Nicole Burdette’s plays are slice-of-life, on-the-road, Capezio-slipper-and-cowboy-boot, walk-on-the-wild side plays. This spring, The Great Unwashed, directed by Ed Sherin, will be presented by Naked Angels. A radio play commissioned by the McCarter Theatre, Pagan’s in Limbo, will be broadcast on February 9 on WNYC.
As an actress, she has appeared in Goodfellas and in Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It, to be released this spring.
This interview took place at rehearsals and after a reading of her play Busted which was presented during the Octoberfest at Ensemble Studio Theatre.
Craig Gholson Roger, as the director of Busted, what is it about Nicole’s work that you respond to?
Roger Hedden Line by line, there’s nobody better. I don’t think she writes the whole play yet, but for a single moment that stuns you, she’s so much better than most people.
CG In terms of authenticity?
RH Yes. Incredibly vivid. She can capture a small, real moment crystally perfect. You go to the theater to see truth put up on stage and she does it. She tells the truth when, right now, most people don’t. She can even write about two people from different backgrounds who realize they have a common humanity and have it have moments where they actually do share a moment of common humanity, as opposed to the Driving Miss Daisy wouldn’t-it-be-nice school of theater. Other people would say it’s the poetry, but poetry’s never been my strong suit. For me, it’s the moments that are crystal clear and luminant.
CG It’s unusual to find a playwright who’s willing to deal with another contemporary playwright. They usually have to be dead to deal with each other.
RH Well, I’m a better playwright than Nicole, but she’s better in a single given chunk of lines. She’s better than me. And I’m egomaniacal. I don’t think many people are better than me. She’s more talented than me in that way and that’s something I definitely don’t say very often.
Bucky: Take off those glasses, Fay, for Chrissake.
Fay: You really have an affliction for these things (takes the glasses off), don’t ya?
Fay: Don’t start talkin about my talk, that’s mean, Bucky.
RH This play is very difficult to read.
Nicole Burdette The play is very difficult for the female part, Fay, because it’s written with a certain rhythm to the language which most actresses do as a Southern accent. I have no idea why. It makes no sense whatsoever. It’s supposed to be spoken like it’s written.
RH In a certain way, the rhythm of the language does dictate that speech pattern, but it’s without an accent. But you do start drawling. If I’m reading the script, I start to drawl.
NB I don’t know how to explain it. It’s not that Fay’s illiterate, she just has a fancy, Midwestern charm. It’s not that she’s uneducated, she’s like the way I talk. Not right all the time. I know how I would speak it, so it’s hard for me to think of what she’s trying to say and put it properly. If you just say it normally, it sounds really normal. Martha Plimpton’s really great because she makes Fay sound natural. She can say the words the way they’re written and not put a thing on it.
Fay: You’re gettin’ to be a mean old man, tired looking. Betcha if you slept more you’d be nicer.
Bucky: I got plenty of people telling me what’d make me nicer, Fay, that’s why I’m here, ’cause I got my friend the river and my friends the train and the track—they like me the way I am.
Fay: I like you the way you are.
Bucky: That’s why you know where I am and no one else does.
Fay: ’Cept the river and the train.
(Enter Victor Slezak, the actor reading Bucky)
NB It’s always easier if I hear what you think. What are your impressions?
Victor Slezak At the beginning of the play, this guy seems to be at the end of the road. His state seems very last-ditch.
NB Although what’s interesting is that he’s in the middle of the road, too. In other words, he’s at the end of the road in that sense, but he’s in the middle of the road in the sense that on one side of him is the abandoned railroad tracks and the other side is the river running wide below. And figuratively or mythically, to the left or right is the home he left when he was 19. He was famous, not like a pop star, but they call it famous in his hometown. In other words, he’s made something of himself. One place is home and one place is where he went to become himself, and he’s literally and figuratively in this car, incapable of driving back home, going back. It’s a limbo thing.
VS He’s not eating. He’s not doing anything.
NB Anything else? I love questions.
VS It’s good Martha’s not here yet so I can ask this question. There are two women in Bucky’s life—Fay’s mother, his lover in the past, and his current lover, Veronique. And Fay’s supposed to be the next woman. She’s right there; it could happen.
NB But Fay’s really not in the forefront of his mind. She happens to be physically there and embodying all this stuff. He’s looking at her but sometimes he’s talking to her mother when he’s looking at her and other times, when she acts like Veronique, she becomes Veronique. So a lot of times she ceases to be who she is because he’s got so much history. But she only knows one Bucky. There’s only one person like him in her whole life. So it’s one person looking at one person, being totally open and clear, but the other person is looking at her and seeing at least two other women. You know? He’s kind of confused.
