Rancho Viejo Artist Interview
Note: This interview contains spoilers about the contents of Rancho Viejo.
Tim Sanford: Shortly after we did The Big Meal, we applied to the Mellon Foundation for a three year playwright residency for you and got it. The idea was for you to work on a play and hopefully have it produced while you also had a role on the artistic staff in helping us develop some new outreach and cultivation programs. You did a lot of work on the play over that period but did not complete a script. This was partly due to the fact that you had some irresistible writing opportunities for some cable TV shows, but it was also just the nature of the play. The idea for this play has existed for a while. It predates the actual residency, am I right?
Dan LeFranc: Yeah, it predates our production of The Big Meal, for sure. I was doing a workshop of this play at New Dramatists when we were in auditions for The Big Meal. But it was still in the early phase. I was just generating tons and tons of material.
How did it begin?
It began when (director) Daniel Aukin and I were working on a different play together, Bruise Easy, that just opened in Chicago in January weirdly enough. And there’s a theatrical element in that piece, it’s like a Greek tragedy by way of Sam Shepard by way of me, and there was this chorus of neighborhood children that run through the play and Daniel was not sure that that was gonna really play onstage.
Because there were children, or just because...
In the play they’re supposed to do all these stunts, like jumping off ramps on dirt bikes. And he didn’t think it was working. He was like, “What if you take it out and make it just a two-hander, see if that stands up,” and...I was like, “Okay,” and I went away and in the middle of thinking about that, I was like, there needs to be some sort of interruption. The play was basically these two characters in their twenties, in a driveway in front of a suburban home and their mother has gone missing. And no one knows where she is. So it was like, these two characters over and over again. And I was like, “There needs to be something that shakes up the play.” So I decided the thing that would be really jarring is between the fourth and fifth scene of the play, lights come up and suddenly you’re in a living room and there are all these characters in their fifties, sixties, seventies you’ve never met before who are dressed in black, hanging out, just sort of talking. And over the course of the scene you realize that the neighborhood has just decided to throw a wake for this woman who has been missing for so long. And the four characters I wrote for that scene were Pete, Mary, Gary, and Patti.
Did any of them have a relation to the 20-year-olds in the driveway?
No. The 20-year-olds enter the scene late. And then you realize that they’re at a wake, and everyone’s, like, very, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry.” But they’re all sort of self-obsessed. You know, Patti’s trying to sell them real estate, and Pete is fumbling with a camera to take their picture. It’s like this whole weird, awkward scene. And it was a fun scene. But it just felt... Daniel and I both really loved that piece, but we were convinced it was a different play.
So did Bruise Easy go back to how it was?
For a while. When I went out to work on it in Chicago, we ended up doing a more traditional chorus. I put all the kids in masks and made them do very stiff, bad acting gestures. Almost mocking a Greek chorus. I think it played a lot better than them jumping off ramps on dirt bikes
Who did it?
The American Theater Company, the company that did The Big Meal. But I got so busy I wasn’t able to be part of the rehearsal process. So I showed up and saw a run-through then basically rewrote it during tech.
They must have loved you...
We had fun.
Did any of that original scene end up in Rancho?
No, but when I was first working on the play, I was like, “Okay is the whole thing at a funeral? Whose funeral is it?” I circled that for a very long time. I was like, “Okay there aren’t these twenty-somethings there anymore. There’s not this missing person.” But it felt right that the small talk pushed up against a potentially somber setting.
Didn’t you say something at a talkback about the specter of death reentering the play with Mike’s death?
Yeah. It’s funny to me that the original scene was set at a wake and now the penultimate scene is basically a wake.
But that came kind of late, didn’t it? Mike wasn’t even in the earliest versions of the play.
The play gradually began to take shape around the offstage relationship between Lonna and Richie and then Mochi goes missing. But that took a while to emerge.
Yeah, there were a lot of other things going on before but it didn’t have a structure. There was a big conversation Adam Greenfield and Daniel and I were having. For a long time, it was really like a thousand pages of scenes. It didn’t have a story engine, necessarily. It just felt like more of an Ionesco play or something where we’re just here and this is what we’re doing and there’s no rhyme or reason to why certain scenes happen after other scenes. And there was a lot of fun in that. It was a lot of fun to read around a table. And I think Adam was also interested in that. Which is great. I appreciated his sort of, like, “Well maybe that’s what it is.” But I always felt, I mean… I like story. (Laughs.) I value it; I think it’s really important. And so I always felt the play would be stronger if there were story pulling us through.
