On the Right Path
Tom White on his latest drama and 30 years of being a playwright
North Texas native Tom White wrote his first play in 1972. "It was for a playwriting class at UT," he says. "I got the inspiration while looking at a traffic signal. This guy couldn't speak, so he communicated using the traffic light." Now a Hill Country resident for more than 30 years, White is the author of 19 (going on 20) plays that have been produced in Austin, Houston, Los Angeles, and off-Broadway. His best known work is probably the 1981 drama Silo Stud, which was produced by Michel Jaroschy at the now sadly defunct Capitol City Playhouse. "I've always been kind of mystified as to why that one's the most attention-getting. Probably because of the sexual element of the title, but it wasn't overtly sexual. It was a Texas take on David Mamet's language of machismo." White's latest play, The Misses Overbeck, a rumination on women and the workplace, is being produced as a world premiere by Different Stages. It's the second play of White's to receive such special attention from Austin's oldest community theatre.
Austin Chronicle: So how did you end up writing this one?
Tom White: The impetus was noticing what a difficult choice people have to make between career and family, and it seemed to me an especially difficult choice for women. At about the same time, I was researching the Arts and Crafts movement, that movement of design from 1890-1920 in America that also had roots in England and other countries. It seemed to be a transitional point between women being at home and them thinking about careers, and that's where I discovered the Overbeck sisters. I thought they were a good example of that transitional point because at that time being potters and artisans were acceptable choices for women as careers.
AC: What's the story like?
TW: A woman takes a broken vase to be repaired. The repairer begins to research the people who made the vase, the Overbeck sisters, so they become characters in the play, and time is shattered, too. All the characters get pulled up to the present. It's not a linear play in that sense, but in the more traditional structure, you know, beginning and end, it's linear. But I couldn't have written this play before Caryl Churchill wrote Cloud 9, in the sense of bringing characters into and out of other time periods. The Overbecks interact with each other in the 1890s and in modern times as well. At first, they're sort of daydreams for the modern characters, but eventually they become present in a theatrical way. There also are conversations during which people from the past are talking to people in the present and times when people in the past say things simultaneously with people in the present. I thought that shattering of time fit well with the idea of something being broken and put back together. The broken vase becomes a metaphor for the play's structure.
AC: Those aren't exactly easy ideas. Do you think you pulled it off?
TW: I think I did. There's another aspect of the play, which has to do with what was happening in the theatre at the time I first wrote it, in 1992. We were in the middle of a sort of postmodernist phase where things didn't have a beginning and an end. It was coming out of a little frustration with the theatre scene at that time, and I thought, well, OK, if that's the way we're headed, then let me do my take on that, and me being a more traditional playwright, also try to use linearity you know, beginning, middle, and end. The first draft of the play was about three times the amount of words you need for an evening of theatre, and after I finished it I thought, OK, it may be unproduceable, but it's what I want. It's for my peace of mind. I don't really care if anybody produces this. So it was very excessive and over-the-top. I threw in everything but the kitchen sink.
AC: But it's not like that anymore.
TW: No, not at all. Much of the actualization of the play centered on the process of cutting and trying to find something, some kernel or many kernels, actually that really were produceable. It was originally read in a little theatre in Houston, and it was way too long. I was totally embarrassed that I had asked my friends to come down there for, like, three and a half hours. But the problem became obvious. That was in 1994. Then I just went on and wrote the next play, and nothing really happened until Norman [Blumensaadt, artistic director for Different Stages and director of The Misses Overbeck] I don't know, he must have a big stack of my plays somewhere, and he pulled it out one day. We talked about this one and my most recent play, that I'd written about a year ago. And I didn't try to persuade him or anything. I just let him take his time and said, "Which one do you think?" And he decided.
AC: What's the process with Norman been like?
TW: It's been really interesting. Norman doesn't normally work with a play in progress; he likes to work with plays that are very finished, as a rule. This time he was much more receptive to working on something that was in process. He realized that there needed to be some work. So for the first week, we all sat around a table, I was there every night, and we'd discuss and discuss, and I'd go home and cut and reshape. Since the end of that week I haven't been invited back. And that's fine with me. I want him to be comfortable. I think he's OK with the play. I take my cue from him. I think it's a good sign that he isn't calling me in for something last minute.
AC: Do you think what you're doing is important?
TW: I think that live theatre is important. It's the type of space in which we can look at who we are, look at our lives and our excesses and our accomplishments and our culture. It corrects when we get too extreme, brings things into balance. Like Hamlet's little play that he did for his stepdad. A lot of people learned a lot of stuff from that. We still learn from watching them learn it. Theatre affirms we're on the right path. And the live part is important because it's really the least expensive space that we have, I think. I mean, we could do a play in this Starbucks here if we wanted to. There would be some value gained by the people who saw it, and it really wouldn't cost very much. I've never really written for anything other than the stage. Some people tell me that this would make a good movie, or, "You really ought to adapt this to TV," but for some reason I've always been drawn to the theatre.
AC: So why plays? You were an English major at UT. You could have written in any literary form.
TW: I really care about the theatre. There are things as an audience member that I want to see, so in a sense I'm writing for myself, writing something that I believe is challenging and beautiful, uplifting and enlightening. That's putting it in the best light. Putting it in the worst light, I suppose I'm an egomaniac ...
AC: [Raucous laughter.]
TW: ... who wants to control everything and that I'm still a little kid performing for adults. I don't know. Both of those are true. I do care. And I am still a little kid.
AC: After 12 years, are you looking forward to finally getting this one off your plate?
TW: I'm always nervous about opening nights, but I have a feeling about this, that it's going to be OK. More than OK, actually. Because of the amount of work that's gone into it Norman, me, the cast, the designers and because of the way things have come together. I've had the play for so long, and then Norman pulled it out, and he's been working with a lot of actresses recently, and there are a lot of good roles for women in this play. When something comes together like this has, it goes beyond coincidence. If you're really paying attention, and you just look for those moments in life, it seems to me you can clearly see intimations of something beyond us, something greater than ourselves. The power behind life. Something awesome.
The Misses Overbeck runs May 21-June 12 at the Auditorium on Waller Creek, 710 E. 41st. For tickets, call 474-TIXS.