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PLAYWRIGHTS' DIALOGUE: Allison Gregory & Steven Dietz

Instead of tea and sympathy, Allison Gregory and Steven Dietz share coffee and critique in their daily breakfast discussions about their separate creative endeavors. The two playwrights met in 1990 at the Denver Center Theatre, tied the marital knot in 1996, and currently reside in both Los Angeles and Seattle. Gregory's play Fall Off Night, an edgy dark comedy set in the desolate streets of nocturnal L.A. in which a woman becomes involved in preventing a public act of violence, continues its world-premiere run at the Open Fist Theatre in Hollywood through Apr. 10.

Gregory, also a stage and television actress, won a Julie Harris Playwriting award and a South Coast Repertory honorable mention for her first play, Forcing Hyacinths, in 1994. SCR subsequently commissioned her to write Fall Off Night, but ultimately passed on the option to produce it. Gregory indicated it's not their kind of play‹too risky for their largely conservative audience. It had been relegated to her trunk in recent years, but when she and Dietz recently sent several scripts for Open Fist to consider, the group asked her to work with them in preparing it for their current season. She has also seen several of her other full-length plays and one-acts produced.

Over the past two decades, Dietz has established himself as one of America's most widely produced contemporary dramatists, as well as a frequent director. Since his 1980 debut, Dietz's 23 works have appeared in regional theatres, Off-Broadway, and in such countries as England, Japan, Argentina, Peru, and South Africa. His play God's Country was staged at the Open Fist last season, and the theatre plans to reschedule the postponed Los Angeles premiere of his The Nina Variations. Among his other works are Lonely Planet, Private Eyes, and the upcoming Force of Nature. His plays have received many honors, including an Outer Critics Circle nomination, the Kennedy Centers Fund for New American Play Awards, and the 1977 Bagley Wright Fund Award.

During recent rehearsals for Fall Off Night, the couple met with Back Stage West at Raffallo's Italian restaurant, near the theatre. While munching on pizza and salad, Dietz explained that he has no official capacity with the production, but said that he has an unofficial full-time job as Gregory's "husband/dramaturg/advisor/quasi-agent." He attended some rehearsals and exchanged ideas with Gregory, just as she provides advice to him on his ongoing works-in-progress.

Allison Gregory: Our unofficial collaboration permeates every aspect of my productions. It extends from you listening to a cut of music and suggesting something different for a scene to urging me to lose that particular line or drop that section. We solve a lot of play problems in the kitchen. Besides being my partner, you're my mentor. I'm very fortunate. There are people who would give their eye-teeth to find out your trade secrets.

Steven Dietz: I have a long history with Fall Off Night, since I've been around you since its inception. I've watched it grow and evolve and I find it continually startling. I tend to know exactly what you're going for in your plays, even when I'm totally lost on mine. It's great that when I say something to the effect that I'm five pages away from finishing a play, you seem to know on some visceral level how to deal with me.

Gregory: You've been doing this much longer than I have. It's all still sort of a mystery to me. I think it would be harder if we were at equal places in our careers. It would probably be more competitive.

Dietz: I believe you found your own playwrights' voice‹that weird phrase we use‹much earlier than I did in my writing. I grew up directing plays by August Wilson, Lee Blessing, and John Oliver. So my early attempts were to write plays like theirs. But they all turned out badly. You don't want to read my August Wilson plays. I think that your first plays were more original than mine.

Gregory: That's possibly because I started writing a lot later than you. But on the other hand, someone described my first play as a combination of Sam Shephard, Beth Henley, and Lanford Wilson‹all of whom I admire and whose plays I've been involved with in one way or another. Perhaps some of that sifted and came out in my writing. If you write in the same voice, you'll probably write the same play over and over. I would never be able or want to copy other writers exactly. But I will certainly let myself be influenced by the music of their words or the wisdom of their phrases.

Someone who saw an early version of Fall Off Night said it reminded them of the film After Hours. I said I had never seen the film. But I realized months‹maybe years‹later that I had seen it. Maybe it did influence me, but I never thought about it consciously.

Dietz: There are two major similarities that I see between my work and yours. We both have a fascination with poetic language and are fairly adamant about reclaiming poetry as a part of the theatre. One of the things that drew me to you is because I recognize in you the moments when I write a really bad sentence. I write a lot of bad sentences when I'm trying to say something very well. I also...

Gregory: [laughing] What! My writing reminds you of your bad sentences?

Dietz: No, not all. That's not what I meant. I recognize your attempts to try to reach for something, because I feel the same way. I am very envious of your language and your phrases.

The other thing we have in common is a sort of love for theatricality. You can see that in a major way in Fall Off Night‹letting the theatre do what it does best. Messing around with time and place. This inspires me to push further in my own plays.

Gregory: To that I would add that I think of my writing as BS and AS‹Before Steve and After Steve. When I first read your work, I was astonished with how you would weave words and images and make stories out of them. When I first started writing Fall Off Night, I realized that I didn't know how to write a story, and that happened to be when you waltzed into my life. I think my plays tend to be more character-driven than yours. In my early plays, I had no idea how to outline, and that's not necessarily bad. At that stage, I basically just needed to write.

Dietz: It got you going. Fall Off Night is one of the plays that you grew up with. It features the early style of your writing, which was sort of a wild theatricality that took the play where it needed to go. Over time, as you've rewritten it, the structure of the story has evolved. This play is like a blueprint of your five years of writing. I love this play. It's the quintessential L.A. play. It had to be done here. But I also think it should and will be done in small, brave theatres all over the country. Hopefully the large, brave theatres as well.

Gregory: Except at South Coast Rep, of course. But they've been very good to me. They've kept abreast of my career and ask me to send them my plays as I finish them. Although they rejected this play as unsuitable for their audiences, it was a play I knew how to write. A play I wanted to write. I'm grateful that Open Fist asked me to do it, because it gave me a chance to go back and really rethink it. And they're doing a wonderful job with it.

Dietz: They understand that's it funny.

Gregory: That's a big part of it. If there's a dark element, people often grab on to that. Like it has some greater meaning than comedy.

Dietz: It's a culture of labels. I don't care if they bill my plays as rollicking musicals if it gets audiences to come in and see the play.

The part we haven't talked about is rejection. Which is often the life of a playwright. Despite all of the good fortune I've had, I still have had the experience of missing some productions I've really wanted. We talked about that early on in your career. Your entire sense of self-esteem is held up by maybe one or two plays. The good thing for me is that over time, there are 23 plays to bolster my confidence. But even this week, we both got some very frustrating rejections on projects that we had high hopes for. People don't realize that it's harder to get a play produced than a novel published.

Gregory: No matter how busy you are, it registers when this happens. It's a real mind game. You simply have to think that you're brilliant and at the same time know that you're flawed. You have to balance those two extremes, so you don't get out of bed one day and say, "Guess what? I'm going to take up landscaping." BSW

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