This anthology gathers four plays for youth and families, including Still Life with Iris, by Steven Dietz, one of America’s most widely produced and published contemporary playwrights.
Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Book Thirty-Seven
Steven Dietz is one of America’s most widely produced and published contemporary playwrights. Since 1983, his forty-plus plays have been seen at over one hundred regional theatres in the United States, as well as Off-Broadway, and in eighteen foreign countries and ten languages. He is a two-time winner of the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays Award, as well as a two-time finalist for the Steinberg New Play Award. He has received the PEN USA West Award in Drama, the Edgar Award for Drama, and the Yomuiri Shimbun Award (the Japanese “Tony.”)
While Dietz is best-known for his adult plays, he has also written important plays for younger audiences. This anthology gathers four of them—The Rememberer, Still Life with Iris, Honus & Me, and Jackie & Me. Though diverse in subject matter, the plays share several hallmarks of Dietz’s writing, including realistic dialogue, strong protagonists, an emphasis on memory and magic, a blue-collar sensibility filled with often loopy humor, and a witty and intelligent playing with the boundaries of reality. Setting the plays in context are essays about Dietz and his creative process, his success in working with other theatre professionals, and the profession of theatre for youth. This introduction to Steven Dietz’s work and anthology of plays will be a valuable resource for teachers, directors, writers, and students.
- Foreword. Memory, Family, and the Boundaries of Reality: Steven Dietz’s Writing for Young Audiences (Kim Peter Kovac)
- List of Plays by Steven Dietz
- Introduction. Twenty-Six Letters and Thousands of Days: How Steven Dietz Is Crafting a New Generation of Plays, Playwrights, and Audiences through Curiosity, Collaboration, and Community (Corey Atkins)
- Dramatic Impact: A Conversation with Linda Hartzell (J. Richard Smith)
- On Stage with Go, Dog. Go!
- The Plays
- The Rememberer
- Still Life with Iris
- Honus & Me
- Jackie & Me
Twenty-Six Letters and Thousands of Days: How Steven Dietz Is Crafting a New Generation of Plays, Playwrights, and Audiences through Curiosity, Collaboration, and Community
Editor’s note: Even though the four plays in this collection are regularly performed around the country in professional and amateur theatres for young audiences, Steven Dietz is primarily known for his writing for adult audiences. In my preparation for this anthology, I read and saw many of the adult plays of this master playwright who, with nearly forty plays to his name, is one of America’s most-produced playwrights. During the research process I kept returning to the same question: What is the connection between Dietz’s work for adults and his work for young audiences? That question is addressed in the following interview essay by Corey Atkins, associate producer at the Cleveland Play House, as he explores the life, work, and philosophy of Steven Dietz, playwright, director, educator, and parent.
In a much-discussed 2012 blog post on the popular theatre field website HowlRound, Steven Dietz asked readers to envision with him “the perfect audience for [a] new play.” He described this audience as eager, engaged, open, demanding, vocal, and committed, writing, “There’s a name for this ideal audience. They are called kids.” Dietz continued:
Kids get outraged by stories that are stupid. Plays that have crappy endings. They get outraged about characters that do really obvious and dumb things, speeches that are boring, and stagecraft that looks fakey or dopey. Kids get outraged about being talked to like “kids.” Kids get outraged at the theatre’s bright, earnest, pleasant, upbeat and relentless inability to astonish them.
It might surprise some that a man who may be best known for plays about the AIDS crisis, white supremacists, and Sherlock Holmes believes that children are the perfect audience. Consider, however, that Dietz has made a life for himself in the perhaps less-than-practical field of the theatre but is a self-avowed “shameless pragmatist”; he prefers the title “working playwright” to the loftier-sounding “professional playwright,” and he favors elbow grease and routine to waiting for the muses’ call. Given these seeming paradoxes, perhaps it makes perfect sense that the response of a young audience—a group simultaneously demanding yet generous, munificent yet frank—would be his trusted yardstick of a play’s success.
Dietz has been described by his fellow playwrights, educators, and students in similarly dichotomous terms: he’s both “tough” and “positive,” and someone who can “sit alone in a room and wrestle with the universe before being on time to take his kids to the Spaghetti Warehouse.” He’s “neither too humble nor too arrogant,” and, by his own wife’s account, he’s both “a freak” and “beautifully put-together as a human being.” Dietz himself has argued that playwriting demands both madness and patience, and that poetry is imperative while inspiration is not.
