By Brian Marks
I meet Daniel Talbott and Chris Fields for coffee at an Atwater Village shop they’re familiar with. It’s a breezy day, with a piercing light barely obscured by the table’s umbrella. Talbott is an acclaimed actor and director, but more recently he has made his name as a playwright and screenwriter. Many of Talbott’s plays have premiered at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York, where he serves as a literary manager, including Slipping, Yosemite, and Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait. The Atwater Village-based Echo Theater Company is currently performing two works by Talbott: What Happened When, which is being revived for a third time with a new cast, and All the Light, a short play being premiered with works by five other playwrights as part of Echo’s Zeitgeist event.
Fields is the founding Artistic Director of Echo, and the director of the previous Los Angeles performances of What Happened When. (The current show is directed by Lovell Holder.) Fields is also the founder of the Ojai Playwrights Conference, for which he served as Artistic Director from 1995 to 2000. His stage credits include on and off Broadway productions, and he has also been featured on screen in Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, and multiple films from director David Fincher.
Before our conversation begins, I ask Fields how he likes the novel he has brought along, Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight. He raves enthusiastically about Ondaatje, then reads the novel’s opening sentence aloud: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” The striking sentence, with its ominous air, paints a vivid portrait of a childhood full of danger and menace. Perhaps what draws Fields to it is related to what intrigues him about Talbott’s work, which often delves deeply into buried family traumas.
@ThisStage: I thought we’d start at the beginning. What was the inspiration for What Happened When? What was its gestation like?
Talbott: It came from the artistic director from Rattlestick, David van Asselt. They asked us to write these one-acts about family. The last scene of the play began as a long one-act — it was 48 or 68 pages. It was just the final scene, kind of a deconstruction of language and what language people use or don’t use, and what we say or don’t say, between two brothers, about sexual abuse. It began like that, but I kept working on it and extended the play with just the brothers for Rattlestick West, and then I kept working on the play and added in the sister, and we staged it at Rattlestick, then got a chance to do the West Coast premiere with the Echo Theater Company. I think it’s the strongest version of the play because I got to do rewriting with Chris [Fields].
It was a really wonderful, slow buildup toward what the play is now. You never really get the opportunity to do it that many times, so it was kind of like heaven to get to do that.
@ThisStage: Do you consider this your final version? Or is it still in transition?
Talbott: I could never say anything’s the final version, but this is definitely the strongest version of what I’ve been trying to do, and it really found itself with this production with Echo. I’m really excited by the work everyone is doing. It was very collaborative, and I think we all fell into the middle of the play together, which was really cool.
@ThisStage: You mentioned multiple versions of What Happened When, and this one has three different casts who’ve performed it. Where did that idea originate?
Talbott: I think it was mutual. Chris and I both come from scrappy New York theatre, and we really get each other’s vibe, so we popped it out together! It was like a mutual birth.
Fields: We usually run Friday through Monday nights, and I’ve always been looking for something really exciting to put in the front of the week, so it evolved. We were having coffee in the valley and we got really excited over the notion of having a show in rep. It’s been in rep with our other plays, but in another way it has been in rep with itself. What’s been really fascinating — challenging, but fascinating, and kind of wonderful — is to see the same play twice now. And we’ve had cast changes within casts, so we’ve really seen the play four times with different actors, which is really a treat. It’s like you have a really good piece of music and you have three different pianists playing it. So you hear different things: their sensibilities, and the way they are, and their artistry is completely different from the other guy. Actors are literally instruments, so the piece is getting played on a different instrument.
@ThisStage: Do you think that you’re looking for different things? Do you have different goals?
Fields: It’s the same set, and the play is immersive. It’s this bedroom, and the audience is really close, so there’s this certain set of limitations that will dictate something. It’s not really a different production each time out, but you’re going to get surprised. I worked on the first two versions, and now there’s a wonderful director named Lovell Holder who’s doing this version because I was too busy to do it, but as I see it again it kind of speaks back to you in a wholly different way. It’s like a piece of music that you can put in the drawer and then pull it back out.
