"Inge is writing about young people who have a fantasy of a better life. They dream of romance, falling in love, getting on a train and going far away." - Sam Gold
Just before rehearsals began, Education Dramaturg Ted Sod sat down with Director Sam Gold to talk about Picnic.
Ted Sod: Why did you choose to direct Picnic? It seems you have an affinity for 1950s dramatic literature.
Sam Gold: I started my career directing new plays by young writers. I was drawn to writers of the 1950s because I felt that was the last time theatre was a dominant entertainment form. It seemed like a vital time for writers. I especially liked the American and British playwrights from that period because I thought they were an inspiration to the younger writers I was working with and I wanted to go back to the source of that inspiration. Last year I directed John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. That play was of particular importance as it was the original “kitchen-sink drama.” William Inge and Tennessee Williams both defined American theatrical storytelling in the 1950s. We’ve seen Williams’s plays over and over again, but no one is producing Inge’s work as regularly. I think he's underrepresented and perhaps misunderstood. I’ve made it a priority to revive Inge for a contemporary audience.
TS: It seems odd that people have forgotten him. Inge had four very successful plays in the same decade.
SG: I think these things go through cycles. There was a period where Arthur Miller went out of favor. No one did his plays in America. When they started doing his work in London with great success, every Arthur Miller play was suddenly being produced in New York. Inge is due for his revival. These are great plays. They just need to be seen. Maybe they went out of favor based on taste, stigma, or because certain productions that were done made people think about them in a negative way.
TS: Tell us what you think the play is about.
SG: It's a small town play. It takes place in post-war Kansas. Inge is writing about young people who have a fantasy of a better life. They dream of romance, falling in love, getting on a train and going far away. You also see the older generation of characters who had similar dreams that did not necessarily work out. You see what it's like to give up your dreams and face the reality in these Midwestern towns at that time. I think Inge is speaking to the fire that burns in the young and what happens to that fire when you grow up. At its core, it’s a family play about a single woman, Flo Owens, raising two daughters by herself. Her husband's not on the scene. Flo is a hardworking mother raising her kids, fearing that she’s going to lose them.
TS: Madge does, at times, feel like an independent woman.
SG: There's a lot in the play about being an independent woman. I think the play is really trying to take on the way American culture put women in a box in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. You see that Flo married the wrong guy and now she's alone, trying to raise her kids by herself. You see Rosemary, the school teacher, who never got married and is now desperate to find a man. She’s a boarder in someone else’s house and teaching high school, which is not necessarily the life she wants to have. Then you see Millie, a sixteen-year-old intellectual reading Carson McCullers, and you imagine she is at a historical turning point. Millie is probably going to go to college, move to the West Village, and have the kind of life that many women in the 1950s had a hard time imagining. You see the seeds of possibility for Millie. On the one hand, there’s Millie and all that she has to look forward to and the barrier she's going to break, and on the other hand, you see Mrs. Potts and Rosemary, who did not break down barriers. Their lives were really diminished by being in the shadow of men and not truly getting the opportunity to be independent.
TS: I know you want to bring Picnic to a contemporary audience in your unique fashion, but why do you think there is contemporary resonance?
SG: This is a very apt time to look back on things like women's rights and pursuing the American dream in hard economic times. I think it's a very interesting time to be directing a play that examines that era in American history. I think one of the reasons that Inge's plays haven’t been revived is people think they’re dated. There can be nostalgia for a time more innocent than ours that is read into the plays, but I don’t see that at all. I think the play is a very accurate portrait of Middle America.
TS: I’m curious if you read Front Porch, the early draft of Picnic, or Summer Brave, Inge’s later revision of the play?
SG: I took a look at Front Porch and Summer Brave. I didn’t find them particularly useful to me. What was really useful was Inge's biography.
TS: The one that was written by Ralph Voss?
SG: Yes, that book was very useful. The insight into Inge's life was incredibly useful because I think Picnic is a very autobiographical play. Inge was a troubled man who led a difficult life, a very repressed life. He died a tragic death. I think that his plays have all of his life's repression and tragedy written all over them. The plays are very interesting to look at in light of the life he led and the life he didn't get to lead. In this process, I’m trying to look at the relevance of the play to contemporary audiences by also looking at Inge's life and what he was really trying to write about.
TS: Do you think Millie is a stand-in for Inge?
SG: I wouldn't put it as simply as that. There's a lot of sexual desire in the play that gets punished. The things Inge struggled with in his life inform the fantasy of getting to have romance and sexual desire fulfilled, and then the punishment that goes along with those desires. I think Inge identified with the idea of someone like Millie, a young writer who is "different.” But as someone who's married to a playwright who writes about her own life, I never like to say there's a stand-in for the author in any play.
TS: Usually the author puts a bit of themselves into every character.
SG: I think there are certainly fragments of Inge in the whole play. This is an ensemble play. He always wrote small slices of life where the play is dependent on the characters’ interaction with each other. Millie is not just a symbol or a stand-in. When you study all these characters, you get a portrait of what was on Inge's mind and what he was dealing with. Inge is reflected from so many different perspectives. I'm very interested in ensemble plays like this one; I've done many of them. I like plays that are character driven. I’m trying hard to depict one day in the life of a few people in this small town. It's a very small, very true and detailed portrait.
TS: Inge is often compared, as was Lanford Wilson, to Chekhov. You've just directed Uncle Vanya, so it all seems connected in many ways.
SG: I'm very interested in the Chekhovian sense of what can be explored about people in small circumstances. I think it's a thread in a lot of my work. I think it's Inge's greatest quality. I’m really excited by Inge's plays because they're very ambitious on the level of psychology. His characters are drawn with deep psychology; the more you dig into who those people are, the more true to life and complicated you realize they are. The texture of these plays is very deep.
TS: What were you looking for in casting this play?
SG: I'm always looking for people who are game for being a part of the fabric of telling a story; actors who are interested in the other actors and collaboration. I put together a group of people who would work well together and who I think will bring something personal and passionate to the ensemble. I am working with people that I've worked with for a long time; Reed Birney and I have done many shows together. I'm also working with actors I've admired for years like Ellen Burstyn and Elizabeth Marvel and Mare Winningham. And I’m working with brilliant young actors who are game and passionate about the ensemble work I want to do.
TS: Talk about the visual sense of the play. Based on the model I saw, it is not a conventional, bucolic rendering of the set.
SG: I wanted it to be hyper-realistic. I researched what it was like in Independence, Kansas during the time period. I looked at how these people were living. The little yards between the houses were hard to keep up. If you're a single mother raising two daughters, how much time do you have to keep the grass green? It's also late summer and it's hot. The grass gets burnt up. I think the reason why it doesn't look like the typical lush landscape you might imagine is because I want to wipe away what's in your imagination and replace it with what it would be in reality. I wanted to take the rosy-colored lenses off our vision of the 1950s and treat it the same way I would treat a new play. If I was handed a play that read like Picnic but was written this year, what would the set be? I’d go to Independence, Kansas, do some research and approach it realistically. There is an element of the industrial agricultural complex of the Midwest that really interested me. I got interested in rust and metal. I was inspired by the idea of these old pickup trucks and farm equipment that wound up in the backs of people’s yards. I was very struck with how there was a lot of oil in Kansas at this time. It wasn't about people living on farms with picturesque red barns.
Picnic plays at the American Airlines Theatre from December 14, 2012 to February 24, 2013. For more information and tickets please visit our website.
2012-2013 Season, A Conversation with, Picnic