9 Questions: Suzan Zeder

December 18, 2013

Suzan Zeder has been recognized nationally and internationally as one of the leading playwrights for young and family audiences in the United States. Her plays have been produced in all 50 states and also in Canada, England, France, Switzerland, Greece, Israel, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.  Dr. Zeder is a four-time winner of the Distinguished Play Award by the American Alliance of Theatre and Education and has served as a panelist and site reporter for the National Endowment for the Arts and Theatre Communications Group.  In 1998 she was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre and in 2002 she was elected to the Academy of Distinguished Teachers at the University of Texas at Austin.  In 2004, she co-authored a book, The Spaces of Creation: The Creative Process of Playwriting, with her husband, movement specialist, Jim Hancock.  In addition to her writing, Dr. Zeder led the playwriting program at the University of Texas at Austin where she held an Endowed Chair in Theatre for Youth and Playwriting.

1. A group of friends is having a potluck-- what do you bring?

Whatever I would bring would take more time to prepare than writing a play because I truly enjoy cooking as much or more than I enjoy writing.  My idea of heaven is a day in the kitchen with good ingredients, unlimited budget, and a receptive group of "consumers" coming to the feast...come to think of it, that's a lot like writing!

2. What piece of conventional wisdom about playwriting have you found to be the least helpful?

"Write what you know."  If we only write what we knew we would write a bunch of stupid plays limited by the geographies and philosophies of our personal experience.

I much prefer:

"Write what you dream, write the impossible, write the truth you wish existed in the world"...best of all, "Write what you do NOT know, but hope to discover."

3. What is most helpful to you as you sit down to write a first draft?

Time to play and knowing that I am not actually writing a first draft but gathering thoughts, ideas, images, that will become the pre-draft draft— I need to know that nothing I write in the beginning really counts as a first draft.  The play will tell me when it is ready to generate a gravitational pull and bring all of these diverse elements together into some semblance of order.  Something that might actually be called a first draft.   Sometimes this takes a very long time.  Sometimes it is much quicker.  With my latest play Aviatrix, I swung ideas and images around for almost 2 years, did a bunch of research, and avoided writing anything that resembled a draft.  Then when I had to write a "treatment" to apply to the Kennedy Center for New Visions New Voices, I still initially refused to write a "draft" but started the treatment.  I was astonished when the play came rushing out of my brain and simply said to me: "Why are you fooling around with a treatment?  Just write ME!"  And so I did.

4. I am a closet ______________.

I am not a closet anything...what you see if what you get!

5. If for some reason you were suddenly forbidden to write, what would you end up doing?

I would sneak writing. I would scratch very short plays with a pin on the inside of my left arm, or write them on toilet paper and flush the evidence away.  If I were forbidden to write, it would just make me write more and probably resist it less.  I would not do errands instead of writing.  I would not go to the gym instead of writing, I would NOT answer e-mail or complete questionnaires like this, instead of writing.  If writing were forbidden it would become even more precious, more important, more life sustaining.  It would become a matter of life and breath!  Maybe I should forbid myself to write and see what happens.  I might write the best play of my life.

6. Is there a book you read, play or movie you saw, or story you heard as a child that had a significant impact on you?

ABSOLUTELY! When I was 5 years old I saw the 1940 film version of Our Town on a TV show called Million Dollar Movie, which played the same movie every afternoon at 5:00 for a week.  The third act of that play, after Emily's death, freaked me out so badly that I thought it was a horror movie. I would force myself to watch the movie EVERY DAY all week long and when the third act came I would hide my head under a pillow and force myself to listen, and when it got to be too much, too beautiful, too sad, I would turn the TV off and swear that TOMORROW I would see the actual ending...but I never saw it. I was never brave enough.

