A Look At Playwright Stephen Belber
“Most of the characters I create tend to be equipped with language, but woefully ill-equipped when it comes to accurately and honestly expressing their selves, a dilemma I find to be rather human. The world often appears to me to be full of good talkers but hungry for those who know how to use language to express something true and worth hearing.”— Playwright Stephen Belber in an essay for The Los Angeles Times
Stephen Belber has built his career — spanning across acting, writing, and directing — on skillfully creating characters. He studied philosophy at Trinity College and worked stints at everything from busboy to reporter for a Saudi news agency. But his work as an actor drove him to craft his own solo shows. With titles like Psychotic Busboy Blues, those early credits landed him a spot in one of the first classes of the graduate playwriting program at Juilliard. His theatre career took off in two directions at once in 2000 when he wrote his breakout play Tape while traveling back and forth to Wyoming as one of the original creator- performers of the verbatim landmark The Laramie Project.
At the heart of many of Belber’s plays is a mystery, a situation where characters disagree fundamentally about what is happening in their lives and why. Tape follows two buddies, reunited one night in Michigan, who spar over the "truth" about a one-night stand that one of the men had in high school with a girl they both desired. The play premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, transferred to New York, and was later adapted by Belber into a screenplay for a well-regarded movie directed by Richard Linklater and featuring Robert Sean Leonard, Ehan Hawke, and Uma Thurman.
As a playwright, Belber has been prolific, premiering at least a play a year, including Carol Mulroney at the Huntington in 2005; his most recent play, Don’t Go Gentle, appeared at MCC in 2012 (The production also featured David Wilson Barnes, who here plays news anchor Charlie Duff). His stage work has been balanced with his increasing prominence as a film director and writer. His 2009 directorial debut Management was a genre departure for Belber, his own take on a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston, Steve Zahn, and Woody Harrelson. He recently shot an adaptation of his 2004 Broadway debut Match with Patrick Stewart playing the reclusive and eccentric choreographer at the play's center. (The Broadway production of Match was helmed by former Huntington artistic director Nicholas Martin.)
Tape and Match make Belber one of the few playwrights who have successfully adapted their own work between the two mediums. Belber, for his part, sees the translation as an intimate negotiation of the assets of each form. "I use the proverbial zoom lens of film to more intensely examine characters I've created for the stage,” Belber says. “Good characters are, in some ways, harder to establish when borne for film, which is doggedly obsessed with story. Whereas theatre usually begins with great characters; it is where they roam free and roar loudly. To be able to use the medium of theatre to create a character, and then to zoom in and examine that character visually, to get between the words in a way that only the camera can do, to see what he or she is thinking vis-à-vis their eyes, the exhale of their breath, the flair of a nostril — that to me is cool.”
Belber’s best-known plays are united in their compact efficiency — he crafts often tense drama out of just two or three characters — but The Power of Duff sees him moving towards a broader canvas and larger cast of characters. “I had been wanting for some time to write a more sprawling play, but this story started as a screenplay,” Belber says. “Thus, for once, I stopped worrying about castsize and decided to use whatever and whomever I needed to tell the story correctly. Faith is a big topic, but so is the idea of connection, and I was very intrigued by the idea of a wholly disconnected individual alone on an enormous and barren stage, and then, to juxtapose that with the same character surrounded by a multitude of people — and yet still unable to connect. We are sometimes most alone when plopped down amidst the world.”