Dallas — Playwright Meridith Friedman’s latest play, The Firestorm, kicks off a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater on May 22, followed by productions at Stage Left in Chicago, and then Local Theatre Company in Boulder. Friedman’s work has been developed and workshopped at the Kennedy Center, Chicago Dramatists, the Greenhouse Theatre Center, New Repertory Theatre and Interlochen School for the Arts. A graduate of Northwestern University’s MFA program for the Stage and Screen, Friedman’s plays vary in subject from aging parents (The Luckiest People) to a wife’s discovery that her husband of 25 years likes to wear wigs and call himself Meryl (Oh, My Man).
The Firestorm goes to the heart of a biracial marriage, and focuses on the response of a white political candidate’s African-American wife when the media gets hold of a racially charged prank from his past. Should she defend her husband and save the campaign?
We chatted with Friedman about it.
TheaterJones: Firestorm clearly deals with some hot issues. America is confronting a series of violent confrontations between the white establishment, often represented by the police force, and African-Americans, particularly individuals from poor neighborhoods. How does your play contribute to this ongoing national dialogue?
Meridith Friedman: I think because race is such a hot topic, we are sometimes afraid to say anything for fear of saying the wrong thing. Interestingly, there’s a certain level of safety within the context of a rehearsal room and our cast [which includes two African-American actors] have had some very frank conversations about race. Until something is said, you can’t have an honest discussion about it. Our hope is that the act following this one-act intermissionless play will be a discussion by those who just saw it. The talkbacks afterwards [in earlier workshop productions] have been fascinating–moments in the play have led audience members to share their own very personal experiences. The danger in a play that deals with “issues” is that you can feel like you’re being preached at. In Firestorm, a marriage is at the center of the play, and that relationship is what’s being examined. I’ve never been married, but virtually all my plays have involved marriages under stress.
You’ve written plays about gay men and elderly fathers, about dementia and a 95-mile trek through Scotland, all of which must require enormous research. How did you research the reaction and words of a black woman married to a white man?
As a theater practitioner, you try to step into someone else’s shoes and understand their point of view. You can’t actually do that, because you haven’t lived their experiences, but you try to do it as authentically and truthfully as you can. For Firestorm, I spoke with a lot of women who have backgrounds similar to Gaby’s [the wife in the new play] about their experiences navigating mostly white institutions. What overt or covert racism did they encounter? I also talked to a lot of political advisers about campaign strategies, something I’ve always been fascinated by.
Did you interview people in mixed marriages?
I talked to women in interracial relationships and asked them about the challenges they’ve encountered. I also did article-based research to see how this plays out in political polls. A sentiment I kept encountering is that the goal of the candidate is to be ordinary, to be the Everyman, as counterintuitive as that sounds. Interracial marriages are still somewhat rare on the campaign trail, so political advisors will look for strategies to make a candidate’s relationship more relatable.
You’ve won many playwright residencies and new play commissions. Do you think the workshop process makes better plays? How much depends on what you bring to the stage, and how does a dramaturge or director influence your final product?
I find the workshop process works for me because when I’m writing a play I feel like I’m inside it, and lose perspective on how it functions to the viewer. On the other hand, you don’t want your play to be over-workshopped. I admit I’ve broken down after a particular tough critique. I come off a reading of a play that’s doing really well, and then the next reading is terrible. Honest feedback can be hard on your ego, but necessary. Still, I love the process—especially when it leads to a production.
Who are your models when it comes to writing a play?
My plays are not like hers, but I love Sarah Ruhl’s plays. [Ruhl’s The Vibrator Play and The Clean House were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.] I wanted to be an actress, but saw pretty quickly I wasn’t that great, and began writing. Is love Ruhl’s term “sincere melodrama” that she used in the introduction to one of her plays. Some of my early work has elements of magical realism, but my recent work tends toward realism. I took a playwriting class with Bruce Norris, and learned so much. I loved Clybourne Park [Norris’ controversial 2010 play about white flight and gentrification, in response to A Raisin in the Sun].
Do you write with a particular actor or company in mind?
I think in recent years I’ve started doing that. I start to hear certain actors I’ve worked with a lot when I’m developing a character. In a screenwriting class I took, we were told to cast the film before we actually wrote the script. That works.
I see on your website you’re working on a musical. What’s it like to write a book for a musical? Are you writing the lyrics, as well? Can you comment on that project and when it might be staged?
I’m working on two musicals, and I love it. I don’t write lyrics. I tried to, but I’m not trained formally in lyric writing. The composer looks at it and says, “That doesn’t scan.” I’m working now with composer Madeline Myers and director Emily Maltby on a musical called Masterpiece, about the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft. The show is based on a real theft there that included Rembrandts and a Vermeer, one of only 36 in the world. None of the art has ever been recovered. It’s considered the greatest theft of personal property ever recorded. The play moves backward and forward in time and space. I love writing a musical because I can collaborate with people. So much of the time I’m just alone in a room, writing a play. We have one song so far and about 25 pages of a draft, so it’ll be a while before this is staged.
The other one is a musical comedy called Open Marriage about a couple nearing their 30th wedding anniversary. They’re bored in their relationship and decide to try an open marriage. This is very different from anything I’ve done. I’ve never written a straight comedy, although I think all my plays have comic elements.
How do you like working at Kitchen Dog Theater, with Co-Artistic Director Tina Parker directing the premiere of your play?
I adore working with Tina. She’s such a treat. The thing I most appreciate about her is that she doesn’t walk in with all the answers, with some godlike vision. She’s constantly asking questions, so actors are encouraged to find their own way into their characters. Whatever anybody comes up with, Tina will always try it. Everybody at Kitchen Dog is very collaborative, very open. The actors have a fun time when Tina’s directing the show.