Nobody’s done this out there. There was a guy at the theater last night who said, “I’m coming back again.” So I think there’s a small portion of our audience that really got hipped to the fact that this is a very cool thing to experience.
@ThisStage: Daniel, you started acting and directing before you had worked as a playwright. In what ways does that inform your style?
Talbott: I made my living as an actor for 16, 17 years, and went to Juilliard as an actor. I started writing in school because I was so inspired by the playwriting program there. I was so excited by what they were doing that I wanted to try to tag along like a little brother. People like Adam Rapp and Jessica Goldberg were really great about reading my stuff and being supportive to an actor who was trying to write.
So many plays have such strong rhythm, like music, that you can just play the rhythm, and sometimes you can coast on the rhythm. The play is so strong that even if you’re having a shitty night it will take care of itself. But I wanted to write plays that would force collaboration, that were almost rhythmless, that would not work unless the actor was bringing their whole. If the actors do not bring their history and their wholes selves and being to the process, I wanted to write plays that would just fail without that. It forces actors to step the fuck up, and they can’t coast.
There are amazing contemporary playwrights like David Adjmi, who is one of my favorite playwrights, and he writes plays where you can just play his punctuation and his language, and the plays will snap alive because of the language. Or Edward Albee. But I was like, “fuck it.” If David Adjmi writes a perfect play structure, I wanted to take it and melt it down and kind of Chernobyl it. You still have to do the same course, but the monkey bars are missing, and the slide is broken, and you can cut your face open. So you have to fill in the blanks of the play. Then the whole thing comes alive if the whole team comes alive. There’s a lot of white space, and you really have to generate your own action. And there’s broken rhythm, so the rhythm gets dictated by how it’s played between two people, instead of just having to play the rhythm. Chris really gets that in my work. There are a lot of directors who come to my work and try to fix it because it’s rhythmless. They kind of talk down to me, as if I didn’t do it on purpose. But Chris just gets that. He was the only person I wanted to work with on this play. And Lovell [Holder] also really gets it.
Fields: We went into rehearsal, and Daniel sat there for four days, and he just lopped shit out of it and brought in a whole new rewrite. That’s probably because you had been living in all that work for a couple years. It’s really inspiring when a playwright is so inside the play to a degree that you just have to sit back.
Talbott: But that also comes from the people you’re in the room with. If Chris and I didn’t get along and if the actors were boring, it wouldn’t work. I really love the collaboration of being in a room with people I love. We had an extraordinary run of actors across the board. All our sensibilities just clicked and it was like rocket fuel.
@ThisStage: There are lots of playwrights who would cut their arm off before they cut something out of their play. What makes it so easy for you?
Talbott: I think I’m trying to build a play structure with people. There are playwrights who write beautiful poetry, but I’m not writing poetry, I’m writing often about the people I grew up with, who are lucky if they graduate high school, who often begin selling drugs or working construction by the age of 15 or 16. So it’s a different type of poetry, not a precious poetry. There are writers who, if you take away their language, their poetry collapses because it’s so perfect and beautiful. Mine is meant to collapse. It’s a broken poetry because it’s a broken world. So that makes it easier for me to eff with it. As an actor I was also very interested in what I could do without language, and with silence, and with physical action instead of language. But I also grew up in a place where people didn’t talk a lot, and people were incredibly sexual and also physically violent. They talked with their bodies, not their words, and I’m trying to write about that, which makes it easier to sometimes to pare away. Less is always more in that world.
Fields: Plus, it’s inherently dramatic. As opposed to having people talking about their feelings, or talking about what happened off stage, or people talking about they want to do, you have people actually existing, living, behaving, and the language sits on top all that wonderful stuff. You’re in this place with these people, and there’s incredible life in this place, at this time, and at these times in their individual lives, and that is so propulsive and inherently dramatic in a really unusual way that’s just magnificent.
What Happened When runs through October 11 at the Echo Theater Company’s Atwater Village Theater, 3629 Casitas Ave. in Los Angeles. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 8 p.m. For tickets, click here.