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|A CurtainUp Interview
Joan Vail Thorne-- Playwright, Director, Opera Librettist
CU-ES: To start, let's fill in some of the blanks in your background. That trace of the South in
your voice -- is that part of growing up in Mississippi or Louisiana like The Exact Center of
Editor's Note: I met with Joan Vail Thorne at the little restaurant overlooking the Manhattan Plaza Health
Club's swimming pool on West Forty-Third Street. Having recently seen the Women's Project
production of her new play The Exact Center of the Universe I was immediately
struck by the strong resemblance between the playwright and her play's star, Frances Sternhagen.
The two women, who could easily play older versions of the twin sisters portrayed in Exact
Center by Ms. Thorne's s daughter (Tracy Vail) have been friends since graduate school.
Clearly, having "Franny" to interpret Vada Love Powell, is one of the many joys this
production is bringing to its author. I found her to be warm and interesting, self assured but
with a refreshing lack of self-importance. My visit with her in this Manhattan version of
the tree house where Exact Center's Vada and her friends visited over Canasta left me eager for another visit this summer when I'll be seeing her work as an opera
The letters JVT in the interview that follows
precede Ms. Thorne's comments. The letters ES-CU precede questions by me for
CurtainUp. For a review of The Exact Center of the Universe
which preceded this interview go here --e.s.
JVT: Yes -- and I purposely didn't name a specific town -- I grew up in Hammond,
Louisiana close to Baton Rouge and the Texas border. It was an interesting place in which to
CU-ES: Were you interested in the theater even then?
JVT: I never went to the theater until
I got to college (Sweet Briar, Va). Even our movie going -- what we called going to the picture show--
was limited to what was considered proper, like Shirley Temple and Judy Garland and Jane
CU-ES: One of the charms of Exact Center is its authenticity, especially the clothes. The
exhibit in the lobby, which I only had a chance to look at briefly, seemed to indicate that some of
these were inspired by your own family treasures.
JVT: I've given most of what I had to
the theater so when the costume designer asked me for information I just went through family
albums and pulled a lot of pictures.
CU-ES: What about the characters, are they people from your own family circle?
JVT: They're all mixed up. Vada is the only one based on one specific person. I never knew anyone in my life who was so certain of her rectitude as that woman -- .and she had a son
an only son whom she adored so I began to wonder what she was really like.
CU-ES: Growing up where you did and without much exposure to theater, how did it happen
that you ended up in it?
JVT: Even though I didn't have much exposure to theater and reading also wasn't a big
thing there was something in me that was drawn to make-believe.
CU-ES: Since you move in so many different areas -- writing and direction, stage and opera
and even some film work -- is your career a mix, like those characters in the play, or is there a single driving interest or
JVT: Directing. It's been directing ever since I got to graduate school. I adore acting --
but I just did the obligatory bit. Very early on I worked with men like Alan Schneider the
illustrious director who did practically all of Beckett, Virginia Woolf and Pinter. I didn't really
turn to writing until I had my children. I simply couldn't figure out how to find an affordable
Nanny better than myself. So I chose not to continue my career at the same time they were
CU-ES: What's been the evolution of the play?
JVT: The first scene was a one-act play I wrote a good ten years ago. That scene makes a
satisfying short play about a younger and older woman. But then I thought that's too enticing, I'd
like to go on with that . Then I wrote what could have been a separate play called The Tree
House Gang. So, yes, it's had a long history in different guises. The most recent script is the
one you saw and I thank Mr. Tillinger very much for his direction. He knows how to look at a
script and keep pushing it to make it better and better.
CU-ES: Since you are a director yourself were you tempted to direct this yourself?
JVT: I'm too respectful of the craft and of the roles -- that you should talk to the actors
only through the director.
CU-ES: So you see the director's key role as. . .?
JVT: If you find in a play a world that is rich and full and meaningful that is what the
director has done. The way I define it for my students a director is someone who creates a world..(Ed. note: She is currently on the
Playwrights Horizon faculty). I've always loved the kind of
directing that you don't know what's happening until it's over
CU-ES: Since you and Frances Sternhagen have remained friends since your college days did you
have anything to do with her playing Vada?
