Shedding light underground

A few weeks ago when Wasteland was still in its rehearsal process, TimeLine Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) talked with Chicago playwright Susan Felder (SF) about her life as an actor, director and now playwright, the experience of working on her first fully produced play, and getting caught in that hole in the ground. Excerpts of this interview appear in TimeLine’s printed Backstory program book; this is the full version.

(PJP) You’ve primarily been an actor and director, so what led you to playwriting?                

(SF) The need to express something that you don’t feel is being expressed anywhere else, I guess. The journey from actor to director to playwright seems natural to me. As an actor you’re focused on one character—telling their story. As a director, the story gets bigger. It was pretty natural to go the ex­tra step to, can I shed light on the entire story I know in my head? Can I capture the essence of something that I feel is hidden and needs to be said?                

My actor always looks for that. My director always looks for that. And then as a playwright, the whole ball game becomes yours on paper. It’s always been the same for me: If I can show our vulnerabilities to the world so that we understand ourselves, then I’m not alone in those. When you’re dealing with those difficult things in life, you either bore your friends, you get therapy, or you write a play.

I feel like I’m the artillery.

(PJP) What’s it been like to be in the writer’s chair?

(SF) VERY different. I’m aware of what it’s like to be an actor and a director. Those processes are very different. When I became a director, it made me understand how to work better as an actor—more able to collaborate from a knowledgeable place. Writing is similar. I get how your head can spin as an actor—how a director has to use nails to get things into place sometimes. It’s my de­sire not just to write a script, but to make it easy and accessible for a director and for actors. It’s actually for selfish reasons. Even a comma put in the right place can send an actor in a different direction in their minds (hopefully, the place in my mind). I think the big difference is that as a writer, you’re not the captain. You’re not the crew. You have to build the whole boat so others can get you where you want to go. The process is a surprise, though, still.

Nate Burger as a Vietnam prisoner of war in “Wasteland”

I feel bad making these actors go to these places sometimes. They love it, but after six hours of rehearsal they come out shell-shocked. I feel like I’m the artillery. And then I go home and do re-writes—and have to get back to that place again— stay in that hole. Most therapists would say “don’t dwell.” As a writer, you have to, in order to remember, to feel the truth of what that actually is.

I remember hearing about a Chicago actor who had a heart attack. His doctor told him he needed to stay out of stressful situations. He said he had a good life as a member of a prestigious company so he wasn’t really stressed. His doctor said his characters suffered and were stressed all the time and then added, “You think your body knows the difference?”  So, I’m being careful to remind myself that my life is great right now; I’m loving rehearsals and finally working at a theatre I’ve respected for years—I’m not in a forgotten hole in Vietnam—even though my emotional psyche is spending 24/7 there!  It’s a bit of a trip.

(PJP)  Wasteland marks your first full production, but I know you have a few other scripts ready to go. Can you talk a bit about how this play differs from the other pieces you’ve written?

(SF) My friend Karen Woditsch came to the reading, and she said, “All of your stuff is so different. It’s like different people wrote them.” But I think they all focus around a similar theme of boundaries and isolation. This play is the rawest of the bunch. I try to expose ugliness and isolation and ask “why” all the time. Even the comedy in Wasteland is me asking “why?” And “how?” This play is the closest thing to what it’s like to be ravaged by all that—and how we fight it. No, that’s wrong. Rather, it’s how amazing it is that we fight it and find our way. It’s probably the most triumphant outlook of any of my plays thus far—and the others are comedies!

Temple Spirit is a piece in verse, which follows Japanese ghost stories—sort of a Noel Coward meets Shakespeare thing. It’s got a ton of verse forms in it—from iambic pentameter to haiku—and all sorts of ghosts and demons. Nothing like two young soldiers in Vietnam. The language is very different. The other one is a comedy about boundaries in art and age—very contemporary. [Director William Brown] would argue, but I think Wasteland is influenced by my work with Beckett and O’Neill. It’s raw realism, with an underlying existential thread. Different forms help you do different things. You feel it in your bones. You wouldn’t want to create a beach party with a waltz. But I like to play with form, like you might want to do a Mamet play in iambic pentameter and see how that feels.

Having all of these guys in the room when you’re exploring the most intimate parts of human experience is a gift.

(PJP) You’ve worked with these Wasteland guys before—director William Brown and actors Nate Burger and Steve Haggard. Why were they each right for this project?

