conspiracy that destroyed the Hindenburg, but in which the lecture was also the structure supporting a study of personal tragedy and so many explorations of the idea that "the medium is the message" that McLuhan himself would've grinned in his front-row seat. Now, this well-groomed and almost scarily polite playwright is premiering his tragic and lyrical Tilt Angel: A Deadpan Tennessee Fairy Tale, which, from all accounts, is even more ingenious than Dirigible.

My own efforts in writing for the stage include Bloodbrother Weekend, directed by Steve Bacher for the Vortex over a decade ago, which examined social dynamics at a dope-saturated Karen Black Film Festival; Waiting on Godot, a half-food-service-rant, half-Beckett-homage that packed the old Electric Lounge; and the recent Art Stripped Naked, directed by Ken Webster, a look at the differences between life and art and the way love can sometimes bridge those gaps. As a playwright who came to theatre after writing prose, I wanted to discuss the hows and whys of writing for theatre.

Wayne Alan Brenner: So why do we often write for the stage, as opposed to just writing books or short stories or whatever?

Dan Dietz: Well, I was talking to this poet once -- we were on his front porch and he was smoking up a storm -- and I was telling him that I'd never had anything published: none of my short stories, nothing. And he'd just had a book of his poems published. And I said, "Wow, that's gotta feel fantastic." And he said, "Well, the thing is, if I'm lucky, maybe a hundred people will read that book. But when you do a show, you can potentially reach a hundred people in a single night, and you can count the number of people who are experiencing your work. You can be there for the reaction."

WAB: That's a great feeling -- if they like the show.

DD: But I'd thought that the people who create for the page were the ones who have it good. Because they get something permanent, something for the record. Something that will last. And I'd never realized it before: If something is tied to the page, someone else has to find it -- and they'll find it alone. Whereas, if something is living and breathing right in front of you, people can come together and experience it -- instead of having to find it and experience it as individuals. So a playwright gets to create this space where people can go when they want to share an artistic experience with each other. And as a writer, I can rest assured in the knowledge that, while they may not be able to put that experience on a shelf and pull it back out whenever they want -- like with a book -- that I can reach a lot of people, and I can see or hear them being reached. I can experience their response as it's happening.

WAB: It's partly the relative ease of writing for the stage, for me. That may not be true for somebody at your level -- because theatre writing is your main thing and you're more comfortable, more adept at taking theatrical conventions and doing things with them that are stunning and intricate. Me, I'm just a dilettante. I'm writing stuff that could be done on TV, even, with no big changes, because it's not as immersed in stage traditions or in the considerations of "What can this particular medium support?" For me it's like, "Okay, I'm writing a short story, just like I'd normally write it. But now I don't have to write about the couch that the people are sitting on, I don't have to describe their faces or anything. Since it's a play, all I have to do -- well, most of what I have to do -- is the dialogue. I don't even have to move characters across a room necessarily. That's the director's job. So if the story is mostly about ideas or people's relationships -- and mine usually are -- then it's just easier for me to write it for the stage. And I'm basically a very lazy person.

DD: Well, I think the process of collaboration is really cool -- no question about it. I also used to think, "Ah, fiction writers are so lucky -- they have complete control!" But what they don't get is the insight that a director or a designer or an actor can bring to a play, where they can take your characters and show them to you in such a way that you see them, really, for the first time. The characters actually live -- in ways you might not have expected.

WAB: Yeah, that was the most amazing thing to me about seeing Art Stripped Naked. There were things that the actors added, and the director added, of course, and the crew, that wouldn't have been there otherwise. And it was great. But this whole collaborative thing is kind of new to me, and I think I'm finally okay with it now because I'm finally okay with my other writing.

DD: Journalism or fiction?

WAB: Ah -- fiction, definitely. But journalism, too, to some extent -- even though journalism's like a day job. Fiction is more the real calling, it's the One True Thing. And when I finally got to a place where I thought I was doing well enough in my fiction that I didn't have to do really tricky, fancy things -- which I used to do too often, out of a sense of insecurity, like, "If I don't do these things, then everybody will think I can't do them because I'm not good enough." -- then I got to a point where I was like, "Well, look, I do okay. This is what I do. I'm not gonna be David Foster Wallace, I'm not gonna be James Joyce or Jeanette Winterson, I'm gonna be Brenner -- and I'm doing good enough." At that point, I felt safe with collaborating.

But it wasn't that I used to hate the idea of collaborating because I was a control freak, really. It was because, if the thing turned out to be good, I wanted all the glory. You know? Like, all those words? Those are all Brenner's words! All hail Brenner! But with the play, it's like "All hail Webster!" Or at least, "All hail everybody involved!" The actors, the director, the tech people -- everybody and the writer. And I'm okay with that now -- which I didn't used to be. And because I've gotten over whatever bullshit of my own that I had to, it is this wonderful thing that you're talking about. And it's not just the actors' interpretation or the director's interpretation, there are concrete additions. Like [in Art Stripped Naked,] when Eddie is sitting there and popping the packing material: I didn't write that. Ken put that in. It wouldn't have occurred to me: I was just focusing on the dialogue. And I saw it and I thought, "Yes! That's perfect!" That whole business with Eddie filling the bowl on the coffee table -- that came after, that wasn't in the script. It was incredible, what Hyde Park did with it. What about your new play?