Some of the characters felt very clear and have remained consistent. Like Gary...
Yeah. I think Pete and Mary, and Gary and Patti came out fully formed. Patti used to be a lot nastier as a character. She was more overtly racist and xenophobic in the early version because she was just a character who stepped into another play and you didn’t have to care about her, necessarily. But when I was working on it, it was like, “I hate that person. I don’t want to spend any time with them.” So I toned all that stuff back. But outside of that she’s basically the same character.
And how did Pete’s story evolve?
After that workshop at New Dramatists I went up to Yale Rep for a week just to write, to find the story. So that’s where I came up with the idea that Gary was working on a book and then I was like, well maybe one of their kids is getting divorced, and then Pete has an inappropriate reaction to it. Then I read excerpts at New Dramatists again and people really responded to that material.
Mary’s relationship with Pete seems to have evolved a little. If memory serves, we saw her squirm at Pete’s overreactions and meddling, but the part about her own quest to make friends...
That’s pretty new...
It gives her her own action.
Yeah. It became important to me that it was both of their play, and not Pete’s play. And in some ways, some people have been saying to Daniel and me that it’s really Mary’s play. Which I get. She goes through a larger transformation than her husband, even though fewer things happen to her.
Who came next?
Suzanne and Leon... For a long time I was focused on the two couples: Pete, Mary, Gary, and Patti. And then that felt too small. You know, I called the play a “suburban sprawl” to myself. That was my big note. I put it on a digital Post-it on my computer. And so every time I tried to contain it, it resisted it, it resisted being contained and it kept wanting to grow. Suzanne and Leon didn’t really emerge until I figured out, “Okay, this play is about this guy becoming obsessed with this offstage couple and their marital problems.” So I was like, “Okay there needs to be a different point of view.” If we’re seeing all these relationships onstage, we need a couple that maybe is not married, and maybe they’ve been through more breakups and have messier histories, like they found each other maybe a little later in life than Gary and Patti who seem like they’ve been in love since...
And it seems like there’s this endless stream of get-togethers.
A lot of them at the houses of people we don’t even meet. And when Anita first showed up, there was some confusion... “Is this a housemaid, or, is she actually...?”
Right. Which is still sort of how she appears. Pete doesn’t know who she is. Or what she’s doing or why she’s talking to him about the food. I mean I think he still assumes she’s maybe a housekeeper.
I mean, yeah. It’s an uncomfortable moment in the play.
Yeah, no, it took a while to figure out Anita. I knew her voice was important, but I had to figure out what the hell to do with her. It felt important to have a Spanish-speaking character.
Did you write the Spanish?
I did. Then I asked someone to help me clean it up a bit.
Didn’t you introduce Mike as an offstage character first?
Yeah, for a while you just heard about Mike, you never met him, and then he died. For a while I was convinced that that was right. That it was someone completely unknown that died. But then I went and reread The Cherry Orchard. ’Cause I was thinking a lot about Chekhov and about how to structure the play. And I was struck by how present the servant character, Firs, was. I remembered the part being very small but we spend a lot more time with him than I thought. So I had a rather obvious epiphany. It’s important to really meet these characters, no matter if they’re not as crucial to the story as Pete and Mary. We need to really hear from Anita. We need to know Mike before he dies. Even if he isn’t the central part of the play. Because it felt right for someone to die, but I didn’t want it to be, say, Gary or Pete or another larger character. It needed to be someone on the periphery. But it took me a while to realize I’d pushed those characters too far out of the play and I had to fold them more deeply into the action.
I thought that was a really inspired addition, even if it did make the cast size larger!
Then when we cast Bill Buell as Mike, I recreated Mike in my head. As soon as we cast Bill, I was like, “He’s gonna steal snacks.” Had we cast another person I don’t think Mike would have been a snack-stealing guy. And as soon as he was stealing snacks in my head, I was like, “Oh, when he dies, everyone should be there and he should be there in a ziplock bag, the same bag that he snacks out of...
