Tonight, the creator of the hit HBO series “Oz” debuts a staged reading of his first play in almost 40 years in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
It’s been a long time since Tom Fontana has seen his work on stage.
“You write a script for television, and it goes on the air, and people are watching it, and you don’t know if they’re yawning or getting up to get a sandwich, if they’re going, ‘I’d rather watch 'Modern Family,' you know what I mean?" asked Fontana. "You don’t know that. You live in this blissful, like, ‘oh, my TV show’s on the air!’ When you’re in the theater, there’s people out there, and they’re scratching their heads and they’re looking at each other, and they’re not laughing on what you think is a funny line, and it’s horrifying.”
Now – for only the second time in a career that has garnered him three Emmys, four Peabodys, and many other awards – Fontana has returned to live theater. His theatrical origin story began in the Berkshires back in the 1980s.
“I spent four years working at the Williamstown Theatre Festival," said Fontana. "I think Euripides was our playwright in residence. No, it was when Nikos Psacharopoulos was in charge, and I had the longest title – assistant to the artistic director playwright in residence – of anyone at the festival, and I was the lowest paid person of anyone at the festival.”
He’s come a long way since.
“Now I’m on the board of trustees, which Robert Benchley once said, you become in age the thing you despised in youth, so I have become the board member that I always hated when I was a young punk playwright,” the writer laughed.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival also was the place where his first play debuted in 1981.
“It was an adaptation of a short story by Washington Irving called ‘The Specter Bride Groom,’” said Fontana.
It ran for a summer, and by the end of it, Fontana was convinced that he’d picked the wrong line of work. But despite his own misgivings about the play, it ended up catapulting his career.
“But only because Blythe Danner, who was an actress in the company that summer, forced her husband Bruce Paltrow to hire me on his new TV series ‘St. Elsewhere,’ because at that point I was absolutely broke,” he told WAMC.
Fontana can’t attribute the opportunity to "The Specter Bride Groom" itself.
“Bruce refused to come and see my play, and he actually hired me without having read or seen anything I’d ever written, which I am convinced to this day if he had, he never would have hired me,” he said.
Regardless, his career took off, writing and producing on shows like “St. Elsewhere,” “Homicide: Life On The Street,” “Oz,” and most recently, the Kevin Bacon vehicle “City On A Hill.”
But this summer, 38 years after his Irving adaptation inadvertently lead him into a life in television, Fontana the playwright is back. For the fifth and final installment of the 12th season of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, a reading of his new work “Screenplay By Stalin” will be presented on the stage of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington.
“Back after World War II, Joseph Stalin, the head of the Soviet Union, commissioned a screenplay called "The Fall Of Berlin", which he wanted to show the Russian army triumphantly conquering Nazi Berlin,” said Fontana.
The propaganda piece – released in 1950 – was intended to highlight Soviet dominance, and Stalin was deeply involved in its creation.
“And he said, 'You have to write a scene in which I am standing in front of the Reichstag in Berlin, the conqueror, the hero of the film.' So the play is actually about these two poor shmucks who are trying to write this screenplay," said Fontana. "And they’re waiting for the notes, they get the notes, and now they have to write this completely untruthful scene which they really, really don’t want to write. But what’s the consequences if they say no to Stalin? It won’t be pretty.”
Despite the 70 years between the events in question and today, Fontana suspects audiences will find parallels between the two historical moments.
“I think if you look at the world that we live in, and the country that we live in – not to get too political about it, but – we live in an age where truth is less important than the illusion of fact," said the playwright. "That if you say something loud enough and often enough, people believe it as the actual truth, as opposed to what is really the truth – which is mostly inconvenient. Mostly the truth is unpleasant if you’re dealing with anything from climate change to racism to misogyny. So we’d rather believe the pretty little pictures that are painted.”
It’s also a reflection on the nation’s efforts to create its own idealized self-image.
“It’s like back when the Hollywood system existed, and they would make Andy Hardy films, and America was this perfect little place – but America was never a perfect little place, it’s always been struggling to be a perfect little place,” Fontana said.
“This doesn’t get very, very dark, but it gets darker than it started, and it does remind you of the world that we’re living in," said Craig Bierko. The Tony-nominated actor plays Fiodor, one of the screenwriters in the play trapped in Stalin’s clutches.
“It’s about people not realizing that this guy who sells himself as the father, the benevolent father who just wants to take care of the bourgeoisie to the worker to the farmer to the rich people, that we’re a family, and he’s the father, is really a crook and a murderer and is not up to anything good, and these guys are next, they’re on the conveyor belt and they’re next," Bierko told WAMC. "That’s the feeling of the play.”
The sense of growing dread in “Screenplay By Stalin” is in stark contrast to how Fontana views this phase of his long career.
“The good thing about being old – which I increasingly am – is that you fear less, which is a good thing," he said. "So when I was young, I wanted to please everybody. And now, I really just want to do it right. And if people like it, that’s great, and if they don’t, I respect that.”
Tonight, the audience at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts can come to their own conclusions about "Screenplay By Stalin" at 7:30.