Interview: Adam Bock on ‘A Small Fire’

The playwright talks about work and play and brushing up for opening night

This weekend Portland Center Stage opens the contemporary play A Small Fire, wherein main character Emily Bridges, a tough-but-fair construction boss, faces sudden debilitation and must accept care from her taciturn husband and her resentful daughter. The rest of the show becomes an intimate exploration of infirmity, identity, and the senses.

In the preview phase, PCS ushered the show’s playwright, Adam Bock, into town from New York to surprise the cast and offer final notes. ArtsWatch sat down with Bock at the Armory to get a feel for his style and hear his take on the show’s big themes. As a bonus, Bock also shared his thoughts on director Rose Riordan, his personal experience that inspired the play, and exclusive news about PCS’s 2014-15 season. Welcome to our conversation.

Adam Bock headshot 960x742

The three plays I read in preparation to talk with you—The Receptionist, The Thugs, and of course the one we’re talking about, A Small Fire—all start in the workplace. Is that a preference for you, and if so, what’s the reason for it?

I think it is, sure. I avoid family stories because…then you’re stuck with a sofa, you know what I mean? It can be hard to make the world of the story bigger than the home. If you start there, it can get stuck in that place.

It seems odd to me that a lot of plays DON’T feature the workplace, considering the impact of work on our lives. I guess I can go ahead and say PCS is planning to do another of my plays, The Typographer’s Dream, next year, and in it I decided to say that the psychology of your job becomes your psyche. So the characters in the story are a typographer, a stenographer, and a geographer, and their issues correspond with their jobs. The typographer is caught between art and business; the stenographer can listen but can’t tell his own story; and the geographer has terrible boundaries, because she’s so aware that the lines are constantly shifting.

The workplace shows what roles we find ourselves in, and what happens when they break or change. Also, how we react if we suddenly find ourselves mismatched to our roles.

I think what you end up doing for work says a lot about you. We each decide which system we drop into. For myself, I know I live as a playwright in the world. I’m always trying to figure out who my friends are as characters. And I’m a freelancer, always changing projects, which shapes how I interact. It’s like, how deep can I get with people in only 4-5 months? Working several times with Rose is actually breaking that pattern and challenging me in a good way. I’m being forced into intimacy, forced into collaboration. My job is reflecting my life, but also creating it.

Peggy J. Scott as Emily Bridges and Isaac Lamb as Billy Fontaine. Image by Patrick Weishample.

Peggy J. Scott as Emily Bridges and Isaac Lamb as Billy Fontaine. Image by Patrick Weishample.

What do you want from your audience?

I studied with Paula Vogel, who wrote How I Learned to Drive, and she said that everyone in the audience has their own play. It’s unlike a movie that way; we can’t control where people are looking or what they focus their attention on…

I think I’d like to scare people a bit, to make ’em nervous. Personally, I’m claustrophobic and my hugest fear is being buried alive. So if I put myself in [main character] Emily’s shoes, I could be really scared, losing a sense of where I was, not knowing which way to turn. I want the audience to empathize with that.

Also, I think this play has a little bit of that “carpe diem” quality. My father had a stroke, and overnight he went from riding his bike and being very strong, to being unable to move. It was a shock to our family to see someone whose body has just…betrayed them. I’m very aware of how it impacted my family; we had a real sense of helplessness, and everything shifted. There was a recognition that we just had to drop everything and change. I was amazed that we were still able to find moments of joy, and also by how many people helped. It’s so easy to walk through the world thinking that when people act badly, they’re just being rude. But after something like this, you realize you have no idea what other people are going through. After that, the world doesn’t seem so threatening anymore. It becomes kinder and gentler.

Near the end of the play, there’s this beautiful soliloquy about sensory memories from someone who has essentially become a ghost. Do I sense an echo of Our Town in that? “The smell of Mrs. Gibbs’ heliotrope?”

Actually that’s possible, because a great friend of mine, Jason Butler Harner, was doing the Cromer version [of Our Town] in New York around the time I was writing this. He gave me a realization about how I could show the wedding in Small Fire, just by having John describe it. There’s moment in Our Town when the narrator simply tells the audience there’s a tree, and gestures at where it’s supposed to be, and even though it’s not there, we all see it. So I realized, I don’t necessarily have to show a wedding; describing it may be enough.

So there won’t be a staged representation of a wedding reception?

I don’t know! I haven’t seen the play yet! I guess Rose [Riordan, the director] will surprise me. Rose is a real director; she understands that theater is about surprise, peek-a-boo. My visit will be a surprise for the actors, actually! They don’t even know I’m coming.

So you don’t have preconceptions about how it will be?

I understand how it’s supposed to sound, not necessarily how it’s supposed to look. Rose has done three of my plays, and we attended JAW/WEST together. I love what she comes up with. I don’t tell her what to do—it’s more interesting to see her version. Hopefully she’ll surprise me; she always does. As the playwright, I like to leave some things open so technical decisions can be made by lighting experts, sound experts. In one show, I had just written down, “The day passes,” but I didn’t know how we were going to show that. Rose came back and said, “We’re gonna do it with [time-lapse] clouds passing over.” It was her idea, and it worked great.

