Humana Interviews: Umbrella Project Executive Director, Norah Elges, interviews triumphant playwright — and Seattle Cheerleader — Steven Dietz

Umbrella Project Executive Director, Norah Elges, interviews triumphant playwright and Seattle Cheerleader Steven Dietz

This is the first blog post from our Humana Interviews series. In April 2016, Umbrella Project went to the Humana Festival of new plays in Louisville, KY. There, we conducted interviews with some of the theatre artists that we admire about life at Humana and the state of new plays in the American theatre.
Steven Dietz’s play This Random World premiered at 2016 Humana Festival. Dietz’s play Bloomsday, which received a Steinberg Award citation, premiered at Seattle’s ACT Theatre in 2015. Dietz’s play On Clover Road opens at Seattle Public Theatre on September 22.

Norah Elges: When was the moment you knew that writing plays was what you wanted to do?

Steven Dietz: I was formerly a director so it was a long time before I started writing plays and there was some natural segue from one to the other. I’d been working on new plays as a director in Minneapolis and then I was probably workshopping and directing a new play once a week or once every 2 weeks for about 11 years. That was my sort of grad school. But the moment that the theatre captured me in a great way was falling in with the wrong crowd in high school. I had no theatre in my upbringing. My parents didn’t see a play until I wrote a play. But a good friend of mine’s mom ran the theatre program at Loretta Heights College in Denver which is a terrific program and I got dragged with these new theatre friends to the musical revue of songs from various popular musicals at the time. I didn’t know what an intermission was. We just took a break and then we came back and that was called an intermission. However, at the top of Act 2 there was this bare stage in a big proscenium house, and in the upright corner all of a sudden, a perfect shaft of light came up going from Up Right to Down Left, a perfect shaft of light, and then a women stepped into that shaft of light in a very simple, white, very ‘70s dress; she walked that line of light from Up Right to Down Left while she sang acapella Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” and she got to the end and she finished that song and the lights faded out and I’ve never forgotten that. Music and tone and space and light and precision and I had no mechanism to translate that because I didn’t know how to be in the theatre but I see that and I think: I want to make that. I want to make things that make those feelings. When I lose faith (and I’m an optimist) that’s the first signpost I go back to. Don’t lose that. It’s easy to dine out on complaint. But whenever I hear that song I’m just right there.

NE: What about This Random World speaks to now?

SD: I can be in a gathering of all my favorite people and I can say, “How in the world did I meet these people?” And it is both a joyous thing because these people bring me joy, and it is a bittersweet thing because it feels like this odd random chance. And some of that is hard to describe; it’s sort of ineffable. What if I took those missed connections seriously? I mean even as I wrote the play (and I wrote this play very quickly, at the New Harmony Project in Indiana), I kept waiting for the moment where I’d take all these missed connections and make them collide. That’s what I’ve always done before, in 40 some other plays. The new thing that I did for me, and please I don’t mean a new thing that I brought to the American theatre, but a new thing for me was I just made them continue to miss. And in that somewhere is a recognition of how little I control. A character in the play says, “I wish I had doubted more”. And that’s me now having lost friends, having lost my parents, but having had this inordinately lucky life. There’s a seriousness of purpose in me now that I always thought was there, but now it’s deeper and maybe I’m starting to have language for it.

NE: What’s been the biggest surprise in seeing it on stage?

SD: The biggest surprise for me is that it is a premiere. I’ve had plays here at ATL before. This festival used to do plays that had been done once before. So this is my first experience launching a play here. It’s been fantastic but it is also a ‘hothouse’ atmosphere. Luckily I’m blessed with a fantastic director and a fantastic cast and designers. I’ve been surprised that I didn’t attempt to normalize the play. I work a lot on the play- the actors know if they see me, the play is going to change. Never open the play till there’s a cut on every page one of the mottos I live by. I made cuts flying back from the final run through and sent them. I really thought I would simplify and normalize; I thought certain things wouldn’t work and actually I’ve tried to sort of double down on the mysteries of the play. And it’s surprised me that I did that and time will tell whether that was good or bad.

