Time of Your Life Interview--Steppenwolf June 2002

Tina Landau and Heidi Coleman

Heidi Coleman: What initially drew you to Saroyan's play?

Tina Landau: I have to pretend you're not you because of course if anyone else asked me that I'd just answer. Martha Lavey suggested the play, and apparently she had thought about it several times for Steppenwolf, but they had always missed it because it was too unwieldy somehow, in terms of the scale and...

HC: Story?

TL: Perhaps, yeah perhaps. And the elements. The musical elements. I'm not sure, but Martha said to me that she had kept wanting to find a place and a time and a reason for it, and I know her thoughts came back to September 11th. ButúI wonder when I first read the playúis it after or before 9/11?

HC: After.

TL: You think, yeah it probably was...that's interesting. It is interesting because I actually think on some unconscious level I've just realized, do a little B.C./A.D., post- and pre- 9/11. That's a lot of things. Yeah, I read the play, and I was already somewhat preconditioned to look on it favorably because I knew that it was an ensemble piece, and I feel incredibly committed to the notion of doing work at Steppenwolf where this, a microcosm of the world on stage, where there's this society of people who live together, and there's not many theatres that would do that kind of work and can afford to do that kind of work. And also I knew that Jeff Perry was interested, and I felt inspired by the notion of working with him. Do think that if I talk more quietly, it's still going to record?

HC: Yeah, the light's on.

TL: Okay. So I read the play, and literally the first thought I had was it reminds me of Chuck Mee. Which was such an unexpected response because I thought of Time of Your Life and what I knew and remembered of it as being very much steeped in its period, somewhat nostalgic, really contained in the late 30's. And a period piece. Chuck Mee to me is one of the most forward-thinking, explosive in terms of form, playwrights about, and I, I, I was so thrilled by coming on a text thatúthat the text worked mirrored Chuck's in that its structure is more musical and hallucinatory that it is a well-made play, A-to-B-to-C-to-D. So that, and the second thing I thought was "Oh, and it's a musical." And that's just a personal idiosynchronatic response to love and want to do pieces with music and, although there's only one song that it mentions specifically, and that's the Missouri Waltz, there's a live piano player onstage who plays throughout, and there's a jukebox, and it implies a very music that can drift in and out of the piece, and I am a huge fan, in particular, of the music of the late 30's, I've discovered, which I kind of knew. There's the music that came out of the Depression most specifically, and before World War II when you start getting a wealth of music that's patriotic and nationalistic and designed to raise spirits and sell war bonds.

HC: Well, it becomes propaganda.

TL: Yeah. Which you could say of the music of the late 30's too because so much of it, what I love about it is that it fluctuates between these two extremes which are the nitty, gritty reality of street life and money and cold places and no shoes and the word which appears in more thirties songs that any other word, which is dream. There are so many songs about the dream. And Joe's first line to Kitty, which is "What's the dream?" That line is very mysterious to me. And the more I think about the play and because I've been listening to and playing through a lot of music of the period, I've realized the dream, with a capital T and a capital D is a big thing. So I love, I love, there's this Oscar Wilde quote, and I'm going to misquote it, but it's something like, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars," but it's that pull of opposites, which is also what we're trying to follow through in the designs, which is on the one hand a kind of really exposed, raw, human, prosaic word, and a world that romance and a belief in a better future and I think Saroyan does that too, in that on the one hand he's looking at a group of people who are, you know, one could consider to be the down-and-outers, the disenfranchised, the, it's a motley crew. And at the same time they're filled with these incredible longings for what is good and beautiful and true and that's what I find in his writing, is this great mixture of the hardships of reality and the beauty of the dream.

HC: You were talking about the dreams of September 11th, and your initial thought about this play was that it's very much a period piece. And I was just wondering if you could talk about the dream, and capitalizing it in 1939, what's the Dream now?

TL: (Can I have a light? Heidi is now lighting Tina's cigarette. You know, stage directions need to be in this interview. "Sitting in a black bar, underneath a wine and beer shine.) By the way, I'd like it to go on note that one of the things I've very excited about in this production is that we will, in fact, be using the actual bar from O'Rourkes. I know I'm jumping around here...

