On Clover Road
A Thriller by Steven Dietz
Directed by Ed Herendeen
Sponsored by Mina Goodrich and Lawrence Dean & Paul and Lisa Welch
Interview with Steven Dietz
Researched, interviewed and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Story Listener and Creative Director
CATF: After I finished reading “On Clover Road,” I wanted to ask you this question: “Do you like the smell of napalm in the morning?”
SD: One thing theater can do is truly surprise us; truly shock us in a way that might be unique to this art form and is different from where we’ve come now to expect our shocks: film or TV or, to a lesser extent, the pages of a book from time to time. I have never, until “On Clover Road,” attempted to write a play in a classic single-set, five-character thriller format. It’s really damn hard.
CATF: How would you describe the world of “On Clover Road?”
SD: It’s a dangerous, claustrophobic world and an invented, artificial world in the sense that someone is trapped in a very real place and for very real reasons. By “artificial,” I mean the world that is being invented by the pressures the characters put on each other. In some ways, we’re in a bit of a purgatory that is the status quo, and it is dangerous and full of portent. Plays like this are built to make members of the audience certain they know what is going to happen and instead something wholly different happens.
CATF: How does writing a thriller differ from writing other types of plays? Are there certain thriller conventions?
SD: Stage thrillers that I admire, such as “Wait Until Dark,” “Dial M for Murder,” “Veronica’s Room,” and “Deathtrap,” do have conventions. These conventions create the box, then the box frames the moment in time and in a location, and then it does what time and location do in all of our plays: It puts pressure on the characters.
What I attempted to do in “On Clover Road” is give the story certain parameters of a thriller. Once I had a working architecture, I then contrived to write a drama that has the emotional resonance of a woman trying to reunite with her daughter. Along the way, I try to deliver some thrills.
CATF: Is this the mother’s play or the daughter’s play?
SD: I respectfully will not answer that question. That answer wouldn’t help me if I were directing the play or revising the play. I would say that it interests me when people share a story but they are in different plays. The mother is in a reunion play. I’ve tried to put the daughter not in a reunion play. The cult deprogrammer has a certain agenda. I don’t want to privilege one character’s agenda over another.
CATF: Here’s a quote from the play: “People think children are made of rubber. That they can bounce back from anything. But children are made of glass. Children shatter.”
SD: My two kids — both 15 — are slightly younger than the woman who appears in this play, so certainly some of this is driven by watching, in particular, my daughter come of age. I’m delighted to say that this play has nothing to do with the specifics of her life or mine.
However, I know the lengths I would go to protect my daughter if she were in danger – that notion is in this play. Until the moment she was born, I never understood anger. In the past, I would mitigate anger, but as a parent my anger becomes very purposeful when I imagine a child of mine in danger.
That anger shows up in “On Clover Road” more as obsession. This is a woman who hasn’t seen her daughter in four years and that thought alone drives her obsession. It may be irrational obsession, but those are the lengths I would go to to get my daughter back. I don’t walk around thinking my kids are rubber and can bounce back from anything. I walk around hoping I can continue to do those small things that keep the world from shattering them.
CATF: Is this play about religion or family?
SD: The cult is the driving force of the play, but it is not what the play is about. It’s the circumstance of the play. This girl has been in the cult and we are witnessing a deprogramming in a motel room. But fundamentally, it’s about trying to put a family back together. As it turns out, the mother is not the only person in this play trying to put a family back together.
CATF: In Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright says, “Religion is always an irrational enterprise, no matter how ennobling it may be to the human spirit.” Is religion always an irrational enterprise?
SD: It’s not my place to say that about anybody’s religion. I would say that when a religion manifests itself in a way that is negative to its adherents, then it deserves criticism.
To the mother in “On Clover Road,” the thing that has taken her daughter away from her is absolutely irrational. But this play became a better play when the characters became more complex. There are no straight-up good characters and no straight-up bad cult characters.
CATF: Yes, but there are restless and edgy characters. . . .
