Lee Blessing – An interview

I was fascinated by these nations putting some of their best people in critically sensitive jobs with the sole intention of letting them fail. It’s hard to find a more existential situation than that.  — “A Walk in the Woods” playwright Lee Blessing

Recently Artistic Director PJ Powers had the opportunity to interview the playwright of TimeLine’s 15th season-opening production, A Walk in the Woods. Blessing explained the historical inspiration behind the plot and characters of A Walk in the Woods, as well as other aspects of his writing process.

NOTE: This post is the full text of the interview; an edited version appears in our Backstory magazine available at performances.

Playwright Lee Blessing
Playwright Lee Blessing

Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP): In the early 1980s U.S. and Soviet arms negotiators Paul Nitze and Yuli A. Kvitsinsky famously left a Geneva negotiating session for an unofficial “walk in the woods.” How much did their story impact your play?

Lee Blessing (LB): The actual event took place in 1982, I think, and it wasn’t reported in the world press for several months after that. I was aware of the story, but I didn’t conceive the play until late spring 1985, so clearly it had knocked around in my subconscious for a while before it occurred to me to make a play inspired by it. However, I was in no way trying to recount the particular negotiations between Nitze and Kvitsinsky. Paul Nitze was actually the older, more experienced of the two; Kvitsinsky was considerably younger and new to his post.

I didn’t so much want to tell their story as the story of two such men in two such jobs. So I fictionalized both men completely. I needed the Soviet to be both more experienced and more charming than the American—to surprise American audiences somewhat and make them able to “hear” the Russian’s ideas without too much prejudice.

I heard much later that Nitze had seen the play and enjoyed it. I was told he had a poster of it in his office.

PJP: Looking back at this play 25 years after writing it, we’re obviously in a very different international political landscape than we were in the Reagan/Gorbachev era. Yet your play seems so resonant about the importance (and perhaps futility) of negotiating with our adversaries. What excites you about having audiences experience this play in 2011?

LB: I recently saw a production at the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, where my work was being honored. I have to admit, it did seem to hold up quite well for everyone. The theme of the play—humanity faced for the first time in history with controlling a destructive technology that could literally wipe out all life on earth—certainly hasn’t become dated.

In the 1980s the threat seemed to be two superpowers creating enormous stockpiles of armed, targeted nuclear weapons. Today, it has more to do with our unsuccessful attempts to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons to smaller, less stable regimes—and to even smaller, sub-national groups (including terrorists).

But the essence of the threat—our human ingenuity for creating destruction outpacing our ability to make peace and establish trust between rival groups—hasn’t really changed.

PJP: Your body of work includes many plays that explore challenging and controversial current events, and you are one of the most daring dramatists for writing about topics “of the moment,” with A Walk In The Woods being a great example when it premiered.  Yet, through time, many of your plays also become fascinating historical pieces, providing a window into other eras. Do you think of yourself as a writer of history plays?

LB: Of course I don’t think of myself as a writer of historical pieces. But current events have that pesky habit of turning into history over time, don’t they? My only ambition is to write plays that people are still going to want to see 20 years from now. That’s one of the luxuries of writing for the stage, I suppose—one can be that thematically ambitious. After 9/11 Two Rooms, a play I’d written during the Reagan era about Americans being kidnapped in  Beirut, got a lot of new productions. Audiences had no trouble plugging those 1980s events into those of 2001. As with A Walk in the Woods, the essential problem has never changed. Strife has been a chronic condition in the Middle East, and many of the strategies and tactics haven’t changed.

When I write about current events, I always try to conceive the story in a larger historical context. I’m not just interested in why people are doing certain things right now; I also want to explore the forces that limit our ability to meet crises in new and different ways.

PJP: In A Walk In The Woods you never get specific about actual historical players. For instance, the “President” is referred to, but never explicitly as Ronald Reagan. Was that a deliberate choice to not tie this story to specific leaders and personalities?

