Placing the Playwrights: Interviews by Beverly Trader

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 14 No. 3/4, "Changing Scenes: Theater in the South." Find more from that issue here.

Playwrights know their place. It's that empty landscape called a stage. In the hands of the best playwrights, however, those few square feet may be transformed into the Emerald Isle, the South Pole, or the well-traveled terrain of the American South.


The following writers were born or have worked in the South. They were happy to speculate on the importance a sense of place, both in their plays and in their personal lives.



Sandra Deer was born in West Palm Beach, Florida and grew up in almost every Southern state. She now lives in Atlanta, where she is the literary manager for the Alliance Theater Company. Her comedy So Long on Lonely Street broke box-office records there as this season's opening production. It was staged in February at the Nickerson Theater in Norwell, Massachusetts and then moved to New York where it was directed by Atlanta's Kent Stephens. Deer's adaptation of Pinocchio was mounted by the Atlanta Children's Theater this season, and her version of Dickens's Great Expectations played at the Alliance February March.

"When we talk about writers having a sense of place, we are almost always talking about a place in the memory that has gone from actual existence, leaving only shards and cemetery markers. It's not the place, but the sense of place that the work comes from, because work comes from the imagination where images are combined in special ways. Most of the images — the best ones — come out of deep memory: childhood, where the things of this world are fresh. A sense of place doesn't have anything to do with a region. It's just what the child stored up for the adult to recreate with. Places and things. And the names of places and things."



John Stephens was born in San Francisco — Irish Catholic on his father's side and Irish Protestant on his mother's. He is associate director of the Academy Theatre in Atlanta and is founder and artistic director of Theater Gael. Stephens has authored over a dozen plays for children and adults. He is now at work on a drama which deals with Irish emigration to this country.

"I am drawn to Ireland. That's the area that I have written about the most. And I admit to some romantic notions about the quality in the Irish character that is seen through a love of words, a fluency in music and poetry, in the depth of their imagination. It seems, almost in a spirit of survival amongst the Irish, that they use their poetry to protect themselves. And I think that's what I do myself as a writer. Ireland inspires me as a place. Whenever I return from there I feel more focused. I'm an American through and through, but I understand some behavioral aspects of myself which come through my heritage."



Jean Sterrett was born in Toowoomba, Australia and now lives in Atlanta. Her play Afternoons at Waratah won the 1983 National Play Award. She also directed her script The White Rose of Munich at Nexus Theater in 1983. A classical pianist by training, Sterrett is also a critically acclaimed actress. She is currently working on several scripts for both children and adults.

"I rejoice in plays or films which can transport me into a certain place and time. It can happen in reading, too. A few people have commented on the sense of place in my work. With The White Rose (set in Munich in 1943) I was trying to capture a time and place and sense of apprehensiveness — to have my actors constantly on guard. I like to try to bring a place to life, a time to life. Having been a musician, I'm extremely aware of sound. I like to choose the music and have it integrated into a script. In Waratah, I've got background birds and even the didgeridoo. I was also working with childhood memories of a particular place, a particular house and its veranda. Then characters began to speak in a language I had completely forgotten. By being removed from Australia, things which had been placed in a timeless vault could be brought out and used."



Tom Huey was born in Birmingham, Alabama and now lives in McLeansville, North Carolina. He is also a member, along with Sandra Deer and Frank Manley, of the Alliance Theater's Playwrights Project in Atlanta. Huey's High Standards was produced by the Alliance Studio last season and Through Line was presented there this June. His adaptation of the tales of Edgar Allen Poe was staged by the Atlanta Children's Theater this winter. Huey has published a novel, four books of poetry, and co-authored a screenplay with James Dickey.

"I live in the South because it's easy for me here. Not only is it my home, but I can work without interruptions. I have a lot of time to be alone here. It's not so much that the old metaphors of the South apply to my work; but as my plays become more rooted in autobiography, the South crops up in them. I still try very hard to transcend regionalism. One thing that's becoming more apparent is that the old stereotypes no longer apply here. We go from the particular to the general. The important thing for me as a writer is to find the ground rules that are recognizable wherever you go. We're all human. That's the real territory."



Bonnie Pike was born in Omaha, Nebraska and has lived in Atlanta for 26 years. Her Three Brass Monkeys premiered on Academy's First Stage. Atlanta's Theatrical Outfit subsequently offered two separate, and well-received, stagings of the work in April and November of last year. Pike serves as literary manager and playwright-in-residence at the Outfit and is currently working on a play set in Savannah.

"I want my mind free and my feet planted. I want to be as at home in a truckstop as I am at the Ritz in Paris. Stability gives me freedom. If there's anything wrong in my household or with my kids, I can't work. My mind is so locked into my own reality that it can't get into anybody else's.