You often leave your lines un-punctuated on the page, and full of interrupted segments of thoughts. Why do you do that?

That’s how we speak! At least I do. Sometimes if I’m really concentrating, I can get a full sentence out, but most of the time, it’s broken. I want to let an actor ride the lines rather than thinking they already know how it should be. If it doesn’t look normal on the page, they can’t make assumptions; instead, they’ll do the first idea that comes to them. Also, when people are upset, their language falls apart. Either that, or it goes the other way and gets especially crisp and complete… I don’t want to lay everything out. I want to leave enough room to let actors do their job.

What’s the symbolism of the carrier pigeon in this story?

I wanted a character to have a surprising hobby, something you wouldn’t expect. Again, it’s that “we think we know people” idea. You wouldn’t think a construction foreman would spend his free time with birds…Interviews are tough. You’re giving away my surprises!

[Writer’s Note: Fair enough…but that particular hobby also resonates poetically. It literally entails loving something, letting it go, and waiting for it to return. Coy dodge, Mr. Bock, but I sense more to it.]

Then again…I’m not sure how much audiences actually love being surprised or unnerved. When I was growing up my dad hated surprises in shows, whereas my mom loved it. I guess in my plays I compromise between those extremes. A little for each. This play has both a happy and a sad ending—so they’d both be satisfied.

Back to your dad…and to John (Emily’s husband) in the play. Which is harder, being the afflicted person or the caretaker?

Oh, wow. I don’t know how to answer that. They’re both hard. When you’re taking care of someone, you have to pretend you’re okay in an attempt not to worry them. But when you’re the afflicted person, you try to downplay your problems, too, because you feel guilty that the person you love is afraid for you. And then, how do you find a way to remain “yourself” when you’re no longer capable of the things you used to do that defined who you were? Or who you knew yourself to be?

I’d say it’s probably harder to watch someone be in pain. But that’s kinda me; I get sad when I hurt people. One time a psychic told me I had to learn to be okay with three things: hurting myself, others hurting me, and hurting others. I was two for three. Hurting others (or watching them hurt) is the hardest for me. Do you guys go in for psychics in Portland? I did when I was in San Francisco. It seems like it’s less of a thing that people do in New York…

2/25: I want to get your reaction to PCS’s A Small Fire, but you haven’t seen it yet. But this way, I can ask you something I couldn’t ask afterward: What do you hope for from this show, and what do you worry about?

I hope they allow Emily [played by Peggy J. Scott] to be as strong as I think she is. There’s been a tendency in actresses who’ve read the role to crumble quickly. I don’t want her to do that until the end.

I want the audience to understand that the daughter, Jenny [played by Hollye Gilbert], is human, not a saint. She needs to be allowed to have a really hard time with her mom.

I hope we see John [played by Tom Bloom] grow.

I hope the language is not too precious.

I hope there’s life in it. I’m sure there will be; I trust Rose.

2/26: How’d it go?

I was psyched about it last night! The things we talked about happened, so it’s like, “Phew!” It turns out I still like the play, which means they did a really great job. The story is still able to affect me, to make me upset even though it’s my play and I kinda know what’s coming. The people around us in the audience were reacting to the events, too, like, “Oh, no!” It’s all about whether we’re awake, right?

They have a strong Emily, and it’s interesting…Peggy is small; she’s not tall, and she’s the boss of a much larger guy (Isaac Lamb as Billy Fontaine). To watch her have to have authority and not use traditionally female wiles to get what she wanted, but actually have to stand up to someone, that was good. To watch her struggle with what I’ve given her, it works.

Rose reminds me of the main character Emily, ’cause she’s tough and she doesn’t shy away from that. She’s so soft, but she’s unsentimental too. I love that mixture. I’m psyched because I like Portland, her, and PCS a lot. The people here are sternly determined, maybe steely? I like that. They care about the work. They did a beautiful job. Of course I’ll work with Rose during the previews and see if we can get it even deeper in some places. There are certain spots that if we pushed back harder, would make it sing even more.  I’ve been working with her for a long time and we’re right on track, and whenever I mention things we need to amp up she’s like, “Yeah, I have that note too.”

Any big surprises?

Mostly the choices Rose made in order to keep our senses present. The lighting is gorgeous. Again, I don’t want to give too much away…but they use light and sound in a great way, a very subtle way. Rose doesn’t grab for the first choice, she pushes through to the the second. And the acting was great. you see such amazing acting in New York, you’re like, ‘could it be good in another place? I dunno.” I get nervous beforehand. It’s hard to be a playwright. I send work off, and then when I go and see it, I have to remember that for the people who are making it, it’s their play now. It’s mine, but it’s theirs. I’m finding out: what do they care about it? And I hope it’s close to what I cared about. I wonder whether my voice will get through, how they’ll use my voice. Am I gonna be alone, or will I be joined by them, will we speak together. I’m like, “What if I don’t like it?”—but I did.

I wish I had more to tell you. I’m just psyched to go in today.



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