PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Steven Dietz

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22 Jul 2004

Playwright Steven Dietz
Playwright Steven Dietz
Steven Dietz is one of the most-produced playwrights in the United States, but, as is widely reported about the prolific writer, his plays have barely been seen in New York City.

Hardly a season goes by without professional regional productions of the 46-year-old Seattle writer's Dracula, God's Country, More Fun Than Bowling, Private Eyes, Lonely Planet or a world premiere. While hot young writers flicker brightly for a moment on Broadway, Dietz's experience is about consistency — he's penned some 25 plays, including 2003's Fiction, about husband and wife fiction writers who agree to swap their journals. The play had its world premiere at McCarter Theatre in New Jersey. Roundabout Theatre Company is currently staging the New York City premiere of Fiction, a three-actor dramatic comedy that is by turns a romance, a mystery and a rumination on the creative process. David Warren directs Tom Irwin, Julie White and Emily Bergl in the new production at the Laura Pels Theatre Off-Broadway. The twists and turns of the plot have prompted "parking lot conversation," as Dietz calls it. By phone from his home in Seattle, Dietz spoke to Playbill On-Line about his writing career, his work habits and the contents of his own journals.

Playbill On-Line: Prior to this current New York production of Fiction you saw the play done at McCarter Theatre. Did you do rewrites in between productions? Is a play always a fluid thing?
Steven Dietz: I generally do enormous rewrites, and I enjoy that. In the case of Fiction and Lonely Planet, at least relative to my 25 plays, they are the plays that came out pretty clean. The first draft of Fiction is not all that different from the draft you saw. Having said that, I did do some changes following the McCarter run. Nothing major, but the play is sort of a Rubik's Cube or a House of Mirrors: A small change in Fiction can have a big impact. We learned things at McCarter. The great thing about this art form, as maddening as it can be, is that you do get to improve your plays. It's not already in the video store, signed, sealed and delivered. I'm directing it out here in the fall [at Seattle's ACT], and will direct it at The Old Globe [in San Diego] in the fall. Maybe it will keep growing there, but as it stands now I think it's as good as I can make that story now.

PBOL: The play's couple are writers, and the outsider serves as a kind of muse for both. Are you attracted to writing about creative types?
SD: I waited 25 plays to write a play about a writer — with the exception of my first play that you'll never find no matter how hard you try. Certainly, I have a Van Gogh play that's making the rounds at regional theatres. Private Eyes is about theatre. I think there's a little bit of a trap but there's this notion of a curiosity among theatregoers about the creative act, and in some ways to call Fiction a play about writers is accurate and similarly incomplete. I love these people because I love what snobs they are, I love how articulate they are, and I love that they traffic in the world of deception in their work. Therefore, how that spills into their lives — there's bound to be some grist for a play in that.

PBOL: Journals and diaries and secrets are very important to the play. Is journaling something you do?
SD: I do it very casually. I am starting to write more personal things. I have a four-year-old daughter, so I'm trying to keep up with the amazing stuff my daughter said or did that day and fill some pages. Mine are more working journals — notions for plays. Getting something off my chest about a grant I didn't get! [Laughs.] There's introspection in them and things like that. Probably like a lot of people, my yearly New Year's resolution is to write in my journal a lot. And I don't! I go months without writing. And then I'm stuck on an airplane and then I'll do [it]. This play came out of old journals. Maybe 10 years ago I wrote the title The Waterman Diaries in a journal. I'll do that — jot down possible titles. That title formulated the idea of the conceit of a woman sharing her diaries and asking to read her husband's. Then some theatre calls my bluff and says, "Do you wanna write this play by this date?" Hopefully, somewhere in my journals I have something to give them.



PBOL: Do you approach the creation of each of your plays differently? Will the seed begin sometimes with a character, sometimes a title, sometimes a snatch of dialogue?
SD: I bet it's different. There's certainly no rhyme or reason. It often is an image or a character and often some question: Something I just don't understand, or something that is significantly outside of my experience. The writing of the play consists of, in some ways, a sort of travelogue between who I am in my life and my journey to what I want to write about. Somewhere along that line, the story of the play comes out.

