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This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the August 25, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Live at the Library Debuts
When he was growing up in the Denver, Colorado area, playwright Steven Dietz remembers loving to listen to his late father’s stories. A railroad conductor with an eighth grade education who hauled freight for 44 years, the senior Dietz never saw a single stage play until his son’s work was staged, but what creative sparks his simple storytelling ignited for the boy.
"He managed to engender a great curiosity in me as he told me tales of people, especially everyday working people," says Dietz, for whom that curiosity has yielded great riches. Steven Dietz has written 27 plays, including "Last of the Boys." The play has its world premiere on Tuesday, September 7, as McCarter Theater’s season debut play.
Dietz, now a resident of Seattle, interrupted the frenetic rehearsal schedule at McCarter recently to ponder his own odyssey to playwriting, and also to reflect on the remarkable process that takes a play from page to stage.
He shares more of those insights on Monday, August 30, at 7:30 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library, which has joined with McCarter in a program linking the two cultural institutions. Called "Live at the Library," the new series will present the writer, director, or star of each new McCarter play before it opens. Susan Roth, reader services coordinator at the library, says the joint venture with McCarter is "a great and promising partnership."
The internationally-known playwright, whose credits include "Fiction," which had its world premiere at McCarter last year, "Lonely Planet," "Inventing van Gogh," "God’s Country," and "Go Dog. Go!," among many others, attempted acting as his first foray into theater "And I was very bad, really awful!" Dietz says. But during his college years at the University of Northern Colorado, Dietz not only wrote a play as his senior thesis; he also began to try his hand at directing. That, he recalls, was a far better fit.
"So I left college at 21 thinking I was a seasoned director, and I ended up, of course, directing only readings and workshops at first. But I was lucky," he says. "I was in Minneapolis at a time when its theater world was rich with people like Lee Blessing and August Wilson, so I did a lot of learning by listening. Just sitting in a room where those playwrights’ sentences were floating around was amazing. I was doing my learning in a three-dimensional environment."
That learning would lead Dietz to more directing, and then to playwriting, and to the current phase of his life. He is nonchalant about being so prolific, and humble about the playwriting process. "I’ve learned that you need to listen to your actors, even when a play is presumably finished," he says. "In the rehearsal process at McCarter, I’ve been rewriting every night and bringing in new pages every day."
"Last of the Boys" is a work Dietz has been thinking about since well before 9/11 and Iraq, yet its issues do include war, and how it alters lives. The play, which he describes as "a comedy that can break your heart," focuses on two Vietnam vets who reunite after 30 years, and find that despite their jocular bond, their shared past is nipping at their heels.
"This is not a play that is going to change anyone’s politics, nor is it a play about Robert McNamara, although his policies certainly figure into it," says Dietz. "It’s certainly informed by the political decisions that were made in the 1960s, which have always fascinated me."
Twenty-seven openings later, Steven Dietz is admittedly still exhilarated by the daily excitement and, yes, the tensions, of launching a world premiere. "The adrenalin is flowing, but with the thrill of an opening comes the inevitable pressure," he says. Still, he adds that working with Emily Mann, McCarter’s artistic director, and the play’s director, has been a gift. "She was very brave and bold to agree to do this during a presidential election season, which will certainly contribute to the discussion about it."
Going back home to Seattle when the play has completed its first week of performances will be bittersweet for the playwright. "Walking away from a play you’ve written is always hard, but that’s why you wrote it in the first place, to live on its own apart from you," says Dietz. "And when that time comes, I know I’m leaving ‘Last of the Boys’ in very capable and caring hands."
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