LB: Again, it wasn’t my ambition to point fingers at specific individuals in this play (though I do now and then in other plays). My thought was to focus on the existential nature of the Geneva negotiations.

I was fascinated by these nations putting some of their best people in critically sensitive jobs with the sole intention of letting them fail. It’s hard to find a more existential situation than that. Besides, this sort of attitude had reigned over the proceedings through many administrations to some extent or another. Reagan wasn’t the only president who didn’t believe in the ability of the negotiations to effect real change.

PJP: TimeLine approached you with the idea of casting a woman in the role of Andrey Botvinnik, the Soviet negotiator, and you graciously agreed. You obviously haven’t had a chance to see how it’s working yet, but how do you think gender politics might impact this play?

LB: I have seen a production with a woman playing John Honeyman, American negotiator. There have been at least two of those. I think it works fine, actually. While it wouldn’t have been as likely in the 1980s, our experience of the intervening years has made us accustomed to women being at the highest levels of power in any number of nations. Hillary Clinton’s run for president (and the fact that both she and Madeleine Albright have been Secretary of State) helped open our minds to this possibility.

It was not unknown in the ’80s, of course. Great Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and (interestingly) women prime ministers in both India and Pakistan were leading the way back then in terms of broadening our views on this issue.

I don’t think interpersonal gender politics would affect the play’s two characters all that much. The issues in the play are so overwhelming (and sexless—or sex neutral), that neither character could afford to waste much time or energy on scoring points in that arena. It would seem too petty and obviously manipulative of them, I’d imagine.

PJP: This play had a heralded run on Broadway in 1988—a grand stage for a seemingly small play about two people talking on a bench. What was that experience like?

LB: The played opened Feb. 29, 1988, at the Booth Theater. It was a good spot for the play, since it’s a relatively intimate Broadway house (about 800 seats). When it opened later that year at the Comedy Theatre in London’s West End, which is roughly the same size, it was similarly effective. Given the casts (Sam Waterston and Robert Prosky in NYC and Sir Alec Guinness and Edward Herrmann in London), it wasn’t too difficult for audiences to spend a couple hours watching two men motivating themselves on and around a bench in a forest clearing.

In every production I’ve seen, that concern evaporates early. The issue is irresistibly involving, since it concerns the continued existence of every man, woman, and child on the planet. I tell my writing students that a play works when it becomes our play—and this play actually starts out that way.

Also, it’s not really a two-character play. The surrounding forest—the natural world itself—is just as much at risk as we are from nuclear Armageddon. Throughout the play it’s standing there silent—but it’s speaking to us all the same.

It’s not really a two-character play. The surrounding forest—the natural world itself—is just as much at risk as we are from nuclear Armageddon. Throughout the play it’s standing there silent—but it’s speaking to us all the same.

PJP: As a company focused on exploring history, TimeLine is always fascinated by how much or how little playwrights rely on research in their writing, some very faithfully and others as just a launching pad or not at all. Can you talk about how you use research in your writing and also how you tackle this with your students as head of the graduate playwriting program at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University?

LB: Research varies widely with the project for me. I’ve written over-researched plays that have gotten bogged down in too many characters, too many “fascinating” real-life facts and episodes, etc. I’ve also written under-researched projects, for which I had to go back again and again to my sources for more information to support the plays’ fundamental dramatic situations and/or their sense of authenticity.

I didn’t do a great deal of research for A Walk in the Woods, especially for its early drafts. I was more interested in a repeating, existential pattern of human relations and how this episode demonstrated that. When I did start to salt in a few scientific or specialized terms, I did it as judiciously as possible.

The trick is to get an audience to accept the two characters as negotiators with a minimum of proof. It’s not a dramatist’s job to festoon these men with evidences of authenticity. It’s a dramatist’s job to get an audience to stop asking the question and focus on the other, more important questions closer to the heart of the show.

This is the sort of dramaturgical sleight-of-hand I tell my playwriting MFAs about at Rutgers—when they’re listening to me, of course.

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