So I didn't know that in that film version EMILY LIVES.  She wakes up just like Dorothy in in The Wizard of Oz and her death has all been a dream.  I never knew about this abomination until I was a teacher and showing the film to a class.  When the ending came I was OUTRAGED!  I just started ranting and the class was a bit alarmed.  As an adult I was horrified at the dramaturgical disaster of that HAPPY (???) ending.   Even as a 5 year old, I knew that the power of this story rested in the fact that EMILY DIED, really and truly.  While that was too much for me to watch, it was the right ending and I knew it and I loved it and I hated it.

I have since discovered that Thornton Wilder actually worked with the producers on this ending but did not truly believe in it.  Can you imagine the pressure that must have been put on him to change his beautiful, truthful, poignant ending to make it more palatable for viewers? This is not unlike the way some people view children's theatre.  They are fearful of anything too complicated, too serious, too sad for young audiences.

Our Town continues to be for me one of the most profound plays in the English language.  The original, not the 1940s film. I continue to learn lessons of language, humanity, compassion and grace from that play and from the host of beautiful productions and even from the host of terrible productions I have seen over the years.

7. What is the biggest obstacle or setback you've ever faced in creating a play, and how did you move past it?

This is a hard one.  There have been plays that were harder, took more time, had numerous production issues, etc. but those aren't obstacles as much as creative challenges.

I am still working on a play I started when I was an undergraduate more than 45 years ago.  It is a huge political fantasy epic.  The title character is played by light.  The major antagonist is rendered in sound.   It has a herd of elk and a pack of wolves.   I cherish it as my most impossible play.   It has been a play, a musical, a novel and back to a play again...but all of these factors are not really obstacles the play is just taking its time to be born.   BUT it WILL be produced in Utah in 2015 and I am gloriously at work on it again.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle was a play I was commissioned to write by the Asolo Theatre many many years ago. There had been a rash of teen suicides outside of Dallas, where I was living at the time. I had worked a lot with the Asolo, which toured throughout the state of Florida.  We all thought it would be a great idea for me to write a play on teen suicide.

I did a year's worth of research, I wrote a treatment, I even had a title, Guard Me While I Sleep, (a title I still love)...but when it came down to actually putting together a first draft, I realized that there was not one thing I could say, do, write or create that would do more good than it might do harm.   I simply could not touch that depth of despair, that wreckage to a family, that senseless loss, in a way that would not reduce the magnitude of the subject or trivialize it with platitudes that were too easy, or to articulate a pain that is simply too sad.  I realized that I didn't have the life experience, the wisdom or the craft to write the play that needed to be written.  I turned back the commission.  They produced something else that year.

Years later I did experience a suicide in my own family. I felt the impact first-hand, I saw the devastation on those I loved.  I still don't know how to write that play and maybe I never will.

8. How has your writing changed over time?

On the surface my plays have gotten more complicated and much more difficult to produce.  I still get the most productions from the plays I wrote in the beginning, Step on a Crack and Wiley and the Hairy Man.  Those plays that can be done on a shoestring with casts of any ages.   But over time, my casts have gotten larger, production needs more expensive.  My Trilogy of plays, Mother Hicks, The Taste of Sunrise, The Edge of Peace all center around a Deaf character.  They require Deaf actors and mean that interpreters will need to be included in the process which adds hugely to the production expense.

So my newest play, Aviatrix, is about women and girls who fly...literally and metaphorically.  It has three actors and all special effects will be done onstage in full audience view.  It is a chamber piece, where I am deliberately challenging myself to keep things small and intimate.  Whereas virtually all of my plays have been story driven with a huge emphasis on verbal vocabulary, with this play I am trying to cut WAY back on the words as the carriers of the action and depend more on visual, sound and kinesthetic vocabularies.  There is also a level of abstraction in this piece that is unlike most of my other plays.  It raises WAY more questions than it answers and I like that.

9. If you could ask another playwright, living or dead, to read your work and give you notes on your latest play, who would that playwright be and why would you ask him/her?

Thornton Wilder!  And then I'd ask him— why did you change the ending?

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