It’s been said that contradiction is at the core of most of the theatre’s truly memorable characters. So Dietz may be right in tune with the openhearted outrage of young audiences who demand only what is simultaneously honest, urgent, beautiful, and surprising. Is there any period more caught between confusion and conviction, hope and despair, bravery and terror, than youth? After all, Dietz has said, youth is itself a paradox, a time when “we both live our lives and make up our lives.”
And your past is a tide which crashes inside and you speak aloud the story of your life.
—Annabel Lee, Still Life with Iris
Steven Dietz was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. He had no exposure to theatre as a child, and read few books—“not because my upbringing was bereft in some sort of way,” he says, “but my interests were just to be outside horsing around, riding my bike and playing baseball.” Dietz says his path to playwriting comes down to a lifelong “obsessive curiosity”: “I liked writing—bad poetry, song lyrics, stuff like that. But primarily I was fascinated with people and situations.” He didn’t see any theatre until his senior year of high school, but then it literally changed his life:
My first theatre experience was not even a play. It was a musical revue of songs that I saw at Loretta Heights College in Denver, Colorado. I maybe had been in a couple of plays in high school, but I still had never sat and watched one. It was a dark space, and there was a shaft of light from up right to down left, a beautiful shaft of light—I’d never seen anything like that before—and a woman in a sort of simple, off-white tunic started up right and crossed down left in that shaft of light. She was singing Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” She sang that song, and it lasted from when she started up right to when she got down left, and then the lights went out. And I thought, “I want to do this forever!” I hadn’t even heard anyone say any lines, there was no story. This was just a performer, in space.
Dietz attended the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, where he earned a B.A. in theatre arts. The day after graduation he got into his car and started driving, guided by the sense that he’d like to be a director. He visited several cities—Louisville, Washington, D.C., New York City—before deciding to stay with friends in the Twin Cities for a while. No sooner had Dietz pulled into Minneapolis, in the middle of a March snowstorm, than his car broke down. He walked into what he thought was a church to use a phone; in fact, he had stumbled into The Playwrights’ Center (PWC), then in its infancy but now one of the major American organizations devoted to new plays and their writers. “This huge man came up to me when I was on the phone and handed me some literature,” Dietz recalls. “It was [PWC founding director] Tom Dunn. He said, ‘We work on new plays here, we have actors and directors, these are our writers.’” It was like a sign from the theatre gods. After his car was repaired, Dietz says, “I drove back to Denver, got my stuff, and moved up [to Minneapolis].” He spent the next ten years there—his “honeymoon phase with this business.”
Dietz was hired as a resident director at PWC, to direct new play readings and workshops with writers in the early stages of their careers, like Lee Blessing, August Wilson, John Olive, and Kevin Kling. He found himself directing a new play every week. “It was like theatre boot camp. I was watching these writers just do their work. [. . .] And I assumed that’s what a playwright did: got in, rolled up his or her sleeves, and made the words better. Made the story better. It wasn’t until later that I realized, no, a lot of playwrights don’t do that. A lot of playwrights are arm-folders. They walk into the room, and they fold their arms, and they don’t want to collaborate.” While Dietz was bringing writers’ plays to life, he found himself getting the urge to work on a play of his own.
Dietz’s first script was a play for young audiences called Brothers and Sisters. It was produced by the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, which also toured it around the country during their 1981–1982 season. Though it would be several years before one of his plays got such national exposure again, the work Dietz created in the intervening time set the precedent for his remarkable output: He wrote four plays during the next five years. In 1986 his play More Fun Than Bowling was produced at several regional theatres, and while he continued to direct, becoming artistic director of Midwest PlayLabs, a PWC umbrella organization, his work as a playwright began to garner national attention, too.
