Artistic-minded German prisoners of war in a Minnesota internment camp during World War II populate Seattle playwright Vincent Delaney‘s new play, The Art of Bad Men, the fourth and final title in the 2015 NewTACTics Festival of New Plays presented by Off-Broadway’s TACT/The Actors Company Theatre. Delaney shared some thoughts about the play in the weeks leading up to the June 24-25 Manhattan readings, which anticipate full productions in regional theatres later this year.
TACT artistic executive director Scott Alan Evans directs the drama about young soldiers who perform a play by Moliere within the confines of the Midwestern camp. The 29-hour reading includes rehearsal and two free public presentations 7 PM June 24-25, followed by a talkback with the author at the TACT Studio.
“[The title] is intended to be ironic,” Delaney told me via email. “In every American film about the Germans in World War II, they simply are ‘Bad Men.’ And of course there are some of those in my play. But history is so much more complex than that. These were young men, living through an unbelievably dangerous and overwhelming time, struggling to figure out who they were — and how to stay alive. And somehow they found a way to make art.”
The reading cast includes Kate Middleton, Caitlin Morris, Russell Posner, Matthew DeCapua, Michael Schantz and Adam McNulty. The stage manager is TACT company member Michael Friedlander. Lauren Miller is producer of NewTACTics.
The Art of Bad Men will be seen in two separate resident stagings starting in September — at MAP Theatre in Seattle and Theatre B in Fargo, ND. (My own play, Alabama Story, was read in NewTACTics in 2014 prior to its January 2015 world premiere in Salt Lake City. The TACT step was invaluable.)
Here’s how TACT bills the play: “Based on interviews with former German prisoners of war, The Art of Bad Men is the true story of the German soldiers in the POW camps which dotted the U.S. during World War II. Some are ardent Nazis, some are barely old enough to hold a shovel. Every one of them is scared: of the war, of losing their home, of the vastness of this strange land. But for a few, a camp production of a Moliere play may give them a chance — either to escape or to transcend.”
The playwright answered more of my questions, below.
Vincent Delaney’s plays have been produced, commissioned and developed at the Guthrie, Humana Festival, Premiere Stages, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Florida Stage, InterAct, the Magic, Woolly Mammoth, Source Theatre Festival, Pittsburgh Public, New Harmony, PlayLabs, the Lark and LAByrinth, among others. His awards include McKnight and Bush fellowships, a Jerome Commission, the Heideman, and Core Membership at the Playwrights Center. Ampersand won the Reva Shiner Award from the Bloomington Playwrights Project. The Sequence, commissioned by the Guthrie, has been produced around the country and in the U.K., Canada and Japan. 99 Layoffs premiered at RadialTheatre Project and ACT Theatre, and was produced at Orange Tea Theatre in Amsterdam. The script was a nominee for the Steinberg Award. Foreclosure was developed at Seattle Rep, Shakespeare and Company, and Florida Studio Theatre. Delaney’s work is published by Applause Books, Smith and Kraus, Samuel French, Heineman, Dramatics Magazine, Theatre Forum and Playscripts.com.
Here’s my chat with Vincent Delaney.
The Art of Bad Men is inspired by interviews with former German prisoners of war who were behind barbed wire on American soil during World War II. Were these your interviews, or from another source?
Vincent Delaney: In 2004, I spent three weeks interviewing elderly former POWs at their homes in Germany. Most were extremely eager to share their stories. Quite a few of them insisted I stay with them and their families. At times this was inspiring, and occasionally intensely uncomfortable. The politics of the past were still present for many of them — I’m thinking in particular of a former Waffen SS officer, who had no problem sharing his pro-Nazi beliefs with a total stranger in 2004.
Was there actually a production of a Moliere play produced in the confines of the camp? Can you share a little bit about that true-life experience, and how you spin it/change it for dramatic purposes?
Vincent Delaney: In general, prisoners were encouraged to take advantage of all the benefits of the Geneva Convention, which extended to education and leisure activities. There were camp orchestras, history and philosophy classes, theatre groups, all run and taught by prisoners themselves. Among the photos I received were several of the camp production of The Miser: a dozen young German soldiers, on the stage, some in drag, performing Moliere at an Iowa POW camp. It floored me. And knowing that play pretty well, I instantly saw it as a structure I could use to focus the relationships in my story.
What did you “see” first when conjuring the play? A character? A setting? A conflict?
Vincent Delaney: I went to Germany with only a minimal amount of prior research. I ended up being deeply affected by the range of personalities I met, the humanity of these men, and the vast political gulfs I encountered. In some ways, they had nothing at all in common with each other. In addition to the SS men, there were many who had despised the Nazis, and were barely teenagers when they were conscripted. Our own media presentation of them has always been bland and monolithic. My play grew directly out of the fascinating diversity and clash in their personalities.
