Interview with Playwright Gina Gionfriddo

Posted Thursday, December 10, 2009 - 3:28pm

How did you become a writer?
I wrote stories as a young child, but in high school and college I really wasn’t writing creatively.  I was acting in plays and studying literature.  I felt I was either going to pursue acting professionally or get on a PhD track in English.  Fortunately, I was attending college in New York City.  So I was able to see what an actor’s life is like and decide it wasn’t for me.  I interned at an Off-Off-Broadway theatre while I was in college and I sat in on auditions and rehearsals.  I found the auditions really frustrating because the actor has such limited control over the process.  At the same time, I was watching rehearsals for very new plays.  The writers were rewriting a lot and I was very turned on by that—the process by which actors and audiences show the writer what their play is and isn’t.  Obviously, you don’t want to be a slave to that kind of feedback, but I’m still really excited by the period of discovery in the rehearsal room.  I feel like there are subtexts kind of bubbling under the surfaces in my plays and a lot of times actors see them when I do not.

As a successful writer for both the stage and television, what are the challenges distinct to each medium for you and what are the strongest similarities?
I feel a play has to say something important, or really shift an audience’s consciousness in some important way.  I don’t feel that pressure in television, and that’s not to say I take it lightly, but I do think in film and TV it’s enough to entertain and I don’t feel that’s enough in theatre.  Partly that’s a function of this cultural moment.  Film and TV are increasingly accessible.  I have movies on-demand through my cable service that were in theaters last week.  The point is… There’s so much great film and TV available in my apartment, so I bring very high expectations to theatre.  It’s expensive, it’s uncomfortable.   More and more I regard plays as the place you go to hear some truth or ask some question that film and TV can’t or won’t give you.

The challenge I find writing for television is that you don’t have an audience captive from episode one to episode twenty-two (unless your audience is watching the season in order, beginning to end, on DVD, of course—but you can’t count on that).  So you really have to be thinking clarity clarity clarity when you write.  You have to make the episode accessible to a new or newish viewer, and I find that obligation somewhat limiting.   Of course, the really excellent cable dramas like “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos” assume the audience is committed to watching the whole season, so the writers can get into character arcs and nuance and ambiguity.  The shows I’ve written have been police procedurals.  That kind of show is designed to be syndication-friendly.   The episodes need to stand alone, you can run them out of order… I like those shows a lot, but they don’t accommodate character complexity very well.  The goal is entertainment. 

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Interview with Director Anne Kauffman

Posted Thursday, December 10, 2009 - 3:25pm

What are some of the elements of Becky Shaw that drew you to it?
I find the characters in Becky Shaw incredibly delightful and extremely slippery. Each one, in their own way, is reprehensible but impossible to dismiss. One of the first things I look for in a play are characters who are complex and contradictory, characters whose intentions are not easily defined. And, these characters are full of contradictions, they're mysterious and brash and vulnerable and outrageous. Their desires and demands and philosophies drive the plot instead of the plot driving them, and for me, that's thrilling theater. 

You mentioned both dioramas and paper dolls as being inspirations for the set design you worked to create with Mimi Lien--how do these things inform the world of Becky Shaw that you're creating?
Gina's inspiration for this play are 19th century novels such as Vanity Fair. These are novels about women and class, and I was trying to remember how, as a child, I was introduced to class, and how we recognize class in the United States. In our country, class is mostly defined by the haves and the have nots. Yes, 'royalty' of sorts does exist in this country, but really, it's driven mostly by economics and access. So, I was thinking a lot about accoutrements rather than blood-lines. In a way, stuff is the most visible sign of economic status in this country. We all start out naked and adorn ourselves, which is where the paper doll idea came from. The diorama is an extension of the paper doll idea in a way. I was very drawn to a permanent exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum when I was a child. There was a room that had tiny dioramas of drawing rooms from different Western European countries from 17th to the 20th century. These drawing rooms were furnished according to a particular socio-economic reality. The boxes were all the same, but the way they were adorned differed drastically and I was absolutely mesmerized by the sumptuousness or blandness of each environment. The dioramas were behind glass and there was a brass bar at about ankle height for small children to stand on to peer in. I could never get enough of that exhibit, I wanted to climb inside the worlds and live there, but was always kept at arms length from the rooms due to the barrier of glass and the labels with the relevant information about a particular room placed beneath the scene. I like this idea for Becky Shaw; I was intrigued by the idea that we might observe the unfolding of this drama inside categorized rooms as though it were a kind of social experiment.