"I guess my roots are primary. I hope, as I mature as a writer, however, my work will become universal, and not rooted to a specific locale. I think a more limited approach might be limiting to me. Those things which seduce me go beyond place — I think that people are the same once you learn their culture and their humor. The primal passions of the Spanish may be masked in England. But if you get down to the core of it, we're all feeling the same thing."



Frank Manley was born and now lives in Atlanta. He spent over a decade, however, studying and teaching in Baltimore, Maryland and New Haven, Connecticut. His Two Masters was staged by Atlanta's Theater Emory in 1984 and Prior Engagements was produced there earlier this season. Two Masters was awarded the Great American Play Award at Louisville's Humana Festival in 1985. The recipient of two Guggenheims and other honors for his poetry and scholarship, Manley is currently working on a commission from Alliance Theater in Atlanta.

"I never felt comfortable in a New England landscape. And although I'm never conscious of writing about the South or aware of myself as a Southern writer, I often look up to find myself in a Southern landscape. You never try to write about a region. You just use the region to strike through to something more permanent that goes beyond the region. Most of the people in my plays have been lower-class Southerners. I've written about characters who live outside this region's cities, but I'm concerned that they not be perceived as stereotypes, particularly by people outside the South. I think that Southern people are often misserved by the rural stereotype. It's a burden that Southern writers have to carry — an accent. People tend to pigeonhole Southern writers and think of them in literary terms, comparing us to writers of the Southern Renaissance. They tend to use their second-hand experience to stereotype Southern writers."



Ted Tally was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and he grew up in nearby Greensboro. He now lives in Manhattan, where his Little Footsteps premiered at Playwrights Horizons this February. Tally's Terra Nova has been produced in the U.S. and 10 foreign countries. A 1984 production at the American Place in New York won that year's Obie for distinguished playwriting. His other honors include the Kazan Award, the Field Prize, the Outer Critics Circle Award for best American play, the Guggenheim and a CBS Foundation Fellowship.

"I always start a play by trying to imagine the kind of place where characters live. But in my mind the setting is always a theater. It's never realistic. I want a nonliteral representation — to suggest Antarctica or places in England. A sense of place in of the characters is important to me. A sense of place in terms of my own identification with a region is not. I might just as well write a play set at the South Pole as I would set one in the South. I would rather be more free ranging in time as well as place. Living the Northeast for 15 years is finally beginning to affect me. In a way I'm kind of a hybrid now. I'm not really a Southerner or a Yankee. A sense of character, of conflict, of struggle affects me more than any regional flavor."



Jim Peck was born in Clinton, Indiana and grew up in Chicago, Peoria, Fort Lauderdale, and South Carolina. He attended graduate school in Georgia and lives in Atlanta. Peck is a former minister, tennis pro, teacher, and journalist. He now works as a professional actor and playwright. His study of the poet Robert Burns, Rab, the Rhymer, traveled to the Edinburgh Festival last summer and Flint and Roses, originally mounted on the Academy's First Stage, was produced on Alliance's mainstage this January.

"Most of my plays are located in non-specific settings. I don't have roots anyplace. I grew up all over and went to six different schools the first six grades. It's normal that I don't have a childhood affinity for the deep South and rarely locate my work here. Most of my plays have no specific place names in them. I'm more at sea than people who have a strong smell of place about them. The disadvantage, from a marketing point of view, is people expect a person from Atlanta to write a grits-and-sorghum play. I think that my plays are more cosmopolitan, not that I have a sophisticated point of view. I'm just not writing about atmosphere that much, and am more focused on character and idea than location. I'm not saying my ideas are stronger than anyone else's. I just didn't grow up anywhere. Or I grew up everywhere. Or I didn't grow up. That's another possibility.



Romulus Linney was born in Philadelphia, but grew up in North Carolina and Tennessee. Now living in New York City, Linney has won the Mishama Award for Fiction, fellowships from Guggenheim and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the 1980 Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His many plays have been produced throughout the U.S. and Europe, and Linney' s Tennessee won the 1981 Obie, an off Broadway and off off Broadway award.

"For me it's a sense of emotional place, rather than physical — the memories that you have from your childhood. The South is an emotional place to me more than a physical one because my youth was spent there. You find something in a place that has to do with your memories. I've written about the Orient because I've been there. But many of my plays are historical plays that seem to have nothing to do with immediate experience. A great life like Byron's or Frederick the Great's, however, is a country that you get lost in. And then you find your way around in it. It's a great adventure. The emotional things that you share with these titanic figures are your guideposts here."