Virago Theatre is producing Bill Bivins's play, Ransom, Texas, at Tides Theatre, San Francisco, 9/30 - 10/18, and at Theatre Asylum, Los Angeles, 1/9 - 1/25 2015.
In this interview Mr. Bivins talks about the genesis and themes of his play.
dc: Where did your play Ransom, Texas, come from?
Bivins: It’s the first play I ever wrote, and it’s gone through many drafts and permutations since then. I used to write screenplays, working with a writing partner for many years, and at one point, about twelve years ago, I kind of shifted gears, and when I did that I decided to write a play, and this is the play I wrote. After I wrote it, I did a number of rewrites, and then the draft sat on the shelf for a number of years. Then some time in 2009, or 2010, Jon Tracy, [director], got in touch with me out of the blue, asking whether I had a play to submit to Pacific Rep. Jon was reaching out on behalf of Ken Kelleher, Pac Rep’s artistic director. I think Jon said they wanted a play with six actors that was magical realism, and I said, “Well, I’ve got a play for two actors that’s realism” [laughing]. Jon said, “Send it to me,” which I did, and he forwarded it to Pac Rep on my behalf. Unbeknownst to me, I was submitting to a contest. I won the contest [The Hyperion Project Original Play Competition] and the play got a workshop production.
The genesis of the play is a little bit autobiographical. A grew up on a pecan farm in New Mexico, and in the 90’s when a cousin died I had to sort of drop everything and run the farm. I had a bit of a power struggle with my uncle, and the play came out of that. I don’t like things that are strictly autobiographical, so I changed a lot of elements, and the characters don’t really resemble me or my uncle. But the situation of the play is roughly like the one I was experiencing.
dc: An issue that comes up in the play is the tension between traditional versus contemporary ways of looking at production—specifically, outsourcing—which has a lot of relevance today for a variety of reasons. Is that a theme you were particularly interested in developing?
Bivins: Economics figures in a lot of my plays; it’s something I’m really fascinated by. Also, I like plays where the stakes are bigger than just the characters on the stage, so I wanted to make it a situation where what’s at stake is not just these two people, or even just this company, but this town and all the workers that work in the company, and then going out from that to what’s happening globally, including outsourcing and how that’s affecting the American workforce. But mostly I wanted it to be this mini-kingdom, where, if things go south, many people would be affected.
dc: Your play also presents an intense intra-familial struggle, between the son and his father. Is that something else that you are interested in exploring?
Bivins: No, not consciously. That sort of came out of working the drama and discovering these characters. I didn’t sit down and say to myself, “O.K., I’m going to write an Oedipal psychodrama” [laughs]. That just naturally came out of that particular struggle.
But I am interested in situations where people are trapped in a fatalistic way. In Ransom, Texas, you’ve got this father and son, and, who knows, maybe this same dynamic has been going back many, many generations within this family. It’s sort of like the sins of the father visited upon the son, and they’re continuing this struggle, and at the end the son might be able to get out.
dc: Right, and you have chosen to create an almost claustrophobic environment. It all happens in one room, where we have two people with a lot of energy so that one feels the smallness of the room as they go at each other. They reference people outside the room, but basically we’re dealing with these two people. You have mentioned a fatal dynamic, but that becomes even more dramatic, for us, because of that constraint, that physical smallness. Is that something you were conscious of and working on in this play?
Bivins: Yes! I’m always interested in trapping people and then throwing things at them that might fuel the intensity—like alcohol, or weapons of one sort or another. In this case there is the big desk that represents the intractability of the situation. I was excited the other day to see the set designs of Nina Ball. Her set really juices the claustrophobic aspect.
dc: Are there any playwrights or writers who do this sort of thing that you are attracted to?
Bivins: Well, I love the work of Pinter. To a lesser degree, Sam Shepard, David Mamet. Two people in a room—that sort of thing. Which is what this is.
dc: Also this particular play of yours represents a pervasive, intense masculinity. Each one of the characters represents a generationally different machismo, but it is machismo nonetheless. And there is the absence of women onstage to counter any of that.
Bivins: Right. I’ve written plays, however, with strong female leads—Virago produced my play, The Afterlife of the Mind —and most of my plays have strong, dynamic women, either in the lead, or in key roles. Ransom, Texas is the only play I’ve written where it’s been just a couple of testosterone-fueled guys in a room, but that just grew out of the situation that I was thinking through and working for this play.
dc: And there are references to women in this play as well.