JVT: Very much so. Franny was my choice. I asked her to read the play as soon as it was
readable. Also on the subject of casting, I'm not much of a stage mother -- in fact I'm a very bad stage mother -- but it's another
pleasure of this production to see Tracy [Joan and Jack Thorne's daughter who plays the double part of two twin sisters] doing such a
wonderful job. When Tracy first told us she wanted to act, my friend Jean
Schneider [wife of above mentioned late Alan Schneider} told my husband and me "well just let
her marry a nice dentist" (Ed: note: as Joan married a nice advertising executive!).
CU-ES: Did you have any concerns about critics comparing this story to Driving Miss Daisy
JVT: I loved Daisy so much and I loved Franny in it but I never thought of my play as one
that would come anywhere near it in importance so it never occurred to me to worry about that.
You had every right to bring up a comparison in your review -- the stories do have similarities -- and actually I was flattered
CU-ES: That comparison also helped me to see the differences since Exact Center is a lot about
the effect of generational changes experienced by all these women.
JVT: They were indomitable women. I don't know what we've become. I think we've
changed for the better and I don't think you can unchange change anyway. What they would
have done if they could have boggles the mind.
CU-ES: What about some of the names. Is Vada typically Southern?
JVT: Well, it was the name of one of my mother's friends but I've not heard it elsewhere..
Powell was my father's first name. And I'm not ashamed of that metaphor in Appleton's name,
it's sort of cute.
CU-ES: During the intermission, a young woman in the ladies' room asked " so what happens to
this play now? Does it just disappear after this production closes down?" What is in its future?
JVT: I think there's a possibility that the play will extend for several weeks at Theater Four.
It has had the interest and support of a commercial producer right from the start who will, if
she can, move it -- but that will take more money. CU-ES: Do you think such a move
would be to Broadway or another Off-Broadway house and if so, any time soon?
JVT: I think probably not this season and I think one of the Off-Broadway theaters
would be best.
CU-ES: What about regional theaters?
JVT: Maybe I'm deluding myself but I think this is an audience friendly play and though
people like to condescend to Southern regional plays -- it's like blondes who are all dumb but of
course they're not. But while we like English and Irish regional plays, there is some of this
regional antipathy. That's why I'm so grateful for this production -- you can't see on a page what
a finished production can demonstrate to make those regional productions possible. There has
been interest, even a call from Australia -- maybe through the Internet and your review.
CU-ES: Is Exact Center similar in style or tone to any of your previous works
JVT: I've done
one other Southern play which was commissioned but not produced but I have not done other
Southern plays -- perhaps should do more CU-ES: Are your other works also
JVT: Not at all. some like The Anatomy of a Female Pope are way off.
In some ways even Exact Center isn't completely naturalistic when you think of those shadowy scenes
with the deceased husband.
CU-ES: Since directing has been the main focus of your career and the writing came later, would you say the writing is
like an extra, a love affair?
JVT Yes it's a new love affair and one I think I'll stay with the rest of my life
CU-ES: To move onto another sphere, you work as an opera librettist, how did that come
JVT: I have a wonderful friend, Janet Bookspan, who years ago asked me to coach her for a
choral performance. Well, we had a wonderful time. Then a piece for narrator and orchestra
was commissioned for her and she asked me to work on the material with her. CU-ES: Were
you an opera aficionado?
JVT: Not at all but this turned out to be a wonderful collaboration, with grand royalties.CU-ES:
What's different about writing for the classical music stage and the theater?
JVT: Well, I could just do what I wanted to do and you're not alone.
CU-ES: Tell me about your libretto for the new opera based on Edith
Wharton's short novel Summer
JVT: Summer is what Edith Wharton called her hot novel.
Ethan Frome [set in the same New England area] was her cold novel
CU-ES: Who initiated that, you or the composer, and what came first, music or libretto?
JVT: Stephen Paulus, the composer. He picked the work but he worked with me on the structure of the story. I
was anxious to preserve Wharton's words as much as possible but cuts and decisions had to be made
for the music. So while you go with the words, the music is overwhelming. Nobody goes to
opera for words but for the music. That's what I mean about not being alone.
At this point we'd spent an hour with few lulls in the conversation. Joan had to dash off to
meet her son who'd flown in from Texas to see Exact Center of the Universe. We made plans to touch base again
later this summer when we'll both be in the Berkshires to watch the birth of her opera libretto
at the Berkshire Opera . Check our Berkshire Main Page for a link to the Berkshire Opera Company's schedule if you'd also like to be part of the birthing.