For more than 20 years, Lou Tyrrell has been producing the plays of Steven Dietz, first at Florida Stage (Lonely Planet, Private Eyes, Yankee Tavern) and now at his current company, Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab.
Beginning Dec. 2, he brings to the region Dietz’s latest work, This Random World, described as a comic look at missed opportunities, a play that turns the myth of serendipity on its head. Hap Erstein reached Dietz, 58, by phone in Austin, Texas, where he teaches playwriting at the University of Texas, to discuss the play and his career writing for the stage.
Erstein: Your latest play, This Random World, didn’t it begin rather randomly?
Dietz: It began a few years ago, when I wrote a couple of scenes. One was a little breakup scene and the other was this man coming into a mortuary because there had been a mistake online that he wanted to correct. They were sort of comical, interesting scenes and they were just something that I stuck in a folder of random scenes.
Anyway, for reasons on the other side of my brain, I must have read a Wikipedia (entry) or something about the keys on a keyboard that are called dead keys. That means they’re keys that don’t do anything on their own. You press that key and then press something else and that’s when it activates it. That phrase just fascinated me. So I had that phrase, I had the breakup scene and the mortuary scene.
Then I was fortunate to get this writer-in-residence gig at the Harmony Project – this was May of ’15 –so I brought that file with me and on the plane on the way there, I started postulating on a legal pad who those people breaking up might be, who might be in a play with them, and who the guy in the mortuary might be. That was the beginning of the play that I wrote a draft of at the Harmony Project.
Erstein: Am I right that it concerns unexpected connections?
Dietz: Yeah, I guess you could say it is about unexpected connections, but the connections don’t happen. I guess it’s more unexpected un-connections. And what fascinates me is the connections that we make. Even when the characters don’t connect, we make the connections for them.
Erstein: Without giving away too much, what would you say the play is about?
Dietz: It’s about how things in this world happen for a reason, and eventually we are all six degrees separated and something in the end is going to connect. The person we’re supposed to meet, we’re going to meet. The conversation we’re supposed to have, the piece of information we’re supposed to have will ultimately get there.
I just think we put a lot of faith in that. I think we build belief systems and religions around that faith. And This Random World tries to disrupt that. It’s fundamentally a comedy, but it grows more serious and authentic, I hope. It imagines what if there’s a life next to my life that I would be living had I made different decisions. It’s about parallel universes, the road not taken.
Erstein: Death hovers over the play. Does This Random World feel to you like the work of a playwright at middle age, someone wondering about his own mortality?
Dietz: Yeah, if not mortality, certainly longevity. The more I write, the more I’m interested in uncertainty, the more I’m interested in doubt. Both in my life and on the stage. The hell of it is, as [Bob] Dylan said, “But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
It’s about the further we go, the more uncertainty awaits, and how delicious that is. There’s a character that talks about how she wishes, when she was younger, she was less certain. She was just so busy being right about everything and, boy, I’m sure there’s plenty of me in there.
Erstein: You frequently rank among the most produced playwrights in the country. Any explanation for that, beyond how prolific you are?
Dietz: Well, I think that is some of it. I would like to think I write plays that resonate with audiences, and frankly, the American regional theater has made a home for me for 30 years now. I’m the exception that proves the rule. I really have been the recipient of outrageous good fortune as a playwright. I’ve had a very fortunate life in the theater and outside the theater.
And in contrast to the conventional wisdom, I don’t make a killing, I just make a living. Which is fantastic. I’m hoping that this play has something to say that resonates with audiences and that it attracts interest at the several theater companies that know and do my work.
Erstein: Lou Tyrrell has produced many of your plays at Florida Stage and now at FAU’s Theatre Lab. What was the first time you met Lou?
Dietz: I think he read a play of mine, The Quiet House, in a reading series. It’s never been produced. I know he did Lonely Planet . I believe he acted in it. What really solidified our relationship is when they did the world premiere of Yankee Tavern .
So I followed him, sadly, through the end of Florida Stage and all that stuff. Then it was thrilling when he came back with another theater and now this one. He’s like the Mother Courage of theater in Florida. He just sets up shop somewhere else and keeps going. It’s fantastic.
Erstein: Your plays are produced all around the country, but rarely in New York. Why?
Dietz: Any of us playwrights, if we’re honest with each other, would love to be the flavor of the year, have a big hit play. But it’s the theaters that say, “Well, I see this writer that we have a long history with trying something different, writing a different kind of play, so I’m going to give them a chance.” And giving that writer that they’ve never heard of – as something did for me years ago – a chance. Finding that balance is something that Lou has done really, really well. I’m obviously spoiled because he’s been great to me.
I don’t know if he guarantees other writers a production, he doesn’t to me. What great is he say, “What’s it about? Let me read it.” And then more often than not, he’s bold enough to take a leap with it. It doesn’t hurt that he has the good taste to like my work and the work of my wife [Allison Gregory, whose play Motherland is next at FAU Theatre Lab]. He’s fantastic that way.
And as I tell my grad students, it is my belief that as you get better at something it gets harder. As you get better at writing, it gets harder, meaning you’re battling with your history, you’re battling with your tricks, you’re battling with your habits, you’re certainly battling with expectations, you’re battling with your work being compared to previous work of yours.
It’s a lucky thing to be in that situation, but I know I put more pressure on myself now to not disappoint the Lou Tyrrells of the world, because they’ve been so good to me.
Erstein: So why should South Florida theatergoers see This Random World?
Dietz: One of the people in this play is going to be them. One of the people will be going through something that they’re going to relate to. They’re going to find someone to root for in the play and they’re going to enjoy and hopefully be touch by the way the play brings characters together.
I think you’ll see that when you see the play. I think you’ll recognize my love of language and irony and structure and narrative. Hopefully it’s authentic, emotionally authentic.
THIS RANDOM WORLD, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall on FAU campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Dec. 2-18. $35. 561-297-6124.