Broadway Bullet: Steven Tomlinson of American Fiesta

 We talk to Steven Tomlinson whose one-man show, "American Fiesta" is currently playing at the Vineyard Theatre.

According to the press notes: When playwright Steven Tomlinson, an obsessive collector of vintage "Fiesta" ware, sets off in search of the perfect specimens, he finds a surprising series of connections between residents of "red" and "blue" states, as well as some startling divides within his own family when he announces his intention to marry his partner. Mark Brokaw (How I Learned to Drive and The Dying Gaul at The Vineyard) directs this powerful and funny exploration of America and where it is headed.

An early version of this solo comedy-drama received its first production in Austin, Texas and won the American Theatre Critics Association "Osborn Award" for Best New Play by an up-and-coming playwright.

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 You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet vol. 112. Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.

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 Broadway Bullet Interview: Steven Tomlinson of American Fiesta

 Broadway Bullet: In the third mainstage production of the Vineyards 2006/2007 season we have a one man show written and performed by Steven Tomlinson, in which he exposes how a collector of fiesta wear discovers the many differences between our so called red and blue states. He is here in the studio to talk about the show and give us a short taste of the monologue. How are you doing?
 
Steven Tomlinson: I'm doing well, Michael. Thanks.
 
BB: So, first of, tell us a little about the show. What it's about, what inspired you?
 
ST: I was thinking during the 2004 election about how negative and divisive things were, and I found myself in conversations with my friends and all we did was work each other up about politics. I was trying to figure out what that's about and what were the possibilities that we could actually get to a smarter, saner place in this conversation, and at the same time I had obsessively started collecting these Depression Era dishes called Fiesta ware, and it was also about the same time that my partner, Eugene, and I went to Vancouver to get married under Canadian law, and we'd invited my parents and as much as they're supportive of us and love us they just couldn't go to a wedding. They couldn't get there. So, I was thinking about how these three things might fit together: politics, family dynamics, and vintage dishes, and that's where the play came from.
 
BB: For those of our listeners who, like myself, didn't know what fiesta ware was, what exactly is that?
 
ST: Fiesta ware are the most popular dishes ever made. They are Depression Era
 ceramics made from 1936 till 1943 in these six wonderful colors. This flaming red, and beautiful turquoise, green, yellow, ivory, and cobalt blue, and they are dishes that the moment you see them you'll recognize them. One of your grandparents had these dishes, or you've seen them in little junk shops when you're traveling all over the country. There's this whole subculture of people who obsessively collect these dishes, and finding rare pieces, finding mint condition pieces, finding a complete set becomes the preoccupation of a really really rabid collector.
 
BB: I saw Fiesta ware and thought maybe it was just changing the brand name of Tupperware.
 
ST: You can get in bad trouble if you don't clear that up.
 
BB: So, how long were you putting this show together?
 
ST: We started writing this show on commission in April of 2005. We had a run, in Austin, of October 2005 with the creative team that helps me create all of my work in Austin. Then we remounted the show in July of 2006 and that's when we got the connections that led us to the Vineyard.
 
BB: I think this is one of the areas where we have to remember its not the red states and the blue states in our current political climate, in the fact that I'm constantly surprised, I don't know why, at what seems to be a very healthy and thriving art scene in Texas.
 
ST: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
 
BB: Which our red and blue state division would tell us there's not, but, of course, it's people it's not states.
 
ST: Well, tow things we need to remember. First of all, in the last Presidential election every major metropolitan area in the country was effectively a blue island. They went democratic, even though the folks in the rural areas were voting red and that tipped the balance. The other thing is that Austin is an incredible exception. It is a hotbed of progressive political activity and cutting edge art right in the middle of Texas, and every misfit who grows up in Texas somehow finds his or her way to Austin at some point. It's a warm, wonderful, creative, exciting place.
 
BB: This is maybe a little off-topic from the play, but I also have a music program and I was talking with an Austin performer there and she was talking about how she was sure there is a great artistic scene there, but she wasn't sure if there was an audience there for all the musicians. Is it the same way with theatre? Is it such a collection of artistic creators that there's not an audience or is there also quite a healthy audience?
 
ST: It seems there is. I read a couple of years ago that there were more independent theatre companies in Austin per capita than any other city in America, and I'm always surprised no matter how small the company, no matter how out of the way the production it always seems like there are people there that appreciate it, and I know that my friends and I that create these pieces in Austin, we feel very lucky to have a big audience for everything we do.
 
BB: Now when you're writing your one person show and moving it to New York, I would imagine there's a lot of stress with a one person show of how do I make sure to keep this interesting to an audience and at what point do I feel like I'm pandering just to try to make it more interesting, and trusting yourself that sometimes simple is fine. Just as you're writing it and putting it together I'm wondering how much those thoughts invade your mind:
 
ST: The people with whom I work in Austin, my director Christine J. Moore, and Scott Kanoff who is the artistic director of the State Theatre, which is the artistic origin of this piece, they stay on me constantly. "Steven you are not telling your story, you're telling our story. This is about the audience, and if you can find something in your experience that is universal, that is going to connect with the people that are going to see it, then that is what you write about." I find that as an artist that's what inspires me. It's not telling my story; it's trying to tell your story through my experience. The challenge of that creates this tension and this challenge that helps make the piece happen. So my dramaturge, my director, my designers are always…I just remember we were sitting around the table and all of a sudden I looked up and said, "I think we're going to have to write about gay marriage." It was like a bomb had dropped and the room got completely quiet, and after we got past the initial panic, everyone looked up and with a lot of resolve said, "Yeah and we're going to do it as generously and as inclusively as possible and we're going to make it about something that everybody cares about." That's how the piece came to be.
 
