"The things I focus on when I write are people's obsessions," announced Steven Dietz, 28, whose "Foolin' Around With Infinity" opens Friday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. "This play is about the belief systems we all adopt to survive, to get by in this nuclear age."
The characters in Dietz's play include two men working in an underground missile silo in Utah, a woman who lives in a fallout shelter, Mr. Anderson (a mysterious presence who shows up in various incarnations) and You, the dispassionate conscience who sits onstage facing the audience, relating the action.
"What I'm really fatally attracted to is the power of the stage," Dietz offered, "addressing a social issue, using the fact that you have people in the room with you. Between 8 and 10, people sit in their theater seats. At 10:01 they have a choice. It could mean going home and hugging their kid--or deciding to vote next time, or joining a committee. Maybe it's just walking around the earth thinking about these things. I really believe that our compassion for each other will surface if we take some time to reflect on the signals we've been given.
"The thing is, we're in the middle of this unbelievable informational age. And what I find most terrifying about this culture, pure and simple, is that we are no longer given--or demand of each other--any time to reflect on our information. We attribute that to the fact that we don't have time, that there's too much information coming at us. We're bombarded with it in movies, television and advertising--but as soon as we go out and start the car, it's gone.
"That's less of a statement about the movie than how we've allowed our minds to adapt."
Yet he feels there is the possibility in live theater to change that: "It has something to do with going through real time. The actors are taking two hours out of their lives; you're taking two hours out of yours. That implies a communication that is not inherent in any other art form. No one is going to rent us (like a VCR tape) and take us home, put us on 'pause' to put a pizza in the oven. You're there ."
Another means of numbing people's concern, Dietz feels, is the current reliance on soothing lingo. "Look at my President," he noted. "It's easy to say 'that stupid President,' but if everyone said, ' My President' they'd have to take responsibility for his being there.
"Is it possible to forget? Did he sign the memo (authorizing U.S. arms sales to Iran)? Did Kennedy forget that he talked to Khruschev? Did Jefferson forget that he wrote the (Declaration of Independence)? Those are major cornerstones in our country. But Reagan's attitude is purely a reflection of 'I do this thing, then I do the next thing--and I don't reflect on my actions.' A lot of this play is saying, 'Hey, you can't forget.' "
Social issues haven't always been the fodder of Dietz's work.
"I have a play called 'More Fun Than Bowling' (currently running at the Pennsylvania Stage) about having fun with the people around you and falling in love as much as possible. Then there's a play (being staged at Berkeley Rep) called 'Painting It Red.' I wrote that with a Minneapolis rock 'n' roll band; it simulates the experience of coming to both a rock concert and a play. And I've just finished a play called '10 November' about the (1975) sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
Faith and irony, he feels, are thematic staples. "Stylistically, the throughline is that I love to write. I love to write poetry; I love to bring that to the theater. But when I started, I'd probably seen three plays; I didn't know what they were. I thought people were supposed to come into a room, characters were supposed to develop and at the end, someone was supposed to slam the door and that was to have changed someone's life.
"Well, theater can do whatever it wants to do. And nothing moves faster than language. So lately, I've made a real conscious choice to let the characters cut loose in terms of language--and not do the transitions. We don't do transitions in our lives. Why should our characters?
"Things that we playwights (are taught) are impossible are possible, and necessary. We're limited by small minds telling us that we need to make small plays because theater is a small thing."
Certainly not in Dietz's life.
Between personal projects and regional directing, he also finds time to run Minneapolis' Quicksilver Stage, which he founded with three friends. "We're run by playwrights, very small-scale. We raise our own money from friends and do plays."
How does Dietz feel about his own burgeoning popularity?