Playwright Steven Dietz is so personable he doesn’t need an icebreaker. When I called him to talk about the upcoming production of Dracula at ACT Theatre, the first thing he wanted to talk about was my area code, a holdover from my Southern California hometown. I joked that I’d probably carry that area code with me for the rest of my life. And he echoed the same sentiment.
“As good as Austin has been to us, it’s always nice to see that 206 on my area code,” Dietz said. “I’ve had such profound good fortune in Seattle. I’ve been very lucky there. I’m always glad to get back to Seattle through all those changes, through all the hardships.” We talked about everything from his process of re-adapting Dracula to his passion for making room for the next generation of playwrights, but one thing rang through every moment of our conversation: Steven Dietz truly loves Seattle.
Danielle Mohlman: You originally wrote this adaptation of Dracula in 1994, but this production at ACT Theatre is being billed as a re-adaptation of your own play. What did that process look like for you? What does it mean to re-adapt your own play?
Steven Dietz: It’s funny. I have the script of the other adaptation here because I was trying to steal my own previous playwright’s note. (Laughs.) I wrote that adaptation of Dracula 25 years ago. It premiered at the Arizona Theatre Company in 1995 with a lot of Seattle connections—directed by David Goldstein, actors like David Pichette, Suzanne Bouchard and Peter Silbert. Bill Forrester did the set. So, I had all these amazing Seattle connections working on the premiere. And god bless that Dracula play. It’s been very good to me. And it’s not going away. That adaptation will remain in the Dramatists Play Service catalogue and will keep getting produced.
And what got us to this production at ACT is that John Langs wanted to do a show of mine. He knew I was coming up on the 30th anniversary of me coming to Seattle and the production of God’s Country in 1988. So, he said, “I want to do Dracula.” And John is a fantastic director and he’s also a fantastic showman. So, a piece like Dracula just hits all the sweet spots for him. And what I said to John is, “I think what I’d like to do, is go back to my existing adaptation and make another version.” I wanted to streamline it, tighten it. I’m a better storyteller now and I wanted to see if I could just squeeze it and shape it a little bit more.
The best analogy I can give you is this: when I wrote the original adaptation, I was sitting at my computer and to the left I had Bram Stoker’s book. This time, I was sitting at my desk and to my left I had my own published play.
One thing that really stood out to me last time we spoke is how much you love Seattle actors. So, I have to know: what excites you about this Dracula cast in particular?
A handful of those actors are folks that I’ve worked with. Arjun Pande is just a unicorn, right? There’s not another Arjun. Like, what the heck? And most of my experience, of course, with Basil Harris is doing these multiple productions of Go, Dog, Go! We’ve done it at the Seattle Children’s Theatre and so many other places. So, they’re actors I really admire.
John seems to find these actors—and Seattle seems to produce these actors—that have emotional power, but with a performative edge. There’s a particular style rooted in just enough psychological realism. But there’s a performative edge that’s not navel-gazing. Seattle actors don’t, you know, have the same reputation as Chicago actors being sort of brawling actors. This is a little too black and white, I know. But Seattle actors—their performances don’t go down inside their character. They go out and they’re elastic and they’re effervescent. I use this phrase when I direct in other cities: “As we say in Seattle, better strong and wrong than slight and right.” Give me strong and wrong. We can work with that. We can settle that up later. There’s a lack of caution among so many Seattle actors and I just adore it.
Switching gears off Dracula for a little bit—
Please, please. I need a break! (Laughs)
In addition to all of these long-term collaborations you have with ACT, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Seattle Rep and others, you also recently joined the nominating committee for the Emerald Prize at Seattle Public Theater. How does championing emerging playwrights factor into your life and your career?
I’ve been lucky enough to teach playwriting and directing masterclasses for years—even before having the full-time appointment at UT Austin. I was the very fortunate recipient early on in my career of mentorship from writers who were a little bit ahead of me in terms of age. August Wilson, Lee Blessing, Barbara Field. The mentorship I received from them, just by example, was crucial to me becoming a playwright. And I think we may be in a golden age of playwriting. I think we absolutely have a wealth of young and emerging talent.
And I take the responsibility very seriously. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to make our living in this business have to make room for other writers. Our legacy will be: how did we leave the theatre? And who did we leave the theatre to?
And I think it’s our responsibility to foster that and curate that and not just wring it out like a sponge—or pull up the drawbridge behind us. I’m borrowing this art form. I don’t own this. I’m just passing through. With my MFA playwriting students, I loved when they had better ideas than mine—and more vibrant ideas.
So, I think the Emerald Prize is great. All of those awards out there are signals that the field is hungry for new work. But I don’t think it’s enough. It’s my hope that there are six, eight, ten Seattle playwrights who will get to have these ongoing relationships with the same theatres that I have. And how that happens is a much harder conversation. But one way it can happen is for those of us in a more senior position to make some noise about emerging writers. I just hope the next generation blows my generation out of the water.
Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.