Bringing the Story Onstage: An Interview with Playwright Todd Kreidler
Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager at Arena Stage, sat down with Todd Kreidler, Playwright and Adapter for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, to find out how he adapted the classic film for stage.
How did you get started as a playwright?
That question’s hard to answer. I’ve done everything on some level. I stretched flats, I was a master electrician (until I got electrocuted), I worked in a box office, directed, did sound design, stage managed, everything, but writing has always been a constant in my life.
I had some early success writing plays when I was young in Pittsburgh, and that scared me. I turned my focus to directing, and by the time I started working with August Wilson and became his dramaturg, I was directing a lot - I was a director who really wanted to be a writer but was scared. Not that directing isn’t incredibly difficult and rewarding, but what I really wanted to do was write. Around November of 2000, August said, “If you’re gonna write, man, be a writer. Don’t stand out there hesitating. Man, you gotta stand up and claim it.” Which is what I did.
What attracted you to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Why adapt this story today?
First of all, it’s a cultural touchstone. Whatever your feelings about the piece are, whatever community you’re from, it literally brought the issue of race into the home, both in the storytelling and thematically.
Approaching it today, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about and engage in the attitudes of 1967 but in a way that was for the 21st century. These attitudes and ideas are still very much alive. People have tried to make linguistic adjustments so racism today has become more covert. The systemic racism and the endemic attitudes are cloaked, but they’re still very much alive. Just look at the disproportionate amount of blacks living in poverty or the criminalization of young black men. That’s not an opinion about society. Those are verifiable facts. You’re on one of two sides. You either say that young black men are somehow more criminally bent, that it’s built into them to be more violent or more criminal, or you believe — as I do — that this is our American legacy from slavery that we are still struggling to redress.
The writing challenge was also exciting to me. From Holler if Ya Hear Me to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, I’m writing character-driven American stories. I get to deal with a defining aspect of American life, which is race relations in America. There’s something about the access to characters on stage that’s particularly of interest to me. It’s something that you can’t get in film and television. I find theatre very supple for the exploration of character and the layered aspects of our lives — attitudes towards love, attitudes towards sex, towards food. There’s a way to evolve those things and really try to cover the individual humanities of the characters, and to make what I think is an argument and transformation about attitudes towards race.
How did you go about adapting the screenplay of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for the stage?
It wasn’t just taking a screenplay to a play. It was taking an iconic screenplay to a play. So there was always a spirit of preserving the iconic moments of the film and then connecting them with a story that is familiar. The single setting and the compression of time made it ready-made for the stage. The challenge was going from iconic moment to iconic moment.
The phrase ‘guess who’s coming to dinner’ has become part of the American vernacular. What does the saying mean to you?
It’s exciting. There’s a surprise coming. It’ll either be an old friend or an acquaintance or someone exciting — but it’ll be an interesting dinner.
Reprinted with permission from Arena Stage.