Bivins: Yes, and they are both important offstage characters. They represent how these men use women to manipulate each other, in a really twisted way.
dc: So, we have a recurring motif here, of manipulation, right? In this play we have people who are working at a very literal level, to the extent that each of the characters has something he is trying to get done, and each is struggling to achieve his goal and figure out what it’s going to cost him. But there’s also a level where we don’t always know whether to take what they are saying as literal, because it’s also about manipulation. We are constantly wondering, “Is he mainly playing a role here to manipulate a certain response or is this more like bread and butter: I need to know these things about the finances so we can move on?”
Bivins: Yes, these are guys who, because of their really twisted relationship, can’t be consistently direct with each other. So there’s a lot of subterfuge, there’s a lot of manipulation. Bruce, who is trying to take over his father’s company, can’t just do it in a straightforward way; he does it on the sly. It becomes betrayal upon betrayal upon betrayal, because of the nature of their relationship. There’s love there, but there is also the opposite. They’re locked in an eternal conflict with each other and the situation is so volatile that they can’t talk directly with each other. If there were just a direct request from one of them, it would be shut down, possibly violently.
dc: And something that distinguishes the father is that, unlike the son, he still sees himself as a father who is “schooling” his son. He hasn’t let go of the notion that he is a model or that he is going to be able to teach his son something.
Bivins: And that ultimately comes out of a place of love. It’s a kind of nurturing.
dc: As you have pointed out, this play is intensely realistic. Is that the mode you are most comfortable with in your writing?
Bivins: I’ve tried some pretty off-the-wall stuff. The Afterlife of the Mind goes into science fiction a little, and horror. So I don’t really stick to realism, but I do like plays that are at least grounded in the real, even if they take big departures into other realms.
dc: Ransom, Texas is also realistic in another way, as it invites audiences into the full illusion of theater. Its realism is so consistent that at the Intermission some audience members are likely to think, “Wow, that’s right, here I am in San Francisco seeing a play. I forgot that.” It doesn’t make any attempts to break that illusion, to make one conscious of the playmaking process. There here is no Brechtian “alienation” or “distancing.” In this sense, it is unapologetically realistic.
Bivins: Well, I’ve done a bit of that sort of “distancing” in other works of mine, mostly in one-acts.
dc: One thing I find appealing about Ransom, Texas is that it is bold in this way, as a total buy-in of realism. It takes the risk of getting that to work on its own terms, and succeeds.
Bivins: Thank you! I’m glad to hear that, because I kind of feel, mostly from myself, but also from outside pressure, to do “distancing” things, to add stylized elements to plays.
dc: I’ll be interested in hearing feedback from the audience. I hope to have some Talk Backs after some of the performances to give audience members a chance to convey their reactions to the play.
Bivins: Well, the directing, by John Tracy, is great, and so is the cast—that’s going to help with sustaining the illusion.
dc: Is there anything else about Ransom, Texas that you would like to mention?
Bivins: It’s essentially a tragedy, in the sense that you’ve got a situation like the situation in Palestine, where both sides are right, and both sides are wrong, so that all you can end with is disillusion of one kind or another.
dc: And perhaps the source of its tragic aspects is some internal disability or dysfunction of the characters?
Bivins: Yes, which goes back to the inability of these characters to deal with things directly, having no other mode to communicate or get people to do what you want, except by manipulating them emotionally. In the case of Vern, and presumably eventually in the case of Bruce, you have somebody who wants to let go but who can’t, and at the same time wants control of this little “kingdom,” and really loves his subjects, the people who work for him inside this community, almost fiefdom. He’s almost like a god, and his workers are beholding to him, trapped there as well. The son, Bruce, thinks he can change things, sort of spruce it up, polish it up, but faces an impossible task. The conditions that originally supported it all won’t work anymore. It’s possible that in order to really make this thing work, one has to destroy everything, so that we wonder what was the point in the first place? And that macroeconomic tragedy parallels the personal one.
dc: Right, and that question, “What was the point in the first place?” brings us to an examination of goals. What do these characters think they are doing? Bruce takes a sort of post-Reagan view: what we are doing is making money and keeping the business stable. While Vern, the father, is thinking that they are feeding a huge community and providing place, locus, for a lot of people. Talk about paradigm shift! No one can leave the theater without feeling all that.
Bivins: Good. I hope that this play will touch everybody at some level. On one level there’s all the high-minded macroeconomics, and the thematic concerns that we have talked about, but then there’s also just two characters—a father and son—who are dealing with some pretty basic family stuff.