But Dietz says it wasn’t until 1987 and his ninth play—Ten November, about the 1975 wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior—that he began to realize his purpose as a playwright. “It taught me my place in the world,” he says. “My job—that I’m fortunate to do—is to tell these stories and give them back to the people they belong to.” Shortly thereafter, he was able to further explore that purpose when Jeff Steitzer, artistic director of A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in Seattle, Washington, contacted him. He offered Dietz a commission to adapt the true story of a Northwestern white supremacist group and the related killing of Alan Berg, a Jewish talk-radio host from Denver whom Dietz had listened to while growing up. The resulting work, the docudrama God’s Country, was Dietz’s breakout hit and remains one of his most-produced and best-known plays. Three years later, in 1991, Dietz moved to Seattle, where he quickly found a new artistic home. Under Steitzer’s leadership, ACT premiered or produced a play from Dietz’s growing canon nearly every season, including Halcyon Days, Trust, Lonely Planet, Handing Down the Names, and The Nina Variations. Dietz also found ideas within the local theatre community. Two prominent Seattle actors, Michael Winters and Laurence Ballard, inspired his meditative two-man play Lonely Planet. In Dietz’s words, the play is about “a couple of guys, both with their eccentricities, neither of whom initially come off as stereotyped gay characters. The play attempts to have [the
unnamed epidemic of HIV/AIDS] sneak up on the audience in the same way that this disease sneaks up on us.” Lonely Planet premiered in 1993 at Northlight Theatre, a regional theatre in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, and was the first of Dietz’s plays to receive a major national award, the PEN Center USA West Award in drama.
While working on Lonely Planet, Dietz was approached by Linda Hartzell, artistic director of Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT), about dramatizing the unpublished memoirs of Joyce Simmons Cheeka, a “Rememberer” for the Squaxin Indian tribe. Dietz agreed, returning full circle to where he began as a playwright: theatre for young audiences. The resulting play, The Rememberer, opened SCT’s new space in 1994. During that time Dietz also found the next stage of his personal life. In 1990 he met the actress and playwright Allison Gregory, whom he directed in a play at the Denver Center Theatre Company. They were married in 1996, and three years later their daughter Ruby was born.
Seattle had been Steven Dietz’s home base for almost ten years when, in 2006, the University of Texas at Austin offered him “a situation I felt I couldn’t turn down.” The university’s Theatre & Dance and Radio-Television-Film departments had created a prestigious joint professorship that would allow Dietz to teach and continue to work professionally around the country. Dietz and his family—including son Abraham, recently adopted from Ethiopia—left their home in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood and moved to the Lone Star State.
As Dietz nears a decade of service at the university, he continues his prodigious output as both writer and director, in addition to teaching. His thirty-plus plays have been seen at more than one hundred regional theatres in the United States, as well as in off-Broadway theatres. International productions have been seen in England, Japan, Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Austria, Russia, Italy, Slovenia, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Greece, Singapore, Thailand, and South Africa. His work has been translated into ten languages. Dietz’s numerous awards include the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays Award, for both Fiction and Still Life with Iris; the PEN USA West Award in Drama for Lonely Planet; the 2007 Edgar Award for Drama for his widely produced Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure; and the Yomuiri Shimbun Award (the Japanese equivalent of a Tony Award) for his adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence. He has received new play commissions from the Guthrie Theater, the Steppenwolf Theater, the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, the McCarter Theatre (Princeton), ACT, the Arizona Theatre Company, the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, and the Denver Center Theatre Company, among others.
Despite Dietz’s prodigious output and success, interviewers throughout the years have pointed out that his work has rarely been seen in New York City. His only production by a major New York City company was the 2004 Roundabout Theatre Company production of Fiction. “I’ve made a living on my plays for twenty-some years. But I don’t have a ‘hit’ play,” Dietz says. Instead he has a reputation for integrity, consistency, variety, and longevity, not to mention hundreds upon hundreds of productions at theatres of all sizes around the world, from major regional theatres to universities to community theatres. Few “hit” writers can claim the success of these individual accomplishments; together they make Dietz a truly unique specimen in the theatre ecosystem.
Twenty years ago, when Lonely Planet established Dietz’s national reputation, the New York Times said, “Dietz is [. . .] able to set up and work out his conceits with intelligent precision.” New York Newsday reported, “Dietz owns all the tools of a crackerjack writer.” These reviews point to a feature of Dietz’s work that many, including Dietz, cite as the foundation of his career: craftsmanship. Dietz is a wordsmith who employs the tools of language and structure with precision to tell his stories. The author’s note at the end of the acting edition of Lonely Planet conveys Dietz’s artistic philosophy and reveals the motivation behind his writing:
My parents taught me that an act of kindness is its own reward. That took a while to sink in. Over time, I have begun to appreciate the depth of their wisdom. I thought of this recently while doing research for a new play I’m writing about Joyce Cheeka, a Squaxin Indian girl growing up in the Northwest in the \‘20s. One phrase from the teaching of her elders keeps coming up again and again: Be useful.