Beyond the interviews, was this a research-heavy process?
Vincent Delaney: Dozens of books and interviews, travel around the Midwest (Iowa and Minnesota primarily), hunting down sources, interviews with the former American guards at the camps. There are also two excellent museums/research groups in Iowa who put me in touch with prisoners: PW Camp Algona and TRACES.
Share a little bit about the main characters and what they go through?
Vincent Delaney: Gerhardt is a happy-go-lucky German Air Force violinist, who has the misfortune of being taken prisoner and shipped to a Minnesota POW camp. His greatest goal in life is probably to woo an American sweetheart. Kurt is an ardent young SS officer, who fully expects the Luftwaffe to bomb Minnesota and take over the USA in a few weeks. Franz is a teenager and budding theatre artist. The play is about the clash of their personal dreams, set in a distant, exotic place none of them can remotely fathom: the American Midwest.
How much is “theme” on your mind when you are writing, or does that emerge later?
Vincent Delaney: I like each play to exist in its own stylistic universe. In this case, since I was working from primary sources (including, oddly, Moliere), questions of theme and style were mainly settled for me. More than anything else I’ve written, this play is almost completely historical. I think that allowed the theme to flow naturally from the hopes and fears of Gerhardt, Kurt and Franz.
Prior to the TACT reading, what sort of development has The Art of Bad Men gone through? Workshops? Readings? Attached to theatres? Private living rooms? Did the play take specific leaps forward in any of these?
Vincent Delaney: The play has had half a dozen workshops recently, including Seattle, Orlando, Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. It has definitely evolved through those collaborations. It’s scheduled for two full productions this fall — finally!
How important is it for you to step away from a play for a while? To get some perspective or give it some “think” time, I mean. Is that useful to you?
Vincent Delaney: Very useful, no question. I generally have 2-3 projects going at once, and depending on deadline, sometimes there’s no choice but to step away from one in favor of another. With this play, it’s been so useful to come back, work on it with new artists, address the complex balance of character and history.
Is there something specific you will be listening for at the TACT reading of The Art of Bad Men? Were there rewrites leading into the rehearsal process?
Vincent Delaney: I just had a great conversation with Scott Alan Evans, my director. We’re both interested in exploring a fascinating (and disturbing) premise in the play — that in some curious way, artistic passion and political obsession (in this case, fascism) can flow from the same source. This is embodied in the character of Kurt, who we’re going to track closely through rehearsals.
How is The Art of Bad Men a departure from other plays you’ve written, and how is it part of a continuum of your style or your passion?
Vincent Delaney: Many of my plays flow from history and/or current social issues. Foreclosure is about a couple dealing with their neighbor’s devastating loss of a home, and how it affects their own humanity. Las Cruces is about two parents trying to figure out who they are after their son commits a horrific school shooting.
But with those plays, the historical event is a leaping off point for my own story. In this case, I feel like I’m faithfully following someone else’s arc, from start to finish. I suppose my interviewees might not share that opinion. But working so directly from individual history has made this project feel so different.
What was your first exposure to plays and theatre? How did your life as a playwright begin? Where were you born and raised — did your folks go to the theatre?
Vincent Delaney: I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, studied Acting at Cornish Conservatory in Seattle, ended up with an MFA in Playwriting. I still get to perform every year or so, when my family lets me out the door. In school I was always fascinated by writing and terrified by acting, which led to an obsession with both.
Few playwrights make a living actually writing plays. Do you? Is there a “day job” for you? How does it does it feed or challenge your progress as a writer?
Vincent Delaney: I have an inspiring day job working with young kids, many of them special needs, in an elementary school setting. It’s busy, emotional, rewarding, and charges the batteries for my creative work.
Where do you live now, and where do you write? Is there a work routine for you? Two hours a day? 9-5, etc?
Vincent Delaney: We live and work in Seattle. Our own kids are young, so I often find myself scrambling for writing time in the late hours, after “parent duty.” I actually enjoy having to write fast — natural deadlines are always built in.
Are you a word-processor writer, a longhand legal-page writer?
Vincent Delaney: Paper until I know what I’m doing, then straight to the desktop.
What’s next for you? What are you working on, or what full production is coming for you?
Vincent Delaney: In addition to the Bad Men productions coming up, I’ve spent the past year testing the film/TV waters. So far so good: we have two series pilots that are drawing interest, and I seem to be in L.A. quite a bit lately. Writing in that medium has been an electric rush, and I have deep respect for the writers who do it well. It’s unbelievably demanding, in terms of pace and structure. And yet you can still tell complex, rich stories.