DD: Tilt Angel ... came out of a very personal place. My younger brother was killed in a car accident almost five years ago, and it was very sudden -- of course -- and the experience of having someone very close to you die, without having any chance to prepare for it ... well, it was really strange. Of course my life was changed forever. So Tilt Angel is, in part, an exploration of how you deal with the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one. But in Tilt Angel, it's the mother of the family, and it's a plane wreck.

WAB: Ah, jeez.

DD: Another thing I was exploring is that when I was 8 years old, my family moved from the Midwest to Georgia -- northwest Georgia. And the difference in language, in the use of language and people's relationship to words, astounded me when I was a kid. I couldn't believe it. In the Midwest, especially in my family, people held their words like ... like in little iron boxes and set them out every once in a while, one by one. Very plain and particular. And when I moved to the South, I heard people using language with an ease and a comfort and a freedom that I had never experienced before. Instead of using the fewest possible words, people would take the looooooong way around to tell a story: teasing out threads, making baroque details, and constantly letting the story ease down a path and twist and turn and finally get to its end. And it seemed to be far more about the journey of the language and developing language, and the rhythm of the way the story was told ... and far less about the actual story. And it really draws you in that way: all the details, the embellishments.

WAB: And you kind of need those details in a story, don't you? Or else it's just a plot outline, and there's nothing to hang your memory on, nothing to really give a shit about.

DD: I don't remember my relatives telling me very many stories -- they're not necessarily the storytelling type. So when I really started to notice stories was when I moved to the South. And so, with Tilt Angel, I wanted to explore that sort of amazing use of language. These Georgia folks could speak in this heightened way about their own lives, while they were sitting on the couch with their Budweiser or whatever. But it all came out with this sort of deadpan quality that was denying the very melodrama of the words they were using. And that, to me, was the real beauty and music of the language: It was at once lyrical and deadpan. And this play's an exploration of and a tribute to that musicality.

WAB: In writing for stage, do you find that you take the audience into consideration more than if you were writing prose?

DD: I'm definitely conscious of the audience, but I'm also conscious of the other artists I'm going to be working with. I think that, after a while, you start to develop a second track in your mind. Almost like there's a stage manager in your mind saying, "Well, that could be hard to do," or "Are you leaving enough time for that costume change?" All sorts of practical questions keep coming up in the back of your mind. As a playwright, I went from being unaware that those questions even had to be considered ... to hearing that voice so powerfully that I didn't want to write at all. It seemed like every time I put a word down, I censored it -- because I was afraid of the technical stuff. But now I've shot past that. I'm even letting my stage directions be sort of impossible if I feel that'll open a director or an actor up to make really great decisions.

WAB: Like "So-and-so is sucked into the phone."

Playwright as Architect
Photo By Bret Brookshire

DD: Exactly. That scene in Tilt Angel, where Ollie is sucked into the phone. It's really exciting to know that, with Ollie being played by Jason Phelps and directed by Jason Neulander, between the two of them and the incredible design team we've got, they'll be able to take a stage direction like that and make it something enjoyable and wonderful. They won't be shut down by it. Some people have asked me, "Don't you think [writing impossible stage directions] is gonna turn a bunch of people off to doing your play and you'll have fewer productions?" And I do think that's true -- but it's also a way of zeroing in on the artists who you really want to work with. Sort of giving clues to somebody who's reading it: If this stage direction scares you and makes you shut down as an artist, then you probably shouldn't direct this play. But if the stage direction scares you and excites you as an artist, then you should direct this play.

WAB: Like the difficulty's a sort of filter.

DD: Yeah. Writing fiction, you're not dealing with those collaborators; you don't have to consider them at all. And it's always seemed like a more intimate relationship with the reader.

WAB: That's what I like about prose: that level of intimacy with the audience, with the creation of the story from the ground up. Like the need for the author to be in everything -- in the grain of the wood that the beer is set upon, say, instead of the beer or the wood just being there, some director's choice. As an author, you're responsible for every atom of the universe that's experienced by the characters -- or by the reader experiencing the characters and the characters' world. You're in there, man. Which makes it ... I don't know if it's more important, if "important" is the right word. It's like the difference between agape and eros, maybe. You know? On stage, you might be shaking hands with a bunch of people ... but when you're writing a novel and you're really in the thick of it, you and the reader are, are -- it's like you're bumping uglies or something.

DD: [laughs loudly]

WAB: I mean, because you're so close, you know? Every part of what you've created will be touching every part of them. At least abstractly.

DD: Yeah -- ha-ha! -- that's amazing. And it's true: When you're writing a book, every atom is up to you. Every atom has its own potential story that you can choose to draw out.