Are you curious or lost? [. . .] It’s better to be curious than lost, don’t you think?
—Iris, Still Life with Iris
The answer to why Steven Dietz writes may indeed be, in part, to be useful. But unpacking that statement presents other questions: Why write the stories he does? Why write for young audiences? Why, in a world of possibilities, write for the theatre at all? A close look at the author’s writing and the interviews he’s given shows that the answers lie in four words: curiosity, collaboration, community, and craft.
One of the many theatre essays Dietz has published over the years, a 1988 piece titled “Developed to Death (or How to Hamstring a Playwright),” partly addresses the question of why he writes for young audiences. Taking to task those organizations, individuals, and processes that would seek to define a “good play” in neat, often TV-related terms—at a time when “digital” was a clock without hands and before “e” and “i” were prefixes—he said:
The fact is that the Tube ‘n’ Screen does miniaturizations [. . .] while the theatre does magnifications. Because of its immediacy theatre prioritizes the world, while Tube ‘n’ Screen, under the guise of offering limitless opportunities, actually homogenizes it. When it deals in action, the theatre creates a desire to grapple with the world.
That desire to grapple, synonymous with Dietz’s confessed “obsessive curiosity,” is as much the impetus for his work as the audience response. “I would say that when I’m starting a new play I’m moving towards the very questions that I encounter in thinking about the world. I don’t think of writing as a retreat. I might close the door to my studio but I’m not trying to close the door to the world,” he says. Just as a play might stay with a viewer for a lifetime, for Dietz “certain fundamental things don’t change: my fascination with the magic of a proximate, onetime, live event, my belief in the power of language and metaphor, my love of the collaborative theatre-making process.”
Throughout the course of his career, Dietz’s curiosity has led him to interrogate not just his own world and work but the American theatre at large. He’s been vocal about the perils of isolation and hierarchy in an ostensibly collaborative field and art form: playwright over here, designers and actors over there, and director on top and in charge of it all. In Minneapolis he observed that, in the playwright-dramaturg relationship, “for the sake of fairness, passion was being lost. For the sake of logic, which has never been the theatre’s strong suit, amazing voices were being rendered quiet or normal or mediocre.” In his essay “On Directing: A Modest Proposal,” published in American Theatre in 2007, he said:
[A] new century requires a new approach. To be clear: What must be achieved is not the abolition of the director’s role, but its continued evolution. As with any ongoing experiment, the director’s role must be regularly interrogated—with the goal of having it grow and change at the pace of the art form.
Dietz argues that the word “director” could be replaced with any theatre artist’s role:
Let us seek to eliminate the hyphenization of artists (“playwright-director,” “actor-director,” “choreographer-director”) and instead actively foster the integration of these disciplines. Let us recognize that the essence of the director’s craft must be inculcated in not only our directors, but in each generative artist—be they writer, performer or designer.
This theatrical raison d’être, collaboration, is something Dietz has seamlessly integrated into his teaching. As part of his three-hour playwriting class, Dietz created “The Last Hour,” opening the final portion of the class as a sort of incubator of collaboration for all first-year MFA students studying acting, design, or filmmaking. For Dietz, says Suzan Zeder, a former University of Texas teaching colleague and fellow playwright, “collaboration is not something that just happens in production but something that happens in the generation of work from all the artists that are involved. Steven has been at the forefront of it.”
Why Dietz sees theatre—and particularly theatre for young audiences—as so essential might ultimately be summed up elegantly and pragmatically in a sort of theatrical theorem: curiosity + collaboration = community. Under this would lie his ever-active axiom that “theatrical art is fundamentally ‘transitory’—it builds upon its past, engages with its present, ponders its future.” This is true whether we’re conscious of it or not, and so, Dietz says, it’s vital that theatre artists ask:
What part of your city, and the kids in your city, is in your work? Are the concerns of the kids in your city replicated and evidenced in your theatre? It’s opening the doors to what a city is dealing with and what those kids are dealing with and making a connection. People do want to see themselves on stage. And as happy as I am when our Go, Dog. Go! adaptation goes around the country, and I’m as proud of that as I am of anything I’ve ever created in my life, I would hope that hand in hand with that, when the play is in “X” city, that the theatre in that city is also looking at what’s specific to the kids in that city. What are the kids in that city going through?