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Interview with Playwright Athol Fugard

Posted Thursday, October 29, 2009 - 1:14pm

In August, Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback was lucky enough to arrange a phone interview with Athol Fugard to talk about his new play, Coming Home, which opens the Wilma season. Although he is best known for his plays chronicling the pernicious effects of apartheid on his native South Africa, Fugard has remained active as a playwright: he has written at least six plays since the Wilma produced My Children! My Africa! in 2007.

Coming Home to New Bethesda
Coming Home is unique among Fugard’s plays as a sequel to an earlier play. Valley Song was the first play Fugard wrote after Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress party was voted into office, replacing the white apartheid government, and Valley Song reflects the mood of the time. “It was a moment of incredible euphoria in South Africa with great hope for the future, and I was not immune to that,” Fugard says. “I thought, you know, ‘My God, I’m going to actually see it happen in my lifetime’.”

Valley Song is perhaps Fugard’s most wholeheartedly optimistic work. The play is set in New Bethesda, a small town where Fugard owns a home, “no more than about 40 to 50 miles from the village where I was born.” Since buying the house, Fugard has set several of his plays in New Bethesda, beginning with The Road to Mecca, nearly 25 years ago.

Fugard wrote himself into Valley Song as The Author, and played the role in early productions. The other characters bear the names of real people from New Bethesda; One of these was Oupa (“Grandpa”), the caretaker on Fugard’s property.  “He was my first and my closest friend in New Bethesda. When I bought my first property there, I inherited Oupa! Because he had been looking after that land and planting on it and harvesting the fruit and the vegetables for years, years, years before I even put my eyes, set my eyes on it. And…I had to come to terms with him. In a kind of a way I always felt that as long as he was alive that land would be his as much as it would be mine.”

The other character is Veronica, Oupa’s granddaughter, who he’s raised since she was a child. She was the real inspiration for the play. “Veronica was a real young girl who I knew and who dreamt about going to the city and I realized she could be an embodiment of the hope that we all had. And so Valley Song is about that. Valley Song is about the fact that the world, our world had changed, taken a dramatic one hundred and eighty degree turn in its identity and was going to try and forge a new identity for itself. For me, Veronica was an embodiment of that belief that the miracle had happened” and his belief that “we would be able to hold on to it and be bold and go forward.” Valley Song was an international hit: “it was a beautiful experience watching audiences respond to that hope.”

So why did Fugard decide to re-visit Veronica and Oupa more than a decade later? “Democracies have a lot to learn as we discovered,” he says. “it did definitely make strong strides towards being the democracy we had dreamt of but with time a debit side to the balance sheet began to emerge.”

Like her namesake, the real Veronica left New Bethesda for the city, hoping to become a singer. Fugard doesn’t know what happened to her, but she and Oupa stuck with him as symbols of those early, euphoric days.  “I made people hope with Valley Song. And it bothered me that, in terms of my country, that message of hope—unconditional hope—was no longer valid. So to get the record straight I had to bring Veronica back to the village and write a play called Coming Home.”

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Interview with Set & Costume Designer Anne Patterson

Posted Wednesday, October 28, 2009 - 1:17pm

How did the design process begin?
I felt pretty strongly that we had to have this very, very realistic home where the action is…At the same time I feel that Fugard’s writing is so incredibly poetic that I felt that there also needed to be something in the set to reflect that. And I also felt that it was important knowing that this home would probably be quite grim, depressing, that there was some sort of visual counter to that because as sad as the story is, there is definitely hope, and love and a real light within it. So I also looked at painters and sculptors for inspiration.

How did you land on Wolf Kahn for inspiration?
Wolf Kahn is one of my favorite painters, but surprisingly I’ve never used him before in any design. I felt that his sense of being able to distill nature down to the most beautiful single image in a very powerful way really worked for this piece.

And the more I started researching the Karoo and getting familiar with what that place really feels like and looks like, the more it seemed like the right direction to go -- especially people’s descriptions of it being so powerful and feeling that you’re very much connected to nature when you’re in that region.

So I showed some of his paintings and pastels to Blanka. Blanka actually found this really wonderful pastel by him [“A Slight Dip in the Landscape”] that we really used as our inspiration

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