Like, his remains should be in that bag. And that all came out of just imagining Bill in the part, ’cause Bill’s such an amazing, strange presence.
And he and Ruth have such great chemistry. So, Mike and Anita evolved a lot. And Taters... You used to have a couple of kids at different points in the play.
And it was always felt a little surreal, the kids showing up. We realize that this is not a homogenous community. There are kids, but they’re just in separate worlds from each other.
Yeah. Which is a different concept obviously than what it became with Taters, although there are still elements of that. I think as the central story became tighter, it felt more difficult to introduce elements that weren’t feeding directly into Pete and Mary. And instead of having a pack of kids, I felt I needed to challenge myself. I was like, “Alright what if it’s only one kid? And who is that kid, and how does that kid play? What is that person’s part in this?” And I always knew that the teenagers, whatever the form they took, needed to be tied to the wilderness. That felt really right to me. You know how there are these coyotes through the piece. I think of it as like Sam Shepard’s landscape, but even more domesticated. Taters is like a trickster/coyote character. But Pete is like the opposite of a Shepard man. Like a Shephard character would eat Pete for lunch in a second. And Shepard likes having animals onstage, so I was like, “There should be a dog, like a domesticated dog.”
I know exactly what you mean. Pete’s like an anti-Shepard hero.
I did a lot of thinking about Shepard. He’s another writer who spent a lot of time writing about California. And he’s so much part of the mythology around the West; I thought it would be fun if the play kind of tweaks that mythology a little bit. It’s actually not a dangerous, scary, wild landscape anymore. It’s, like, totally malled over now.
You know, in the first scene, Pete talks about our animal natures versus our conditional selves. And that does seem like an intrinsic vibe to Shepard’s work, like, our natural selves versus our domesticated selves. But when Pete talks about it, it’s hard for me to even track him.
I think there’s something animal about him. I mean, he’s on the hunt, you know, even if he’s chasing after windmills that he thinks are dragons.
Do you think there’s a particular pertinence in this conversation to Pete’s relationship with Mary?
To them? That’s a good question. I guess I’ve always just thought of it as a spin on the conversation about marriage that… Some of the play actually comes out of lot of anger about certain kinds of plays that the American theater seems very fond of. I feel like there are a lot of plays where very hyper-articulate, New Yorky types, or New Yorkers in disguise dressed up as Midwesterners, have some super verbal conversation about politics or life, and they’re getting into it and the audience feels like, “That’s me.” Like, “Oh my god, I’m so smart, because I’m sitting in this theater listening to these smart people talk about this thing that’s so smart.” But it’s just reinforcing all the bullshit we already believe, you know. And I was like, “I want people in a play who are not that articulate trying to grapple with things that are really large and hard to describe,” which... My opinion is, that’s what most of us sound like. Even people who are like, smart and educated, and you know, articulate. Like, we sound like idiots. If you put us onstage, we’d sound kinda dopey. And so... Like, I always thought of that first scene as like, “Isn’t this the thing you come and see a play for? To see white people talk about marriage?”
So the play is very much in conversation with, “What is it that we like to go see? Why do we like to go see it? Who’s it for? Who’s it about?” These are characters that have a certain amount of money. They’re white. And it felt very important just to say it, to call it out. We’re talking about white people.
So you’re establishing insularity. I mean, that’s one of things about the huge couch that’s iconic of interiors in suburbia. It’s made to order, one-size fits all for all the couples that we meet and don’t meet. You were talking before about how an insular world rubs up against something beyond. Originally it was a wake. Here the insularity is a buffer against something outside. There’s coyotes...
And Anita brings Spanish into the play which penetrates that insularity some. Outside, there are Spanish words everywhere and a dimly remembered history of a time that used to belong to the Spanish.
