Thoughts & Musings

Baby, You Can Drive My Car: Steven Dietz’s Becky’s New Car (2008)

Discussion Sunday is May 18th

© 2014 by Eileen Warburton

Question:  What’s the very first thing you, the audience, realize about this play?

Answer: You are part of it. You are directly addressed, included in the action, indeed, you are expected to be involved. Put the toilet roll in the bathroom as you go? Position the trash can under the drip? Would you like a Diet Sprite . . . ?

This destruction of what actors call “the 4th wall” isn’t just a clever device for playwright Steven Dietz, but is rather an expression of his working dramaturgical philosophy. Dietz (b. 1958, Denver, Colorado) is a major spokesperson for a number of contemporary American playwrights who are committed to a collaborative and regional approach to the development of new, indigenously American plays. He argues on behalf of leadership from what he calls “the generative artist” (the guy that’s actually doing it – actor, choreographer, designer, what-have-you) as opposed to the traditional “interpretative artist” (that is, the traditional director who imposes his vision on the piece). He calls for the director to evolve into a “unifying, rather than stratifying, presence” – an artist trained in many aspects of theatre who acts as a “crucial bonding agent among the participating artists—rather than a necessary filter between them.” In other words, everyone in the company – the playwright, the actors, the designer, the director – all work collaboratively to realize and finish the play. The “director,” who might be the playwright or one of the actors, is a facilitator who pulls creative elements from everyone involved. It’s a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, approach. And, if you understand that theatre is a deeply collaborative art, then audience involvement in the performance can be kind of a natural extension.

This playwright’s commitment to a collaborative approach is especially pronounced in Becky’s New Car for an exceptional reason. The play was commissioned by an audience member of the ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) Company of Seattle, Dietz’s “home theatre” and this resulted in deep involvement by the patron and his wife in the process of the play and with the playwright. What a story! Charles Staadecker, Seattle real estate mogul and sometime dark horse candidate for mayor, wanted to give his wife Benita, a Trustee of ACT, a truly special 60th birthday gift. So he commissioned a play from ACT’s frequent playwright, Steven Dietz. Dietz was a bit wary that the Staadeckers would impose restrictions on his process. But aside from asking that the play be “not too dark” and that Benita would have one finished scene to read on her actual birthday, Charlie and Benita were deliriously happy to just be allowed to watch rehearsals. Dietz, who had begun by being skeptical, grew to enjoy having them around. “Their enthusiasm was infectious,” Dietz noted, “and they got educated in how a play comes together. Eventually, we had some nice give and take. I really wanted to know how they responded to certain things in the piece, just as audience members. But they never forced their opinions on me.” So, one can imagine, with such a deeply engaged rehearsal audience, that the dialogue began to naturally reach out to include the couple sitting there enthralled – that handing Benita a trash can or Charlie a roll of toilet paper became a kind of affectionate joke that has remained in the final version of the play.

The play Dietz created for the Staadeckers and the rest of us is an hilarious comedy with a somewhat dark edge. Dietz is always interested in deception and betrayal, so he’s put together a very American narrative: mid-life boredom, the seduction of money, the symbolism of cars as escape and new identity, and moral drift. Becky, the central character, sort of drifts into a new identity as the widowed girlfriend of fantastically wealthy widowed socialite Walter. Except that she’s not widowed. She’s happily married with a grown son to her salt-of-the-earth roofer husband Joe. Becky isn’t personally interested (at first) in Walter the man. Her seduction is that Walter is rich and her life with him is a taste of a very different existence than the one she married into. For a while she is able to live parallel lives in two different social classes – until the moving vehicle of her life spins out of control and the two lives cross (as lives will do). Steven Dietz remarks that if we were still “in a flush time, like the 1990s, this would probably be considered a midlife crisis play.” But individual crises are currently “dovetailing” with larger social crises. “We’re in a culture of desperation,” he argues, so he can “channel that into a comic premise, which is funny but still investigates serious things.” What does it take for us, as individuals, to betray our lifelong commitments? What does it take for us, as a society, to do the same?

ACT got more than it could have bargained for with the Staadeckers’ gift. The couple attended 30 out of the 36 performances of Becky’s New Car (a box office and critical hit), bringing their friends and making gifts to the cast and crew. With the Staadecker’s enthusiastic help, the theatre has established the “New Works for the American Stage” program, urging other potential patrons to commission plays. The couple themselves fly around the country, attending Becky productions and encouraging playgoers to commission plays for special occasion gifts!

The playwrights who share Dietz’s outlook tend not to be working on commercial New York’s Broadway, but rather in regional theatres. Loosely organized into the National New Play Network, these not-for-profit theatres cooperate in supporting or commissioning new works and often launch them in what they dub “Rolling World Premiers” through sequential openings on several stages. Steven Dietz, who is also a professor of theatre and dance at the University of Texas, Austin, moves around the country to a series of regional theatres, working on site to write plays and develop their production. He has more than 30 plays out there and, lo, he is consistently on the top 10 list of “most produced” playwrights in America. (Shakespeare is always discounted on this list.) Dietz is tied with Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee for the eighth spot.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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