But Dietz also knows that community = children + their parents. In his HowlRound article Dietz states that all too often “we don’t write for kids. We write for their gatekeepers.” He goes on to ask his adult readers to be as frank with themselves as young audiences are when considering a play:
[L]et’s please admit this: we don’t dumb things down for our kids—we dumb things down for us. To mollify our own fears. We don’t make upbeat endings or “easy morals” for our kids—we make them for us. To avoid what might be the harder discussion. We don’t censor (and please let's drop the euphemisms and use the word) plays for our kids—we censor them for ourselves. And why? Because we get “outraged”—or, more commonly, we live in fear that someone else will get “outraged.” [. . .] Gatekeepers tend to get outraged about words, bodies, “issues” and “themes”—especially those that bespeak a less-than-sunlit world. Kids get outraged, too—but in my experience their outrage is not about nouns, verbs, butts, boobs, dark thoughts or moral complexity.
By truly engaging with the youth of our communities, Dietz says,
We go to the source of the art form. [. . .] The thin part of our audiences’ thinking is a very thin pop culture layer. But if I talk to the thick part of my audiences, the deep part of my audiences, they’re going to want something about loss, they’re going to want something about joy, they’re going to want something about passion, they’re going to want a journey or an adventure. If we keep talking to that thick part of our audiences, which is in kids, I believe we will make the plays that they need. And we will get the theatre that we deserve.
Nothing gets finished until you make a start.
—Mom, Honus & Me
How exactly do we create the theatre that we, our children, and our communities deserve? Dietz takes guidance from a former employee of the Colorado and Southern railroad—his father. “Work is a celebrated thing in my family and my upbringing,” Dietz says. As a working playwright, he asserts, “This is my job—this is what I do. So whether I’m inspired or not, I get up and go to my desk and plug away.” He approaches the writing task with the same matter-of-fact diligence that a round-the-clock conductor (like his father) might show when guiding a train through the snow-packed Rockies. “I either don’t believe or don’t trust that great ideas for plays will just arrive in my head,” he says. “The sobering thing when you write is that your imagination doesn’t get your play written. Your craft does. I have a healthy skepticism of my imagination, which forces me to practice my craft.”
The suffix in playwright, “wright,” means “worker” or “maker,” and emphasizing craft has been Dietz’s modus operandi almost from the start. “I have always admired his plays because I think they’re some of the most solidly crafted plays [I know],” says Suzan Zeder. “There’s nothing trendy about Steven’s work. It’s there for the long term. It’s like going into a really beautiful furniture store and seeing hand-done craftsmanship in the way his plays are put together [and] that is a very refreshing ethos.” Zeder is quick to point out that Dietz’s “craft over inspiration” approach doesn’t devalue his art, rather, “It’s getting the art in the right category: it’s a thing we make with our hands, and we do it together.”
The unique dichotomy of Dietz becomes apparent again when discussing the most fundamental of a playwright’s tools: language. Pragmatic and practical as Dietz may be, he insists that “the theatre’s first language is poetry, not prose, and to think otherwise is to sever our ties with greatness.” Language, he says, “connects the primitive and contemporary in us.” Dietz admits this has been the source of many arguments between his inner writer and director. Yet many of his peers and collaborators have pointed out that Dietz’s experience as a director has a strong positive impact on his writing. David Ira Goldstein, artistic director of Arizona Theatre Company and one of Dietz’s collaborators, says, “What makes him a particular joy to be with is, since he’s a director and was an actor, he understands the theatrical process—the journey actors, directors, and designers need to take from reading the script to opening night.”
