Staging Connections: Stephen Belber on The Power of Duff

by:  Charles Haugland at 10/03/2013

Stephen Belber is an acclaimed playwright, screenwriter, and film director. His plays include his breakout hit Tape starring Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke, his Broadway debut Match directed by the Huntington's former Artistic Director Nicholas Martin and starring Frank Langella, the Huntington premiere Carol Mulroney, and others. Over the summer, he corresponded with dramaturg Charles Haugland about the origins of his latest play and the challenges of staging a story about faith.

CH: When did you start writing The Power of Duff? What was the spark?

SB: I first wrote this piece as a screenplay in about 2006. The initial impulse came after reading a Time magazine article (in an issue dedicated to religion in America), which stated that 19 out of 20 Americans believe in God. And while that didn’t necessarily surprise me, it was somewhat eye-opening the more I thought about it.

And so then I thought: this is something that should be written about if done in a non-obvious way, because here we have the vast majority of an enormous nation believing, at the very least, in the legitimacy of a true spiritual force, and wouldn’t it be interesting to create a character that taps into or in some way comes to harness that power in a simple but surprising and unique way. Additionally, I thought, what if this character stumbles into this situation accidentally and honestly, and what if he or she was deeply flawed and susceptible to non-saintly impulses.

Have you written about faith or prayer before? What attracted you to this theme? (And why are there so few plays on that subject?)

Tim Ransom & Ana Reeder in Carol Mulroney at the Huntington. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

No. And even though one would think this an obvious topic on which to write, there’s probably a slight taboo around it due to its being difficult to come at in a way that’s profound but subtle. With The Power of Duff, I’ve simply tried to ask questions that most humans ask at one point or another: how can I feel more connected, what’s the best way to be human, faith in what? I’m under no illusion of having answers, I’ve simply asked in as honest (and theatrical) a way as I know how, trying to place my character in complicated situations with no easy solutions, and in so doing hopefully dramatizing simple questions of faith.

Many of the plays you are best known for have small casts and are tense and concentrated. What attracted you to telling this story that plays on a broader canvas across a larger ensemble?

To begin with, I had for some time been wanting to write a more sprawling play. That, combined with the fact that this story began as a screenplay, encouraged me to expand the size of the cast to fit the scope of the story. Faith is a big topic, but so is the idea of connection, and I was 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. This latter stage picture seemed to me an apt representation of “society” in many ways: we are sometimes most alone when plopped down amidst the world.

What drew you to set the play within the stinging (and often very funny) politics of a newsroom?

I think I was looking for a character that could be very palpably stuck, and somehow the idea of an anchor at a mid-sized city’s local news desk fit the bill. Not that it’s an unfulfilling job, but Charlie Duff, at this juncture in his life, has hit a complete dead end — he is someone who never made it nationally, who is no longer inspired by journalistic glory or integrity, and is successful but in a severely limited way. His is a road of seductive mediocrity that leads to either pompous self-regard or extreme yearning and existential woe.

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  1. My take on it is that anything that rasies awareness of the plight of our fragile Earth, and encourages people to take Live Earth’s 7-point pledge on the climate crisis is good, whatever the cynics say. I have taken the Live Earth Pledge (via Avaaz, with whom I had previously signed the G8 climate petition), and I would have loved to have been at Wembley Stadium if I had been organised to buy tickets in time!The 7-points are: • To demand that my country join an international treaty within the next 2 years that cuts global warming pollution by 90% in developed countries and by more than half worldwide in time for the next generation to inherit a healthy earth; • To take personal action to help solve the climate crisis by reducing my own CO2 pollution as much as I can and offsetting the rest to become “carbon neutral;” • To fight for a moratorium on the construction of any new generating facility that burns coal without the capacity to safely trap and store the CO2; • To work for a dramatic increase in the energy efficiency of my home, workplace, school, place of worship, and means of transportation; • To fight for laws and policies that expand the use of renewable energy sources and reduce dependence on oil and coal; • To plant new trees and to join with others in preserving and protecting forests; and, • To buy from businesses and support leaders who share my commitment to solving the climate crisis and building a sustainable, just, and prosperous world for the 21st century. P.S. Live Earth marks the beginning of a multi-year campaign led by the Alliance for Climate Protection in the US, We’re in This Together and I Count in the UK, and other international organizations, to drive individuals, corporations and governments to take immediate and lasting action to solve the climate crisis.

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Lisa Timmel,  Bevin O'Gara, and Charles Haugland share their thoughts on New Plays, Dramatury, and their experience sharing nightly conversations with the audiences that come to see our shows. Get the inside scoop of new scripts and play development!

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