Writing Between the Lines with Playwright William Mittler

While developing Tales from the Canyon: The Olinda Story, playwright William Mittler discovered both the limitations and opportunities of writing historic stories.  His narrative formed from oral histories collected by Cal State Fullerton and in those histories, he found interest in what wasn’t said.  As rehearsals continue for The Olinda Story, Mittler talks Brea connections, writing between the lines, and play incubation. 

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Playwright William Mittler rehearsing the 2006 production of The Olinda Story|Credit: OC Register

There’s a line spoken by the Station Master, one of our two narrators that guides the audience through the play, where he says “I’d like to think a town is made up by the spirit of its people.” Tell us a bit about your origins and connection to Brea. What’s your Olinda Story?

Brea, was out of town.  When I used to live in Fullerton in the late 80’s, I would tell my boss at Bob’s Big Boy that I couldn’t cover someone’s shifts because I was going out of town.  Then I would head to Brea and shop at Tower Records on the corner of Imperial and St. College.   Or head over to Brea Mall to go to the bookshop.  I never really went downtown until about a year before they revitalized it, there was a famous bar there where they would give you a beer in a to go cup and if you tried to talk about your problems the bartender would go, “I know I know…”  This was before social media when the only person that would talk to you was a bartender.  But since I didn’t drink, the real reason I was in old town was there was a record store I had heard about, and I found a comic book store that had ten cent comics pretty cheap.  In those far off long ago days people went places and bought things.  If you got off after work you would head to Tower.  And driving in to Hollywood to browse records till one in the morning was not unusual.  

I also worked in the early 90’s at the Crocodile Café, I was working 3 jobs at that time trying to put myself through school, but really just buying records and VHS tapes.  At the Café, I was a waiter and the weekend bookkeeper.  My last year there I was named employee of the year by the company at Christmas and fired before June.  It happened this way,  they still had non-smoking sections in restaurants then, a party wanted to smoke, and I told them no, a certain city official who I won’t name (not that I knew who they were at the time) was waiting for a table and insisted I accommodate them, and raised Hell.  As fate would have it he then sat in my section, and because he was so rude I gave him horrible service.  I came back for my second shift that night and was told exactly who he was and was fired on the spot as he had called up corporate headquarters on a landline phone. (These were phones that were connected to the walls by wires)  Today he would have Twittered on the Twitter that I was sad like a good honest politician.  It was much harder in those days to be a jerk.  It was sad, my boss was crying as she sacked me.

Walk us through the process of building a show like this. What fueled your desire to tell this story and how has the play developed since its first production in 2006? How long did it take you to write? What challenges did you face during that process?

This show was commissioned through a grant secured by Kathie DeRobbio through the California Stories Project and a collaboration with the oral history department at Cal State Fullerton.  Stephanie George was the Historian and provided me with the details as well as fact checking my script.  One of Stephanie’s brilliant contributions to the play was the end of act 2, there was a long speech by the Old Man of The hills here, but she said it wasn’t needed.  I recall that it was some wonderful writing, so I was hesitant about changing it, but instead of cutting it I thought, what if he couldn’t finish it?  I then instructed Spider Madison, the original Old Man of The Hills, to start the speech, but whenever he felt he couldn’t continue because of the emotions of the moment to stop.  It varied every night.

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The cast of Tales from the Canyon: The Olinda Story, 2017

 