While Dietz’s adult plays are rooted in a specific approach to craft, he understands that writing for young audiences requires a special approach. Anyone who’s ever tried to do anything with or for children—eat a meal, choose clothes for school, go shopping without experiencing a mysterious emotional meltdown—knows that rules for children are different than for adults. Theatre is no exception. “Writing plays for children is harder than for adults,” says Dietz. But he can relate to both of his audiences. Even as he works his way toward his fortieth play, he still considers himself a student of his craft. “I still find myself having to relearn again and again, one play after the next,” he says. Each new play is a lesson in the basics: story, structure, sentences, and rewriting. Dietz knows that his perfect audience of young people will surely make it known whether or not he’s succeeded.
Like any good student, Dietz takes a lot of notes. He keeps a notebook filled with thoughts and ideas—snippets of conversations, interesting sights that capture his imagination and haunt him, questions that nag at him—to draw ideas from, a failsafe against inspiration’s inevitable absence. And, like so many students and young people, he’s simultaneously troubled by and drawn to things that make him nervous, situations he doesn’t understand. “I’ve built very few successful plays on my certainties,” he says, “I’ve built my plays on my doubts. Or my wonder, or my worry. As optimistic in some fundamental way as Honus & Me or Jackie & Me are, there’s a worry in those kids. There’s a worry in those adults. And certainly that holds true for Iris and The Rememberer. Somehow that worry, which I guess is just another way to say ‘leaning into the questions’ instead of propagating the answers, keeps me connected.”
If writing plays for young audiences is harder than for adults, is it harder to write young characters too? Just as Dietz’s HowlRound article argues that the youngest, least experienced audiences are actually the ideal, it also makes the point that even the oldest person isn’t a stranger to the perspectives of youth. This is true, writes Dietz, because
our youth is the very oldest part of us. We have carried it longer, had the chance to know it more fully than any self we have concocted in the interim. When we write for “children,” we are writing for our most fundamental selves. And thus a “children’s play” is not a play about “children” any more than an “adult play” is about “adults.” These are plays about our Youth. These are not plays that move faster or play brighter or end better, these are plays that dig deeper, that reach back farther. These are plays that do not settle for the facile adult surface of a man, but instead burrow to his core, his past, his youth. A “children’s” play can surely be about five young girls having a grand adventure, but it can also be about five women in their eighties who gather to rekindle the girls that still reside inside them. All of our ages conspire within us and continue to underscore our days. We are all the young.
In crafting worlds and stories for the young, Dietz has had to access a buried part of himself. “I have learned that young audiences demand a profound and ruthless interrogation of my own Youth: What became of the child in me? What did I know back then in my heart and gut and bones before the world began to teach me everything else?” Watching his own children grow (both are teenagers now) has deeply affected his thoughts on those questions, and one can find his children’s youth in his writing, too:
I guess I can trace a great deal of my life in these plays. If you throw out all of my quote-unquote adult plays, and look at the plays in this anthology, that’s a roadmap of me as a person and a parent. Jackie & Me was written when our African American son came to America. What were we talking about when suddenly we had an African American son in a family that loves baseball? Well, it shows up in the play. The Rememberer and Iris were written before we had kids, but I wonder whether Honus, Jackie, and maybe the plays that are still coming—I really wonder what these plays would be if we hadn’t become parents.
The time will come, little one, when you will take my place. You will hold our history and our stories in your mind. And you will pass them on. [. . .] It’s a great responsibility little one. But, you’ve been chosen. And we are never chosen for something we don’t have the power to do.
—Mud Bay Sam, The Rememberer
Dietz’s desire to “write towards someone else’s experience” speaks to the sense of duty he finds in playwriting. And just as his diligent commitment to craft, full-hearted collaboration, and connection to community were passed to him by parents and mentors, he endeavors to pass them on to the next generation of theatre artists and audiences. For those making theatre, Dietz has distilled his pragmatic approach down to three points:
- Seek expertise: If you are the best writer, director, or actor in your group, then you are in the wrong group. Play in the bracket above you.
- Invite scrutiny: Don’t just wait for feedback/criticism—seek it out, welcome it, and use it to sharpen yourself against it. Working in theatre is not for the faint of heart.
- Diligence and patience: Do today’s work, do the next day’s work. Keep showing up—whether the muse (or whatever) shows up or not. Take the long view.
