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Breaking a Taboo: Stephen Belber on “The Power of Duff”

Rebecca Haithcoat: Religion is a hot potato in today’s culture and you’ve stated it was of great interest to you. Even so, were you concerned that the word “prayer” might scare off audiences?
Stephen Belber: If I said that, I take it back, because I don’t have much interest in writing a play about religion. However, “faith” and “spirituality” are of interest to me, in part due to their inherent uncertainty, which often makes for good theater. (Uncertainty is dramatic in that we don’t know what the characters are capable of doing next.) Spirituality and faith differ extremely for each individual, whereas official “religion,” and the prayers that sometimes go along with it, can be prescriptive and, as we all know, dogmatic. Which is not to say I’m anti-“religion” — I simply prefer the drama that often accompanies subjectivity and doubt. Duff is the story of one individual’s subjective quest to define faith and spirituality for himself, which ironically leads him to a position of power, even as his own uncertainty increases. Hopefully the fact that he employs prayers along his search won’t scare people off.

The intersection of faith and news is new, too. Historically, anchors are supposed to be unbiased, almost blank slates. What prompted you to center the play around a TV news anchor?
It’s stating the obvious to say that cable TV news has decimated the supposed neutrality of TV journalism. Viewers gravitate to the channels that preach their preferences, so what Charlie Duff is doing isn’t that crazy. And yet by invoking God and appealing to a non-partisan “humanism” rather than political stance, he’s breaking a
taboo we’re less used to seeing broken. And perhaps more interesting, he’s asking the viewer to activate, to do more than just shake or nod their head; he’s basically saying, “We are all accountable, and thus we must act.” And because he’s a TV news anchor whose job it is to “explain the world to us,” (rather than a televangelist or a pundit), what he’s
doing from his anchor-pulpit still strikes me as dramatic and unique.

How did writing this play affect your own ideas about

I’m not sure, actually. I do know it’s made me put my money where my mouth is in a more proactive way. Basically, the play is a note-to-self to try to live better, to listen, to engage, and to remember that a good life is made up of small but profound acts.

How involved do you like to be in the play once it is in the hands of an entire production team (director, actors, designers, etc.). Do you ever feel it’s, “out of your hands”?
If I were smart, I’d fully let it go during the rehearsal process. I would trust more, I would be open to the obvious genius and creativity of all involved, I would welcome innovation and surprise, I would buy cookies and drop them off for the cast at the top of each rehearsal and then take a long walk while listening to Terry Gross on my iPhone so that the actors, designers and director can be left alone to do what they do best without a meddling and neurotic writer. I’m working on all that.

What other plays or books were important in your research of The Power of Duff?
Gosh I get nervous when people ask that because I like to think that everything I happen to be doing and reading and listening to and thinking about, and everyone who magically crosses my path or is invariably in my life, are finding their way into my brain as I work on any given piece. This includes my family, studio executives in Hollywood, my friend the Jesuit, my dead aunt the nun, my father the Jew, my 15-year-old son, the prisoners I’ve been interviewing at Pendleton Correctional Facility, the Atticus Lish book Preparation For The Next Life, Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, various religion texts, Anand Giridharadas’ book The True American.

This script has changed significantly since its prior production. Unlike books, scripts continue to evolve, even after first productions. What’s the impetuous for these evolutions? Were there specific things you wanted to address in making them?
Coming off the last production, I knew I wanted the “spiritual obstacles” faced by Charlie to be more difficult and intense. I wanted to confront him with more intractable problems and less solvable situations. I even wanted to bludgeon him, Job-like, so as to more strenuously test his ill and un-defined faith. In part, this meant cutting two entire characters, adding a new one, and doubling down on and amping up the dilemmas he was already facing. Life is not easy; bad things happen to good people; lots of people dieunhappy and without resolution; moments of profundity are generally fleeting; our deathbeds are most likely filled with doubt and regret, but hopefully elements of love, peace and fulfillment slide in and find their tiny place. I was going for a little more of all of that.

The Power of Duff begins April 7 in the Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse. To purchase tickets, click here.

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