from the desk of the DIRECTOR It was a great relief that Barbara’s play was not about a group of former artists complaining about their old age and comparing medications, surgeries and bowel movements. We get enough of that in our real lives. Nor is it about how miserable it is to be an artist. I wish it were a great scholar, but I think it was producer David Merrick, who said that the public was not interested in hearing how miserable actors’ lives are/were because they seem to live lives of glamour and passion, unlike many in the audience. How pleasing, then, that it is a play about the artistic flame still burning and desire still aglow—for creation, for parenting, or for life. Just like Barbara.
GARY GISSELMAN Director, The Dwindles
THE DWINDLES BY BARBARA FIELD MONDAY, MARCH 1 • 7 P.M. • at the PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER
RUTH EASTON NEW PLAY SERIES
A year of free room and board, scintillating conversation, and compelling company at a renowned artists’ colony? Sounds too good to be true to Edward MacKenzie, a has-been artist whose career once was. He’s looking for inspiration, but what he discovers is a collection of temperamental artists—and a corpse. Along the way, he has a close encounter with his past and his future. Tickets are free: 612.332.7481 x10 • INFO@PWCENTER.ORG
WE SAT DOWN WITH PLAYWRIGHT BARBARA FIELD TO TALK ABOUT HER MARCH 1 READING AT THE PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER. In your own words, what is The Dwindles about?
Well, I thought it was about aging and art and trying to finish things before you petered out and faded away—and dwindled. But at the very end of the fourth draft, I realized that it was also about parenting. One of the characters says that people are either parents or children (whether you have ever had children or not). And you can go down a list of acquaintances and know which each person is, in the end. So that was a surprise for me. Why this play? Why now?
Because I’m getting old, and I had a lot of family issues and upheavals that could have gone into any play, but a lot of it went into this one. Besides, I’ve wanted to start a play with “There’s a corpse in my room!” for a long time. So this was it. The other thing is, the dwindles. I was walking along with my brother and sister-in-law in New York, and I looked at him—he’s five years older than I am—and I said, “You have gotten terribly thin.” He said, “I used to be 6’1” and now I’m 5’10”. And I used to be 180 and now I’m 150. I’ve got what gerontologists call the dwindles.” And I thought, Ohhh … that’s the title for my new play. The characters in the play are very colorful and idiosyncratic. Did they spring from real people, perhaps that you’ve encountered at artists’ colonies?
I’ve never met people like this in a literal sense. And yet, they’re all parts of me. No, I’m not a blind poet, or an African-American tap dancer, a great woman painter who rides a Harley, or even an (offstage) composer of serial music. But they all came out of my head, so they claim me. Except possibly for the child. What will you FOCUS ON in the workshop?
The characters, and particularly the two or three leading characters, who wear a lot of masks, consciously or unconsciously. I have to find out how much they want an
audience to see them and how much they want to hide from each other, and from themselves. Those are hard things to work on, but basically, that’s it. The phrase “It’s what I do” is important in the play; there are a number of characters trying to figure out what it is they do.
Well, I ask every day, “What am I going to do when I grow up?” And in a sense these people, even the older ones, are trying to justify themselves through their art. They’re continually checking themselves out. Me too. Really? You strike me as someone who knows what she does.
I don’t, I don’t. My whole life I’ve drifted along, doing what I thought I ought to. I’d get married … have children (I wanted to do that) … oh, yeah, playwriting would be fun. How did playwriting enter into the mix?
My mother made sure that I was raised with a lot of theatrical experience. I never acted, but I always liked dialogue. I wrote a play in college and it got me $50, which in those days was a fortune, and then I had a version of that done at the Old Globe when I was living in La Jolla as a young mother. I had tried fiction, but I was much more intrigued with moving bodies and the space between them, how it could oscillate and where the power shifts were. That really seemed like something I could do.
i ask every day, “what am i going to do when i grow up?” and in a sense these people, even the older ones, are trying to justify themselves through their art. … me too. —BARBARA FIELD
La Jolla, huh? That’s rough.
I had two babies, little rugrats; they were two-and-a-half and six months when I moved here, and I didn’t know where Minneapolis was, and on May 1st it snowed and I cried inconsolably for about a week. Then a friend of mine wrote me a letter, and he clarified the whole thing. This is the quote—“It doesn’t seem correct writing you without enclosing 25 cents and two box tops from General Mills.” When we were children, we
would do that and get the Captain Midnight secret decoder ring, and suddenly it all fell into place. I was in Minneapolis, where I used to get those neat gifts from. And I’ve sort of been here ever since. I’ve lived everywhere. Before we came here, I lived in Chicago, I lived in the Netherlands for several years, I came here, I went back to the Netherlands for a year, I went to England for a year—you know, it was an academic crawl. But basically my children talk like Midwesterners. You’ve done a lot of adaptations and translations. How do those compare to writing a completely new work like The Dwindles?
