In late 2019, now-retired Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Noah Haidle about Birthday Candles in anticipation of the planned 2020 production of the show. Haidle edited his responses in early 2022.
TED SOD: Where were you born and educated? How and when did you realize you wanted to write for the theatre?
NOAH HAIDLE: I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Birthday Candles is set. Growing up I was not a creative kid, I didn’t go to the theatre outside of seeing my brother in a murder mystery performed in the high school cafeteria. I read Death of a Salesman in my junior year and said, “I’m totally gonna do that.” Having no idea how one becomes a playwright, I decided to go to the public library and to read everything. The Pulitzer Prize for Drama began in 1918 with the non-classic Why Marry? by Jesse Lynch Williams. I figured that was a good place to start. There was no prize awarded in 1919, but then Beyond the Horizon by Eugene O’Neill won in 1920, and then...and then...I read at least one play a day for years, operating under the theory that if I took on enough information, someday I’d be able to synthesize something myself.
I went to Princeton (I am contractually obligated to say within the first five minutes of every conversation that I went to Princeton, or they strip me of my degree), where I met Christopher Durang when I was 19. In my application for his class I said I had recently stolen a copy of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You from Barnes and Noble. I guess he thought that was funny because he let me in. A few years after graduation I went to the Juilliard playwriting program headed by Chris and Marsha Norman, which was heaven. A couple years after that my play Mr. Marmalade was produced at Roundabout’s Steinberg Center off-Broadway. It went so poorly with both critics and audiences that they created Roundabout Underground.
When Mr. Marmalade was in previews, I went to the bathroom during intermission and the gentleman at the urinal next to me said, “Worst play ever.” Gulp. Instead of a rebuttal, I blurted, “I know -- right?” I have never used a lobby bathroom since. I will go across the street to a Subway sandwich shop, or use a catheter, anything to avoid another gentleman turning and expressing a similar sentiment, although at the age of 43 maybe I’d have the self-confidence to disagree.
TS: Mr. Marmalade remains one of the most polarizing pieces we’ve produced. For every person who couldn’t deal with it, there is another person who adored it. I still hear people talk about this play to this day.
NH: Unfortunately, I didn’t meet any of those that adored it; maybe you’ll introduce me next time you see them. I’m dubiously proud that the terrible reception of my first professional play helped launch the careers of so many distinguished playwrights. The symmetry of my first play going so badly that a theatre would create a new program for emerging writers, and now this new play going to Broadway more than 15 years later is one of the most beautiful things that’s ever happened to me. Everybody loves a comeback.
TS: Birthday Candles encapsulates what a full life looks like. What inspired you to write it?
NH: Three things (that I’m consciously aware of, anyway). When I was 19, I read that goldfish have a three second memory span, when I was 34 I read that Arthur Schopenhauer spent the last years of his life alone in Frankfurt, Germany playing the violin to his dog Atman (the name of the goldfish in Birthday Candles). Third, somewhere in my self-assigned course of study, I encountered Thornton Wilder’s A Long Christmas Dinner. I straight up stole the conceit of that play and used it for Birthday Candles, dropping in on certain birthdays of a woman from age 17 to 107 as Mr. Wilder’s play drops in on certain Christmases in the life of a family. Through another bit of good luck, the heads of Wilder’s estate, Rosey Strub and Tappan Wilder, read Birthday Candles and gave it their blessing. As T.S. Eliot wrote, minor poets borrow, major poets steal.
TS: I want to ask you about how this play came to be commissioned. Can you talk us through that process?
NH: A few years ago, three talented and brave women—Sarah Winkler, Sarah Clare Corporandy and Courtney Burkett—started the Detroit Public Theatre. I was living in Detroit at the time, and my wife’s aunt knew the founders and arranged for us to meet. When I sat down with Courtney, she said, “I bet you don’t know how we know each other,” and I said, “You’re right.” When I was still in college I had a play produced at HERE in SoHo, directed by Davis McCallum, when we were both young people. Courtney was the assistant director on that play. At first I got involved in Detroit Public Theatre not as a playwright, instead I wrote the script for a fundraiser and ran the soundboard. So when Sarah Clare asked about new play development, I said what I would never say to a standard producing organization: “All any playwright wants to hear is yes – nobody wants another reading, or a workshop, all we want to hear is yes.” She took that to heart, and later that summer the three founders said, “Here’s a commission, we’ll produce whatever you write next spring.” Their act of faith is correlative to Birthday Candles being pretty good.
TS: How much rewriting do you do in rehearsals?
NH: As much as possible. Part of the fun of being a living playwright is a) being alive, and b) helping out to serve the production. Any playwright who thinks that a production should be an execution of a vision is in for a tough life. Why not try to help out with what’s in front of you? If the director stages a long cross, add some lines. If an actor is funny, write funnier stuff for them. Backstage at the American Airlines Theatre℠ there is a leftover prop from another show, an enormous pirate. I told the crew there that I would somehow get the word pirate into Birthday Candles. I’m not sure how I’m going to pull that off, but we’ll see...
TS: I want to talk to you about collaborating with director Vivienne Benesch. What made you want to collaborate with her on this play?
NH: How do you explain why you fall in love with someone? Vivienne is a fairy, a wizard. She’s magic. When you find someone who is magic, you hitch yourself to their wagon and hope for the best.
TS: Do you have any advice for a young person who says they want to write for the theatre?
NH: Find how to take yourself seriously. It’s really weird to announce to friends and family, “Hey, I’m going to be a playwright!” Mostly the reaction is a concerned look or a dismissive, “Oh, good for you.” Whether it’s grad school, a mentor, getting into a reading series, getting a grant… just find a manner of validation to attend family Thanksgiving and say without apology, “I’m a playwright.” Other than that I’d say go to the library. Read everything but maybe skip Why Marry?
UPSTAGE GUIDE: What impact has the experience of the pandemic had on Birthday Candles for you?
NH: In between the two productions my wife and I had our first child, a son named Butch. His first birthday is February 13, two days before the first rehearsal of the 2022 iteration. His life has been rather impactful.