NE: As someone with very deep Seattle roots, how is it different to launch a play from Humana than to launch a play from Seattle?

SD: It’s harder. There’s just simply more pressure to launch a play from Humana. My experience has been absolutely fantastic but this theatre needs to organize itself around 6 or 7 plays. As challenging as it is to launch a play at Seattle Rep or ACT or Seattle Children’s Theatre, for that window of time that theatre has organized itself or you want to believe that that’s true around your play. There’s the pressure of national press; it’s just a different roll of the dice. In the electronic age, my play that opens at Seattle Rep or ACT, the social media & online reviews about it are known immediately in Cleveland. And that’s been a complete change in my career. It used to be that you could open a play, and no matter how it went you may get to try it somewhere else. In some sense now every opening of a new play is a national opening. It’s just that Humana is more explicit about that. Most of that is actually pretty good and I’d like to think we find new playwrights more efficiently now. I think Umbrella Project is in the heart of that. Someone in LA will read about a new play in Boston that’s amazing. But I wonder what that’s like for the young playwright. Or the new playwright. I got to build my craft really pretty slowly. Slower than I probably wanted to given my youthful ambitions. I don’t know if that happens now.

NE: I think there’s a sense that people are slightly hesitant about giving Seattle their premiere. We premiere so many new plays and so many of them don’t get to continue. UP is really looking at how to make sure there is a bridge from Seattle to the national conversation. How do we make sure that more things like Threesome and Come from Away are the stories we’re hearing about coming out of Seattle?

In your opinion, do plays have to come out of New York or do they have to come out of Humana in order to have that gold star to get produced other places or to get that regional pick up?

SD: My career has been made by the plays of mine that have premiered in Seattle. Straight up. Full stop. Very few of those plays have gone to New York. So I think there are two different things. It’s so fantastic what happened with Yussef’s play but I think that the New York connection is an absolutely different machine than the regional connection. In my opinion, Seattle is at its best when it makes plays for Seattle. The thing I love about Chicago is that they have that attitude of, “We’re gonna make our plays” and then ironically these amazing plays that come out of Chicago go to NYC. I would take the Seattle talent, acting community, and designers over any community in the United States. But how do we inspire playwrights and artistic leaders to make the necessary plays for them? I know everyone in our city has this goal and I’m hopeful, ever hopeful, that we can turn the national theatre scene a little more Emerald.

NE: When you’re writing a play, are you thinking about this play’s audience or are you writing the story that’s inspiring you in the moment?

SD: I’m thinking about this play’s theatre. I don’t believe in a uniform response so I think that’s a good question for writers to ask themselves.  I’ll write a different play for the Seattle Repertory Theatre than I would for ACT or SCT. I love the challenge of trying to rise to the strengths of these theatres that I know and love. If I can maximize those strengths, that play will, to the extent that I can control it, have a strong launch and hopefully a good life. If I try to look past (and I have been guilty of this) and game the system, like, “Oh this play would ALSO be really good at…” This is the road that our playwright brains go down sometimes and maybe it’s helpful to others but I become a very unattractive person when I think I can “game” the ongoing reception of my work.

NE: That aligns so well with what we’re looking at with Umbrella Project. The best version of  matchmaking, or, “Who’s going to set this play up for success?

SD: I think it’s a great thing to have someone outside the writer doing that. Theaters bundle. Like Amazon. If you like this show then you’d probably like this, etc. The National New Play Network (NNPN) is, in my opinion, at the forefront of this: theatres contributing to each other via shared scripts, resources, “rolling world premieres”, etc. rather than always competing with each other.

NE: What’s your Humana survival tool?

SD: Generosity. We’re the recipients of so much attention and hoopla that it can create this sort of odd competitive atmosphere among the writers. Just meeting and thanking the other playwrights for their work keeps me grounded.

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