Playwright's Process :: Dietz on The National New Play Network

by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday October 24, 2013

New Rep Theatre is giving the latest play by Steven Dietz, "Rancho Mirage," something pretty incredible. They've mounted the show's world premiere and its second production.

"As hard as it is to get your play premiered it is significantly harder to get your second production," said Steven Dietz when we talked about the show, "because there is cachet in a theatre premiering your play, there's a financial stake in the future life of a play when a theatre premieres your play -- none of those things are true for the second production."

So how does this New Rep production get to be both the world premiere and the second production? It's part of a flagship program sponsored by the Nation New Play Network. This organization helps new plays get no less than three Rolling World Premieres within a twelve-month period. The play can't help but grow, because a playwright develops the new work with multiple creative teams, for multiple communities of patrons.

This is the second time that one of Dietz's plays has had a Rolling World Premiere and he explained a little bit about the process:

Steven Dietz: So the brilliant thing that the [National New Play] Network did is to say -- they have a fund called the continuing life fund -- a theatre says, "I have this play, and I think you'll like this play and maybe some other theatres will like this play, and so we're all gonna get some money as an incentive to have three theatres premiere this play instead of just one."

The brilliant thing about it as a model is it's so obvious. We should make it attractive for a theatre to do a play, which is different from the Broadway, and off-Broadway and often regional theatre model of: one theatre keep a play, don't let anyone else have it. Which is the death of most new plays. It's ridiculous to have a country that's three thousand miles between the coasts, and a theatre will premiere a show in San Francisco, but not let a theatre in Denver do it or not let a theatre in New Orleans do it -- because it's a completely different audience. It's different if it's uptown New York and downtown New York, but the regional theatre model has, kind of, eaten the Broadway model, and to disastrous consequences. The network is doing a long overdue and very good thing.

EDGE: So how does this assist you as a playwright?

Steven Dietz: The great gift for me is, with each iteration of the play, I'm learning about the play. I'm learning about its effect on audiences, [and] seeing multiple actors do the play. It's a great test and challenge for the play, to see if the play is strong enough and worthy enough of various interpretations.

EDGE: Where do you learn this? In the rehearsal process?

Steven Dietz: Logistically, all four of these productions happened within the space of two months, so it wasn't possible for me to be in the rehearsal room for all of them. So I spent the most time in rehearsal for the first production, which was at the only theatre center in Maryland. And then I was in Boston for previews, and some brief rehearsals and the opening. This coming week, I'll fly and just see the show in Indianapolis. I was at more rehearsals early on and as the rolling world premiere goes on I have less to do with them, but I'm in touch with everybody, hearing about their process, and sending changes -- continuing my work with the play.

EDGE: Do your changes come from feedback you've received from the companies? They tell you, this or that particular moment didn't work?

Steven Dietz: The changes never come out of anything negative. They come out of, "Oh, we discovered something in this production." [And I think,] "I can refocus that moment this way." The more a play changes is a sign of health. It's hard to explain that to general audience members. Everyone likes to enshrine this notion that the play that's being rewritten is in trouble, but the play that's being rewritten is lucky. It's lucky that it's going to have other chances to try stuff out. It's the reason why a show in New York may have a month of previews. Most shows at regional theatres will have one or two previews. So this is the necessary work of [creating a new] play.

My job is to pass forward the knowledge. And seldom is it production knowledge. ("Oh, they had this really cool lighting moment.") It's my knowledge of the play, what's working, and the theatres are hungry for this information. They're hungry to know the sort of providence of the play and how it's playing out.

EDGE: Not to be ethnocentric, but I'll bet what you learned from the Boston production was better than what you learned from the others. Right?

Steven Dietz: I told all these theatre is the last thing I expected is that all these productions would look the same. I want them to be as different as they need and want to be. That, to my mind, that's how the play gets tested. I don't believe there's such a thing as a definitive production of a play; I think that's a comical phrase. It's very American to think that there's one way to do something. I love the fact that four theatres [are involved] (and there's actually a fifth [production] in Minneapolis that's not a part of the rolling world premiere that will also open in November). [The play] should look like [the theatre producing it.] They all picked the play for a different reason, so it would make sense to me they would present the play in different ways.

EDGE: What things distinguish the productions you've attended?

Steven Dietz: I really think that in a play about three couples coming together, to spend and evening together, the casting of those six people almost, sort of, enshrines the DNA of that production. They've both been beautifully designed and beautifully directed by not in wildly different ways.

EDGE: So it's the performances that have helped you most in crafting your plays?

Steven Dietz: Sometimes an actor will misspeak a line, but they'll hit a different consonant and you'll realize that landed that joke better. One reason I'm still writing plays after all this time is that I've been smart enough to steal these great moments and great ideas from people and included them. But the trick is to give the productions as strong a blueprint as you can give them and then let them do their work.

EDGE: When do you know that you're done with a play?

Steven Dietz: I don't think a play is ever set.

EDGE: Are there any of your plays, the ones that have been around a long time, like "God's Country" and "Lonely Planet," that you know are set?

Steven Dietz: If I went back into rehearsal today with "Lonely Plant" I'd revise it. I probably wouldn't make it better, because I couldn't write "Lonely Planet" now. I couldn't write "God's Country"now. I couldn't write "Private Eyes" now. Those are pieces of who I was as a playwright in those years. I love those plays and I'm proud of those plays; those plays are part of me, but I'm not those plays anymore.

Certainly any play within the last five years, even the plays that are published, I'm always looking to make it better because there's no such thing as being passive as a playwright. You're either looking to defend what you have and say no more changes or you're looking to change what you have; there's no middle ground. My default is to keep trying to lean on the play and improve it, because I'm suspicious of myself when I think I'm done. And I try to be the last one done with my plays. So if everyone who worked on a production said "I think it's done," I'd usually go to my hotel room that night and look for things to cut.

EDGE: You do a lot of cutting?

Steven Dietz:Oh, certainly. And never for length. You never cut a play for length. You cut it for motion.... you'll cut it well to make it sharper. And I say that like it's so easy! It's not easy, but those of us who are still writing plays after 30 years -- if nothing else, that's the thing that we've learned.

EDGE: Where do your ideas come from, initially?

Steven Dietz: It's a slightly different place every time. It's generally just an itch I need to scratch, some curiosity. It's never an answer. It's never a certainty. It's usually question, or a taunt, or a tease and I just want to spin out: What if this American man went back to Dublin to look for this woman he met once 35 years ago? That's evocative to me, but I don't have a play there. I just start pursuing it. We're told to write what we know, and I think that's an important half-truth I don't think it's an important truth at all, because we're destined to write what we know. We're imbued with what we know. My career, I started writing early on the things I didn't know, the things I wanted to find out about. And whether that leads me to the Beat Generation, or to Dublin, or a dinner party at Rancho Mirage, it's let my work broaden my life, and that's been an enormous gift.

"Rancho Mirage" began its Rolling World Premiere at Olney Theatre Center (Olney, MD, Sept. 26 - Oct.20, 2013), followed by performances at New Repertory Theatre (Watertown, MA, Oct. 13 - Nov. 3, 2013), Phoenix Theatre (Indianapolis, IN, Oct. 24 - Nov. 24, 2013), and Curious Theatre Company (Denver, CO, Oct. 31 - Dec. 7, 2013).

Click here for more information on The National New Play Network.

Click here for tickets to Olney Theatre Center's production of "Rancho Mirage".

Click here for tickets to New Rep's production of "Rancho Mirage".

Click here for tickets to Phoenix Theatre's production of "Rancho Mirage".

Click here for tickets to Curious Theatre Company's production of "Rancho Mirage".