The main changes to this production are minor; some lines were cut, some humor added.  Some sections cleaned up. The problem was since I was directing the original version, I never had a final script.  As a director when directing my own work, I assume the playwright was a fool and solve problems as a director.  But being both the playwright makes changes as well.  The end result was the original project kept shaping and changing, but was never written down.  To get some of that material I had to watch the original video (on sale at the Olinda Museum) and transcribe it.  To be honest, I couldn’t do a major rewrite. This play has gone through a major change however.  I spent about 6 months writing a very factual play.  A draft that no longer even exists.  The more I read, the more I learned, the more I hated writing the play.  The worst books were the historical texts that had been put out over the years, which constrained the play.  And then while poring over the oral history transcripts I began to see a pattern, not in what was talked about, but in what wasn’t talked about.  And by layering the histories on top of one another, all the lines that may have been read in between were filling in.  Suddenly there was a story in the “better left unsaid” and the “well everybody knew.”  There were a couple of very blunt histories, and I realized these people were not filtering (or filtering other things but not the darkness). Characters began to form, and the hard life that no one wanted to talk about became more than work and land but abuse and social norms.  So the play formed.  The old play vanished and in about 3 months I had a play, most of which was written in two weeks.  Unusual for me, as I tend to write my drafts in three days of intense writing after six months or so of incubation (some plays incubate for years; some are abandoned after 100 pages).

The rewrite process for this production was the rehearsals.   Things changed. Were added (now lost) or cut (for time and flow).  Music became important.  For the cast used to a structured environment it was trying, I am sure, but my structure and style changes with each project, and here I was trying to find the town.   Act two became a whirlwind of events that suddenly ends, much like the town itself.  I’m not sure if this was the right approach, as there was a lot that could have been said.  A lot of stories unfinished and characters that drifted out of the play.  Much like any town.  

What themes or questions from the play do you hope resonate with the audience?

The play was written to reflect the concerns in the present day that could be dramatized through the past.  Everything was subtle, except when it wasn’t.   I made sure, as the director, to keep it that way.  I am more likely to encode scripts than come out and state my viewpoint.  But that was 2006, I am no longer that playwright.  My concerns these days have little room for being subtle.   The harshness of our current political reality has hampered my writing to the point of inertia.  For one who likes to write between the lines, it is hard when all one wants to do is scream at the top of their lungs.  And everything else seems trivial when compared to the horror of what is or may be to come.  Dying embers of the past rekindled for a virtual reality that is no more real than the concept of innocent days past and exploited for our entertainment anyways.  I cannot write this play today.

Why do you think theatre is important?

I don’t know if theatre is important.  I don’t think it has to be. Theatre is not a training ground for Hollywood or Broadway but an experience that is shared at a moment in time. A collaboration of trust between many people including strangers who come to see it.  For me it is the medium I work in.  I don’t over think it.   

When you write a play, where do you get your ideas?

Ideas are easy, plays are hard.  I have reached a point where I have said everything I have had to say, now I only say what I want to say as a writer.  If I never write another word I am content that I created many worlds so far.  My best play is still always my next play, and hopefully that never changes.

Early in the play the Old Man of the Hills says to the Station Master, “Just tell the truth the way it is.” As an author what responsibility do you feel you have when telling this story?

Truth.  Truth is when telling most stories I tend to take on the Russian symbolic attitude, it is not what it is that is important, but what you remember it to be.  I never allow myself to be a slave to research.  But I also try not to be a slave to the past.  A lot of my plays are historical (Punk rock 70’s, turn of the century, 1940’s, 1930’s, 1800’s) but they are not being performed in the past, but today.  With language I try and flavor the scripts, but I always keep in mind that I am writing for today’s audience. I was much more conscious on this project of what I didn’t write.  I didn’t write a cotton candy celebration, nor did I wish to cause anyone still alive any embarrassment.   Names were changed, characters created, situations invented, but always to be found between the lines or layering other research into the play.  I wanted to leave the audience with the idea that everywhere is interesting, not because of names and dates and what actually happened, but that it happened to people and how history is not dead but was of the moment and that these moment affected people and that how they acted affected others. 

Personally, what is your biggest take-away from this story?

Most of all I wanted to capture the spirit of the idea that it is all right.  That we go on living and our present becomes the past.  If anything I want to leave the audience with a conversation.  About how things were.  About how things are.  About the next 100 years being ours.  And it will be okay.  Maybe I could have written this play today, after all.

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Tales from the Canyon: The Olinda Story performs Nov 3-12, 2017. Fridays & Saturdays at 8PM, Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are on sale now. Visit our website or call the Box Office at 714-990-7722 Tues-Fri 12PM-3PM. Have questions? Contact us! 

 

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