And before them the Native people. The Spanish were invaders first. I think what’s so disturbing, what I love about Ethan’s, Taters’ dance is that he’s invoking — I think very smartly... Some of it’s in the text, but I think Ethan went for it — is like, he’s invoking ritualistic dances from cultures that were completely annihilated... They’re not represented in the play. That’s the only way they’re represented in the play is some white kid with his shirt off, like dancing, in a vaguely Native American style, you know. And I think that dance is very very funny, very beautiful. But I think it’s really disturbing ’cause he’s dancing to Spanish boleros, or Mexican boleros which were sort of the music that came from Spain when the Spanish came over and like, wrecked Mexico, and took it over. Then that music is being co-opted by this kid who is working out this weird dance about sexuality, or just needing to express something beautiful, but using choreography that feels very much inspired by Native American influences.
You have Mexican heritage, right?
Does that inform the way you think about this moment?
I don’t know where it comes from.
You got kinda hot when you were talking about it.
Yeah I just think America has a pretty simplistic view of that country. Really, it’s amazing how events of this last year and half or so have gone. Mexico’s been getting a lot of heat. (Laughs.) It’s got my dander up a little bit to say the least.
Did you know always that there would be wilderness? Was that looming in the play from the beginning, or...
It was later. I wanted Pete to have an experience and I was thinking a lot about the conversation about man versus nature. And it felt right. I knew I wanted there to be a stylistic break from the first two parts. Some people have said to me, “Oh, I can’t believe how traditional the play is.” And I’m like, “Well, in a way it is.” There’s a broad super structure that is maybe a little more well-made than people might expect from my plays. The play is obviously in conversation with art. So you have a play that looks more like the kind of play you expect to see for the first two acts. Then it felt right that it would break open and we would be confronted with a different aesthetic. And that Pete would be confronted with a different aesthetic.
And when you thought about what experience Pete should have... Did you want him to confront nature, did you want him to confront... It used to be like the kids...
A lot of it I rewrote in rehearsal. We were limited by the major technical demands of the show. I was like, “What do we have?” And they were like, “We have... We can make wind, and we have a cactus. Basically is what we have.”
Right. And I said, “Can we just get mailboxes?” ’Cause I realized that in order to do the true mock-epic, to really do the Joseph Campbell thing, he needed to begin in a world that he understood and felt comfortable in. So that’s why it starts more in a suburban street.
And then once Taters takes the boo, and he decides, “I’m gonna go get it.” Then he enters the unknown world and we watch him struggle against challenges he’s never faced before. Like getting stuck to a cactus. (Laughs.)
And was trying to reclaim Mochi, was that relatively recent?
It’s been around for maybe a year. I was like, “Oh, he should go looking for the dog.” And I knew it had the stuffed animal because it’s based on this real dog. And I was like, “Oh, he should find the stuffed animal shredded, and we should think the dog’s dead and he should go looking for it.”
Now he thinks the dog’s dead, do you think the audience does?
I think so. Daniel said, “How are we gonna make people believe the dog’s dead?” I was like, “Why don’t we just have Pete hear coyotes ripping apart an animal.” He was like, “Okay.” It’s completely unsubtle. I don’t know. It’s funny, this play. Usually, my aesthetic... I value subtlety; but then a play like this, sometimes you just gotta go for it.
That was another revelation I had. The third act of the play is written in broad, larger-than-life strokes, reminiscent of the kind of graphic novel/comic book style of your earlier plays, like Troublemaker that was done at Berkeley Rep. So in a way the insularity of the first two acts rubs up against your own writing. And it cracks open to a style that is very authentic for you.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
And when we come back we don’t go back to that interior.
Yeah, we’re on the patio. Which was a great design idea (scenic designer) Dane Laffrey had.
Going back to that art question, that tension between showing people as they are and how they think of themselves, you really stretch out the variance between them. Pete has high aspirations; he’s trying to restore some ethical standards to the behaviors that civilization adheres to in his mind.
In his mind, right. As he’s stomping all over boundaries.
We laugh at him, because who even thinks that way?
And Mary, too, she just wants a friend but she can also be unfiltered, like when it just slips to Patti, “What I meant was you’re just so horrible sometimes.”
She has her own standards that she’s trying to uphold too.
Like, what a friend means.
And actually kinda wins.
She does win. She kind of gets what she wants.
And she decides to go home with Pete, but maybe later she’ll invite them to a slumber party in a tent.
She may try to get them to have a slumber party, I could see that.
Back to Taters a second. When Pete unpacks his backpack on the beach and finds the toilet paper, I was surprised. Do you want us to think that he did it?