Actor Steve Haggard at the first read-through of “Wasteland”

(SF) Nate was on the project from the beginning. He took my acting classes at Loyola University Chicago and did the first reading of this play in my office when it was a 25-page short play. I had cast him in Waiting for Godot and found his access to emotional life amazing. Steve and I have worked as actors together several times. I think he is one of the boldest, bravest actors I know. And he’s a party. I needed a Riley who was funny but could project an entire personality through a solid wall. Haggard.

Director William Brown during a rehearsal of “Wasteland”

And Bill and I have known each other for years. He’s been one of my most consistent friends through my life. My champion. My critic. We’ve worked as actors together, as director/actor, and I’ve verse coached for him a lot—working side by side to interpret language and intention. So, I know he’s interested in that. Truthfully, he was also instrumental in getting this seen, because he saw that the play was about the triumph of the human spirit. He’s also a very good director.  In the actual process I was stunned at his process with a new play. He’s genuinely interested in finding what I’m trying to say with this—and illuminating that. Getting me to illuminate that, rather than telling a different story based on a piece of it that interests him—which is a problem for playwrights. Shakespeare must lose his mind on this one. Oh, I don’t mean to sound—well, you have to collaborate, get other ways of seeing it in there—but sometimes, strangely, the playwright’s intent is abandoned. They lose their voice.

All three of these guys were my friends to begin with. Having all of these guys in the room when you’re exploring the most intimate parts of human experience is a gift. They’re the guys you want in your foxhole.

In my darkest hours I always felt, “At least I’m not in a hole somewhere where nobody can find me.”

(PJP) What inspired you to write Wasteland?

(SF) OK. I’ll keep this short. Sometimes things spin until they burn and you have to get them out quick. But they might spin for a long time. On a literal basis, in my darkest hours I always felt, “At least I’m not in a hole somewhere where nobody can find me.” That would be the end. Eventually, on the advice of Eleanor Roosevelt, I decided to explore that awful fear. I began writing Wasteland one morning and didn’t get off the couch until it was finished. Twenty-five pages of it. I felt safer. Like it wasn’t loose in the air or the dungeon anymore, but like I had pulled it up and looked it in the face.

(PJP) What role did research play in the script’s develop­ment and evolution?

(SF) Research was huge. At first I was just relieved the piece had been written. Then I needed to know if my truth was clear. Your fears have a way of hiding in artistry sometimes so that they stay hidden to all but the most astute. I wanted to expose them—to expose us as humans. For that you need other people. And it’s a play after all.

So I got two students to read it in my office. This is where the title came from. After I asked them what they felt it was about, one asked, “What is this for you?” It was my waste­land—my exploration of and journey through.

I sent it to another friend who said it was “bogus.” I asked if it was because I was writing for young men. So few people write real women—so my radar’s out on that one. He said that part was dead on, and accused me of being a 20-year-old boy (hooray!), but said they wouldn’t talk like that in Vietnam. So, oops. I had used that setting be­cause I needed a world that nobody could understand—that seemed like hell. The hole is just another circle of that hell. I now needed to do my research.

Playwright Susan Felder listens to the first rehearsal read-through of her play “Wasteland.” Also pictured: Sound designer Andrew Hansen, costume designer Rachel Anne Healy and Company Member David Parkes.

So I talked to vets. I read books and watched interviews, movies, documentaries, etc. I lived in it for months. I found out there wasn’t near enough profanity in the play! One statistic records that the second most used word in interviews with soldiers was “fuck.” The first was “umm.” That is a language of obscene struggle—push against something. Vietnam is what brought that mightily offensive word into our national usage.

I think the folks at TimeLine understand that history is just a record of who we are, and how we become that and why things keep resonating with us. When I chose Vietnam, I didn’t know a lot about it, but something resonated with me. As I researched it, I found what that was. One source talked about Viet­nam and how it changed the country. We woke up and said, “This is who I am?! How did I get here? This can’t be it.” It was like America’s mid-life crisis or something. That resonated with me, so I used it in the play. One book talked about how men were conditioned by John Wayne movies, by World War II, comic books, G.I. Joe—so that we could think of ourselves a certain way—as heroes, the good guys. And when we found out that we weren’t that—when we felt like the first warrior who failed—well, our world fell apart. But it was all a lie to begin with. So, of course, a version of that went into the play. Anything that resonated with the places in the rocks I had to get to, that’s what I explored in the play.

