How a Gay-Themed Fringe Show Has Expanded and Advanced to the Nation’s Flagship Regional Theater
A Chat with Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling about ‘Skiing on Broken Glass’
Guthrie Theater Artistic Director Joe Dowling is known for brilliant productions of classic and contemporary plays, but for the past year he has been nurturing the development of the 2010 Minnesota Fringe Festival Hit, Skiing on Broken Glass by David Goldstein. The script was already bold in its two-character, one-act Fringe form, but it promises to be even more hard-hitting in its Guthrie expansion at the theater’s Dowling Studio. Michael Booth and David Darrow play Mark and Todd. Mark is a middle-aged writer traumatized by the loss of his partner years previously. Todd is a young sex worker he falls in love with. The new version examines not only how they deal with their relationship but how the outside world sees their relationship. That’s where Guthrie actor regulars, Michele O’Neill and Bill McCallum, figure into the equation.
I spoke with Dowling the day before the rehearsal process started in early October.
JT: Tell me about how this play has been developed.
JD: I saw the play at the Fringe Festival three years ago. God, time moves fast. David Goldstein has been a friend for a long time. I saw a reading of a musical he did and was impressed. He has a distinctive voice. But I was very impressed with Skiing on Broken Glass because he was skirting, it seemed to me, with big issues: love and loss and commitment and suitability and how we view relationships. So I said to him at the time, “I think you should expand this. I don’t think you should leave it as a two-hander because a two-hander doesn’t allow you to really test the relationship against what other people might (express). You’re in a relationship, you’re not seeing the outside world.” So my suggestion to him was that he look at someone coming in who would find this relationship rather difficult. So he created the character of Edith (Michele O’Neill) who is best friend of Mark the writer. She arrives, so the whole dynamic of the play shifts at that point, from the two bruised figures that Todd and Mark are, to how does the outside world view this middle-aged man taking up with a young hooker in his early 20s. So we did a short workshop of the play around a table about a year ago now where we heeded some other major changes again after the workshop. He had in the original play a lot of monologues where characters talk to the audience. That always strikes me as being a kind of a cop-out for a writer in some ways. Let’s see how you can do in dialogue as opposed to monologue. And he went away and rewrote it and at that point I thought, “this is worth a production.” Then I decided I would direct it myself since I had shepherded it with David over the years, rather than hand it over to another director. So that’s how it all came to be.
JT: How does Edith see the relationship when she finds out?
JD: Well, she’s horrified! Because she doesn’t understand the relationship. She doesn’t understand the bruised nature of Todd’s upbringing. The way in which Mark needs to be that protector, as well as the nature of their relationship, is a mystery to Edith. But then Edith brings her fiance in. The dynamics between the four of them in the play are fascinating. David has found a way of being both provocative, because the plot twists are quite provocative. And at the same time, when we come away from it, our sympathies lie with the good guys.
JT: I’ve never been one to look down on inter-generational adult romance, whatever the sexual orientation. It’s the business only of the two people involved. Love is where you find it. But Goldstein seems to open up the prejudice so many people have about that.
JD: I think the prejudice is two-fold in this play because it’s (1) about the generation thing. Todd is in his early 20s and in a way people laugh about the idea of a boy-toy. And Mark is a 45 to 50 year old man. But you’re right, love, wherever it’s found, is love. That’s what the play’s about. But I think (the other prejudice is) the fact that Todd is a prostitute and continues to be, through the relationship. He doesn’t stop. And he says at one point, this is what I do, it’s not who I am. And I think that becomes for a lot of people, where the uncomfortable nature of the relationship is. In the early parts of the play you get the sense that Mark is quite naive about this, about that kind of world, that sort of demimonde of prostitution – to actually invite that into your home and not say ‘if you want this relationship with me and you want to live with me stop doing this and we have to start again.’ He doesn’t do that. He sees Todd for what he is and ultimately that I think is where the age thing is one factor, but (the continued prostitution aspect) that’s the much much more telling factor, that Todd sells his body for sex.
JT: Michelle O’Neill actually directed the Fringe production which contained only the two main characters and in which Edith had yet to be written. What was her reaction to playing the new role of Edith in this production?
JD: I got a lovely email from her after we asked her to do it. She was very excited because she did shepherd this play. She did bring it to me. That’s why both David and I wanted her as part of it because it feels natural . And I always love working with Michelle. She is a wonderful actress.
JT: What does David Darrow bring to the role of Todd?
JD: I have not worked with him before but I had seen David in Theater Latte Da’s Spring Awakening and Beautiful Thing and a couple of other things through the years and he is a remarkable young actor. What he brings to this, I think, is an edge and a rawness. We auditioned every young man we could. There are a lot of our young actors that are from our BFA program who I was hoping would come through and do wonderfully well. But when David Darrow walked in, both David Goldstein and I looked at each other and went, “we have our Todd,” because he has an edge and a rawness and a vulnerability. And I think that’s one of the key things to this role. This boy has to be vulnerable. You can’t get the sense that he’s simply kind of a hard ass. This is a very vulnerable, hurt human being which is what Mark sees. And what we must see, (as) the audience so that we’re not judgmental about what he does – we’re more understanding. Therefore, as the play unfolds we’re rooting for him.
JT: And Michael Booth as Mark.
JD: Michael’s done a number of things for us here (at the Guthrie). Of course, he’s done a number of things at the Jungle and various places. I like his work a lot. He read Mark for us at the workshop. Both David and I felt he really kind of understood the character and understood the parameters required. Again, we did audition a number of people and we finally decided that what Michael brought to it in the workshop was what we wanted to develop in the full production.
JT: And Bill McCallum as Edith’s fiance.
JD: What David has done is bring this completely alien figure into this world, alien because he’s British financier Edith has become engaged to. Of course, that creates its own tensions of how this outsider is going to view this? And as the plot goes on we realize it’s more complicated than that. McCallum and I have worked together a number of times.
JT: Can you say more about the conflicts within the play?
JD: I think we discover this as we go along. Even up to the last Saturday David and I are talking about rewrites, about how this is all going to unfold. So it’s very much a work in process and one of the great values of the production in the Studio is that we are taking something that yes, had a basis in that Fringe production but it’s going to be transformed by virtue of David’s work with the actors through the next couple of weeks. What I love about this play and why I want to continue to work on it is that there are two very bruised, very vulnerable people: one who lost his partner some years before in a terrible accident and has never been able to find a way of getting through that, of moving on. And has always kept the house exactly as it was. Has almost become a shut in because his solitary occupation as a writer doesn’t demand interaction in the outside world.
He then takes this step – many might criticize him or be judgmental about the step he takes – but it leads him to a place where he’s tested as a human being as well as a lover. And Todd, this bruised young man, comes from these foster homes, this very tough existence and there’s a mystery to what happened to him and his family. So here are these two kind of lonely people -both islands- they have to somehow try and bring that together. Dramatically, what David has set up is an impossible task. And I think what he’s achieved in this play is at the end of the play, you care more for the people than you did at the beginning.
Skiing on Broken Glass
Oct. 29 – Nov. 17
Guthrie Theater, Dowling Studio, 818 2nd St., Mpls.