by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
Todd's musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, an original story that interweaves the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, is aimed for Broadway in 2014. His stage adaptation of the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner premiered at True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta and begins preview performances here at Arena Stage on Friday.
I spoke with Todd on a rare day off from directing August Wilson’s one-man show How I Learned What I Learned, which just opened at off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre. A longtime collaborator with August Wilson, Todd originally directed and co-conceived the show with August Wilson performing at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2003. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
How did you get started as a playwright?
That question’s hard to answer. I’ve done everything on some level. I stretched flats, I was a Master Electrician (until I got electrocuted), I worked in a box office, directed, did sound design, stage managed, everything, but writing has always been a constant in my life.
I had some early success writing plays when I was young in Pittsburgh and that scared me. I turned my focus to directing and by the time I started working with August Wilson and became his dramaturg I was directing a lot – I was a director who really wanted to be a writer, but was scared. Not that directing isn’t incredibly difficult and rewarding but what I really wanted to do was write. Around November of 2000, August said “If you’re gonna write, man, be a writer. Don’t stand out there hesitating. Man, you gotta stand up and claim it.” Which is what I did.
What attracted you to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Why adapt this story today?
First of all, it’s a cultural touchstone. Whatever your feelings about the piece are, whatever community you’re from, it literally brought the issue of race into the home, both in the storytelling and thematically.
Approaching it today I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about and engage in the attitudes of 1967, but in a way that was for the 21st Century. These attitudes and ideas are still very much alive. People have tried to make linguistic adjustments so racism today has become more covert. The systemic racism and the endemic attitudes are cloaked, but they’re still very much alive. Just look at the disproportionate amount of blacks living in poverty or the criminalization of young black men. That’s not an opinion about society. Those are verifiable facts. You’re on one of two sides. You either say that young black men are somehow more criminally bent, that it’s built into them to be more violent or more criminal, or you believe – as I do – that this is our American legacy from slavery that we are still struggling to redress.
The writing challenge was also exciting to me. From Holler If Ya Hear Me to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, I’m writing character-driven American stories. I get to deal with a defining aspect of American life, which is race relations in America. There’s something about the access to characters on stage that’s particularly of interest to me. It’s something that you can’t get in film and television. I find theater very supple for the exploration of character and the layered aspects of our lives – attitudes towards love, attitudes towards sex, towards food. There’s a way to evolve those things and really try to cover the individual humanities of the characters, and to make what I think is an argument and transformation about attitudes towards race.
How did you go about adapting the screenplay of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for the stage?
It wasn’t just taking a screenplay to a play. It was taking an iconic screenplay to a play. So there was always a spirit of preserving the iconic moments of the film, and then connecting them with a story that is familiar. The single setting and the compression of time made it ready-made for the stage. The challenge was going from iconic moment to iconic moment.
The question for me has always been how do we keep it set in 1967 but not of 1967. When I first took the project I saw the film, but once I started writing the first draft, I didn’t look back. I asked myself about the characters and the period and where they come from, looking for things that echo the central issue of race, but I also explored other aspects of their humanity. There is a love story at the heart of this play. And there is a happy family at the heart of this, which is not your normal exciting grist for a play, so it’s been fun to disrupt but also maintain that.
What’s your approach as a playwright?
It takes a lot of different forms but I’m always doing it. I may work on one detail or one aspect of a story and then abandon it for a while and work on another piece, and then come back to it. My mother and grandmother are quilters and the approach is similar. I do that square and then I do this other square.
I’m always looking for projects to tell me how they should be written. So when I work on those squares and start to lay them out, they start to arrange themselves. At some point the relationship goes from assembly to response. There’s a point in the process when I become audience to the work itself. I become responsive to the material, and that’s when it gets exciting. I love when it’s speaking back to me – I’m arguing with it, I’m fighting for it – and it begins to tell me what it wants to do.
At the end of the day I still love this profession. We are privileged. I can’t think of a profession that brings so many different kinds of talents all to the same table, from your master electrician to the stage manager to a costume designer. Writer, director, actors – those are the people everyone thinks about, but you put all the sensibilities that go into ultimately realizing the physical production and it’s stunning. You get to work with such a diverse group of people in a very intimate, concentrated way.
When I write for the theater I try to put my arms around all the people at the table. My job is to make material that is bigger than all of us. That’s exciting. I don’t know what artist with a capital ‘A’ means, but I know that we’re all artists at the table, we’re all craftspeople.
The phrase ‘guess who’s coming to dinner’ has become part of the American vernacular. What does the saying mean to you?
It’s exciting. There’s a surprise coming. It’ll either be an old friend or an acquaintance or someone exciting – but it’ll be an interesting dinner.
(Photo: Todd Kreidler at first rehearsal, How I Learned What I Learned, off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre, 2013.
Photo by Gregory Costanzo.)