PBOL: How did the "Waterman Diaries" line in your journal grow into the larger play? Did you know they were married?
SD: I remember writing a sentence years ago which said: "What if instead of dying with your secrets you had to live with your secrets?" That was profound and stupidly general like many things in one's journal. That stuck with me. I did know they were married. I didn't know they were writers. That came much later. I knew there was a third character who played into the story of the husband. The thing I didn't know was how does this third character figure into the wife, Linda's, story?

PBOL: The play constantly flirts with reality vs. fiction vs. memory.
SD: Hopefully there is a recognition in all these people that — as I said to the actors at some point — in some way we all have three pasts: We have the past that we remember, we have the past that we may have transcribed or written in the journal or diary and we have the past that actually happened. The tension between what we remember, what we invent and what actually happened is fairly inexhaustible. It was a great challenge to dive into those questions and see what came out.

PBOL: You have a writing studio-office that's separate from home?
SD: Yeah, I do. I worked out of my home most of my life, and then the last couple of years it's a 10 minute walk over a little bridge here in Seattle. I'm actually looking at it out the window of my house right now.

PBOL: So it's on your property?
SD: No, it's just on the other side of the ship canal here in Seattle. A 10-minute walk to a little area called Fremont. It's in an old funky office building.

PBOL: It's freeing, creatively, to have that separate space?
SD: Well, it is. Even just the walk. My head is clearer on my walk over. I'm a much better father and husband having walked for 10 minutes coming home.

PBOL: Do you work on several plays at once?
SD: I'm usually juggling several projects at once. I'm seldom at any given time actually writing on two plays. I've been doing small rewrites on Fiction, I'm starting the first draft of another play, I'm juggling a couple commissions — a McCarter commission and a couple of others for theatres, going into [the] 2006-07 season.

PBOL: When you get a commission, do you sometimes say, "Oh, God, I have nothing!"?
SD: No, I just lie, I guess. [Laughs.] Generally, there's enough lead time. About half my commissions are targeted to a specific project: Someone will say, do you want to adapt this book for us? Some of them, like this McCarter one, are great because they say, "Whatever play you wanna write that year we're interested in." That is both, as you implied, a godsend and terrifying. God love those working journals. I have thoughts for things that might turn into plays — I have six or seven of those floating around in my head. One never knows whether they are worthy enough, or have legs enough, to turn into a play.

PBOL: You have been produced in theatres all around the country, but you haven't had what American culture considers major success — Broadway. Yet, so many writers would love to be in your position of being in every major regional house there is. How do you view your own success?
SD: I'm asked this enough that I can probably answer it. I'll give you a couple of stabs at it. Am I excited and delighted and thrilled about this? This is far and away my most major production in New York. I had a couple of small things some years ago at the Barrow Group and at Circle Rep. [Fiction by Roundabout Theatre Company] is the most visible thing I've had. The advantage of it happening at age 46 instead of age 26 — when I was desperate and hungry to have my work done in New York — is that it's almost like this amazing roll of the dice. I haven't built my life around having my plays in New York, I just haven't. I'm fond of saying that maybe I've inverted the old adage that you can make a killing [in the theatre] but you can't make a living. I've done the exact opposite: I've made a living on my plays for 20 some years. But I don't have a hit play. I don't have one play that pays my bills. Instead I've had 15 or more plays that are seen in theatres and colleges — and then there are five or six that pay my bills.

PBOL: What pays your bills?
SD:God's Country, Private Eyes, Lonely Planet and Dracula — and, knock on wood, maybe Fiction. The advantage of not having success as a younger writer in New York, unlike a lot of my peers — as envious as I was of them — what I've gotten to do instead is make a body of work. As much as I wanted my early plays to have a big New York success, the very fact that they didn't — or more importantly, didn't go to New York and get hammered — meant that I got to write my next play, and my next play. So I feel like I've had this 20-year apprenticeship. I've gotten to learn my craft. This is a hard craft to learn. If I'd have been a New York playwright, I don't know if I would have gotten to do that. Instead, I have very happily lived out here where, as we said before, my plays get several chances instead of one chance. I know where having a play in New York sort of fits into my life, whereas some years back it would have been my life.

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Dietz's next play, Last of the Boys, about a broken friendship in the context of the Vietnam era, gets its world premiere at McCarter Theatre's Berlind Theatre in Princeton, NJ., Sept. 7-Oct. 17. Emily Mann directs.