Monday, June 22, 2009

I Interview Playwrights Part 15: Deborah Stein

Deborah Stein  

Hometown: New York, NY

Current Town: Minneapolis, MN

Q: You're headed to the Bay Area Playwrights Festival this summer. Tell me a little about the play you're working on there.

A: The play is called NATASHA AND THE COAT, and it's about the fashion industry and Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I actually started it five years ago and was overwhelmed by both the subject matter and the scope of it, and I shoved it in a drawer (literally) and only excavated it this past autumn. In a lot of ways, it's different from anything I've written before - a straightforward narrative about a family, clash between generations, based partially on personal experience. It's the first time when I need to figure out how old someone is, and where their parents were born, in order to fully develop and craft the characters - usually I work much more with allegory and archetypes. And I think it's going to be in two acts with an intermission - another first for me!

Q: Who are you working with on it?

A: Sean Daniels will be directing, with a stellar local cast including Corey Fischer and Naomi Newman, who founded the Traveling Jewish Theatre in San Francisco. They were in an earlier reading, in May, and were invaluable resources to discover the truth and nuance of the world I'm writing about.

Q: You are the new Bush fellow. Congratulations! Can you explain what that is? It's 50,000 dollars, right? How long does a playwright have to live in Minneapolis to be eligible to apply?

A: Thanks!! I'm pretty freaking excited. The Bush Foundation awards Artist Fellowship in a number of different disciplines. It's a total of $50,000 disbursed over 12 or 24 months, depending on how you want to use the fellowship. You need to be a resident of MN, ND, or SD for at least 12 months at the time of application.

Q: How did you come to start writing plays?

A: I acted in children's theatre when I was a kid, and started directing when I was in high school. In college I studied directing and creative writing, but mainly focused on poetry - I thought of those two creative pursuits as being decidedly different from each other. After college, I interned with the Pig Iron Theatre Company in Philadelphia, a physical theatre company making ensemble-based works. I was the assistant director, and part of my job was to transcribe rehearsal improvs to be shaped into performance text. Over the course of the rehearsal process, I became more and more involved in shaping the text, to the point of editing the transcriptions and providing additional writing that was based on gesture or character proposals from the acting ensemble or the director or even the designers. My credit on the production ended up being "writer" and I worked in this way with Pig Iron on six shows between 2000 and 2006. In the middle of it all I decided to go to grad school to try writing plays on my own, without the ensemble. I still do a mix of both processes - in fact, one of my other summer projects is to work with Pig Iron again, which will be like a sort of homecoming.

Q: What kind of theater do you want to make? / What kind of theater that other people make excites you?

A: Plays that are events, that capitalize on all that is vital and thrilling about live performance--raw and alive, all those people in a space together, having a communal experience which will happen exactly once. Plays that are like rock concerts, where your whole body is involved, whether you are artist or audience--where the line between those roles is blurred. Plays that recognize and embrace that we are in a specific place, in a specific moment of time. I dream of creating theatre on a massive scale, reaching audiences who don’t ordinarily go to see plays, sharing something unique in the collective present.

Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A: Go see lots of theatre. See it in both epic scales (Ariane Mnouchkine, Robert Lepage) and small, scrappy local companies doing it in the backyard. Identify like-minded collaborators, find your fellow travelers, work with them often. Pursue the big dreams and the large scale but also don't be afraid to do it yourself, don't wait for some large institution to give you a gold stamp, the only way to find and hone your voice by trying and failing and trying again. Theatre happens in three dimensions, in real time and space; what's on the page is the beginning, not the end.

Q: Link please for those in the Bay Area who want to see your play presentation:


Robert Meza said...

Deborah Stein is a wonderful playwright, I was fortunate to see her works at this past Humana Festival, and listen in on an interview. I cannot wait to see more from her.

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