ARTIST WORDS: An Exclusive Interview with Greg Dean (December 2016)
Mitchell Center: When did the idea of Catastrophic bringing Barthelme’s Snow White to the stage first come up?
Greg Dean: Jason Nodler, Catastrophic’s Artistic Director, was asked by Rich Levy of Inprint and Benjamin Rybeck of Brazos Bookstore if Catastrophic would like to do a public reading of Snow White. Jason was aware that I had been working on my own adaptation of the novel since the late 1990s, and asked me to join the discussion. A few days later, he asked whether I’d want to do a full production, which is something I had been trying to do, off and on, for about 10 years. Then we set up a meeting with Katherine Barthelme, who had provided Rich with her father’s adaptation of the novel and pitched her the idea. She said, “sure.” The whole thing happened rather quickly and easily. It took maybe two weeks, from the initial inquiry to the green light from Barthelme’s estate. Of course, there were a decade’s worth of attempts on my part leading up to that moment.
This long gestation was a blessing. Catastrophic Theatre now has the actors, the facilities and the resources to really nail this play.
Mitchell Center: What form was his play adaption of his novel in?
Greg Dean: What I do know is that he began working on it in 1974, at the urging of Wynn Handman of the American Place Theatre, and that a staged reading was done on June 10, 1976. After that, as far as I can tell, Barthelme put it away in a drawer. A version of the script was published in 1992, at the end of The Teachings of Don B. In 1996, the Alley Theatre performed a staged reading of the play.
Mitchell Center: How have his notes, revisions, etc. been worked with?
Greg Dean: The introduction of Barthelme’s manuscript into the equation is pretty exciting. The final version of the play will be a combination of the manuscript and several different drafts of my own adaptation.
Mitchell Center: What continues to be the process of shaping this work into a production?
Greg Dean: Again and again, I am returning to the novel, largely for guidance regarding formal/structural questions, but also because I am a different person than I was between 1997 and 2006, and I keep discovering things that didn’t resonate with me then, things that make me wonder, “How in Hell did I miss that the first time?”
Mitchell Center: What is about this work that makes it resonate with you and also with the company as a whole?
Greg Dean: First, there are the jokes. It’s a hilarious book, and I think that will be the way for an audience to enter the play. More importantly to me, there’s the heartbreak. The book isn’t just a funny, postmodern stunt. It’s a painfully honest look at the risks and rewards of love, a great and eternal and universal subject. As Barthelme wrote in Rebecca, a short story from Amateurs:
The story ends. It was written for several reasons. Nine of them are secrets. The tenth is that one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm to tympanic page.
Mitchell Center: What is the setting?
Greg Dean: It takes place in New York, presumably Manhattan, circa 1965–66. That’s when the book was published. But the setting also includes elements from the world of fairy tales, from Disney and from right now. A collision of several times and places that is very much in keeping with Barthelme’s writing.
Mitchell Center: And how related is the work to the fairy tale?
Greg Dean: Barthelme explained that he used the well-known story of Snow White as a kind of shortcut—a means to bypass exposition and get down to business. The reader’s familiarity with the source derives maximum resonance from any variations on, or departures from, the original.
Mitchell Center: What are the qualities of Barthelme’s writings that have seemed most important to bring to the fore?
Greg Dean: Content aside, the thing that really excites me is the challenge of trying to make a play that comes close to replicating the experience of reading the book-a whiplash, vertigo inducing, literary collage.
Mitchell Center: And how has the production responded creatively to the world of his imagination?
Greg Dean: To do justice to the book’s shifting modes, the production requires a variety of styles and methods, from Bertolt Brecht to Busby Berkeley, from slapstick comedy to an almost filmic naturalism. A ten-way collision of theatrical styles.