RH So when Fay becomes Veronique, she really becomes Veronique. And even though Fay’s chosen to present herself that way, it’s still real.
NB It rings bells of something else.
VS Just as real.
NB And there are a lot of bells happening in his head.
Bucky: (touches her hair) You look just like your mother.
Fay: My mother don’t love my dad and neither do I. (beat) She loved you.
Bucky: Don’t you say you don’t love your father, you’ll regret it.
Fay: She loves you.
Bucky: She did.
Fay: She’s in love with you still, just like me. (beat) I’m just like Mom.
(Enter Martha Plimpton, the actor reading Fay)
NB So, do you have any questions?
Martha Plimpton No. I really had no questions yesterday and then today I found out I still didn’t have any more questions. Was there anything you thought I missed last night? Or did too much of?
NB I thought you did perfectly. I liked exactly what you did, but I can say something that is just a thought. But it’s just a thought.
MP Throw it at me, babe.
NB In the beginning, the lines read, “Don’t do that. Don’t make fun of my talk.” This is a horrible word, but I’m going to use it anyway. She may be a little more coy. It’s so subtle. It’s barely worth mentioning. “I knew that,” instead of “I knew that.” Because she’s very confident that he thinks she’s the cat’s pajamas. She’s playacting when she says, “Don’t make fun.” Ever since she’s been a little girl, he’s said, “You’re the best.”
MP I think I might have been too harsh with him last night. Not friendly enough or not close enough with him.
NB But some of that was really good, too. That’s why I didn’t say it yesterday and I’m tentative about saying it today. Some of those instincts with you are really nice. You’re very natural, so you don’t have to do anything. You had many colors. What do you think of her? Do you relate to her or not?
MP In the sense that she is a woman who probably has spent most of her time hanging out with this man who’s much older than her, somewhere in the back of her mind she probably thinks, “I’m not good enough. I’m not smart enough.” She says that a lot. In that sense I can relate to the character, only because I know what that is. Every woman in the world suffers from that to some degree. And some of us more than others. That innate insecurity and general lack of self-esteem.
NB And how do you think she deals with it?
MP She dismisses it. She’s not affected, so it’s not like she thinks about it all the time. “I’ve got to be better at this,” is obviously not something that occupies her mind. It’s something she feels okay about until he is condescending or patronizing and then it really pisses her off. It’s like, “Hey, man. I’m just being me, all right? Don’t be a …” I don’t know. I read it twice, so please forgive me for not having any deep insights into the meaning.
NB But you do. You could read it a million times and still never get more than that initial reading anyway. All that other stuff is just mind stuff.
Bucky: Run, Fay.
Bucky: Outta here, run and don’t look back. (beat) Don’t ever look back.
(Bucky kisses Fay’s forehead.)
Fay: (looks up at Bucky, she is crying) I can’t.
Bucky: Before the rain hits. (looks up) It’s gonna hit hard. Run for shelter, baby.
NB I have to cut the “baby.” It’s so me trying to be Bob Dylan. And “Run for shelter.”—is that too Watership Down or what? Maybe we should keep in “run for shelter,” but definitely not “baby.” If you were doing Barry White reading Watership Down to children, you could do it.
(The day after the reading)
CG What did you learn about Busted from the reading?
NB I don’t generally learn anything about the play. I know that sounds horrible. Generally, the reason I have the reading is to hear the play for the words. I need to hear it right and then it just sets me at ease. While I’m watching it, I’m just experiencing the words—there’s a beat here, there’s not a beat there. This accels. And if it doesn’t happen when the actors are doing it, I’m doing it in my own head anyway. I learn mainly working with the director before and talking to him afterwards.
CG So what did you learn from Roger?
NB I repeat a lot.
CG In the text.
NB In real life, in the text, everything, you know? Roger’s a writer, so sometimes he would question the repeating; whether it was stylized or purposely ba dump, ba dump, ba dump. And not only with words, but with ideas, too. It was a question of do you know you’re doing that? If you do, that’s fine. If you don’t, you could get there faster or better by not doing that. Then you just take a second look at things. It’s hard for me though, because it’s not that I’m close-minded, but with my writing I go through so much in a first draft. I hammer my head. I’m pretty specific.
CG By the time it gets to the reading stage…
NB Any stage. Even the typing stage.