After nearly a decade at UT, Dietz continues to instill in his students the same respect for the nuts and bolts that he himself holds. He says,
I’m trying to fill up a toolbox for them, and my job is to give them more tools than they need. They’re going to write that first rock and roll song with those three chords that they know, but eventually they’re going to need a diminished seventh, and their craft is going to have to grow with their ideas. As I tell them, my job is to make myself unnecessary. I want to be there for my students, but ultimately I want them to say, “This is mine now, and I don’t need that Dietz to tell me where to put the short word in the sentence.”
Dietz is also intent on modeling for his students the career they’re pursuing. Even with a well-stocked toolbox, “you can’t be a playwright until you learn how to rewrite at rehearsals and work with actors.” He says,
I feel like when my position was created here, it was created to put a professional playwright, including the good, bad, and ugly of what goes on in one’s career, on the faculty. My students are on deadline for something that they have to write for me, and I’m on deadline for a play for the Guthrie Theater, and we have the same twenty-six letters, and we’re struggling with them every day. On the days when you don’t have any ideas, you still have to write that play. And when the actors are staring at you, and it’s Tuesday, and they’re waiting for you to fix that scene, it’s a deadline-driven art form.
When he works at theatres across the country he often takes a student along to observe. On these trips, Dietz says, “It’s watching me cut, watching me change, really demystifying the process.”
Dietz acknowledges, though, that the profession his students are pursuing is not what it was when he was starting out. He knows that no matter how well stocked their toolbox, his students’ careers will require a healthy measure of McGyver-like improvisation and ingenuity. “I can give clues and hints, I can give examples and strategies,” he says, “but theatre is like any other discipline: it is wholly inner-driven, self-dependent. You have to work at it. You are beholden to its ongoing demands, and you must meet them daily, head-on.”
In addition to the demands of writing are the demands created by new generations of audiences and a rapidly shifting cultural landscape. Particularly in relation to theatre for young audiences, Dietz worries about shrinking budgets and declining arts exposure in public schools, about socioeconomic and cultural barriers to attending the theatre, about the ways social and digital media are impacting live theatre, and about the diminishing role of regional theatres in the national new play and TYA landscape. He wonders how theatre professionals can debunk the myth of theatre being an art form apart: “How do we engage a rapidly moving world in a traditionally reflective art? How do we put change into context?”
Does Dietz think we can answer these questions before our theatres go the way of the handwritten letter, the landline telephone, MySpace? “If the regional theatre has been dying this many years, it is dying very inefficiently,” Dietz says. He admits that it’s probably not as alive as we want it to be, “but this is no time to throw up our hands. We have plenty to move forward with. I’m hopeful, probably just because I’m stubborn, and I’ve seen plays land. I got to write the Jackie Robinson play, and I got to watch that play with a group of African American children in Chicago. They didn’t need to be told how to behave in the theatre. They didn’t need to be told about Stanislavsky and Brecht. They needed a story that they could relate to and some terrific actors and a terrific production.”
“I believe in the regional theatre, and I’ve had such great fortune in it,” Dietz says, but he would like to see the field hew more closely to “the essence of the Tyrone Guthrie days, the Zelda Fichandler days.” For example, though he still sees a role for that old warhorse, the student matinee, in exposing young people to the theatre, he also pushes back at the notion that such formal “benchmark” arts experiences are a panacea. “As soon as [theatre] gets rarified I think it’s in danger,” he says. Yet in many communities across the country, the formerly vaunted regional theatres don't hold the same position within their region that they once did. Whereas baby boomers perhaps saw these institutions as essential temples of the arts, today’s youth are more likely to perceive them as ivory towers with “keep out” signs on the doors. Asked why so many younger people today have such a different relationship to the arts than past generations, Dietz says,
One of the prime possessions that families used to buy was a piano. Now it’s maybe a flat-screen TV, or for a while it was an automobile. They would buy the piano so that the family could gather around and someone could pound on it and they could sing. And music—the experience of music, the creation of music—became less rarefied because it was brought into the home. I absolutely fear the rarefication of the theatre experience, that it’s not built into the fabric of our children’s cultural experience because of expense, because of time, and more importantly, because it’s not in the fabric of the parents’ lives.
Part of the problem, Dietz says, is that “the model is still ‘build it in the center of the town and hope that people will come,’ rather than identify the need and go out to the people, which is what we tend to do through touring, but the theatres who do that best are the ones that reach out with subject matter: ‘We’re going to do a play for these people, for these kids.’ I believe that is the way we become necessary.”
