By Don Leavitt
Steven Dietz might possibly be the most prolific playwright you’ve never heard of. In a career that has spanned more than thirty years, Dietz has published more than forty plays, an impressive body of work comprised of both adaptations and original pieces. Since 1983, his work has been a staple of regional theatres around the world, and in 2010, he ranked eighth in a list of the top ten most produced playwrights in America.
Among his most produced and most profitable plays is his adaptation of Bram Stoker’s gothic classic Dracula, a work that Dietz was initially reluctant to attempt. “I thought the book had been captured quite well in a number of other adaptations,” he said.
However, reading the novel again inspired him. “I became very surprised at the extent to which so many theatre adaptations veered a great distance from the book,” he said (http://www.playbill.com/news/article/no-bloodless-metaphors-for-steven-dietz-new-dracula-69814).
Dietz’s version closely follows the plot of the original novel, although he does take the opportunity to play with the novel’s timeline and structure. More importantly, Dietz manages to avoid the campiness and self-parody that plagues other versions, choosing instead to remain faithful to the character and situations that Stoker created.
“My friends kept asking what my ‘take’ on the story was . . . what did Dracula ‘represent’?” Dietz said. “I realized that to make Dracula a metaphor was cheating” (Playbill.com, no-bloodless-metaphors). Dietz took “Mr. Stoker at his word” and treated the actual being of Dracula as the most haunting part of the story. “You can hide from a metaphor. A metaphor doesn’t wait outside your window under a full moon. A metaphor doesn’t turn into a bat and land on your bed,” he said. “The question, then, is not what Dracula represents, but what he is: a brilliant, seductive, fanged beast waiting to suck the blood from your throat” (Playbill.com, no-bloodless-metaphors).
Dietz counts Dracula as one of just a handful of his works that have been the most financially successful, despite the fact that none of his plays has been produced on Broadway. “I’m fond of saying that maybe I’ve inverted the old adage that you can make a killing [in the theatre] but you can’t make a living,” Dietz told Playbill Online in 2004. “I’ve done the exact opposite: I’ve made a living on my plays for twenty some years. But I don’t have a hit play. . . . Instead I’ve had fifteen or more plays that are seen in theatres and colleges—and then there are five or six that pay my bills” (http://www.playbill.com/celebritybuzz/article/playbill-on-lines-brief-encounter-with-steven-dietz-121020).
This is something that Dietz shares in common with Stoker, who in his lifetime wrote a dozen novels, three short story collections, and nearly two dozen uncollected stories but remains most closely associated with Dracula. So deep is the association between Stoker and Dracula, people are often surprised to learn that he wrote any other stories. While many of his stories and novels have been critical successes, it is Dracula that has proven to be Stoker’s most enduring legacy, inspiring film and stage adaptations as well as countless imitations.
Abraham “Bram” Stoker was born in 1847 near Dublin, Ireland, and despite suffering chronic, life-threatening illnesses as a young child, grew to be a large man and a successful athlete. He studied mathematics at Dublin’s Trinity College and developed a love of theatre that became a lifelong pursuit. Upon graduation, Stoker took a civil servant’s position at Dublin Castle and worked part-time as a theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail; this led to a friendship with the actor Henry Irving that would last through the rest of his life.
At Irving’s request, Stoker moved to London and became manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theatre. This proved to be advantageous, because it introduced Stoker to Irving’s social circle and opened opportunities for Stoker’s personal writing to be taken seriously. In addition to Irving, Stoker counted among his friends James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Oscar Wilde, whose girlfriend Stoker famously stole and later married.
Stoker’s first book, a non-fiction tutorial called The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland was published in 1879, and his first work of fiction, Under the Sunset, followed in 1881. By the time Stoker published Dracula in 1897, he had five novels and numerous short stories to his credit; several more books followed, but none garnered the success of Dracula, which was widely considered Stoker’s greatest accomplishment at the time of his death in 1912, just ten years before Nosferatu, the first film adaptation of Dracula, would be released.
For Dietz, success is measured much the same way—based not so much on commercialism, but on longevity. In an article about Dietz for the Austin Chronicle, Susan Zeder, head of the playwriting program at the University of Texas at Austin, where Dietz currently works as a professor of playwriting and directing, said, “There’s nothing trendy about Steven’s work. It’s there for the long term” (http://www.austinchronicle.com/arts/2008-11-07/699092).
One secret to his success may be the almost blue-collar sensibility with which he approaches his writing. “He talks about going to work as a playwright the way anybody goes to a regular job, and that is a very refreshing ethos,” Zeder told the Austin Chronicle. “So it’s not in all these esoteric terms. And it’s not a devaluing of the art. It’s getting art in the right category. It’s a thing we make with our hands, and we do it together.”
Dietz’s wife, playwright Allison Gregory, agrees. “He writes, like, two plays a year. Every year. . . . That is in addition to the teaching and the workshops and speaking and directing and extensive traveling and the parenting he does,” Gregory said. “He writes as if it were his job, whether or not he feels like it. He doesn’t wait for inspiration. . . . I believe that’s called discipline” (http://www.austinchronicle.com).
That kind of discipline seems to come naturally to Dietz who was taught to view work as a necessary thing that should be celebrated. His father, a railroad man, encouraged his children to “be useful,” and today, Dietz considers words like “workmanlike” to be an honor. In the Austin Chronicle article, Dietz said, “I’m much more comfortable with the phrase ‘working playwright’ than ‘professional playwright.’”
Still, a career in theatre seemed unlikely for a young man who claims to have never seen a play before high school; did not attend grad school; and never took a playwriting class, according to the Austin Chronicle. Born in Colorado in 1958, Dietz studied theatre at the University of Northern Colorado before beginning a career as a director in Minneapolis, where he formed the Quicksilver Stage Theatre Company and began writing plays of his own. A commission to write his play, God’s Country, took him to Seattle in 1988, where he lived until he received the offer to teach at the University of Texas-Austin.
According to his faculty bio on the University of Texas-Austin website, Dietz’ plays have been seen at over 100 regional theatres in the United States and internationally. He is a two-time winner of the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays Award, and recipient of the PEN USA West Award in Drama; the Edgar Award for Drama; and the Yomuiri Shimbun Award (http://www.utexas.edu/finearts/tad/people/dietz-steven).
Ironically, Dietz considers the fact that his work has not been produced on Broadway one of the contributing factors to his longevity. “The advantage of not having success as a younger writer in New York, unlike a lot of my peers—as envious as I was of them—what I’ve gotten to do instead is make a body of work,” Dietz told Playbill Online. “I feel like I’ve had this twenty-year apprenticeship. I’ve gotten to learn my craft.”