PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Stephen Belber

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Stephen Belber From Off-Off-Broadway to Humana Festival to motion picture to Off Broadway, the tale of Stephen Belber's play Tape has been a tangled and curious one. What started as a favor to a couple of actor friends recently culminated in an acclaimed alternative film starring Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman, directed by Richard Linklater. Due to the attention kicked up by the film, the original play (expanded some by Belber) is now be restaged in New York by Naked Angels. The actors who originally asked Belber to write the piece, Josh Stamberg (An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein) and Dominic Fumusa ([sic]) star. Geoffrey Nauffts directs. New York theatregoers who know Belber primarily as one of the performers in the Tectonic Theatre Company's The Laramie Project, will now finally get a taste of the rising playwright's writing.
Dominic Fumusa, Alison West and Josh Stamberg of Steven Belber's Tape.
Dominic Fumusa, Alison West and Josh Stamberg
of Steven Belber's Tape. (Photo by Photo by George Xenos)

From Off-Off-Broadway to Humana Festival to motion picture to Off Broadway, the tale of Stephen Belber's play Tape has been a tangled and curious one. What started as a favor to a couple of actor friends recently culminated in an acclaimed alternative film starring Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman, directed by Richard Linklater. Due to the attention kicked up by the film, the original play (expanded some by Belber) is now be restaged in New York by Naked Angels. The actors who originally asked Belber to write the piece, Josh Stamberg (An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein) and Dominic Fumusa ([sic]) star. Geoffrey Nauffts directs. New York theatregoers who know Belber primarily as one of the performers in the Tectonic Theatre Company's The Laramie Project, will now finally get a taste of the rising playwright's writing.

Playbill On-Line: Tape has had an interesting journey leading up to this production Off-Broadway. Could you take me through it?
Stephen Belber: Well, my two friends, Josh Stamberg and Dominic Fumusa, came to me almost three years ago and said, "We really want to get a part that we can sink our teeth into. We're always losing our parts to the bigger names." So, we sat around and decided on something kind of Sam Shepard-y and came up with the idea of a hotel room. So I went off and wrote this and we did a reading. I added a third character. We raised the money and got Access Theatre downtown to produce it. This was in 1999 in the spring.

PBOL: Had you ever written anything to order like that before?
SB: A little bit. When I was in the playwrights program at Juilliard. I've always been open to taking assignments like that. But nothing this specific. It was a good thing. Access did a great job with it. We ran for about seven weeks. And then it got optioned. This guy, Robert Cole, of Bob Cole Productions—he produces with David Richenthal—and at the time they were looking for a companion piece for a project with Ethan Hawke, who was going to do Edward Albee's The Zoo Story. Joe Mantello was directing it. This was going to Off-Broadway. There was a reading of it, in which Ethan Hawke played the filmmaker character in Tape, and everybody was sort of gun-ho, but Edward Albee shot it down, so the whole thing died.

PBOL: Why'd he shoot it down?
SB: He said it was too much on a similar theme as Zoo Story. I'm still trying to figure out what that meant. Meanwhile, we got into the Humana Festival.

PBOL: Which is interesting, because usually plays come from Humana to New York, not the other way around.
SB: Yeah, exactly. A director friend of mine came and say it at Access and asked it he could submit it. He directed it down there with Dominic, one of the actors, in it. That led to a bunch of smaller regional productions. And then, just as that was ending, Ethan Hawke came through with this [project for] Indigent Films, which is a subset of IFC Bravo. They were funding these five DV films. Ethan was directing one and there was another slot available, so I said, "What about that play we read?" So, that happened very quickly. He got Uma Thurman on board and Robert Sean Leonard and the director Richard Linklater. PBOL: So Hawke was the real driving force behind the film.
SB: Absolutely. Luckily, Linklater and the others decided the play didn't need to be "opened up." It was rehearsed for two weeks and shot in six days, so it was really intense. But it was a great atmosphere, very theatrical. It was two week of table work, essentially. It was cool and organic. [Pause] Actually, I don't use those words. [Laughs] I was very happy to be included the whole way through.

PBOL: It got incredibly good notices. Were you surprised?
SB: I was thoroughly surprised. Without denigrating the piece, because I wrote it with these two guys in mind, it was never anything very ambitious that I set out to write. It wasn't like Angels in America, which is something I have a tendency to try to do, usually rather badly. I never thought of it as something that would be up for a mass critique.

PBOL: Was the Naked Angels production inspired by all the interest surrounding the film?
SB: Yeah, it was. I knew that when the film happened that the two [original] actors kind of got screwed. The film wasn't going to be made with them. It was tough there for a while. The actors understood, but there were obviously hurt feelings. So, in a way, we've come full circle. I wanted to get back with the original actors. It feels good. It's a couple notches above the Access Theatre, budget-wise. And, I've been trying, ever since Bob Cole had the option, to write a second act and all kinds of forms of companion pieces. At Access, it was only about 70 minutes. Even the movie was only 86. Finally, I've been able to expand the play, quite a lot actually. It now spans 30 years instead of one night.

PBOL: People mainly know you for Tape. Tell me about your other works.
SB: I was working on The Laramie Project for a couple years, as an actor and associate writer.

PBOL: Did you basically write the pieces you performed in Laramie?
SB: Ah—at the risk of pissing off [Tectonic artistic director] Moises Kaufman—yeah. I did all those interviews, certainly.

PBOL: That couldn't have been your first acting experience.
SB: No, I've acted in my own work over the years. That was my first Equity thing. And I have a play, Drifting Elegant, that just got an award at the Kennedy Center, a developing grant, and [The Directors Company and I are] working on the workshop of that. That will be next week. I wrote it about five years ago and it's been read to death at various theatres but produced only once, in Boston. It is my ambitious play. Actually, Josh Stamberg is in the workshop. There's another play called Finally, which was at the Fringe, and I'm trying to remount that now.... I also just finished turning it into a full-length screenplay and I'm trying to stick to my guns and not make it anything it isn't.... And I never ever wanted to direct, but as I was writing this, I thought "I see this." Now I want to direct this movie.

—By Robert Simonson