In the 1950s, this office-based knowledge worker was “The Organization Man” or “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” as two best sellers of the period named him. In the 1960s, the next generation became the ubiquitous “junior executive,” whether with Bob Newhart’s “buttoned-down mind,” the reluctant conscience of Jack Lemmon’s “Buddy Boy” Baxter in The Apartment, or the amoral charm and WASP chutzpah of Bobby Morse’s J. Pierpont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. These men (for they were almost all men outside the steno pool) diligently filled their cubicle every day, briefcase in hand, performing tasks that were nebulous but apparently essential to the functioning of firms such as How To Succeed’s Worldwide Wicket Company. The really skillful, including the Finches of the world, could rise to the top of their enterprise. In the sort of large corporations Drucker emphasized, the price of mediocrity was plateauing somewhere in the limbo/purgatory of “middle management,” but with job security, a nice house in the suburbs, and a guaranteed pension.
The Wilma’s artistic staff was pleasantly surprised to realize that the center two plays of our season both took place in workplaces. While most of us spend a large portion of our waking lives at work, most plays give the workplace short shrift. And the two workplaces represented in Assistance and Under the Whaleback demonstrate, in vibrant verbal and theatrical form, the sea change that work has gone through in many of our lifetimes. Under the Whaleback shows the end of the 20th century industrial model. Assistance is very much of the 21st century.
In a remarkable 1995 article titled “The Age of Social Transformation,” the management guru Peter F. Drucker wrote:
No century in recorded history has experienced so many social transformations and such radical ones as the twentieth century.…In the developed free-market countries…work and work force, society and polity, are all…qualitatively and quantitatively different not only from what they were in the first years of this century but also from what has existed at any other time in history…
Leslye Headland, author of Assistance, spoke with Wilma Theater Literary/Artistic Assistant William Steinberger on Tuesday morning, October 23rd in a cab on her way to a rehearsal. This is the second installment of her interview.
Will Steinberger: Something that really excited the Wilma about the play is that it focuses on the workplace [as does the next play in the Wilma season, Richard Bean’s Under the Whaleback], and does so almost as an anthropological study.
Headland: Studs Terkel’s Working was another big jumping off point for me. In the introduction, he writes that his book, ‘being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body.’ It is about the subjugation of the human spirit. Work is not just what you do to make money or what you do to put food on the table, it’s actually an ordeal that you put yourself through and a lot of people make their work their life. They make Daniel their God or their Satan. It becomes their reason to get up in the morning. And the nature of work is fulfilling, there are a lot of fulfilling things about it – I get to do what I love doing for a living – but it’s also work. You’re putting yourself in a position to be less than and toil and I think even if you love what you do, you still have an obligation to your employer and you’re still serving someone. And that attitude of service can be one that can torture you, it can be something that you do willingly, but it’s not always the most rewarding or psychologically advancing thing.
Will: Assistance shows a workplace that has transformed into a less tangible experience over the past several decades. There’s no real product that the assistants are making. What is the personal relationship they have to the work they’re doing, to that industry, or to their boss?
Leslye Headland, author of Assistance, spoke with Wilma Theater Literary/Artistic Assistant William Steinberger on Tuesday morning, October 23rd in a cab on her way to a rehearsal.
William Steinberger: What are you in rehearsal for?
Leslye Headland: I’m rehearsing a ten minute play that a friend of mine wrote, a younger playwright that I am in love with – creatively, not romantically. She got into the Sam French Off-Off-Broadway Festival, which is this week, so we’re just sort of in our last throes of trying to get everything to work and all of that – but it’s great. It’s really nice to be directing again, and it’s nice to be directing something that’s not mine, which is really always informative and cool.
Will: You’re a former assistant to producer Harvey Weinstein and I wonder if you could tell us a bit about your decision to leave your day job and focus on your writing.
Headland: I had been working at Miramax and the Weinstein Company for almost five years. I only worked for Harvey for the last year of that. I didn’t leave because of him, but because I realized that, for all intents and purposes, I had been stuck in an entry-level job for a really long time. And I noticed that a lot of people my age were in a similar situation. They weren’t being mentored, it was just sort of doing people’s dirty work for them, and I thought, why do we keep doing this? Why are we still in this position? And when I worked for Harvey directly, I actually did get somebody who was definitely challenging to work for, but somebody who actually encouraged me. He said, ‘Aren’t you a writer? Why are you still here?’ And he actually read through some of my work and really challenged me to leave in a lot of ways, and say, ‘You know, you could stay and become a producer, and I can teach you how to do that, but you’re a good writer, and if you want to be a writer, you have to go and do it – you have to actually write. You can’t hang out at my desk and write in secret.’ So that’s what the experience of working there and then leaving was like.
Will: You moved from New York to LA in order to get your plays produced, which at first might seem almost counter-intuitive. What about LA helped you blossom as an artist?
“I don’t get involved in politics,” Louis Armstrong once said. “I just blow my horn.” One evening in 1957, however, he decided to speak up, and his remarks may have had large consequences.
On September 17, 1957, Armstrong was scheduled to play a concert in Grand Forks, North Dakota with his All Star Band. A young reporter, Larry Lubenow, had been assigned to get an interview with Armstrong for the local paper, the Grand Forks Herald. Unfortunately, Lubenow could not schedule an interview with Armstrong before the concert, so he decided to get crafty and posed as a bell captain at Armstrong’s hotel. After Lubenow revealed his subterfuge to Armstrong, the trumpeter agreed to an interview. Two weeks earlier, the Little Rock Nine, nine African-American teenagers, had being barred from entering Little Rock’s Central High School. Lubenow boldy asked Armstrong’s opinion on the matter. President Eisenhower was “two faced,” Armstrong said, adding “It’s getting so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country.” He also had some choice words for Governor Faubus of Arkansas who had resisted orders for desegregation of schools.