HC: That was my next question.

TL: Shall I come back to...

HC: No, no let's talk about that. One of my questions is, in the same way "The Dream" is in capital letters for me, there is "The Bar" in capital letters which is a utopian place. And I have found that in different periods of my life there is THE BAR, like the Abbey in New York

TL: Yes, well there's a book I just bought, I think it's called The Great, Good Place, which is about the function the function of bars, cafes, community centers. It has something to do with alcohol, which I can get back to, but I would start by saying it has more to do with community. With a time, a context for people to be most truly themselves with others. And how important these places are, particularly in cities. I know that when O'Rourkes, the bar across from Steppenwolf, was closing and about to be sold, I went on a very serious campaign in the ensemble, which I was initially embarrassed by and then really learned to stand behind about why it was important not to let O'Rourkes go, or the idea of O'Rourkes, or the practical application of O'Rourkes which is that it became a place where I got as much important work done on any production that I've done at Steppenwolf, as I did in any rehearsal hall. It was a place for us to go and gossip and joke and dream. You know, there's a kind of, I think it had a lot to do with that actually, there's a kind of formality in the rehearsal room and protocol that slips away at the bar and invites a kind of abandon. But you know, Saroyan writes about this different kinds of impact that alcohol has had on him in his life, and he talks about how that kind of drunk and the other kind of drunk were, he talks about enlarging the senses. That through a certain kind of guise of alcohol, one starts to risk and dare and perceive at greater levels.

HC: For me, dreaming is kind of an individual thing, but in a bar, there's something about entering a collective dream space that you're all participating in, dreaming.

TL: Yes, which is also what goes on in the theatre, ideally.

HC: Ideally. I do think that there is a, you've mentioned about the Steppenwolf ensemble, and being together over a period of time and growing up together.

TL: Well, that's right. And that's in a way, that's the relationship of newcomers in the course of the play, but there's also a familiarity and history and safety and exposure of self, it's, Saroyan described the play once as a melancholy vaudeville, so I think of turns in vaudeville that give them character, you can think of arias or soliloquies or confessionals, but whatever you choose to call them, I think of the play that way sometimes, but it's a series of different people opening their souls, in different ways, at different times, for different reasons. And I will say that the other thing I think of when I think of "bar" is that's it's also a particular kind of home, mythically, for a particular segment of society. And I find I am very grateful and acknowledge all the ways I am a privileged human being, but I also know as a woman, as a gay woman, an artist, I am continually drawn to plays about the margins of society. Which is why I also love the setting of San Francisco. Which I thought about for a long time and at first with Skip, the designer, I said it could be any city. And then you and I went on a roadtrip, we went on a research trip to San Francisco, and I started thinking more about, "Why San Francisco?," besides that fact that Saroyan worked there and lived there. And I started reading things about San Francisco as a city on the edge.

HC: Quite literally. I mean it's on the edge of the ocean and the edge of a faultline. And I think that in 1939 our country, as a bit like now, is on a faultline and life is not a given.

TL: If you look at the architecture and stuff of San Francisco of the period, there are many parts of the city that were not completely rebuilt from the earthquake of 1906.

HC: And the Golden Gate Bridge had just been completed.

TL: And that's the thing. I recently read somewhere where someone called this period the period of balancing acts, so I think of reality-fantasy, and I think of this image of a world somewhat in destruction and ruin and at the same time being on the brink of the big output of modern age, with the war gone, and construction, and if you look at the work of the WPA and the murals we've been looking at for research, you really do get a sense of how the place of the New Deal, and what F.D.R. was trying to do, and what the country, the world, the people were placed on this, I like this idea of the faultline, where it could go either way. And on top of that you've got San Francisco which is a city that's all about hills and slopes and lack of balance to begin with, a great antithesis to the Midwest.

