Minneapolis-based playwright Deborah Stein is coming to the Bay Area this May to workshop her play Natasha and the Coat as part of Playwrights Foundation's In the ROUGH Reading Series. She'll be returning to the Bay Area in July as part of our 32nd annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival. PF Associate Artistic Director Jonathan Spector spoke with Deborah about her career and work.
Jonathan Spector: In addition to writing plays as an individual artist, you have also collaborated multiple times with both Pig Iron Theater Company and director Lear DeBessonet on developing work with and for a specific company. How does the process differ when you're developing a piece specifically with a company?
Deborah Stein: Writing with and for specific actors has been one of the great joys of my creative life. When I write for an ensemble, the creation of character, story, rhythm, and playworld is a collective endeavor. There is often a sense that only these actors could play these roles; while I know lots of writers who would find this limiting, I find it incredibly invigorating and inspiring to know who I am writing for, and to collaborate intimately with them on how the character evolves from the clay. Working with a company, there is collective authorship: I work alongside the director, actors, and designers to create the world of the play. There is a sense of baton-passing, where at various points we are each in the lead, creating all together. Writing independently, I strive to create scripts that are whole yet allow enough space for this kind of active participation from future collaborators.
JS: Along with PF alum Dominic Orlando, you run the playwright driven company the Workhaus Collective in Minneapolis. What was the genesis of this company and how has it grown and changed over the course of the three years?
DS: The playwrights of Workhaus are mostly Minneapolis transplants, drawn to the Twin Cities by the resources of the Playwrights’ Center and the city’s awesome live-ability. The idea behind Workhaus was to create a home for our plays in the city after our scripts had moved beyond the development stages supported by the Playwrights’ Center. Inspired by 13P in New York and also our own experiences producing our own work elsewhere, we are also really committed to creating opportunities for unmediated interaction between playwrights and audiences. Each playwright becomes the Artistic Director for the duration of their production, and is involved in conceptualizing everything from set design to marketing as part of the dramaturgy, part of the audience’s experience of the play. We have produced seven plays in three years. Right now we’re finishing our second season as company in residence at the Playwrights’ Center and gearing up for a third, which will include new plays by me, Dominic, and Alan Berks.
JS: What as the genesis of Natasha and the Coat?
DS: My first job after graduate school was very similar to Natasha’s—I was hired by a vintage clothing wholesaler to design a marketing campaign for her local Hasidic-run dry cleaner. I got the job over Craigslist and lasted about eight days at the job. The parting was amicable—the clash of cultures was too intense; the cauldron of tradition, commerce, and gender dynamics was impossible for any of us to navigate. I grew up in a pretty secular Jewish household in New York, during the years that the Lower East Side and Williamsburg were gentrified. The swiftness with which this process happened was pretty surreal—to find myself bar-hopping on the same street where my grandfather, a Polish immigrant, worked sewing buttonholes forced me to reckon with how quickly the city, and my family, had changed. This reckoning was kind of so overwhelming that I decided to avoid it. This play, which is the most personal piece I have written—and which I began five years ago and then literally stuffed in a drawer, unfinished—is my belated attempt to wrestle with this legacy and these stories.
JS: What's up next for you?
DS: This summer, I’ll be back in the Bay Area to continue working on Natasha and the Coat; then I’ll be in Philadelphia working with Pig Iron on a new piece called Welcome to Yuba City. This fall, my play God Save Gertrude will be at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena.