A GoPride Interview

Adam Pasen

Adam Pasen on his world premiere production of Tea with Edie & Fitz

Sun. May 19, 2013  by Michael J. Roberts

Stylistically I’m very much a Fitzgerald, who was really two writers packed into one...
Adam Pasen

Adam Pasen on his world premiere production of Tea with Edie & Fitz

Regarded as one of the best new playwrights in the industry, Lake Forest native Adam Pasen talks about his world premiere production of Tea with Edie & Fitz, which focuses on the lives of authors F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence). Mr. Pasen's play delves into how these classic writers had to deal with homosexuality, mental illness and the super-ego of the creative mind during the early 1900's.

The World Premiere of Adam Pasen's Tea with Edie and Fitz runs through June 9, 2013 at the Greenhouse Theater Complex, 2257 North Lincoln Ave.

MJR: (Michael J. Roberts) Congratulations on the great reviews for Tea With Edie & Fitz! How and when did you come with the idea of writing about literary greats Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald?

AP: (Adam Pasen) In 2004, I had to take a Major Authors class to graduate and two of the writers we studied were Wharton and Fitzgerald. I fell in love with Wharton immediately, and The House of Mirth is my favorite novel to this day. Fitzgerald's novels I was not as immediately drawn to, but for my final paper I checked The Crack Up out of the library as research and it completely changed my opinion of his work. The pleasure I found in reading Wharton was integral, derived from the poignant and insightful prose itself. The pleasure I found in reading Fitzgerald was contextual, derived from understanding why he wrote what he wrote, where these feelings were coming from and what he had endured. Finally, after the three major essays in The Crack Up was a series of correspondence between Fitzgerald and other authors, and one of those letters was from Edith Wharton over Gatsby...hence, the germ of the play.

MJR: Both Wharton and Fitzgerald were considered groundbreaking in their time. What qualities about them do you think made them connect with the audience of their day?

AP: They both wrote with authority - what Fitzgerald would have called "the authority of success" for Edith and the "authority of failure" for himself. Edith was a woman who essentially "won" at life, however pyrrhic that victory may have been and what it cost her to get there. Everybody loves a winner, so her writing was appreciated in her time. Meanwhile, I would argue that Scott did not connect with the audience of his day at all (at least not when he was writing something he felt really mattered); until his death he toiled to capture the same brilliant success of his early career, but to no avail. He allowed too much vulnerability to show, and people have a hard time digesting weakness when it is immediate and close, they're too afraid it'll catch. Once enough of a historical remove has been achieved, however, we embrace our outcasts even more wholeheartedly than the most golden of our heroes, and I think that accounts for Fitzgerald's overwhelming popularity today.

MJR: Sexual questioning and mental illness are central to your story as the main characters are dealing with each of these issues on a different level. How do you think these problems manifested themselves in both Wharton and Fitzgerald's writings?

AP: There is a wonderful scene in The Age of Innocence where Newland Archer is at a high society dinner and realizes as he looks about the table that everyone knows he is having an affair, but that it is their own particular brand of kindness not to let on - because he is one of them. Hence the dinner can continue on and grandly as before. I think this an excellent microcosm of Wharton's treatment of "surfaces" in general; there will always be illness, infidelity, sexual anxiety, etc., but as long as these issues remain implicit without being confronted directly, the glittering surface of living can maintain its integrity. In Wharton's work, one represses but remains functional. Much more aligned with our own reality TV obsessed culture, Fitzgerald's novels cast a rather glaring light on sex, insanity, and poverty. Yet what fascinates me is that surprisingly nobody seems better off for facing their demons directly. In that sense, Fitzgerald seems to have anticipated our own "let it all hang out mentality" and its inability to fix anything more than repression ever did by almost a century.

MJR: Do you think F. Scott Fitzgerald was bisexual or gay?

AP: Wow, I'm going to tread very lightly on this one, because honestly who am I to speculate? I think if we are going strictly from the definition of "gay" in my old Psych AP textbook, then no, because there is no evidence that he was "actively seeking emotional and physical relationships" with other men. As for whether or not there was any latent curiosity or even desire - it is possible, sure. Sexual ambivalence was certainly common enough

in Fitzgerald's circle; his host on the Rivera Gerald Murphy seems to have had some sort of "understanding" about sex with his wife, Sara. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald's alternately fascinated/repulsed by stance on "fairies" does lend itself to consideration, as does his treatment of heterosexual love scenes. For instance, many critics point out that despite his "outrageous" rep his depictions of sexual relations are almost shockingly chaste; in This Side of Paradise minute detail is paid to Amory's pursuit of girls, but the actual consummations are largely elided. When he does experience his first kiss, he is tellingly

filled with "loathing for the whole incident." Still, such evidence remains ambiguous at most - did Fitzgerald dress in drag for the Princeton variety show because he enjoyed testing the boundaries of gender, or simply as he would later claim to gain notoriety and impress his romantic interest at the time (Lake Forest socialite Ginevra King who had recently played a man in one of her school plays at Westover)? Despite Zelda's pointed insinuations, however, Fitzgerald was apparently capable of successful sexual relations with women as his mistress Sheila Graham would attest. So who knows? One thing is for certain, though: both Fitzgerald's works and his life provide fertile opportunities for scholars and theorists in terms of potential queer readings and interpretations.

MRJ: What character traits of Wharton and Fitzgerald do you personally have when it comes to writing style

AP: Stylistically I'm very much a Fitzgerald, who was really two writers packed into one: the Saturday Evening Post writer who wrote to pay the bills, and the major novelist who wrote to put life to the page. I have had "you should write for sitcoms" leveled at me as both a compliment and an insult more times than I can say. Yet I am getting better at reconciling that schism in my writing - one can be by turns an artist and an entertainer, it's simply a matter of compartmentalization. Thematically I am all Wharton - my chief concern is to explore the internal life of the individual who is forced to subsist in a social context.

MJR: Who was the hardest character in your play to develop? Who was the easiest?

AP: Like both Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, I have always been somewhat more comfortable writing in the feminine mode. In fact, I'll be the first to admit that my female characters are often more convincing than my male, and Tea was no exception; Edith and Zelda were just there - I got them, I knew what they wanted. The men were less forthcoming. For a long time, James was a device - in early drafts he was essentially just a sounding board by which Edith could deliver exposition. The challenge was taking a writer renowned for passivity and making him active and dramatically compelling, which I ultimately resolved by making his objective to keep Edith falling into the same passive approach to life herself. Fitzgerald was difficult for an entirely different reason; there are certain historically documented facets of his character that can seem problematic to an outside observer (alcoholism, bouts of apparent misogyny, documented appropriation of Zelda's work, blatant homophobia - internalized or not, etc.). Yet to really pay the homage to this man, I felt it was important not to gloss over the darker aspects of his character. Hence, like the brilliant depiction of Capote in the film of the same name, I set out to embrace each of those demons and integrate them into my take on Fitzgerald, and the more complex he revealed himself as a character, the more I fell in love with him as a person. He is just so human, transcendent in his flaws. I hope anyone who sees the play feels the same way.

MJR: What was the spark that propelled you toward playwriting?

Who are some of your favorites playwrights?
AP: When I was in Junior High I won a contest to write the 6th grade play that year. The prompt was "candy" and I wrote a spy parody called "Butterfinger" concerning the exploits of one James Bon Bon. No word yet on how the Pulitzer committee managed to overlook it. As for some of my favorite playwrights, they change on a daily basis. I am consistently awed anew, however, every time I read James Goldman's The Lion in Winter - it is so specific historically and yet so universal in appeal. They're just a family like anyone else's, squabbling and dysfunctional but ultimately bound by ties irrevocable. That play is a perfect example of just how much the past has to say to us in the present.

MJR: Fitzgerald is in vogue again, especially with The Great Gatsby film opening. What about that work resonates with today's audience in a season where superheroes abound.

AP: As far as I am concerned Gatsby IS a superhero movie. Jay Gatsby rises from nothing and reinvents himself as a millionaire playboy; in an economy where so many of us wish to be living someone else's life, who could seem more heroic than a man who dares to? More than anything else, however, I think there are a lot of us who want to go back in time, who crave a return to a point where the world made sense and we knew who we were. For those people, I think Gatsby proves a particularly seductive figure, especially in his tempting assertion, "can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!"

MJR: Do you have any upcoming projects?

AP: Yes, I am currently conducting readings of Badfic Love, which was a WordBRIDGE selection and recent Seven Devils semifinalist. It is a companion piece to Tea with Edie and Fitz in the sense that I wrote them at the same time and both express my feelings on nearing the end of my 20s and completing my doctorate only to be dumped into a work force overqualified to do much but teach and no jobs in higher education - Tea was an outlet for my melancholy, Badfic for my rage. I am excited to put it into production because though my basic themes are recognizable, it shows a very different side of my work.

MJR: What do you like to do in your spare time?


MJR: What do you want audiences to come away with after seeing your play?

AP: I very much hope they'll come away with a list of books they are interested in checking out of the library - that would mean I reached my goal. To that end, I try to work books and writers into the play whenever possible that I think audience members might enjoy learning more about. Fortunately, it isn't too hard to incorporate such references organically, since as a playwright I know if there's one thing writers can talk about ad nauseum, it is ourselves...and what we are writing...and what we have written...and quotes from them...and other writers...and whether we like them or not...and what they're writing...and what they have written...and quotes from them, etc. Of course one major fear I have is that it will come across like I am merely trying to seem erudite or appear an authority by all of these "citations," which could not be further from the truth. It is other artists I want to put on display, not myself. Still, that is a risk I'm willing to take if I can in my own small way lead even a few audience members to the works of these two wonderful authors.

For more information about Tea with Edie and Fitz visit deadwriters.net, greenhousetheater.org or 773.404.7336.

ChicagoPride.com review of Tea with Edie & Fitz

More about Adam Pasen

Adam Pasen, Dead Writer's playwright in residence, recently received his Ph.D. in English with a focus in Playwriting from Western Michigan University. He is honored to continue his collaboration with Jim Schneider after appearing in Schneider's production of An Ideal Husband and having Schneider direct his adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" at City Lit.

Pasen's plays have also been produced or workshopped by Theatre Oxford, ATC, Remy Bumppo, the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival, Tectonic Theater Project, and the Kennedy Center (2012 KCACTF National Ten-Minute Play Award). He has been a finalist for the Reva Shiner Comedy Award from Bloomington Playwrights Project and his play Badfic Love was a WordBRIDGE 2012 selection.

Interviewed by Michael J. Roberts. Michael J. Roberts is theatre editor for the ChicagoPride.com covering Chicago's diverse arts and entertainment scene.


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