HC: And it's the last frontier. It's as far as you can go. And I think it's no accident that in the 90's San Francisco is a place where you went, where you thought about, you had to think differently. You had to have ideas that were not completely rooted in tradition, and could reinvent yourself. And I can't remember the quote, was it Oscar Wilde again who said that "San Francisco is the place where you run into everyone in your life."

TL: [reading] Oscar Wilde said, "It's an odd thing that anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco."

HC: And I think it's a place of people who are searching in a way. I know that when I lived there that that was definitely true and there were people, they were the misfits in a way, and they were dreamers.

TL: [reading] Here's what Saroyan said, he said, "No city invites the heart to come to life as San Francisco does. It is an experience in living." Which is great, telling us in The Time of Your Life, "live." That's how he felt there. That's how he thinks of San Francisco. I want to say one more thing about the bar thing before we go on to 1939, which is Nick's Tavern, which is the bar in The Time of Your Life, was based on a real bar called Izzy Gomez's, Izzy's. And the character of Nick, who runs the bar, was fashioned after Izzy, who like in all of Saroyan's writing, the piece is incredibly autobiographical, how it pulls on pieces of his life. Because he kind of was doing the same thing that his fellow journalists, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange were doing in this attempt to document life as it was lived, and so much of Saroyan's writings, I've been reading the short stories, are clearly that, little snapshots. He'll meet someone on the streets and write the story and then at the end say, "This is the person I met, and now I've created the piece, and he'll acknowledge that, and there's this real attempt on his part to document and understand the world." And if you take the character of Joe as his surrogate in the play...

HC: So you do see Joe as Saroyan?

TL: As a chronicler...

HC: I actually do see Joe as Saroyan's best image of himself. It's actually like Joe's dreaming and Saroyan's dreaming Joe.

TL: Yes, yes.

HC: Because, of course, Saroyan drinks scotch and Joe would drink champagne.

TL: That's right. And why is that?

HC: If doesn't act, he observes and he chronicles and he helps, and scotch is a drink you drink when you're working...

TL: And champagne...

HC: Is a luxury drink...

TL: That you drink when you're dreaming.

HC: Well I think that, well champagne is the drink for lovers, right? It's the drink you have at weddings, you toast the new couple, and you have champagne to participate in the dream of their future. And I think that Joe has a love affair with the world.

TL: Yeah, I love that image...Joe's in love, and he's in love with the world. I love that, and I will be using that. I will be stealing that, and putting that as my first...

HC: Hence the director/dramaturg relationship.

TL: Ok, so 1939?

HC: Yes, but one thing I did want to say is both in terms of photographs and what you said earlier about the murals, and it's not just about stories, I mean you talk a lot about the set and that's influenced by the murals and a non-hierarchicalvision, and that especially in this production, there is not the same way film does, pointing you where to look, when.

TL: I am going to attempt to do something I've never done, and I don't know if I'm going to be able to do it, because naturally, inevitably as a director, you point the gaze. You almost can't help it. You write a light cue; you're doing that. However, I did a play at Steppenwolf that was somewhat similar which was A Time to Burn by Chuck Mee, in that there was an ensemble on stage, and I very consciously on that play thought of myself as a camera's eye, and worked on close ups and panning and zooming out, and I did it mostly with light, although a little with staging. My attempt on this is to try to create the experience of the panorama and the murals of the period. And when we started working on the design, we approached it very literally as a mural, and it got us a little off, but now I understand why we did that, which is the notion that the meaning of the play comes not from following one person going through a series of whys and actions; the meaning comes from the juxtaposition, in one quote it was described as a conglomerate of things American. That the meaning is as it is in collage as it is in murals, which is it's the whole, but the viewer then is free to run around inside of. What I'm doing in the production is not just taking the bar where there's continuous action, but actually expanding the panorama to include lives and shifts and images that actually also surround the bar.

HC: And there is actually in many ways a reference to Steppenwolf, as the ensemble. I mean the bar we're using is from O'Rourkes, and it's very much an ensemble piece, and there are a number of members of the ensemble...

