2008-12-04 / Arts & Entertainment News

A.R. Gurney's 'Indian Blood' goes back to his Buffalo boyhood

See the southeastern premiere at Florida Rep
BY NANCY STETSON nstetson@floridaweekly.com

Life is a never-ending series of transitions.

But the ones that occur during our teens can be particularly seismic, says playwright A.R. Gurney.

"We all have, all through our lives, crossroads and transitions," he says. "But the ones you have when you're an adolescent I think are different, because you're discovering a lot of new things about yourself, your possibilities. And you're very much aware of the limitations of your parents; they become less like gods and more like people. All these things occur when you're that age."

That's what Mr. Gurney set out to

write about in "Indian Blood." The play had its southeastern premiere on Nov. 28 at Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers and runs there through Dec. 21. Though the action takes place during Christmastime, "Indian Blood" is not your conventional holiday play.

It tells the story of Eddie, a 16-year-old growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. He's suspended from school three weeks before Christmas for making a drawing in Latin class of Glinda the Good Witch (from "The Wizard of Oz") and Injun Joe (from "Tom Sawyer").

Both are naked and about to have sex.

Eddie really isn't a naughty kid, Mr. Gurney says. He's just a typical teen of the 1940s with a healthy curiosity. "He's beginning to date girls, or thinking about them, or thinking about dating them," he says. "And when that happens, you want to stretch and push against the boundaries your family has created for you. That's what he's doing."

Eddie blames his behavior on his Indian blood (his grandfather has told him he's part Seneca Indian). It's Eddie's way of saying, "The devil made me do it," but it's also his way

.. if you go
>>What "Indian Blood"
>>When: through Dec. 21
>>Where: The Florida Repertory Theatre,
2267 Bay St. in the historic Arcade Theatre
on Bay Street between Jackson and Hendry,
downtown Fort Myers
>>Cost: $38, $34, $20
>>Information: Call (239) 332-4488 or go to

of discovering the wildness inside him and defining his identity.

Mr. Gurney was enamored with Native Americans while growing up. He owned a copy of Longfellow's "Hiawatha," illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. "I just loved looking at those illustrations," he says. "For Christmas, I'd ask for all these Indian books, and I put on plays in our cellar that had Indians in them." When he was 8, he wrote a play called "The Beads of Wampum."

"I kept hoping that maybe we had Indian blood in our family, which would explain my love of Indians and give me special clout," he says.

In "Indian Blood," the playwright adds, "All that stuff came out. That's why Eddie feels the way he does."

One of America's most produced playwrights, Mr. Gurney has penned award-winning works including "Love Letters," "The Cocktail Hour," "The Dining Room," "Sylvia," "The Fourth Wall" and "The Middle Ages." He's the recipient of the Drama Desk Award (for Most Promising Playwright in 1971 for "Scenes from American Life"), a Rockefeller Award, two Lucille Lortel Awards, and has been nominated twice for a Pulitzer Prize for drama ("Love Letters" and "The Dining Room.") He's a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Mr. Gurney has said that "Indian Blood" is his most autobiographical work, and that the idea for the play bounced around in his head for about 10 years.

"When I became a grandparent, which was more than 10 years ago," he says, "I started thinking about my own grandparents and my relationships with them."

So he wrote a novel. One section dealt with one grandmother, and one with the other. When no one would publish it, Mr. Gurney took the novel, split it in half and wrote two plays: "Ancestral Voices" and "Indian Blood." In both cases, the main character is a kid named Eddie, and the parents are "sort of the same," he says. "But the grandparents are very different."

Mr. Gurney has a reputation for pushing the envelope. In "Sylvia," the main character is a dog. "Love Letters" is the reading of a lifetime of correspondence between a man and a woman. In "The Dining Room," overlapping scenes take place on the stage simultaneously, requiring six actors to portray 57 characters of varying ages over the course of the show. In "Sweet Sue," he uses two lead actors to tell the same story twice.

In "Indian Blood," he challenges both actors and audiences by specifying no sets and a minimal amount of props — only a piece of paper and chairs. The play has been called a love letter to theater itself.

"It was a pleasure to write, and a pleasure to figure out how to stage it, to go from place to place and not have a huge cast," he says. "So we have actors doubling roles, we refer to characters who never appear on stage, and we don't really change the scenery very much."

"Indian Blood" copies Thornton Wilder in that regard, he says. "You move from place to place and ask the audience to imagine the scenery around you."

Eddie also mentions Mr. Wilder's "Our Town" in the middle of the play. Speaking directly to the audience, he says: "I go… to plays sometimes with my grandmother. Once she took me to a play at the Erlanger theatre where you could see snow coming down outside a window of a log cabin. It looked really neat. I told my English teacher about it and he said they had a play in New York called 'Our Town' which had hardly any scenery at all. The movies are the place to show snow, he said, and plays should require us to use our imaginations. Well, in Buffalo, we usually have a major snowstorm around Christmastime, so because this is a play, you'll just have to imagine what it was like."

