Dan Dietz Matches American Misfits With Rockabilly

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Maya Erskine, Karen Jean Olds, Daniel MK Cohen, Larry Cedar, AJ Meijer and Eden Riegel with Banks Boutte in "American Misfit." Photo by Ed Krieger.
Maya Erskine, Karen Jean Olds, Daniel MK Cohen, Larry Cedar, AJ Meijer and Eden Riegel with Banks Boutte in “American Misfit.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

Dan Dietz is officially a Los Angeles playwright, now that his play American Misfit has opened at the Boston Court.

He has come nearly full circle. He was born in Los Angeles County — in Long Beach. But he spent most of his young childhood in Ohio. He moved with his family to Marietta, Georgia at the age of eight.

Marietta, in northwestern Georgia, isn’t far from eastern Tennessee, where American Misfit is set. The play blends a nugget of post-Revolutionary War American history with a rockabilly musical style.  It is the story of the Harpe Brothers, who murdered and stole their way along the backwaters of what was then the West, all in the name of counterrevolution.  The show bounces from one end of American history to the other, from Washington to Reagan.

Dan Dietz
Dan Dietz

Dietz smiles, describing the beginning moments of the play. “The opening song, the introduction by Rockabilly Boy [played by Banks Boutté], moving into the dance, it all conjures up the strange world of the play, which is a combination 1950s dance hall and late 18th Century slaughterfest.”

After finishing his undergraduate degree in theater from Kennesaw State University in Georgia, Dietz began to look elsewhere. He had heard great things about the Austin music scene, art and theater communities. “It seemed like everywhere I turned [in Austin], people were taking risks with their art and I realized that’s what I wanted to do too.”

He began studying theater history and criticism at the University of Texas at Austin but then switched to playwriting, obtaining an MFA in 1999. He also got involved in the local theater scene, most notably with Austin’s Salvage Vanguard, a company known for its experimental work.  “Grad school taught me things about structure and character development,” he says.  “And then watching what some of the other artists in town were doing, they taught me how to break those rules, how to shake up structure, how to shake up and find different ways of developing characters.”

Austin, he says, is “where I came of age as an artist.” But after about a dozen years there, he moved to Tallahassee in 2007 to teach in Florida State’s playwriting/screenwriting master’s program.  And in 2010, he became a Jerome Fellow at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis.

Along the way, Dietz wrote tempOdyssey, which received a rolling world premiere from the National New Play Network at four theaters in 2006-07 and an LA production by needtheater in 2010 at Artworks in Hollywood. His other titles include The Sandreckoner, which was one of the plays in development at Ojai Playwrights Conference in 2008, and Clementine in the Lower Nine, a post-Katrina play set in New Orleans with a blues band on stage, loosely based on Agamemnon. It opened at TheatreWorks in Mountain View, CA. in 2011.

Daniel MK Cohen, P.J. Ochlan and AJ Meijer.
Daniel MK Cohen, P.J. Ochlan and AJ Meijer.

His work has been commissioned and presented in venues across the country, including Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Guthrie Theater, the Public Theater, and the Kennedy Center.  Dietz has been an NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Program for Playwrights recipient, a Josephine Bay Paul Fellow, and a James A. Michener Fellow, and has twice been a recipient of the Heideman Award.

And now, he’s once again an Angeleno.  After the Jerome fellowship finished in mid-2011, Dietz felt he was faced with a choice between New York and Los Angeles.  A few playwright friends started talking to him about Los Angeles, but what ultimately tipped him toward LA was his acceptance into the  Warner Brothers Writers’ Workshop, where he was one of the writers from the fall of 2011 through the spring of 2012.  He now works as a writer on CBS’s Person of Interest.

American Misfit started in Austin in 2002.  Its seeds were planted by the work of both Salvage Vanguard and the Rude Mechanicals, another Austin theater company, whose works I’ve Never Been So Happy, The Method Gun and Lipstick Traces toured to Los Angeles.  He remembers that “people were starting to blend live music and theater in really cool ways.”  He experimented with it in a previous work called Tilt Angel, but he wanted to go farther.  “And I had just seen Kirk Lynn’s play Requiem for Tesla (also a Rude Mechs production), and I was like, “historical characters on stage, like this is cool!’”