TL: I am so thrilled; I think this is the most ensemble members that I've worked with: Jeff Perry, Bob Breuller, Amy Morton, Martha Plimpton...it's great. Shall I keep going?

HC: Yes, '39.

TL: '39.

HC: '39, end of the war. End of the WPA.

TL: Well, I want to say two things about the period, the time and place. San Francisco we've talked a little about, and the period. Which is, I think, like most great plays, is that it's steeped enough in its time and place that it is specific. Yet, what I first responded to in it is what Saroyan taps into that is timeless and universal in terms of human desire and longing. And sadness. Struggle, you know. It is out of all time, it is in all time, in the way that it portrays a group of people who are simply trying to be alive and figure out what that means.

HC: I mean Wesley walks into the bar and passes out, and turns out to be a brilliant piano player. And there is a potential talent which could be lost, except in Nick's...

TL: Yes, that's what I was going to say...I want to say that Izzy Gomez, what Saroyan wrote about the real Izzy Gomez it is apparently he was actually like that. He became a sort of grandfather, daddy figure, for the down-and-outers who would come into his bar, and he had such a heart of gold that he couldn't refuse anyone. So he was known to have this little weak spot in this heart, and when someone came in who needed a drink, a dime, a job, a meal, he gave it to them. And that to me is so simple and so beautiful. Ok, but I have to say I was not attracted to the play at first because of the period at all. I didn't know much about the period. So my first connection was with the very human, timeless travails of a couple of...

HC: Plus originally you were going to set it anywhere, not just in San Francisco.

TL: Yeah. Although I knew '39. Yeah I didn't get, so I forced myself to say ok, I'm going to assume this is a great play, and like all great playwrights there is a deep, meaningful reason why this play takes place in this bar, in this year, at this time of the year, in this city. The more I grounded myself in the time and place and understood the l937 strike that happened in San Francisco at the time. Yesterday, I started researching Armenia out of the blue because Saroyan is Armenian, and to read the history of the Armenian people and to read the genocide that occurred there in 1915 was so, it opened up whole other layers of the play that I hadn't really thought about in terms of Saroyan's identification with the farmer, the immigrant. Although he was born here, his parents were born Armenian. The thing I have gotten a little obsessed by in terms of the period and today is the single line, "And if the time comes to kill, kill and have no regrets."

HC: And this is from the...

TL: There is a paragraph that apparently was initially in the play, Saroyan removed it from the play when they were in previews and put it in the preface. In many subsequent productions, it's been used to begin the play. I am going to be using it to end the play. It is the paragraph in which he writes, "In the time of your life, live." It's one of the most beautiful, simple, gentle, optimistic and profound paragraphs I've ever read, and I've read it probably every three days now since I've started thinking about the play, and I'm sure will continue to. And I started thinking about, the paragraph begins "In the time of your life, live," and goes on to say things like, "Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed." A sentence I love is, "Be the inferior of no man, nor of any man be the superior. Remember that every man is a variation of yourself." And he goes on, and then at the end he says, "Have no shame in being kindly and gentle, but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret." And then he repeats, "In the time of your life, live." I was very upset about this line, [laughter] particularly post-9/11. It said to me, and still says to me, completely the opposite of what I want to scream to the world, which is if in the time of your life, there is killing, do not kill. At all costs, do not kill. Love. Forgive. Understand. And I have to tell you that it wasn't until the other day, when I was teaching at Steppenwolf, and I had my class in Viewpoints do little pieces around Time of Your Life, and they brought into the piece very prominently the Holocaust, that I started thinking about, if I were given an opportunity to kill Adolph Hitler, knowing what I know, and after that I'd say dot dot dot dot dot and put like five question marks. And I think what's amazing and timely about the play is that basically it's a group of people who are living in a precarious world and know that there is a storm cloud over Europe. I think they know to greater and lesser degrees, and the Arab, as he was called by Saroyan, which to me on a very basic level, someone who comes from that part of the world, where there have been wars for thousands of years.

HC: Genocides.

