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How Lanford Wilson Finds the Poetry in Everyday Life

by Rebecca Rugg, Associate Producer

Rebecca Rugg: Can we start by talking about each of your histories and experiences with Lanford Wilson’s voice and work? Terry Kinney: I found Balm in Gilead while I was looking for a play for a directing class project in school. if there was one common element, amongst the people that became the first generation of Steppenwolf, it was that we were attracted to people who you would cross the street to avoid in real life. We wanted to play them, we wanted to humanize them. We passed around Balm in Gilead for years and always wanted to do it. Tina Landau: My first encounter with a Lanford Wilson production was seeing Steppenwolf’s Balm in Gilead in new York in 1984, when I had just graduated from college. To this day, I list that production, along with Giorgio Strehler’s La Tempestas, as two of the most influential and meaningful works to me. Both have something I’m still interested in, as I approach The Hot L Baltimore, which is a dedication to the truth, a straight ahead, no-nonsense, almost documentary approach, coupled with what seems contradictory: a deeply poetic sensibility. In Wilson’s work there is such a beautiful poetry, where something comes out of the everyday and transcends it, and becomes a kind of realism and poetry at the same time. Which is I guess why people call it Poetic Realism. “I am very attracted to the natural poetry in speech… I think of it very much as writing music and telling the story at the same time.” -Lanford Wilson TK: People compare him to Chekhov for very good reason, because he writes with melancholy and nuance of character. TL: The openness and the overtly musical structure of Balm in Gilead and The Hot L Baltimore make me realize how these pieces are kind of democratic. The hierarchy is all out of whack in this interesting way, so The Hot L Baltimore seems to focus less on event and plot than it does on character, for instance. “…Being compared to Chekhov? It’s because we’re both trying to concentrate on character and theme (and story—although they say we aren’t)—and action be damned in a way… It’s not a plot at all, it’s character. I’ve sat in front of those (plot-driven) plays in awe. I sat in front of the first act of Deathtrap in awe. I couldn’t believe my eyes. How on earth can anyone do that?” -LW RR: Wilson seems to be telling a larger history through these very democratic plays, through the pedestrian lives of marginal people. Who is he speaking for as an American playwright? TL: From what I understand, he came from a quasi-rural Midwestern background, then traveled into and lived in urban centers. He has talked about his experiences growing up in Missouri and hustling in New York. Like Walt Whitman’s “I hear America singing,” Wilson’s writing is a marriage of so many disparate languages and experiences. He’s managed in his own way to create a melting pot that comes from his own experiences in America. “For me, The Hot L Baltimore is a play about losers refusing to lose. To me they’re brave people. They are survivors.” -LW RR: Wilson’s plays Fifth of July and Burn This seem very different from Balm in Gilead and The Hot L Baltimore. How do you think his plays change over time? TL: On the one hand, in all his work, Wilson remains committed to probing truth, and, like Chekhov, a compassionate approach to character. At the same time, formally, from the one-acts of the 1960s to later full plays of the 1980s, his work is all over the map. I get this image of a man who is really kind of relentless in his exploration of the theatrical form and limits. Terry, is he like that? What’s he like as a person? TK: He’s a lovely person first of all. I would guess that the best way to describe him in general would be “out in the world.” He is fully out in the world. He was a playwright who hung out with the actors in the world, talked to everybody at the bar. He was very interested in what everybody else was doing, what everybody else liked, where the culture was headed, where it wasn’t headed, and he took it on to challenge himself in that way. “None of us are taking the risks we should be. It’s never chancy enough, never risky enough.” -LW TK: In Fifth of July, he charged himself to capture in a way that was not just selfaware or cloying, in a way that wasn’t bitter or whining, the hangover that our generation felt so intensely at the end of the Vietnam War and the peace movement that failed so miserably. He was really angry with the country we became, the country that we’re going to become. He was talking to a country that was going to live within the embrace of endless war, endless conflict. RR: How does his work speak to our present moment? TL: In The Hot L Baltimore, we’re in the year 1973, which i think of as being a tipping point, when the energy and ideals of the recent past are shifting. We’re talking about a hotel that represents the past, and people with dreams are trying to imagine a future. The hotel is going to be torn down because of commerce and the economy, an incoming thrust of urban planning and gentrification. But the play asks, “As we tear down our past, where does it go?” is the past really gone or is it part of the air in our present? “The play chronicles the effects of decay; what the people have done to the city, what the city has done to them.” -LW TK: We are coming to the point again where violence is one of the few ways to express the discontent with power. We’re coming to another violent cycle i think. The shooting in Tucson was just the very beginning. And of course the late 1960s and early 1970s were rife with all of that. We were gravely disappointed because we knew that it was up to us. We made a promise to each other, to ourselves that we were going to change it. What we did instead was insure the fact that it was going to just stay the way it was. TL: it’s a long view, but it’s a helpful and important view. “We have a history in this country of just ripping down and starting over and it seems a little capricious or something. I’m not didactic, but I think I’m saying, ‘Look at what you’re throwing away. At least as it’s going over the fence, check it out.’” -LW