Success outside Broadway

Friday, August 20, 2004

NEW YORK -- Steven Dietz makes a living writing plays. Honest.

In a profession where playwright Robert Anderson's bit of greasepaint wisdom, "You can make a killing in the theater, but not a living," is accepted as gospel, Dietz has been able to survive without a big Broadway success, have a family life in Seattle and still manage to be the author of more than two dozen plays.

He not only writes plays, he gets them produced with regularity in regional theaters around the country and, once in a while, even in New York. And although Dietz has dabbled in television, he claims he's not good at it and prefers writing for the stage.

Right now, the Roundabout Theatre Company has "Fiction," Dietz's intriguing triangle of a tale on view at its small Laura Pels Theatre. It concerns two writers, a husband and wife (Tom Irwin and Julie White), who agree to share their diaries with each other. Things get complicated when another woman (Emily Bergl) shows up in the husband's writings.

For the 46-year-old Dietz, "Fiction" is his first major New York showcase since 1995, when his best-known play, "Lonely Planet," an AIDS allegory, was presented by the Circle Repertory Company.

"I guess I am a west of the Mississippi kind of playwright," the easygoing, Colorado-born Dietz says over an omelet in a West Village coffee bar.

But look around the country and you will find his plays everywhere. Such diverse works as "God's Country," which is about the neo-Nazi movement, or "Over the Moon," a giddy 1920s P.G. Wodehouse adaptation, or Dietz's own version of that old neck-biter, "Dracula." And they are being done in places such as the Arizona Theatre Company, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, the McCarter in Princeton, N.J. (where "Fiction" had its world premiere in March 2003), San Diego's Old Globe and A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in Seattle.

"Steven's plays are vast in the range of their interests and the kind of voices he has been able to create," says Kurt Beattie, ACT's artistic director. "He's an enormously skillful, talented writer of political satire and of serious political investigation. At the same time, he has a real comic ear.

"But I think more than anything else, he has an imagination that can embrace populist concerns without cheating on real intellectual content."

"Fiction" began life on what Dietz calls "a dare," writing a scene for a new-play workshop that ACT was doing.

"They knew me too well," Dietz says. "They knew if I wrote this first scene, I'd get hooked and I'd probably write the whole play -- which I did. I directed a workshop reading of it there."

When ACT became mired in financial difficulties (since resolved), the play landed at the McCarter, which will also produce the world premiere of Dietz's next play, "Last of the Boys," directed by Emily Mann. A Vietnam vet play set in the present, "Last of the Boys," will star Tom Wopat and will run in New Jersey Sept. 7-Oct. 17.

Raised in Denver, the playwright now makes his home in Seattle with his wife, Allison, also a playwright, and their 4-year-old daughter, Ruby.

The family lives in the hilly Queen Anne section of the city, but Dietz has a writing studio in Fremont, a funky yet gentrifying area only a 10-minute walk away across an old bridge. The studio is in a building that once was a machinery shop. From large windows, the playwright looks down on a Seattle landmark, a Richard Beyer sculpture called "Waiting for the Interurban," which features sad-faced, mass-transit commuters on their way to work.

Dietz's commute is a lot more leisurely.

"I usually take my daughter to preschool, then walk across the bridge and write," Dietz says, describing his 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday routine. "Sometimes, I'll go back at night and work if I am on deadline."

These days, most of Dietz's new plays are written on commission. Upcoming are another work for the McCarter and one for Seattle Children's Theatre. "I seldom write a play on spec. I have commissions now about two or three years ahead," he says. "I live on those and then some of my other plays generate royalties, so the mortgage gets paid and hopefully my daughter will go to school."

Dietz originally wanted to be a director. The day after graduating from the University of Northern Colorado, he got into his 1973 Plymouth Duster and decided to drive around the United States, looking for work in places such as New York, Louisville and Washington.

When his car broke down during a Minneapolis snowstorm in March 1980, he found himself at an old church building which turned out to be The Playwrights' Center, one of the most best new-play organizations in the country.

"I went back to Colorado, got all my stuff, moved up there and lied my way into directing readings, not productions, of new plays," Dietz says. "It was my grad school. I learned to write plays by watching and working in a rehearsal room with other tremendously gifted writers who were also learning to write plays, people like Lee Blessing and August Wilson."

Eventually, he founded a little theater company of his own, produced some of his own work and got productions in other theaters in the Twin Cities area.

"I had a blast being a playwright in my 20s and 30s and being a director," Dietz says. "I traveled. I lived out of a suitcase. I went to a lot of cities. I'm glad I did that then and I'm glad I'm doing this now."

In "Fiction," a character mentions that one of a writer's greatest skills is "profound envy." The genial Dietz doesn't seem to have any, although he says he did.

"To be brutally honest, did I feel debilitating envy when other writers' works were coming to New York and my mine weren't? Of course," he says. But he adds that the repercussions were not nearly as severe when one of his plays failed; unlike his peers who lived in New York and had to deal with a less-than-successful show.

"I'm a much more grounded writer now than when I was a hungry and desperate 26 or 36," the playwright says. "Whatever happens with 'Fiction,' I am proud of it. I know it will have a life."

He's right. The Old Globe in California has a production of "Fiction" planned for Sept. 25-Oct. 31, and Dietz will direct a Seattle production at ACT, running Oct. 28-Nov. 14, with preview performances starting Oct. 22. And there will be more to come.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: