Artistic Producers Jonathan Berry and Aaron Carter sat down at Front Bar with Erika and Ian to talk shop. There may have been martinis involved. We admit nothing.
Aaron Carter: It has been interesting to talk with David Rabe about Visiting Edna because his early writing was so politically charged, and now we are seeing a shift in his interests with this new play, which is so universally human.
Erika Sheffer: Yes, I agree that writing moves through your life with you—and I’m just beginning to experience that myself. My first play, Russian Transport, which was produced here at Steppenwolf, is about two teenagers. I look back and see how that play revealed my youth. Since then I’ve moved into a difference stage of life; I’ve become a mother, and that experience has shifted the way I look at the world. I look at David Rabe’s body of work and can really see how his writing has evolved with each stage of his life.
Ian Barford: Visiting Edna has a great deal of maturity. Examining a relationship between parent and child, the most primal relationship we will ever have, and preparing for the separation of that relationship is something most people experience. When my father died, a dear friend of mine sent me a hand-written note (which in and of itself is very moving these days), and one of the lines he wrote was “What can you say when the ocean disappears.” He knew I was very close with my father and the way he expressed it was just right. The place that our parents occupy inside of our bodies is oceanic. It’s a huge, dense, foundational place that our whole beings are built on, and hopefully we form enough of who we are that when we lose them, we’re okay.
ES: Something that I really love about Visiting Edna, which I don’t see on stage often, is that terribly human, genuine fear of the end.
IB: Yes, and David has explored it with such patience, care and honesty. I have a speech near the end of the play where I step out of the real time of the play and I speak retrospectively about my mother. It is such an honest moment—and one in which I am playing Andrew, yet I am also myself— and I haven’t been able to get through it once yet without becoming emotionally overwhelmed by the humanity of it and the tenderness with which it is written. You don’t want to just stand there and weep— it’s important for the audience to hear the words! I need to get myself to a point where I can simply let his words have their place in the room.
ES: Well I think it’s a doubled-edged sword. I am always so appreciative when an actor goes there emotionally, and yet sometimes I’m like “Enough with the feelings!”
IB: Yes, exactly! Exactly.
AC: My theory is that there is a finite amount of emotion in the room and if the actor takes it all, then we don’t get any. Erika, you also have a tricky direct address monologue at the end of The Fundamentals. The speeches in Visiting Edna and The Fundamentals are used to very different ends, but I believe Alana Arenas will face a difficulty not dissimilar to what Ian is working with.
ES: It’s a tough monologue, I agree. I’m incredibly grateful to have Alana. During the workshop process I loved watching her figure out and explore the levels in her role.
IB: Sometimes I think we as actors get caught up in what we’re feeling, but ultimately it’s not about what we’re feeling. Sometimes we’re feeling a lot of things and the audience isn’t feeling anything. Sometimes our feelings get in the way of the audience hearing the words or understanding what the words mean. Laurie Metcalf, who I admire tremendously, has talked about that—about the need for the story to be accessible first.
ES: The process of discovering how to tell a story is interesting. I didn’t grasp actor process until I became a writer, even though I was an actor first. I didn’t have that awareness when I was an actor because I was very focused on the business of what I had to do. But when I became a writer, and I was sitting on the other side of the table, I saw five different people each at a different point in their process and it became so clear to me that I need to allow the actors to take that journey in the rehearsal room and that I must trust that we will meet in the same place at the end.
Jonathan Berry: Did something happen to precipitate your shift from acting to writing?
ES: Absolutely. After I’d written Russian Transport I got my last acting job, which was playing Lady M at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds. It was my friend’s company and it was actually lovely. I had already started gravitating more towards writing, but the kicker was when I found that I couldn’t manage to be in a show at night and write during the day. It took up too much brain space to do both. There was a point during that process I said to myself “I think I’m done, I think I’m done with this thing.” There are times when I enjoy acting, but it is not what I want to do right now. But I can’t imagine that I’d quit theatre altogether. I sometimes think about how theatre is just the one thing I never quit. Ian, do you ever feel like acting is just the thing that you never quit?
IB: Yeah I would say that. The way I got into theatre in the first place was bizarre, and the sequence of events that gave me traction in the real world was so lucky. The thing that keeps me with it is that I’m still invested in how to get better. I haven’t exhausted my interest in it, so that’s why I’m still doing it.
ES: When did you start?
IB: I started in college. I was on the tennis team, and wasn’t a very engaged student. There was a woman from my home town, an MFA actor at the school, who taught a class for undergrad non-majors and she suggested that I take her class because I might like it. I took her class, which was fun, and she was encouraging. Little did I know I happened to be going to a very good theatre school, Illinois State. This was in the mid-80s. Several of the people who started Steppenwolf had gone to school there, and I had mostly the same faculty they had. I stumbled into a program that was highly competitive, and that gave students access to some incredible people. I remember that Uta Hagen was there doing a week-long workshop. I had no idea who she was, except that only the grad students and high level seniors would get to work with her. She started chain-smoking and on the third day she said “I’m tired of all these scenes. Anybody wants to do something, you come up, we’ll find something.” She stubs out her cigarette, so I get up there and got up in line and she gave me and this girl a scene from a J.D. Salinger story, Just Before the War with the Eskimos. So we went back to her dorm room and we really worked on it, studied, and memorized it. I had no idea that it was a comedic scene. So the next time in class we start doing the scene and everybody starts cracking up and I’m thinking my fly is open, I’ve got toilet paper sticking out, that something’s wrong. When the scene was over, she stubs out her cigarette and she kisses me on both cheeks and she says, “Now this is what I’ve been talking about.” I was like “Okay!” And honestly, from that day I’ve been an actor. I got to tell her that story years later when she was in a play with a friend of mine.
AC: Well, I’m certainly glad that neither of you quit the theatre. This was a lovely conversation, and I think it’s great that you two will have the opportunity to see each other’s work this season.