Interview with Dan O'Brien
Walter Bilderback: At the heart of The Body of an American is the story of your friendship with journalist Paul Watson, beginning 7 years ago when you heard him interviewed on Fresh Air. The friendship has resulted not only in this play, but a chamber opera and numerous poems, including the volume War Reporter. Without giving away much of the play, has the friendship changed your life?
Dan O'Brien: Absolutely. But my life was already in the process of changing pretty drastically when I met him, so Paul’s story—simply the sound of his voice in that radio interview—was both haunting and familiar. Uncanny. I felt like he would understand what I was going through, and maybe I could understand what I thought he was going through. I knew I wanted to write about him, but I didn’t know how, or whether he’d let me. But I did something I’d never done before: I wrote to a stranger, and he wrote back.
As for how my work with Paul has changed me, I consider him one of my closest friends now, maybe my closest, and we continue to work together, to discuss plans for future projects, to visit each other occasionally in LA, where I live, or Vancouver, where Paul lives when he’s not working abroad. We email each other several times a week, sometimes daily.
When I first started writing, as kid and as a young man, writing was an escape from reality, a way to act out emotional problems on the page and then on the stage; now I want my work to change the way I live, to bring me back from fantasy and towards a greater engagement with reality, towards connection, to bring me into contact with people like Paul, whose stories I find fascinating and/or disturbing and/or inspiring, and then to do what I can to help tell those stories.
Interview with playwright Gina Gionfriddo
Wilma audiences swooned over Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw in the 2009/10 Season. The 2014/15 season opens with Rapture, Blister, Burn, Gionfriddo’s newest play (and, like Becky Shaw, a Pulitzer finalist). The play follows Catherine, a celebrity academic, who returns to her hometown after her mother’s heart attack, and reunites with her best friends from graduate school, who are now married. Gina Gionfriddo talks with Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback about the play.
Walter Bilderback You've said that Rapture, Blister, Burn isn't the play you set out to write. Could you tell our audience a little about that?
Gina Gionfriddo I actually set out to write a play about the impact of Internet pornography on the American psyche. I had a pre-Internet childhood. When we became curious about sex, we had to work so hard for every little scrap of information. Now it’s just, as one of my characters says, point-and-click to see full penetration online. So I went chasing after some wisdom about how this colossal change in access to porn has impacted us. I read a lot of great books like The Porning of America, but I wasn’t able, finally, to translate a sociological inquiry into a living, breathing drama. But when you read about the history of porn, you inevitably read about feminism because pornography as an issue really split the movement in the eighties. Now, I had attended a women’s college, but never taken a Women’s Studies course. (I was a bit like Avery, the young girl in my play, and felt it was all antiquated and not relevant to me.) So I found myself reading these feminist texts for the first time at forty. That led me to start thinking about different generations of women in conversation about their lives.
Interview with Robert O'Hara, Part One: "Everyone is Welcome, No one is Safe"
Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback sits with Playwright/Director Robert O'Hara. This is the first part of his interview.
WALTER BILDERBACK: Let's start with the basic: What's Bootycandy?
ROBERT O'HARA: Bootycandy is the name that my grandmother and mother used for the penis when I was a little boy. After seeing the world premiere of this play in DC, my mother turned to me and actually said "It was BooBoo Candy why on EARTH would we call your penis Bootycandy?" and my response to her was "Oh Boo Boo Candy makes oh so much more sense, right???" Regardless I heard Bootycandy... all my life. So I think my Mother is making up some Boo Boo Candy ... that just sounds crazy. Now, Bootycandy... I can kinda understand. LOL...
WB: The play has been described as semi-autobiographical. I'm guessing the stress is on the "semi."
RO: When I watch the play I can see where most of the scenes come from... they are all from real life experience and most of the more surreal things are absolutely true...
there are no jobs for hairy blokes without finesse: an interview with playwright richard bean
"It's a tough town, Hull, but we are mad and proud."
Richard Bean is one of the most important playwrights to emerge in Britain in this century. He's best-known for his farce One Man, Two Guvnors, which ran on Broadway last year. Here is the full interview with Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback.
WALTER BILDERBACK: You had a somewhat unusual career path to playwriting, at least from an American standpoint. You started out as an occupational psychologist and then became a stand-up comic, if I recall. How did that develop?
RICHARD BEAN: Yes, I trained in Social Psychology at Uni, mainly an American discipline with the dominant psychologists being Milgram, Asch, Skinner. I ended up with a BSc and went into the occupational side.
WB: What led to the transition to playwriting?
RB: I'd been working in Personnel and Training departments in big factory situations for 15 years and all of that time I was corrupting myself with the literary education that I hadn't had at university. Specifically I started reading Henry Miller, Kerouac, Steinbeck, and Conrad - just for fun really, but it was Henry Miller who corrupted me just through serendipity. I was working as a Personnel Officer in a telecoms company and I, by chance, started reading Tropic of Capricorn, which is Miller's story of his life in New York and Brooklyn as a Personnel Office for a Telecoms company - and I was corrupted. I became self-conscious about my work, which destroyed my ability to do it, and so, bit by bit, I started writing, and my first step was stand-up comedy.
Calling a Line Crooked: An Interview with playwright Leslye Headland - Part Two
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?
Interview with Set Designer Matt Saunders - Part 3
In the final installment of his interview, Matt Saunders describes the impact of the Yale School of Drama on his development as a designer, why he returned to Philadelphia, looking forward to Perestroika, and the impact Angels in America had on him as a high school student.