Around the same time, a friend of his introduced him to the story of the Harpe Brothers. “I was blown away by the sheer number of people they managed to kill without getting caught and the extreme loyalty of the women who traveled with them.”

Banks Boutte
Banks Boutte

But where did the idea turning the story of the Harpe brothers into a rockabilly musical come from?  “On a day I was researching them, I happened to be at a coffee shop,” Dietz recalls.  “Then all of a sudden rockabilly music came on over the speakers.”  And it clicked for him that it might make a great soundtrack to the story.  “I tucked that away in the back of my head.”

For Dietz, this collecting of ideas is a part of his process.  “A lot of times what generates a full-length play for me is about pulling together seemingly disparate elements that come to me through various means.”  As he writes, he discovers those connections that drew him to the various elements.  The same was true for American Misfit. “I did a bunch of historical research into the period and where American government stood at the time and then I just thought, I’m just going to combine all of those things into one play.  I’m going to try and weave it all together.”

In 2005, Salvage Vanguard did what Dietz calls a “developmental production.”  After that there were more workshops, but no productions materialized.  He began to think that perhaps the play was never going to get produced.  “It is a pretty wild script,” he admits.  “In some ways it has the requirements of a musical, without the sort of [potential] financial payoff”  of doing a musical that would attract a  supposedly surefire audience. He laughs.

A few years ago, a conversation about American Misfit occurred between Dietz and the team at Theatre @ Boston Court, which is known for taking theatrical chances.  However, it wasn’t until the theater company received $10,000 as part of the new Edgerton Foundation Theater Program that it had the resources to tackle the project.  Dietz smiles. “It really meant a lot to me that two years later they were still interested enough to actually pick it up and make it happen.” The theater’s co-artistic director Michael Michetti staged it.

For Dietz, the show examines the American character at a time when that character was only beginning to form.  “To me the American character,” he explains, “it’s this combination of idealism and ugliness, and it just seems to be fused together.”

Maya Erskine and Karen Jean Olds.
Maya Erskine and Karen Jean Olds.

He reflects upon his research, “When I looked into the period, I discovered the founding fathers couldn’t stand one another.  They were bound together by mildly to moderately overlapping ideals.  But it was useful for them to be allies.”  He points to the rivalries between Jefferson and Adams, and of course, Hamilton and Burr.  “A lot of people hated Alexander Hamilton.  Yet these are our founding fathers.”

Dietz says that while now we might see the founding fathers as speaking with one voice, history shows us the opposite.  They argued and debated endlessly among themselves.  “I love the fact that nothing was arrived at easily, in terms of our ideology or identity.  It was always a fight.  And I feel like that’s very much who we are.”

“It seems like it’s very looked down on in this country — the notion of diplomacy and settling things by talking them out.  That feels not American.”  He continues, “We would much rather take hold of the quick, violent overthrow of what came before, rather than do the long slow painful process of achieving a compromise.”

“We like to think of ourselves as rebels,” he finishes.

Little Harpe, the younger of the two brothers, and the brains behind the operation, drives the action of the play.  He wants to overthrow the nascent democracy, and for him, it’s personal.  His father was killed fighting for the British.  But the Harpes take particular relish in their murderous work.  “I think he believes that the terror he’s sowing will have a good objective in the end.  But he’s also enjoying sowing the terror.”

Larry Cedar
Larry Cedar

Are the Harpes a reflection of our modern America?  Dietz thinks for a moment, then says, “If they reflect anything, it’s the idea that it’s better to destroy around you in order to make change than it is to solve a problem constructively.  What they embody for me is that impulse to tear apart people who get in the way of what you want in order to get what you want.”

Dietz hopes the show will get audiences talking about the American character.  “It will allow them to question how much of what is shown in the play is an essential aspect of the American character, and how much of it is something about ourselves we have the ability to change.”

And of course, “I hope they have enjoyed the ride.”

American Misfit, Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 North Mentor Avenue, Pasadena. 91106.  Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through May 12 with an added performance on Wednesday, May 8, 8 pm. Tickets: $34. www.bostoncourt.com. 626-683-6883.

**All American Misfit production photos by Ed Krieger.

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