Stephen Foglia talks about workshop of his new play, Tindersticks


I sat down with Stephen Foglia to talk to him about his play, Tindersticks which is running as a workshop production this Friday and Saturday at Undermain. The play focuses on two prisoners of war and their warden who must clear the dead from a decimated city. The production is directed by Dylan Key, produced by Ryan Lescalleet, and designed by Robert Wynne, Katie Hall and Sean Michael-Galgano. The show stars James Chandler, Jenny Ledel and Gregory Lush.

CA: Tell me a little bit about how this project came to be.

SF: I had the idea of working with Dylan for a while and I remember asking him almost a year ago if he would be interested in doing a project together, although at the time, I didn’t know what it would be. Several weeks later, maybe a couple months later, I decided I could write something and Dylan could direct it…although he and I have different artistic interests that would be a good way to pair our abilities and ambitions. I’d been wanting to do a project for a long time,  and I knew that Dylan would be really easy to work with. At that point, I knew the plays I currently had in my portfolio weren’t the right thing. In May I took a trip to Los Angeles and on the airplane, I figured out on the play what I wanted to write. When I got back, I wrote it in about two weeks or so. Dylan read it and gave me notes. I worked on it again during the summer and the 2nd draft that I created in July is the closest to what we are working on. There have been some scenes that have been revamped, but overall it is very similar.

CA: So did you just suddenly realize what you wanted to write about while you were sitting on the airplane?

SF: The genesis of the play is an article I read by Kurt Vonnegut about his experiences in World War II, in particular his time in  Dresden that later became the material for Slaughter House 5. But in the interview, he told several fascinating stories that did not show up in his novel, specifically about going into houses and basements and having to remove bodies. There’s something about the labor of that and dealing with the bodies as objects that was striking and horrifying. I thought these would make a great movie and never thought of it as a play. On the plane I all of a sudden realized that there was a way to make it a play, but it would be an entirely different take and it would be far more character oriented. It wasn’t like the idea just sprang into reality as I was sitting on the plane.

CA: As  movie, I’m imagining, that this would be a horribly grotesque thing to watch.

SF: It would. In the play, what I wanted is that all of it becomes abstracted. I  always saw the bodies being somehow abstracted and focusing more on the living people, as characters. The film I saw in my head was extremely focused on objects and being extremely tactile. But in a play as an audience member, I like having to use my imagination. That makes the moments when you actually  see something so much more powerful. So hopefully, as the actors interact with [these abstract bodies] and sometimes treat them as more than rubble….at moments the audience will see them the same way the characters do.

CA: Do you ever see yourself making that film?

SF: Maybe. I don’t know. I’m not sure who’d want to fund you for that.

CA: Do you see Tindersticks as being influenced by Kurt Vonnegut in a stylistic way as well as subject matter?

SF: The lighter side of the play comes from him…I tend not to like humorless plays. In drama itself, I think humor is very important. A goal of mine was to find the humor around the situation. My sense of humor is not Vonnegut’s, who has a famously unique and wonderful sense of humor and there’s no way I am going to try and mimic that. But I did try to find ways of using my own humor in the play.

CA: It definitely seems that [one of the characters,] Bryn feels a need to make jokes when things get really bad.

SF: Bryn is deeply sarcastic. Her humor is a way of dealing with some of the walls she has put up in her life. And she can be very removed from the life around her. [Her fellow prisoner,] Woofer has a great sense of humor too but his is very warm, comfortable and earthy.

CA: The dynamic between the characters is very interesting. Especially the unlikely friendship between the two POW’s and their warden, Alfred.

SF: I think it seems natural that as a prisoner, you would be superficially chummy with your guard because of the potential benefits to that. Alfred is the most openly needy character in the play…His desperation is palpable, which is what makes him so pathetic. I know the actors love playing this dynamic. Alfred is the man with the gun, he’s the authority, but nobody respects him as an alpha. This is something you find in real life: people being thrust into positions where we don’t belong and we can sense who is not a leader or follower. We always know in groups, I think at some level, where we stand with each other. The actors love digging into that and playing with it. .

CA: Unlike the interview you read with Vonnegut, this story isn’t tied to a time and place, correct?

SF: Every time I show the play to someone, that comes up. I showed it to Dylan and John Arnone and both of them saw it as a futuristic apocalyptic play but that’s not specifically how I saw it. When I’m writing I tend to strip away specific time and place details. I don’t know if that’s a weakness, but its how I process things in terms of story telling. I avoid trying to crowd the play with unnecessary information. Then again, I hope not to create a thicket of unnecessary questions around the play.

CA: That was something in noticed while reading the play: there was very little context, and yet it was easy to relate to what was going on. You had everything you really needed to follow the story. I did notice though, weren’t there a couple of topical references?

SF: There’s a Singing in the Rain reference, so we know it takes place after that has been made. There’s also a scene that was much longer in the second draft that got cut after the reading we did in December, where the characters discuss a certain custom of the country in which they are. There is still a shred of that, but I kind of decided that I was getting too deep into the weeds with that.

CA: So you started this project by doing a reading with an audience?

SF: I kind of asked Dylan to put a reading together for me because … I knew we wouldn’t have much time in rehearsal so I didn’t want to be making too many changes while we were rehearsing. that was the first official event. We got the actors together and invited people to watch and give feed back. The reading went well, we learned some important things (though I ended up continuing changes during the rehearsal process.) I’ve had readings of my plays before and my experience with readings is that you go in hoping that the reading will show you exactly what you need to change and what works. They’re always a positive thing to do, but there’s always more work ahead. You never figure out exactly what you’re supposed to do. It was actually from that reading and meeting afterwards that that we made decisions about a final shape of the project.

CA: You’re calling this a workshop, but it sounds a lot like a full production.

SF: We’ve been calling it a workshop production. In practice, its more of a production with a bit of a safety net. We knew we had a lot of work to do and not very much time. So rather than saying we’re going to produce this and run for two weeks, we turned one of those weeks into a rehearsal week and invited the actors and designers to collaborate on something of a discovery of and an improvement of the material.  In practice, those didn’t look much different from a regular rehearsal and it won’t look much different from a full production—we’ve got a design, we’ve got props, costumes, lighting and sound. But we wanted to give ourselves a safety net in case we realized a week in that some massive changes had to be made. We wanted the option to do that. And its been working really well: the actors have been game, the designers have been game and we’ve been able to meet the challenges in the script and find solutions for them.

But my job doesn’t end as we go up on Friday and Saturday. The “final product” is what I will be using to make notes and continue changes. We’ve put a lot of work into it and we’re very proud of it, so we want it to have a continued life. But its hard to say what that would be at this point. Surely there would be a period where it just goes into the wilderness and I can work on it at my own discretion.

[Colleen Ahern]
Tindersticks is at Undermain Theatre for 2 nights only, 8:00pm February 22nd and 23rd

Free admission, call 214-747-5515 or email to get on the guest list.