He did do it!
He did do it.
I think in the early versions, when there were several different teenagers, I thought Pete’s house was TP’d just because he was such a target, they’re always slightly beleaguered. Why do you think Taters TP’d them?
He asks them, “Do you need any help cleaning?” Like, he’s...
Oh, so he did it to create a job for himself?
Yeah. He does it so he can create a job so that he can help them so that he can then get in...
Also, he shows up briefly in the dark in the scene before. I used to think he just kind of lurks but that he was kind of mad Pete wouldn’t go to the beach with him.
He comes to their house to toilet paper the house. To try to get in. He’s the sneaky coyote of the play.
You said at one point you were trying to make the play more manageable and thinking, “Oh, I should cut some of this.” And you cut the happiness conversation and some of the art conversation and Daniel called you up and said, “You’ve cut the guts of the play.”
Why is it the guts?
I think what Daniel’s saying... What’s been good to keep reminding myself and reminding him... It is a play of ideas. More overtly than any other play that I’ve written it’s in conversation with the audience. The play exists to have an audience ask the question, like, “Why does this play exist? Why does any play exist? Why do we go to the theater? What kinds of stories do we like to tell? Do we judge a play’s value by how realistic it is? Do we judge a play’s value by how much it makes us laugh? By how much it makes us cry? Or how much it bothers us later? Does it make us feel good so we go to the bar and sort of forget about it?” And I think Daniel is right in pointing out, “That’s what this play’s about.” And if it’s not about the story of this guy becoming obsessed with this offstage marriage... That’s just an excuse to have these conversations, to deal with those issues, and to take an audience through that journey, and hopefully have some sort of reflection upon themselves.
There’s a pretty sophisticated paradox at work when Pete says, “Look, if I died wouldn’t that be more significant than some work of art?” Then Leon jumps in and says, “Look at how unremarkable Pete is. His death would have more meaning than his life.” But the play is kind of at war with itself here. Pete’s already a character in a play. And Gary kind of nails this when he says, “Pete’s art.”
He says, “What you’re saying is Pete’s art. I’m art. And we’re all art.”
And what he’s saying is literally true. But he’s also saying we should live life as if we are art. And that we as humans are worthy subjects of art. And he kind of converts people... Well, not really.
I don’t think he does. Patti has an experience. But then like a second later she’s like, “Wow that was very moving. Anyway back to my... I’m obsessed with making money and living my life, and eating snacks. But like, wow, I was so glad to have felt a new feeling for like, half a second.” (Laughs.)
Talk about Gary. He’s writing a book. Is he having a midlife crisis? It seems to be a turn on for Patti.
I don’t know that he’s having a midlife crisis or if he’s just doin’ it ’cause he wants to do it and it seems like a fun thing to do. I feel like he’s maybe a bit of a dilettante, Gary. Like he could take up painting, like, next week. And, you know, he probably will. So while Pete’s an amateur philosopher who’s constantly trying to work things out, Gary doesn’t seem that bothered by things. He’s almost, like, too enlightened to be.
You said Patti used to be a more kind of xenophobic, kind of rotten person...
More overtly. She still... I mean she does jump to Patchy being an Indonesian hacker pretty fast.
Gary doesn’t seem to espouse views like that.
You don’t know couples that are like that? I feel I have people in my family who are married to very different people.
I’m not questioning that they are bonded. I’m just trying to identify, what is it about their marriage that works for them? You know. Like, he’s sort of unconsciously flirting with Mary, just ’cause...
...maybe there’s something he likes about her, or maybe he senses how much she needs it, and it makes him feel important.
He kinda flirts with Pete. I mean, he’s kinda flirty with everyone in the whole play.
He’s always flirting. I don’t even know that he thinks of it as that.
And Patti’s like, “Wait, you’re goin’ to the art fair? Then I’m goin’ to the art fair too!” She acts a little bit jealous and he seems oblivious to it. Unless maybe he’s not.
You know, out of all the characters there’s some sort of refraction of Pete and Mary’s relationship and what they’re lacking, what they have, what they don’t have. I think it’s important that there are these characters that Pete...and Mary... But mostly Pete can look at and be like, “Why does that work? Why do they seem happy, even though...” And they seem comfortable with conflict. Like, there’s conflict among them, but it’s not ripping them apart.