(PJP) Like so many, you have family ties to the Vietnam War, correct? What did the personal connection mean to you in writing this?

(SF) Correct. But, I hadn’t thought about it until I wrote this play, actually. Vietnam was, in my limited understanding at 10 years old, a monster that had passed. But I think two experi­ences stayed with me and influenced my choices. We had a family friend when I was a teenager. He looked like Jesus Christ, but he rode a motorcycle and smoked—a gentle man with a lot of demons. My parents took him under their wing; he worked with my Mom at the Senior Citizens Center. I knew he had been to Viet­nam but we never, never talked about it. I just wasn’t done. He was looking for a place to hold on and he found our family. He found a place for a while, but as he got older the world still didn’t hold much for him. For a while with our family, he had “normal.” But, it didn’t last.

I did engage my brother-in-law about Vietnam. He told me to read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and that Platoon got the conditions right. He then began to talk about his time in “the Nam.” My sister watched in careful astonish­ment. He didn’t usually talk about the war much, you had to get a few drinks in him. But if someone was telling a story about it, he wanted them to “get some of it right at least.” He steers away from any mention—any mention—of patrol or being in the field. The danger stories he keeps far away, but he talks about the time mortar came through the roof of his hootch on base and went right through his mattress. He still has the shrapnel that would have killed him had he been there. When his son asks him if he killed anybody, he just gets a weird far away smile out one side of his mouth and says, “Oh, now. That’s not ….” But he won’t go further. The energy in the room changes and we all look for ways to let him out of it. He still, at 63, has a plastic baggie of red dirt that he carried home.

I am numbed by the division in this country. The wall seems impenetrable and I want to know why, so that it gets exposed.

(PJP) Your play opens just a few weeks before this year’s election. What do you hope Wasteland has to say about America in 2012?             

(SF) Coming from a politi­cal family (my Dad was in politics for 30 years), I am numbed by the division in this country. The wall seems impenetrable and I want to know why, so that it gets exposed. Differences are part of it. Our similarities bond us, but they’ve be­come a trap. Keeping others out leaves us with a smaller space. Walls go both ways. I don’t think we see that—not fully.             

Nate Burger in “Wasteland”

I hate election time now. As a kid, I’d sit with my Dad at the polls (his first job was a county clerk so he ran the elections). I had a sweatshirt with red, white and blue letters that said “VOTE.” I went to Washington with him when I got older, conventions, a few state inaugurations, etc. So, I saw a lot of it, at a pretty young age. My father was the end of a type of politician that can’t exist anymore. We’ve become two clans that can’t get along—we think like clans. The “old lions” of the Democratic party worked and played together with those in the Republican party. My Dad was part of that generation, so that’s what I knew of politics. My father backed a Republican for Senator once. Today that would keep him from getting elected. These guys golfed together, talked to­gether, had lunch. They had different ideologies, but they supported the country and knew it was all a means to an end. It was more of a team sport. If somebody had a better idea, they’d say “Shit, that’s a better idea. Let’s go with that.” Strangely, it let them think for themselves.              

But now, politics has become religion. “Church and state” don’t need evangelical preachers to threaten it—it’s living in the hearts of people already. So, I’m a little broken-heart­ed over what’s happened to our country, our sense of unity. We battle each other. We’re in a civil war of a different kind. Much like Vietnam at home during that time. It’s hard to say how we got here. I think concentrating on the divi­sions, the walls, is what did it, sure. There’s also some­thing in the general psyche of the country that is repeating the post-Vietnam phenomenon: Loss of hope over things too complicated to grasp; the feeling that nobody, not even Uncle Sam, has our backs.

On another note—my director, Bill Brown, is very political. We have discussions among our friends and I want to hide my head. I was over-saturated with politics when I was younger.  So, I’m also like those people who’ve had enough politics and just want to watch TV. I don’t know, the politics of Vietnam—the impossibility of figuring it all out because passion meets ideology which breeds propaganda and misinformation—it just feels familiar right now. I hope this play lets us see some of that.

I knew TimeLine was the right place, because I think the mission here—to explore present day resonanc­es from yesterday’s echoes, to see where human beings are timeless—goes to the heart of the play.

