Pop quiz: After William Shakespeare, who’s the most frequently produced playwright in Cincinnati? How about Steven Dietz?
By my estimate, Cincinnatians have seen 10 of his shows over the past few years. His recent play Becky’s New Car opens March 10 at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC), the fifth of his 30 or so works to be staged at the Over-the-Rhine theater. (Get show details here.)
Previous ETC productions by Dietz have been God’s Country (1998), Private Eyes (2000), Fiction (2007) and More Fun Than Bowling (2007). His riff on Chekhov’s The Seagull, The Nina Variations, was presented at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company last year, and his adaptation of Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure was well received at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park two years ago.
The truth about Dietz is that his work is more familiar to people across the country than to audiences in New York, where his prolific output has had just a few productions. Too bad for New Yorkers.
The Colorado native lives in Austin, Tex., where he teaches playwriting to grad students at the University of Texas.
In a phone conversation, I asked him about the substance of his lessons.
“I teach aspects of craft,” he explained, “such as how to interrogate your own play, strategies such as your use of time. Going back in time fascinates me — think about Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, drifting back to a long-ago hotel room. Students are hungry to learn these methods of theatrical storytelling.”
Ideas must come from the writers, Dietz says; that’s not something he can teach. “Their imagination is none of my business, and I can’t nurture that. But at some point there is a gulf between the thing you want to write about and the way you write about it. Bridging that gulf is what I teach.”
Audiences, according to Dietz, have an innate sense of a good story. “Some of this is hardwired into us.” He teaches his students how to use “the fluidity of the form and its boldness and audacity. Otherwise it’s just sentences, short words, hard consonants. We work on that, inverting a sentence so it fits in an actor’s mouth and pings like an aluminum baseball bat.”
Becky’s New Car was commissioned by Charles Staadecker, a trustee at Seattle’s ACT Theatre, to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Dietz, a self-confessed “sucker for structurally complicated pieces,” already had an idea for two interlocking plays that would use adjacent theater spaces. That proved to be too complicated and expensive, but the germ of his idea — a happily married, average woman employed in a car dealership has a crazy fling with an eccentric stranger who mistakes her for a widow — became the play ETC opens this week.
“I pay my bills,” Dietz told me, “because I write two plays a year. I’m a worker.”
He adds, “I’m hungry to come through for people who have helped me,” supporters like Staadecker. The Seattle businessman travels with his wife to see productions of “her” play and to encourage local arts lovers to consider funding the writing of new scripts.
Charles and Benita Staadecker will be in Cincinnati to see a performance of Becky’s New Car and do just that. One more way that the low-profile but prolific Dietz continues to have an impact on theater here in Cincinnati and beyond.
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