SD: I like to think of myself as a centered and rational person, but I also believe as a dramatist, what I have to do and what I get to do is write at the edge of the characters. I don’t want to live at the very edge of my life. I want to live in the center of my life. I don’t want my characters to live in the center of their lives. I want them on the edge.
CATF: You have said that, “The American theater needs fewer chestnuts and more grenades.”
SD: The chestnuts are basically the “tried and the true” plays; the plays that we’re all completely familiar with or the plays that cost us very little to go to. I have some sweet little love story plays that I’m completely proud of, but they are not the plays that Ed Herendeen will produce. Herendeen will wait for me to write “On Clover Road” – something’s that going to stir up trouble.
When I wrote that essay in American Theater (where you found the quote in your question), all I saw around me was familiar not so much in terms of narrative, but in terms of the traditional white male canon. I think we’ve made some progress. I hope the playwrights in the generation after me just blow me out of the water. I hope that they are more rigorous and more adventuresome than I’ve been. I am hoping to still write plays with that kind of fire.
CATF: You have said that you have “chosen a profession in which it is your mandate to be an explorer, not a curator of society.” You’ve also said, “The driving force in my plays is to get people interested in the world.”
SD: Fundamentally, this moment hasn’t been written. No one has lived this very day. There is something radical about the present moment. Admittedly, the theater is not a headline art form. It can’t share its artistry as quickly as Twitter or Facebook, but I do think one of the successes of theater over the last 20 years is how it is responding – sometimes quickly — to popular public events and making you talk about them.
I would not be alone among writers who express frustration when audiences or theaters say, “Oh, we already did an Iraq play” or “We already did an AIDS play” or “We already did our play about racism.” That’s ridiculously small-minded. All of these topics are an ongoing conversation in the culture and should be an ongoing conversation in the theater. I still definitely think of that as my mantra.
CATF: You’ve said, “playwriting chose me. . . .”
SD: I had no theater in my upbringing. I didn’t see a play until I was in high school. In the early 80s, I was directing plays at The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis when August Wilson, Jon Klein, Barbara Field, Lee Blessing, and other terrific playwrights were there. It’s purely happenstance that I was working with their plays during those particular years. By osmosis, I found an avenue for my writing.
I wish I could give my terrific MFA grad students the naiveté I had early in my career because my students understand the art form and the business which means they also understand how ridiculously hard it is to get your plays produced. Part of my great good fortune is that I had no idea how you got plays done, so I didn’t think it was impossible.
CATF: You have said that theater audiences should “Demand fun. Demand fury. Getting your money’s worth is not enough. We must get our heart and mind’s worth.”
SD: I don’t want to have a benign experience when I go to the theater. I want to laugh my ass off or I want to be shocked and surprised or I want to be infuriated. There is enough entertainment in the culture that is designed to placate me. The plays I love are the ones in which I’m trapped in a room and something happens that disrupts my habitual life.
If I am going to share two hours of my life with the actor on stage who is sharing the exact same two hours of their life with me, the situation is already charged. The audience in me and the playwright in me wants to take that charge and not let it dissipate. Think about how you feel when the houselights dim and the theater goes dark. Think about that amazingly beautiful moment; that moment of engagement when you say to yourself, “Oh my God, here we go!” I try to build my plays from that moment.
CATF: What is unique about producing a play at the Contemporary American Theater Festival?
SD: It’s a hot house. Ed Herendeen is certainly unique. They broke the mold on that guy in terms of what he’s built. I also love that it’s a repertory Festival – this creates that hot-house atmosphere that produces exciting work in actors. That it is outside the hub of a big city in a retreat setting is unique. I can fully immerse myself in my plays in a dynamic way that I can’t in other settings.
CATF: Barbara Hammond ended a piece she wrote entitled, “How to Stay a New York Playwright” with this: “Now close your eyes again, envision a stage, and watch someone walk on from stage left. Get that pencil and write down what she says.” My last question to you: Close your eyes, someone is walking on from stage left. What is that person saying?
SD: That person is asking the audience, “Can you tell me who I am?”