I think adaptations are how playwrights earn a living. I mean, when you write a play on your own, you can’t support yourself on that, usually. However, if a theater says to you, “Barbara, we want you to do an adaptation of Great Expectations,” I say, “Fine.” And then someone else says, “Do Camille.” And they pay me! Then I get to play around with two classics, both set around 1840, vastly different in rhetoric—in London in 1840 you say “Thank you” or “Thanks,” and in Paris you can’t say that; you say “You are too kind”—and that exercise gives you such chops, such craft! And you learn how to do it by paying utter respect to the author in the first draft, basically vomiting out what he or she wrote, and then you can change it into theatre. I love adaptation, and it isn’t nearly as scary as writing my own plays. What is the best way for new playwrights to develop their craft?
I think it’s working in the field. What made me really become interested in plays is, my mother sent me to this theater when I was 16, and she thought I was going to get walk-ons. Well, that was not what I was interested in. I was much too self-conscious. But just sitting in a rehearsal, getting coffee for the director, scrubbing out the loo, but most particularly looking over and over again at rehearsals—of even not very good plays—taught me how it worked. How theater worked. As for graduate school—I don’t know. I went to graduate school. I guess it’s useful. It’s certainly politically useful— you know, making contacts. You were one of the founding members of the Playwrights’ Center AND STILL serve on the Board of Directors. How has IT changed?
First, our only intention in the very first week was, how do we get our plays done? We thought maybe, if we had some sort of masthead, we could use it as a lever to get
things done. It never occurred to us that anyone would ever give us money. So suddenly someone did, and we had Jerome Fellows, and we were a not-for-profit, and then it occurred to us that maybe what we should be doing is making our plays better. The whole idea of using it not just as a way of getting them done, but of making them better—that has always been dear to my heart. And you know, we had many artistic directors, some bad, some good, and one of them brought us into the marvelous downtown theater world. Mabou Mines appeared, as well as others, and shook up the boring naturalistic plays about a guy and a girl and a bottle of wine and their relationship that everyone had been turning out. Of course, with Polly [Carl, former Producing Artistic Director] it exploded and went national. There has been a lot of talk lately about the state of new plays in the American theater. Have you perceived a change in the way new plays are developed since you started writing?
No. What we have not had is someone saying to a playwright, why did you write this play? What is this play about? And if it doesn’t seem to be about that, how can you achieve some sort of marriage between your intentions and your final product? What is the context you’re writing in? All those hard questions. I haven’t seen a lot of that around, because writers are tender souls. I think it’s a tough business. What do you like or dislike in a play?
I happen to love television. Most of it is terrible, about 90% of it. But I think it’s an incredible medium. I think there are a lot of plays that could do wonderfully on television. And those are the plays that don’t much interest me on the stage. I like the plays that really have to be staged. Angels in America, or Tom Stoppard—I can’t see Arcadia going on a small screen, or for that matter, on a big screen. You just want to hear that language live and fresh. Those are the plays I like. I also love music in plays. Not necessarily Broadway musicals. I’ve written an opera libretto, and if someone will fund us we want to do the sequel to it. I just like theater that’s theater. I love going to the Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, Clubbed Thumb, the Foundry, you know? They’re not escape, they’re excitement! They’re irritating, they get in your craw, and they make you think.
UPCOMING EVENTS THE RUTH
EASTON NEW PLAY SERIES
RICH GIRL BY VICTORIA STEWART MONDAY, APRIL 5 • 7 P.M. • at the PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER
When Claudine meets Henry, a starving artist, she falls head over heels. Her mother, a financial guru, has her doubts. Is Henry everything her daughter has been looking for? Or is he after only one thing? A modern-day adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square, Rich Girl is about women and their relationship to men, mothers, and money—in that order. Tickets are free: 612.332.7481 x10 • INFO@PWCENTER.ORG WATCH THE VIDEO TRAILER ONLINE AT PWCENTER.ORG.
VICTORIA STEWART graduated from the Playwrights‘ Workshop at the University of Iowa and her play 800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick was recently produced by the Workhaus Collective. Her plays include LIVE GIRLS (Urban Stages, WHAT, Stage Left), Hardball (SPF), Leitmotif (South Coast Rep, Page 73), Nightwatches (Overlap Productions), 800 Words (Hourglass Group, Live Girls Theater), The Last Scene, and an adaptation of Henry James’ The Bostonians. She has received commissions from South Coast Rep, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and the Guthrie Theater. She is a Core Writer of the Playwrights’ Center and was the 2008/2009 Martha R. Ingram Artist-in-Residence at Tennessee Repertory Theatre, where she developed Rich Girl.
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THE PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER 2301 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55406 P 612.332.7481 • F 612.332.6037 • INFO@PWCENTER.ORG
Published on Feb 12, 2010
Barbara Field talks about her humorous and insightful new play THE DWINDLES, as well as founding the Playwrights' Center, what hasn't change...