The Dish on Desire
In 'American Fiesta,' Austin's favorite economist/playwright/actor has plenty to say about what makes us want
"You see it.
You want it.
You've got to have it.
You don't know what it costs.
You don't know where you'll put it.
... All you know is you must have more."
There's an excellent chance these words describe thoughts you've had at one time or another. There's a better than average chance that they describe thoughts you've had just moments ago or at least within the last few hours. Our economy is built on the promise that these words will repeat through the minds of its citizens on an obsessively constant basis. If you don't want more then how can you call yourself an American?
Yet it doesn't take a genius to see the precariousness of this mindset. If our desires become truly insatiable and the only way we can salve our psyches is to collect more and more of that thing, we will never be centered.
"Genius" gets tossed around rather liberally these days, but if you've ever watched him perform one of his plays you'd have a hard time not applying that term to Steven Tomlinson. Starting this week at the State Theater, Austin's favorite economist/playwright/actor is bringing his latest work, American Fiesta, to the stage, and he has plenty to say about what makes us want.
In Tomlinson's case, the want was Fiestaware, the brightly colored dishes first manufactured by the Homer Laughlin China Company during the Great Depression. They are so ubiquitous that if you don't own at least one piece you know someone who does. A few years ago Tomlinson realized that he had to own all of them at least one of each piece ever produced.
"When I started buying these dishes everyone around me was saying, 'What are you doing? What's that about?'" Tomlinson says. "And I didn't know! I just knew that I had to have more." Inexplicable obsessions often result in heartbreak or bankruptcy. How did this particular one result in a play?
"The Terror Alert System," says Christi Moore, who directs Fiesta, as she has all of Tomlinson's work save his earliest monologues at the bygone Chicago House.
"Yes," Tomlinson admits. "It was realizing that the original Fiestaware colors were the same as the colors on the Terror Alert scale." Next was the discovery from a local newspaper in Roswell, N.M., on New Year's Day that red Fiestaware can kill you.
"It was a doctor in New Mexico saying, 'Get rid of your red Fiesta now! It's radioactive!' Well, I can't let that go."
After endless research online about the supposedly killer dishes, Tomlinson found an entire subculture devoted to the radioactive ware. People with lead-lined boxes and Geiger counter readouts. Seeing the scope of this heretofore unknown threat led Tomlinson to connect the dots.
"What if there was a plot [against me]? What would the plot be?" he asked himself. "How do I feel threatened? Who's trying to get me? What's unsettled right now? And what was unsettled was my connection to America."
Given the events of this decade, it isn't difficult for at least half of the voting population of this country to relate to that last statement. For Tomlinson, it was inspired and amplified by his (at the time) plans to head to Canada to marry his partner, Eugene known in the play by the pseudonym Leon Alvarez. ("Eugene's not shy about publicity. He just doesn't want to sit in the theatre and hear his name over and over again.") Finding himself in the eye of one of the most contentious political storms of our time had eroded Tomlinson's attachment to the country he loves and whose economy he has taught and promoted for more than 20 years. This turmoil was brought home by his relationship with his parents, who were less than welcoming of the proposed nuptials.
Amidst the raging debates, both political and familial, Tomlinson gained some insight into his Fiestaware obsession. "This is really about wanting to have my own dishes so no one can ever send me from the table. It's really about: It's my turn to take care of these precious relics of American culture. It's really about: These things survived the Depression, and now it's up to me to get them through the next thing. Where's the site of struggle now that these dishes are resonating with me?"
Much of American Fiesta revolves around the constant struggle within our own heads. Just as our electoral map has been sectioned off into wrangling red and blue designations, the various parts of the brain contend with one another, particularly the cortex and the limbic system. The cortex is always looking for the logical and prudent choice. The limbic wants immediate gratification. Tomlinson takes it a step further by noting that we all know cortex people and limbic people. "Have you ever noticed that [cortex] people tend to marry [limbic] people?"
This is detailed throughout the play in his stories about the relationship between his limbic self and the very cortex Eugene/Leon. However, it also plays out in his close association with his chief collaborator, Christi Moore. They first worked together as actors in a 1994 FronteraFest production of an outtake from Tomlinson's first play, Pretend You're Not at Home, directed by his partner at the time, David Mark Cohen, renowned playwright and spiritual father to countless Austin writers.
"Christi and David worked on a lot of stuff together. And when David died I wanted to do [his 1997 play] Managed Care as a benefit for his memorial. Since Christi had worked with David as a director, I just called her and said, 'Let's do it together.' And we were friends. And ever since then she's done all my work."
He quickly adds, "I haven't been in everything she's done, but ..."
Moore, in the weighted sincerity-brushing-against-sarcasm way she has perfected, responds, "Oh, in some ways you are. You're in everything."
