Creating an Imaginative Real Estate: Playwright Noah Haidle
Noah Haidle’s latest play, Smokefall, examines life’s big questions through the prism of an ordinary Midwestern family. Inspired in equal parts by Thornton Wilder’s simple evocative humanity, Samuel Beckett’s bleak poetry and Haidle’s own wild theatrical imagination, it begins on an average morning as the family is getting ready for their day, and then telescopes in—and out—to look at both the minutia of daily life and the broader implications of choices made for the individual, the family and the community. In a recent conversation with Tanya Palmer, the Goodman’s director of new play development, Haidle spoke about the genesis of the play and where it fits into the trajectory of his own burgeoning career as a playwright and screenwriter.
Tanya Palmer: Can you talk a little bit about the origin and evolution of Smokefall?
Noah Haidle: Smokefall is an incredibly personal play and while I don’t feel comfortable having people understand the exact life circumstances, my circumstances, that inspired me to write a play about the meaning of existence, I can talk about it as a piece of writing. It’s been around a long time. Act One and parts of Act Two were part of a much larger project that the Goodman was very supportive of, a project called Local Time, which consisted of 12 two hour, real-time plays that took place over 24 hours in a Midwestern town. Each play was named for the time it took place, like 11am to 1pm or 5 to 7pm. The first act of Smokefall came from a part of one of those plays: 7 to 9am. The Goodman did a reading of that play five years ago. It’s not exactly the same as that earlier play, but it has similar characters and situations.
My life has changed so much over those five years. Working on this play has been one of the only continuous activities during that time. In a lot of my work before now I’ve been hiding. Smokefall is less subterfuge. It’s set in a house in Grand Rapids. It’s a life. It’s a mom. It’s a daughter. It’s a son. It’s a family play set in my hometown. And there are very literal things, facts, names that only I really know about, but the people who lived it will know as well. But, would you recognize my life? Probably not. Will I and others understand the emotional life that went into the thing? Absolutely.
TP: As you said, the play is set in Grand Rapids, and it’s about a Midwestern family. Over the last several years you have lived on both coasts— and now you’re back in Michigan, where you grew up. Obviously the setting is personal to you, but was there something particular about the Midwest or Midwestern characters that you were interested in exploring or capturing in this play?
NH: I don’t think so, beyond the fact that I grew up in Midwestern culture and therefore am a Midwestern person. But then again I don’t think I could see the remarkableness or strangeness or unusualness of a Midwestern story. The writer Allan Seager, in his biography The Glass House about Theodore Roethke, a poet from Saginaw, Michigan, who’s one of my favorites, said, “There is no grass as green as the grass in your backyard.” I think of Grand Rapids not as a particularly literal place anymore. I mean, the stuff that happens in this play, and other plays that I set in Grand Rapids, ain’t possible, you know? They’re beyond the limits of reality. So Grand Rapids for me is like the landscape of my imagination. When William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County, he drew a map of it and in the bottom right corner he wrote, “William Faulkner is sole proprietor.” And so, Grand Rapids, in a way, is that thing for me. It’s not a literal place anymore. It’s a mythological place in the way that all pasts, all origins, take on a mythology.
I think of it as creating an imaginative real estate, that I own and that I understand the rules of. In my mind it’s not represented on this earth and it’s not in Grand Rapids. It’s not anywhere. But it is a space. I feel like there is an architecture to narrative. And much like when you feel safe and cared for in a building that’s well designed, you can feel the same kind of safety and comfort inside of a narrative. Narrative creates space, and specifically a play is performed in time. And you are inside that structure of time, and so when you’re in a well-structured, well-designed narrative, you are in a space. That’s what I want to create: an imaginative real-estate that exists in time as people come to it.
TP: You’ve been writing plays for several years now. How would you characterize this play in terms of how it fits into your body of work? Do you feel as if it’s similar to your previous plays, or has your work changed over the years? Is it a departure from your perspective?
NH: I think, I hope, that the emotional world I explore in this play—as opposed to some of my earlier plays—the despair and the hope and the joy are earned and are not just a young man’s supposition, not just thought experiments to a degree. It feels like a totally new way of writing. It feels rawer to me. I feel more exposed and scared. More is on the line. More is at risk. What it means to me, and how much it means to me. So, hopefully in turn it will mean a different thing to the audience.