Dietz does see hope, though, in the example of his own upbringing:
I find in my own history the fact that I was the kid not exposed to theatre, but there was theatre in my heart. I fell into it as a profession. When we talk about “the untapped audience,” I was that audience. I just needed exposure.
You know what Satchel Paige said about that, don’t you? “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?”
—Miss Young, Honus & Me
More than three decades into his professional career, Dietz says, “I think I am more candid now about how my plays are made, and at the same time less certain of their ultimate effect.” “This is a curious and maddeningly illusive medium, which is probably what I secretly love about it. We learn and we fail and we work and we push on. Mr. Dylan of course said it best: ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’”
Though each new generation, person, place, and time will have different cultural needs, Dietz believes that theatre is essential when our storytellers act on the knowledge that “job one is to be aware of your time. You write to your heart and hope that in doing so you write to your time.”
Dietz would also have us remember that the theatre’s primary function is as a place in which we “see others do and say things we cannot do or say. [. . .] Through these events, we experience emotions ourselves. We are given the theatre’s most profound gifts: participation and reflection.” The characters in the plays in this anthology comprise a range of ages, races and ethnicities, cultures and socioeconomic classes, experiences and day-to-day realities. They stand up to those who would strip them of their culture, they investigate how hardship can make a hero, they learn to listen to the sound of their intuition even when external forces would silence them. They are prime examples of the ways in which theatre can be a window to possibility for new, younger, and more diverse audiences.
Among the many characters and worlds contained in this anthology, one line from Still Life with Iris’s eponymous character could stand as a clarion call from Steven Dietz to future artists and audiences alike, and it serves as both warning and mandate: “You’ve given me everything but the thing I want the most: the story of who I am.”
There is a harsh reality to be extrapolated from Iris’s lament: We could provide free theatre to every child in the country, every day for a year, and still fail to be “useful” if the stories are not connected to the community, not born of an unquenchable curiosity about our world as it is or could be, not forged in the collaborative fire of multiple perspectives and experiences. But the opposite is also true: One child’s experience can change the world, as in Dietz’s case. And he’s seen this possibility in the many and varied students he’s taught, in the audiences of his plays, and in the future of his most precious young audience: his children.
What they’re going to need is not necessarily a working knowledge of theatre names and dates that I can quiz them on. But the world will require from my children a story: Tell me why you want this job, why you want to marry me, why you want to move to this city. And the kinds of narratives these questions will generate—alive, personal, proximate—are the heart of our art form. We’re teaching to the most central aspects of what our children need to learn when we expose them to theatre. I don’t think of it as “They should know about Shakespeare.” Of course they should know about Shakespeare, but I think about it way more viscerally than that. People are affected by what goes on in rooms; theatre is events that happen in rooms, imaginative events, real events. [. . .] That notion of spontaneous, proximate contact is the heart of communication; it’s the heart of the culture—and I think we do a disservice to our kids, and perhaps to our art, when we try to find a villain to help explain why theatre is not in the fabric of our kids’ lives. It’s easy to make money the villain, to make time the villain, to make schools the villain, to make the NEA the villain. But one of the main questions is—for those of us who are parents, for those of us who make theatre—have we really made it central?
With both his writing and his teaching Dietz continues his part in crafting a future where audiences of all ages can experience meaningful stories on stages in their own communities. He says his students “are an amazing group” who he hopes “will surpass my generation in what they bring to the theatre.” If the toolbox with which he supplies each student were a physical object—complete with the necessary implements for crafting the theatre’s next stage—it’s easy to imagine one last pragmatic yet poetic lesson from Dietz engraved (by hand, of course) on the box’s side:
You have twenty-six letters and thousands of days.
Time to get to work.
“The four plays contained in this anthology verify the importance Steven Dietz holds for youth theatre. His Still Life With Iris, in particular, has had a major impact, and in many ways has influenced other playwrights writing for young people. . . . This book will make a substantive addition to our knowledge of Dietz and his plays.”
Dorothy L. Webb, Professor Emerita of Theatre, Indiana University, and founder and former artistic director of the Bonderman/IUPUI/IRT National Playwriting Workshop and Symposium for scripts for young audiences