The collaboration has been rewarding, giving the world 1999's Millennium Bug, 2000's Curb Appeal, and 2001's Perfect Pitch in addition to Managed Care. But what keeps a relationship that some observers could describe as a marriage operating at such a high level of productivity?
"When you do autobiographical monologues," Tomlinson says, "you want to work with someone who knows not only your work but your life. Christi is sort of the dramaturge for my life. She knows that my work grows completely out of personal experience. And her knowledge of my family and personal experience contributes to the richness of our collaboration."
Moore's role as director regularly takes on a broader scope than on other projects, encompassing the roles of historian, fact-checker, ombudsman, and therapist. But for Moore the opportunity to work with her friend brings benefits that more than reward the diversity of jobs she performs.
"Steven is ..." Moore pauses to turn to Tomlinson. "Cover your ears, honey!" He doesn't, but she continues nonetheless. "Steven is the most brilliant person I know. Definitely 'one of' if not 'the.' Because of our association with each other, I'm able to work with Steven in a way I can't with another playwright. I can say to Steven, 'Shouldn't she say blah blah blah?' which I would never say to another playwright!"
Tomlinson adds: "She won't just tell me what she'd say, but how to say it."
"I don't want that getting around," Moore says.
Despite the ease of their working relationship, each project provides its own set of challenges. Due to the truly organic way in which Tomlinson's plays are created, this can often result in a final dash to opening night with material changing and being added in the late innings. For this reason, Tomlinson relies heavily on the input and creative boundaries set by Moore and, the third angle of their creative triangle, scenic designer Christopher McCollum.
"Christopher brings in these very creative constraints, saying, 'If you set it in a world like this, we can do this, this, and this,' which immediately helps the play get written because otherwise I'm in this infinite potential Disneyland that is impossible to get anything out of," Tomlinson says.
With Curb Appeal, Tomlinson continues, "there was no script. And Christopher said, 'This is the set.' And there was no script, and Vicky [Boone, former artistic director of Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre] said, 'It can't be more than 75 minutes.' And there was no script, and Christi said, 'It's too late to get another actor involved, so it's a solo piece.' And there was no script, and finally the lighting designer said, 'Where am I going to put the lights?' And then there was a script."
In regard to their current collaboration, he says, "This has been a more grownup process." This draws a burst of laughter from Moore. "We have decided we would constrain ourselves for the sake of involving a larger team in the collaboration, and that's been very rewarding." (In the interest of full disclosure, I am serving as video designer on this larger team.)
The State Theater is a much larger venue than ones in which Tomlinson's previous shows have been performed. According to Moore, this is a result of a series of timely connections. She says, "People are always telling me, 'If Steven ever wants to do a show, we want him to do it here.' But I have to wait until he has something he wants to do. In this case, he called me and said, 'Okay, I'm ready,' and [State Theater Company artistic director] Scott Kanoff was one of those people and jumped at the chance to premiere a Tomlinson piece. (Making this the second year in a row that the State has led off its season with a premiere by a noted local playwright a habit many in Austin hope becomes an obsessive one.)
Even so, American Fiesta will adhere to the elements that Tomlinson and Moore strive to include in all of their projects. Tomlinson notes, "In every play there are three layers. There's the big global layer. There's the human layer, the deepest layer. And then in the middle there's something, whether it's going to the doctor or buying a house or collecting these dishes. There's a puzzle to be solved to integrate." Moore adds that those layers are then coated with what they call "the frosting," which is the part that makes it fun for the audience to watch.
Regardless of the subject matter, Tomlinson points out that each of his plays revolves around economics and how they interact with our daily lives and the major issues that we face. That's not hard to understand coming from a writer and performer who has never given up his day job as an economist and economics professor. Perhaps one of the most engaging and surprising features of a Tomlinson play is the way he makes this seemingly impenetrable subject matter understandable and interesting to a lay audience. But his primary field is never far from Tomlinson's mind, and he is quick to note how that influences what he writes about and how he has built his theatre career.
"I irritate other actors because they ask me how they can make money doing theatre, and I tell them, 'Well, maybe you can't,'" he says. "But I've always stuck by my key economic principle, which is if you love doing something and want to do more of it, find someone who wants your talent or just keep doing it and see who shows up. And I have been very fortunate in having the people show up."
The discussion leads to a final insight. So much of Tomlinson's work concerns itself with resolving the way parents relate to their children, how lovers relate to each other, how the living manage to cope with the loss of another, how the brain has to find that critical way to cope with itself. And in the end his binding principle to making peace among ideologies, buyers and sellers, limbics and cortexes, and writers and directors is an economic principle known by anyone with a checkbook.
"In the end," he says, "it's all about balance."
American Fiesta runs through Oct. 23, Wednesday-Saturday, 8pm, Sunday, 2pm, at the State Theater, 719 Congress. For more information, visit www.austintheatre.org.