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A CurtainUp Interview

Joan Vail Thorne-- Playwright, Director, Opera Librettist

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 librettist.

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.
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 the Universe?
    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 grow up.
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 Withers.
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 focus.
    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 young.
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 naturalistic?
    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 about.
    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.

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