TL: Yes, and that character says over and over, "No foundation all the way down the line." He reads a newspaper, it's like a mysterious mantra that is repeated throughout the play, and what does that pinball machine mean? The kid that stands at a pinball machine the entire play until he finally wins and it goes off with fireworks and American flags and patriotic music, and he salutes. There was however people were or not, there is a growing sense of nationalism, and I think a question about, on Joe's mind and certainly on Saroyan's mind, "What does it mean to fight for a better life, to protect the homeland? What would it mean for war to come to this land? What does it mean to be American, in the eyes of the rest of the world?" And that's why I want to end the play with that paragraph, without putting a heavy-duty directorial spin on it. It's like I want to put it out and let it ring, and use it as an opportunity for all of us to think about what does it mean to live in a world where our freedoms and our dignities are threatened. And at what price, violence? In the play, the character of Blick becomes the embodiment of the enemy.

HC: And he's kind an American Hitler to me, in terms of fascism and power run amuck and power for power's sake.

TL: And just to draw parallels even further, I also started thinking, you know, here's a case of, let's call it "police brutality." I mean, yes, we can look at it in terms of Blick is a force like Hitler or something, and it's at the homefront. And I'm sorry, but you know what, what Nick does is he goes, he grabs the person of color in the bar and he takes him offstage and he beats him, and he's a policeman.

HC: Well, if nothing else in this play, that moment has a phenomenal resonance to me. Especially coming from New York and all the racial profiling.

TL: And just today, you and I, mutually read the preface that Saroyan added to the acting edition of the play in which he says, "The world never changes, and yet it is always changing." And again, I think the play does that in that it is so particularly of the moment, and I am so looking forward to the next month when I get to work on the play because I'm positive that there is resonance and parallels that I haven't even begun to note or experience.

HC: I am constantly surprised and dismayed by the extent of cultural amnesia that we suffer. 1939 is not so long ago, and yet I think it's almost a never-never-land, and that there are people in the world that have no voice or that we don't notice, or we see as the same way the society people see the people in the bar as either amusement or inconveniences. I mean these are things that are not new now. The one thing that's a little different to me about '39, and this might be hindsight, and that there was a clear sense of good and evils, and now...

TL: But you know what Heidi, I believe that that exists in this country. I mean, you and I might want to believe, or believe rightfully, that we are able to read more gray and weigh more sides, but I'm sorry, you read the gut reaction of most of this country post-9/11, and it was kill the Arabs.

HC: And that's what disturbs me about that last sentence, "Kill without regrets," but what I like about using that paragraph at the end of the play is that you walk away with questions, and to me that is the best part about theatre, is that you walk out without things completely solved and you go to a bar, and you talk about it.

TL: And it's why I love the play structurally, because it does the same thing, it doesn't, it's not tidy, it's raw, it's messy, you have to work, and it's open. And that's also the metaphor we've been using with the design by literally having it spill into the house. We've broken the proscenium. The piece is not contained to the stage in a way that's a box, a frame that is, the boundaries are murky, which to me implies the land of questions rather than answers, or singular point-of-view.

HC: So...what's the dream now? Or...is it about, Saroyan talks about the individual and the masses, it's not an "or," there's both the individual and the masses and our participation as a group.

TL: Wait a minute. What do you think the dream was then? Don't you think it was different for different people in the play?

HC: But I mean you talk about the dream in capital letters.

TL: Well, you know what, the dream, once you capitalize it, the dream never changes. The reason the dream is in capital letters is because the dream belongs to all time. And we have different words for naming it, but I think it's about the destiny of humanity. I do. I think it's about a better life. It's about the good life. And we all interpret that differently, and sometimes it gets caught up, in that period it was easily caught up in advertising, as it is today, you know, money capitalizes on the dream. And we can get lost, but I still think it's the fundamental movement of the soul towards a better life. And sometimes we confuse the material with the spiritual. To me the dream is compassion. It's a world filled with love. And I can barely say that without wincing and wanting to make fun of myself and employ 20th century irony, but I think that's what Saroyan did and that's the really beautiful part of the play.

HC: Well, that sounds like a good place to me.

 

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