Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Flyover, USA from a playwright's perspective

I've been enamored with the concept behind the Voices of the Midwest series that Williamston is doing ever since I first heard about it. I've heard too many people who think the Midwest is a cultural wasteland and those who think that theater happens only in New York and London and everywhere else is just a pale imitation.

The Midwest series that Williamston Theatre is doing is fantastic because it "gets" it. I was fortunate enough to see one of the preview performances of Flyover last week and loved it. The day after the show, I was able to interview both the director and one of the two playwrights. The story was published here, but it had to be cut due to lack of space--and even when I first wrote it, I felt as though I left out as much good stuff.

So I'm going to share a little here. Joseph Zettelmaier is one of the two playwrights (the other is Dennis North). His play, All Childish Things, was performed at BoarsHead earlier this year along with a staged reading of Night Blooming. He and I talked quite a bit about Flyover. Here are some highlights:

I did (see Maidens, Mothers, and Crones) right before I agreed to work on Flyover--within a week. I tend to like theater for the emotional experience, so I tried to come in and absorb what was going on. I loved it--absolutely loved it. To be totally honest; I was a little nervous going in; I thought 'oh god, don’t let there be too many things about why men are the devil.' There absolutely wasn’t any of that; I thought it was pretty spectacular.

Dennis and I are both proud Midwesterners. We wanted to capture both parts of the series: That it is men and that it is the Midwest. I wrote the food fight scene, largely because I wanted to make sure we got a literal Midwest flavor into the show.

For most of the process, we went to our own corners and wrote. As we got close, we started sending in all our scenes and it was largely John (Seibert) and Tony (Caselli) who put together the play. At the first rehearsal I had 3 scenes I cut right away because Dennis touched on the same thing and did it better. The key to make a process like this work is to check your ego at the doorway. That’s the key to make any process work. I have no problem stepping aside for something that is a little better.

My favorite one to write, for different reasons: the Jack sandbox scenes are very personal to me. It’s something my younger brother went through almost verbatim. (Picking a favorite scene) is like picking my favorite kid. I liked food fight and first kiss as well. I like writing comedy.

First kiss—the scene with the young man taking the SAT after kissing the girl for the first time. We had a good read for it; but didn't know what to do with it. We’ve got John Seibert--he’s one of the best diretors in the state--he did so many different things with it. We looked at it so many different ways, each one just killed me; I was really happy. It’s very freeing writing that kind of thing. Every single guy could tell you the name of their first kiss within a milliscecond. Anything that happened more than five years ago hazes away, but I can remember my first kiss with crystal clear clarity. It was fun going back to that place. It’s a seminal event.

The big difference (in writing this play compared to other plays) is that it was a cowriting and it was a commission. Usually my plays are born out of whatever crazy ideas are running out of my head. I felt an obligation to really honor the work that was being submitted to Williamsoton. That was a different way for me to think. I like boundaries; I like structure. Maybe it's my German nature, having this framework to work in was really, really useful and to be honest, we got some amazing stories.

I take such solace with Midwesterners--we got so much of this in the responses--despite everything that is going on; the thing that I’m not getting is defeatism. It’s more a sense of a bad storm is coming and you weather it. That is something that I take great faith in. You prepare for it, you do what you can, and you get through it.

I lived in Georgia for four years and I’ll take Michigan winter to Georgia summer any day. That was what was hardest: the seasons aren’t really defined. It’s like there is sort of fall, but not really, sort of winter but not really; they all just kind of blend together. They have summer and then less summer. I like all four seasons.

During my first year in college, they got half an inch of snow. It was like the Apocolypse: No one knows how to drive in snow. I shuttled people around because people didn’t know what to do.

We’re in the new century. There are men who remember what our fathers taught us. We look at the lives that our fathers and grandfathers had and we're wondering what the hell are we supposed to do? We understand that the world changed; but we’re not sure what that means for us. They're just trying to find their voice and find their footing. Be it unemployment, understanding your father or your son: there’s something everyone is fighting for in this play.

Something that really came through in the submissions--and the voice of that was very strong--was how important family is and how important work is. I would personally gravitate toward that even if it wasn’t there, but boy, was it there. I think it is especially strong in a place; like in a lot of places in the Midwest where work is so scarce and laziness equals death. Get it done. Get a job. It was Dennis who wrote the unemployment scene. I love that scene. I love that it is about—"Look, I would love to work with what I know, but at the end of the day, I just want to work." I love that. Dennis is a brilliant writer. I love that he doesn’t say I “need” to work. He says I "want" to work. The need is obvious; but what is more interesting is the want.

With so many of these hunters, it’s not them against nature. It’s the exact opposite. It’s wanting to be a part of nature. It’s so easy to forget how massive Michigan is as a state. It’s gigantic. It takes as much time to get the U.P. as it does to drive from here to Georgia. So much of the state is natural beauty and forest and rivers and lakes. It’s one of the reasons I keep moving back here. It's just breathtaking. I can’t tell you how many actors I know have gone off to the big cities and keep coming back here.


Tony Caselli said...

Bridgette -
Thanks for this article, and for going in-depth with Joe, Dennis and John. All of us over at the Williamston Theatre are really thrilled to have had the chance to bring those 3 guys together in Williamston, and to have worked with them on this production! They're quality artists, and quality people, and the whole experience was a real treat! Thanks for the kind words!
Tony Caselli
Artistic Director
The Williamston Theatre

Bridgette Redman said...

It certainly was a treat to be able to talk to two of the three of them. I'm hoping to be able to do a similar post with my interview with John. However, Dominic is in tech week, which means Richard and I are in tech week (who knew?), so I'm not promising anything.

You really out together an awesome team all around--your two playwrights, your director, your three actors, and all the other people at Williamston who make things happen.