Sounding just like his lead character, Mr. Gurney says, "When I was a kid growing up in Buffalo, I loved to go to the movies as well as the theater. I seemed to recognize at an early age that the movies and theater were very different, and did very different things.

"The imaginative aspects of the theater have always excited me: How much can you say with language and gesture and situation? Which doesn't mean that I don't love the movies too. So yes, I'm trying to play with, and exploit, the very limitations of the theater, and push against them as I'm using them."

He concentrates on telling a story, not on flash and special effects. "I try to avoid calling on machinery and scenery and special effects to make a point," he says. Although he likes the simplicity of theater, he understands that doesn't mean it's the only way to do it. "I'm a big fan of… Ibsen, who has very realistic scenery and very realistic, contained dramas," he says.

Mr. Gurney acknowledges that writing can be a very lonely profession. But when he gets to the production phase, he says, it's not lonely at all. "I enjoy the whole communal aspect of the thing."

He tries to associate himself closely with the first production of his plays. But once the show is done, once he's worked through the problems of the play with the director and actors, it has to survive on its own, he says.

"People have called up and said, 'You've got to come see this production,' and I normally say no, because it will be different from what I originally did," he says. "And it could be better, for all I know. It might be better.

"Occasionally I do (see a production), but I don't know, I'd almost rather start on another play.

"When you've written a play, you can't follow it around forever and say, 'Don't do this, do that.' You can't. You have to let the baby go."

Mr. Gurney rarely revises a play after it's produced. "Some people go back to their play after a number of years, but normally your head's in a different place," he says. "Your creative consciousness is different. It's very dangerous to go back and try to fix a play."

But there are always exceptions. For example, he recently revised "Buffalo Gal," which he wrote five years ago. "It never quite landed the way I wanted it to," he says. "So I wrote some other plays, then I picked it up again and showed it to Primary Stages, where we actually did 'Indian Blood' first. I said, 'Does this interest you? I think we can do more here.'"

So he rewrote the play, and a new production was put on this past summer. "I think we got it right this time, but that's a rare experience in the theater," he says. "Every play has its own trajectory. Some you write… and they're golden. Some you work on for two years, and they open and they're killed immediately by the critics.

"You don't know… You do your best, and you hope for the best."

Mr. Gurney, 78, still follows a writing routine; most mornings he can be found at his desk at 8:30. "Some days are fruitful and I write something, and some days are not so fruitful," he says. "And that's how it starts. I write a rough draft, and I fuss around with it, throw it out, or begin again, or take an element of it and develop it. That's sort of generally how I work."

Every play has its own trajectory and own unique impetus.

"The Dining Room," for example, was inspired by the energy crisis of the '70s.

"We were living in a big, drafty old house," he reveals. "So we sealed off our dining room and turned off our radiators, and ate all the time in the kitchen. And I began to think about what good is a dining room? What happens in a dining room? Why did they have dining rooms? What did I do in my own dining rooms when I was growing up?"

About "Sylvia," whose central character is a canine, he says, I brought a dog home one time and my wife said, 'We're really too old. We don't need this dog. I want you to take the dog back.' And I remember feeling this tremendous ache about that. I didn't; I persuaded her that we should keep it. And I thought, 'Gee, why am I feeling these strong feelings about a dog?' I ended up writing a play that came out of these feelings.

"So 'The Dining Room' is about the feelings I had over the loss of a dining room, and in 'Sylvia' it was about the feelings I had when I might have lost this dog. So in the end, maybe, writing has to come out of strong feelings."

And he's learned, over the years, that much of playwriting involves cutting.

"That comes from the collaborative experience when you discover an actor can do an awful lot with one word… and it doesn't need your adjectives, it doesn't need your stage direction," he says. "You learn to trust the medium more as you get older and you try to boil things down to the bare minimum."

He's also found that contemporary audiences, unfortunately, have short attention spans and want shows to move along quickly. "Maybe the movies have done that to us, I don't know. Maybe it's just the nature of contemporary life."

Mr. Gurney is working on getting his next play, "A Light Lunch," up on its feet at the Flea Theater in New York City. (A world premiere, the play begins previews Dec. 12.) But he's happy Florida Rep is putting on "Indian Blood."

"I wish them well with the production," he says. "It's a good time to do it, as we move into the Christmas season."

And despite his general hesitation to see later productions of his plays, he'd love to make an exception in this case.

"I wish I could come down and see it there," he says, "because I've heard such good things about that theater. I'm delighted they're doing it."

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