BB: Right, now you're going to do a short selection from the show here.
 

ST: Right.
 
BB: Does this thing you're about to do need any setup?
 
ST: I don't think so. I looked for something that might give a taste of the show and stand on its own, and the piece that I'm going to read came from an experience in 2004 when Eugene and I were in New Mexico, and what's the town where the UFOs are?
 
BB: Roswell.
 
ST: Yeah, and we were in Roswell at this little café and he handed the newspaper across the table to me, and the lead story on the back page was "Fiesta ware can kill you." It had this doctor talking about how the red Fiesta ware has uranium in the glaze and if you want out of it it can create all kinds of problems. So, it wound up in the play, and I'm going to read a little section about which point the collector makes this discovery and how he responds to it.
(performs monologue)
 
Listen to the monologue performance in  Broadway Bullet vol. 112.
 
BB: With one person shows there's a rich history and a lot of different styles. I'm curious who some of your other favorite writers and performers in this genera have been?
 
ST: Oh cool. I am so glad you asked that. My inspirations are Jane Wagner, who writes for Lilly Tomlin "Searching for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe." The writing of Joan Didion inspired me. Walker Percy's book "Lost in the Cosmos." These are writers who find a way to take the politics of the day and make them metaphors for our personal struggles. I love David Hare's "Via del Rosa." That got me writing. Of course, Spalding Grey inspires, I guess, everybody who goes to the stage by themselves.
 
BB: Now inherently I think there are a lot of people who I think have hesitancy towards the one person show. I don't know if they feel that it's not enough song and dance, or glamour, and glitz, but the truth is that it's not a genera that I think you can just blanketley cover because it's really more akin to storytelling, and just as that goes the story and the storyteller has a lot to do with the interest.
 
ST: Oh absolutely. You know the plus of a one man show, you can connect directly with the audiences imagination, and if you find a way to tell the story with vivid images, and great metaphors and that kind of stuff. I love to watch a show like that because my imagination will move even faster then it moves with a good movie, or a well staged multi-character play, so I'm always striving in my work to really connect immediately and energetically with the imagination through languages, through images, and working with Mark Brokaw and this wonderful team that the Vineyard has put together we have taken this play and expanded visually, with sound, we have David Lander's wonderful light design, Neil Patel's beautiful set, and Jan Hartley has put together some projections that just kind of move the story even faster than I imagined it, and that's what's so exciting about the Vineyard production.
 
BB: So what we haven't talked about is a little bit of your history, your past work, and productions. Maybe you can tell us about some of your favorite things you've done in the past?
 
ST: Sure. My most recent work, I'm an economist I have a PhD and I teach at a business school. That's my day job, and in my art almost all of my work is looking to find metaphors in economic life that illuminate human experience. I wrote a play called "Curb Appeal" which was about hunting for a house at a time when Austin's real estate market was overheating. My first partner had died, and I was moving out of the house where we had lived together, and buying a house for the first time. As I was looking for a house I started noticing how similar dating was to house hunting, and the play "Curb Appeal" became about the similarities in these two searches, and ultimately let me explore what are we trying to do when we're shopping? What's grief really about? I wrote a play called managed care, which was about a guy who had a mysterious illness and went all through the healthcare system, and it was ostensibly a lecture about how healthcare works, but it was really about forgiveness and how the narrator resolved a decade worth of tension with his grandmother as the began to commiserate together about their health stuff. Then I wrote a play called "Millennium Bug" in 1999 about a sadistic money manager who runs a concentration camp for credit card abusers and how he falls in love with one of his in-mates, and the play is structured as an infomercial for this software program that runs your life, it doesn't just manager your money, it does a lot more, and keeps you on track, helps you overcome temptation, and it was at the time when people were talking about Y2K, so I was looking at what is Y2K really about for us? What is this apprehension about technology and our dependence on it? So, all of my work boils down to finding something that we're obsessed with in our economic life, whether it's money management, or real estate, or healthcare prices, or insurance or whatever stock market bubble, and figuring out what can we say about that? How is that really about something we can't talk about? Whether it's forgiveness, or grief, or reconciliation, or whatever, and that becomes the puzzle for me as a playwright; trying to find a way to turn the current chatter into a metaphor that can take me deeper into something that I need to understand about love, life, loss.
 
BB: So, now we're up to "American Fiesta." Is this it's New York premiere?
 
ST: It is. This is my first time in New York, and I couldn't ask for a better team to help me make a transition to a market that can be intimidating for artists, and working with Doug Able and Mark Brokaw has been a dream. Not only because it's topnotch talent that serves the play so well, but because these folks have made it so east for me to get my feet on the ground here, and it's very exciting.
 
BB: So, is this your first play in New York?
 
ST: It is.
                                    
BB: It must be exciting as well?
 
ST: Extremely exciting.
 
BB: Does it also give you extra jitters as a performer?
 
ST: There was no greater satisfaction than putting the show up in front of a New York audience, and getting a warm response. Just knowing that, yeah, it does translate to here. You know I've seen so much wonderful work here. So much of my inspiration comes from my trips here to see theatre, and to be working with people who can help take my work to the level where it fits at this standard, and that just means the world to me as an artist.
 
BB: It's starting April 26th and running through May 20th at the Vineyard, and I thank you so much for coming down.
 

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You can listen to this interview and many other great features for free on Broadway Bullet vol. 112. Subscribe for free so you don't miss an episode.

  


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