You have little stage directions of their cuddling at one point...
Yeah, there’s some sexy looks. Yeah, we worked on sexy looks in rehearsal. There used to be more touching, but we realized that’s not as sexy as looking. (Laughs.)
Yeah! “I like chapter 6...”
And then he’s like, “Watch out.” I don’t know what it means to them, but I think I like it.
There’s another way that the play shows that tension between what is and what shouldn’t be. There’s a kind of repeating pattern of anticlimaxes...
Like, everyone pooh-poohs the importance of art. And Pete declines to go to the art fair. “No. I’m kinda busy today.” And lastly, “Do you want to sleep outside tonight?” “Um, no.”
That’s another moment that I feel is written with a lot of anger. Or at least a lot of, like, “Come on guys.” I mean... Mare Winningham delivers that monologue so beautifully and... I actually really like that monologue, but I wrote it as a mock-ending of a play. I wrote that monologue being like, “This is how plays end.” Plays end like this all the time. You know, someone comes on stage and talks about the stars and talks about life and how it’s so big, and then someone says something sweet, and the lights go down. And then everyone applauds, and they feel good and they forget that they ever saw the damn play. And I was like, let’s do that. I want to do that thing where someone says something sweet about the stars, but then the other character rejects it. There’s a version... You could imagine the play ending with them sleeping outside. And part of our interest in keeping everything on the patio was the potential that, “Well maybe he’s gonna go inside and get sleeping bags, and we’re gonna watch him, like, roll it up, and they’re gonna go to bed together.” We even had a moment where, like, “Oh maybe we’ll have stars start to light up,” you know, the way that they do at the end of plays. And then it’s like, yeah, no, we’re not gonna do that. There are a lot of tropes in the serious Off-Broadway play genre happening currently. And I feel like the play’s job is to at least point ’em out. Mac Wellman has this, The Theatre of Good Intensions, written back in the 80s. He wrote about how the American theater is a place that privileges warm emotions. And, like, whatever happened to like, cynical theater? And it felt important to me that this play not succumb to the pressures, of which there are many, to write a warm play.
Pete thinks he wants warmth.
He says, “Are you happy? ’Cause sometimes I don’t think you are and I really want to be happy.” And he says, “We’re a love story Mary.” And she says, “Yeah, so much.”
And yet he can’t quite give her what she needs. There’s a trope in the play, they’re constantly not leaving together. And I think it’s said four times, “Right behind you.”
Yeah. That’s her last line at the end of the play too.
So it’s kind of about how this idea of union and harmony is... Even if it’s desired, is possibly unattainable.
Totally. Absolutely. Yeah there was also this thing I was... E.M. Forster... I think it’s in this book Aspects of the Novel... He has this great quote about marriage being... It’s a social habit. It’s just a social habit and our art often... Our plays end in marriage because we want to believe in that idealism, but it’s actually like... It’s all a lie. Like, people are unpredictable. Shit changes. Life is... You know. He’s arguing... I mean, this is in the early 1900s and he’s like, “Marriage is really an arcane social construct that does not actually honor the complexity of human life.”
That’s why it’s so hilarious that Suzanne and Leon spend like... They argue about checking accounts and she says at some point, “Well, come on, what Richie and Lonna are doin’, I’ve done worse.”
“And so have you, Leon. You’ve done worse too.” And then later when she is recuperating from surgery she tells Pete how attentive Leon is and how it makes her not like him.
And then, boom! They’re married.
They get married. Yeah. Which is, you know...
That’s some cynical shit.
But my kind of cynical theater. But there are other models, Mike and Anita… Oh right, he’s dead. But Taters, who in some ways is the closest to being a stand-in for you, says mysteriously, “Why does anyone do anything? Love.” How would you say he ends up?
I’m not entirely sure. But he seems changed, kinda domesticated, by Pete’s rejection of his dance, which seems like a very vulnerable expression of himself. He’s so wounded he gets a day job, kind of becomes a little Pete. But part of me still thinks and hopes his, you know, artistic fire hasn’t been totally extinguished. I don’t know. Maybe he goes and writes for television.