(PJP) I’ve talked about the magical night when we did a reading of this play and quickly shuffled plans to get Wasteland on our schedule. What was the reading like for you and why is TimeLine a good home for your play?           

(SF) That night—wow. As a playwright you have to go into those things carefully. Usually people comment and tell what they did and didn’t like. It’s like standing naked and people saying, “I think if she had one less arm it would be better.” You have to go into it knowing that if the play touches them at all, they want to write a new version—their version—because something sparked in them. And let’s face it, we’re all playwrights.               

So, that night. I’ll try to share what that was like because I’ll always be grate­ful for that night whatever else happens with this play. I held my breath through the reading. You have eight hours of rehearsal and there’s so much to explore. I write in layers and threading them all through takes time. I watched all these moments slip by and some of them land, and I thought, “I hope they don’t hate me after this for keeping them so long in this cave with these demons.” I relished the humorous part that distracted us all from it. I wanted to hide a little. I didn’t sit with friends because I needed to experience it on my own, to feel out the audience. This happens with any play reading, by the way.                 

The end came, the lights went up and I felt the entire audience, at the same time, exhale. There was a moment of exhale, stillness—and then they applauded, for a long time. So I thought, “Was that—some­thing? Okay, that was cool.”              

And then you have to put your clothes back on and sit in front and talk about the play! But they’ve seen the naked ugly. Clothes don’t help. We don’t think about the fun they had, only the tough stuff. People are OK with fun, after all. You’re afraid someone is going to whisper, “My word, what’s wrong with her?” I was braced, because I know how these things go. You have to get info, you want to know so you can make things clearer, but you have to pretend it’s for someone else, for later (my research makes me liken it to war—they’re shooting at you, but it’s not personal and you’ll think about that later.)  You have to tip-toe across the reality of it all, until later. But what happened is rare. It never happens.            

Nate Burger in “Wasteland”

They started to talk—not about how to change the play, but rather, how the play affected them. I remember near the end of the talk-back, before the hour where people stayed to continue talking, when I thought, “OK. Open it up. Let it in. You’re safe to feel this fully because it’s good and it’s rare and you better suck this all in.” I actually went home and recorded all the good things that were said—to hold onto for later. To process later. I still read them and there are things that I don’t remember. A woman shook my hand and kissed me, but didn’t say a word.            

The only criticism was the one I absolutely wanted. Someone asked if maybe we could see Riley on one side of the stage—imagine what a cool play that would be. I know I’ve won when they say that—they want him that badly. Like Joe does. And they can taste it and imagine.            

So, that was the night of the reading. That never happens. I knew TimeLine was the right place, because I think the mission here—to ex­plore present day resonanc­es from yesterday’s echoes, to see where human beings are timeless—goes to the heart of the play. History is just the record of humanity after all. There’s an energy at this theatre that I’ve always longed for. In a play about longing, well, it was a good match for a lot of personal reasons.

(PJP)  So what’s next for you?         

(SF) I’m in the process of trying to move on a play I’ve been writing for twice as long as Wasteland. It’s been through some readings, gotten amazing response—but getting it produced—well, let’s just say TimeLine was a rare miracle!  So, I’m pitching that and getting more readings going.

My actor is auditioning. You’re an orphan at a certain age without a theatrical home. But that’s a blessing too. I know that if I’d had a wildly successful career as an actor I never would have become a playwright—and I’d have nothing to write about. Cliché, demons as gifts, but there it is.         

I’m teaching part-time at Loyola and Northwestern. It’s always light and summer in the classroom for me. I love it. There’s a project about cowboys I’m dying to direct.            

Funny, PJ, this is the question of the play. It’s the thing I keep coming up against. At the end of a process, there’s a cliff with nothing beyond it. It’s a common theme with artists. If it’s not 9 to 5, it’s risk and constantly facing the end of things, the fear that nothing will begin again no matter how much you’ve been told you rock. But things can come, beyond that cliff.

I once heard someone say, on a sunny day, “A guy who committed suicide yesterday, would be sorry today!”  I guess I find that hysterical and oddly life affirming because it looks it right in the face. This play is actually a bizarre look at that. I believe in building that kind of faith. Now I’m playing every day with amazing people. The sun is shining and I’m taking it all in as fast as I can. That all ends in a month and then … who knows? I’m putting the good stuff in the emotional bank.

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