Walter Bilderback: Many of our audiences have seen your previous work at the Wilma as well as at other Philadelphia theaters, especially New Paradise Laboratories and Theater Exile, may also have seen you act in the past, too – a couple of years ago you left Philadelphia to earn an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, but you moved back here. What additional tools did Yale give you as a designer, and then second,
Interview with Set Designer Matt Saunders - Part 2
In this second installment, Matt Saunders describes the challenges of designing Angels in America and what he learned from the technical rehearsals and preview period about the set.
Walter Bilderback: what are the particular problems that Angels in America presents for a scenic designer?
Matt Saunders: I think one of the biggest challenges is the multitude of locations that the play calls for and that are inherent in the script. I mean, the scenes are relatively short, and they move, there are like nineteen or twenty different locations in Part One. I think the sort of conventional, illusionistic designer impulse is to think, “Whoa. I need a turntable, I need to be able to have all these walls, and how am I going to show all of these different places?” That impulse is in me, just because I’m a designer, but I really believe in the direction that we went – the stripped-down rehearsal room aesthetic. And the other challenges with this play are of course the magic moments, and the special effects. This play has a supernatural quality to it, and the trick is trying to figure out how to balance the pedestrian world with the sort of magical realism that Kushner writes in. What we’ve landed on - I hope - does that in a sophisticated way, because we’ve done is, we’ve kept everything in the pedestrian world, very earth-bound. Nothing flies in and out, all of the scenic pieces, they roll on, and they’re very connected to the earth, and to this world. Magic, and stage magic, I feel like, there’s a relativity involved with that. So you know, you don’t want to play your hand too early – it’s six hours worth of play here, and I hope we’ve been very selective and judicious and sort of careful with when we introduce the magic.
WB: That sense of making sure the magic is connected to the earth feels kind of important to Kushner’s metaphysics as well.
Interview with Set Designer Matt Saunders - Part 1
Matt Saunders first became known to Philadelphia audiences as an actor and designer for New Paradise Laboratories, which he co-founded. He’s worked on numerous stages around town as both performer and designer, including set designs at the Wilma for Age of Arousal, My Children, My Africa!, Rock’n’Roll, and now Angels in America. In this first installment, he speaks with Wilma Theater Dramaturg Walter Bilderback about the design process and how his design concept came about.
Walter Bilderback: For Angels in America, you and Blanka Zizka met frequently, and you’ve come up with a strikingly bold scenic design. Can you tell us a little about the process, and how the set design evolved?
Matt Saunders: We started by just reading the play aloud as a group – your Roy Cohn was really good, actually – we traded roles, and we basically had no idea where we were gonna go with it, design-wise. And as usual working with Blanka the focus – whether it’s design, acting,… – the work was just about the play for a long long long long long time. I think there were certain things that we sort of agreed on early, especially in terms of how the play moves, and the givens, the fact that there are split scenes and there are scenes that overlap and all these different locations, and we knew that we wanted to create a scenic environment that allowed for the play to move the way it’s designed to move. And there’s that epic nature that we knew we had to sort of embody, and acknowledge. But for me, the epic nature of it – it isn’t so much about the set needs to be epic. I feel like the epic nature of the play is found within the idea – the scope of the idea is in the overlapping narratives and stuff.
WB: What do you mean when you talk about the meetings being “all about the play”?
Interview with Richard Hamburger
Production Dramaturg William Steinberger sits down with director Richard Hamburger to discuss Curse of the Starving Class.
William Steinberger: You’re a longtime admirer of Curse of the Starving Class. What initially drew you to the play, and what about it seems particularly right for an American audience today?
Richard Hamburger: Even though it was written in the 1970s, CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS is particularly resonant today with the mortgage crisis having led to so many people losing their farms, houses and land. Weston, the father in the play, says, “I always figured on the future. I banked on it. I was banking on it getting better. It couldn’t get worse, so I figured it’d get better. I figured that’s why everyone wants you to buy things. Buy refrigerators. Buy cars, houses, lots, invest. They wouldn’t be so generous if they didn’t figure you had it comin’ in. At some point it had to be comin’ in. So I went along with it. Why not borrow if you know it’s coming in.” Critic Marc Robinson calls the play an ‘exploded version of the save-the-farm play,’ and it is that original, incendiary, aspect that intrigues me most. Despite the play’s tragic dimensions, it also has an irresistibly droll, surrealistic sense of humor. Shepard is a wizard at revealing American patterns and proclivities in an unpredictable and intriguing way, without ever preaching.
Interview with director Anne Kauffman
Walter Bilderback: It's great to have you back at the Wilma. You've been busy since you were here last, and have been gathering great reviews for your work. You're working with Mimi Lien, who designed Becky Shaw, again on the set design: what challenges did Body Awareness pose design-wise? What does Mimi bring to the table?
Anne Kauffman: I'm THRILLED to be back at the Wilma again and so happy that Mimi is once again collaborating with me. I love working with Mimi because she and I are both interested in theatricalizing, or perhaps abstracting realism. We had a very interesting process on Body Awareness. Since the playwright tells us in the script that all three spaces exist simultaneously, Mimi and I asked ourselves "why" and "what does it mean?" We went through a couple of ideas where we threw out the directive from the playwright, and then found our way back to it. We discovered as we started to dig in that as the play progresses, the characters are like bees bringing experience and knowledge from one space, and sort of pollinating another...so as we watch them traverse and live in each location, we watch them bring work home to the kitchen, or the bedroom, and conversely what happens in the bedroom, makes its way back to