WAB: Exactly, exactly! Like David Foster Wallace with Infinite Jest, where it seems that almost every atom's story is drawn out. Even some of his dialogue tags have tales of their own to tell.

DD: He really does have this amazing way of capturing the information and perceptual overload we live in. And he has this way of artfully portraying that on the page, too, where it's not just a jumble of details -- he's doing it for a reason. And if, from time to time, we have to plow through details like that, he always makes it worth your while. He always eventually says, "And this is why I'm telling you that."

WAB: There's something really wet about the way he writes, isn't there? Like he's performing an autopsy on the world he's writing about and he's cataloging all the different parts?

DD: I think it's really effective when someone can weave the structure -- the How -- with the content -- the What. Where the style and structure is absolutely inseparable from the content -- where the style itself is part of the content and it teaches you the What. Like that part, the most amazing thing to me: the longest footnote in the book, I think. It went on for pages: an annotated list of all the films the father had made. It provided so much information, it gave you such an insight into the character's life.

WAB: Do you ever worry about that in your own work? That you might be writing too far above the average reader or theatregoer -- whoever they are? So maybe you couch things in a way that might make it more accessible to people?

DD: Well, I think that, for me, something important to do is ... make people laugh. And not necessarily in an in-joke kind of way -- like, if you've read these novels, you'll get this joke -- but the kind of comedy that everybody in the audience can connect to. It's really important to me that -- even if some of the stuff is headier than other stuff, even if it's more intellectual or would be more accessible to people who are more familiar with convention-twisting drama -- it's important that there will be, at the same time, a scene that's funny across the board. And that's something I really like to do: use humor as a way to welcome everyone in.

WAB: Yeah, exactly -- hit 'em in the funny bone.

DD: I'm not really partial to drama that's exclusive. I don't like using the word "elitist" because I think it's been misused -- as if anything intellectual or challenging is wrong. And I don't think that's true at all. I want to write challenging theatre, theatre that makes you work; but I also want to reward you for the work and encourage you as you're working.

WAB: I try to do that across-the-board stuff, too. Especially for the finished building. But with some of the structural timbers being those more elitist -- maybe more obscure -- things. So that a scene, or even the whole play, will work on one level for everybody; but there are things embedded throughout that, if you do happen to know what's being referred to, you'll get a reward for it. But if you don't happen to know it ...well, if I do it right, you won't get the feeling that you've missed something.

DD: I think that's right on. Your model of the playwright as architect, too: That's something I think about a lot.

WAB: Especially for writing plays?

DD: Yeah, because it is like a blueprint. And until some Master Builder comes along and says, "Okay, let's make this into an actual physical building," what have you got? All you've got is a great blueprint.

WAB: And there's Ruth Margraff, designing all those tesseracts.

DD: [laughs] That's right, that's right. But, yeah, I think that ... someone might walk into your building and notice the beautiful Japanese teak you've used in the hallway -- and they might even know how hard that kind of wood is to find. And other people might not know that it's Japanese teak, but at least they can look at it and say, "Wow, that's lovely wood."

WAB: And they know it's likely to be that particular wood for a reason. And that reason might have something to do with the story, because, hey, the wood didn't just happen -- the wood was specifically chosen by the story's creator.

DD: That's really interesting because often, when you're less experienced and less sure of yourself as a writer, you have to appoint your creation with hallmarks that you hope other people will recognize as representative of your sophistication. Of your having read the "right" books or being up-to-the-minute in your craftsmanship. And there's a neurotic-interior-designer way that plays can get really cluttered with such devices. They can get so full of literary knickknacks that an audience can't connect with the work. Because they just don't feel comfortable sitting down in that room.

WAB: [laughs] Exactly! And it's like, say you're gonna buy something for your house, and there's this painting that you really like. And it's the same cost as a Matisse, right, so it's not about the money. But nobody's heard of this painter you like, and everybody knows Matisse -- so you buy the Matisse. Because nobody will question your taste. Christ!

DD: Yeah, I definitely got to the point where I wanted to make sure I was comfortable in my art. And even if other people saw it and felt that it was out of date or too experimental, or not experimental enough ... Regardless of their connection, I could always -- when they were gone -- sit down in that room and be happy. And comfortable. And I could really live in it. And it seems to me that, if you can do that, well, that's the kind of thing that sustains you.

WAB: Well, it has to. Especially since the audience might read something you do or see something you do -- but then they're out of it. But you still have to live in it, to one extent or another, for your entire life.

DD: That's one of the things about the Austin theatre scene that I like a lot. It's so supportive of the individual voice -- of people who are taking risks and trying to find their individual voice by just getting it out there. Who are trying to do something that's 100% them -- whatever that thing is. My favorite artistic experiences in this town have been of artists who are showing me things that are unlike anything I've seen before. And it's not that they're attempting to be innovative, necessarily, it's just that they're being 100% themselves. Like Lisa D'Amour's work. And Steve Moore, and -- well, there's just so much good work going on in Austin, these days. It's such a great community. end story

Tilt Angel runs through November 3 at the Off Center, 2120-A Hidalgo. Call 474-7886 for information.

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