Photo by Debra DiPaolo
L.A. WEEKLY: How far along was your writing career when you first went to the Padua Festival?
JON ROBIN BAITZ: I had only just started writing little plays, actually. I was going to a lot of Equity-waiver theater in L.A. and hanging out with friends who were actors. I heard about Padua because an actor friend from the Groundlings was doing a John Steppling play there. I submitted a play to Murray Mednick and was accepted as an apprentice, which meant doing all sorts of crew work and stage management. I’d never really been with other writers before. This was in 1981, at the Pomona site amid these beautiful old red-dirt hills. When it was booted from Pomona and started moving around, it never felt quite the same.
What was most appealing to you about the festival and its atmosphere?
It was counter to the idea of Los Angeles that I knew, which was Los Angeles as the movie-culture town. Padua was diametrically opposed to that — it was something like Berlin in the ’30s. It was absolutely antithetical to the mercantile culture of the city. You’d have Maria Irene Fornes just talking about how to listen to a play, or Murray Mednick talking about walking and listening to your heartbeat. None of it necessarily was something specific to take away ideologically. The importance of it was just this counterintuitive sense that this was a place where success was measured differently.
Who had the biggest influence on you?
I was very much in awe of some of the playwrights, John Steppling in particular. He was writing plays in a beautifully elliptical, cut-to-the-bone style that was unusual. And I found him extraordinarily articulate about his despair and his vision of Los Angeles, his nostalgia. He was somewhere between John Fante and Raymond Chandler, with a little bit of Fassbinder. He was also struggling, like many of the Padua people, with past experience with drugs. There was this fragile, weirdly tentative sobriety to the place — a lot of people there were either on drugs, or just off them. Many of the Padua actors and playwrights had come out of New York and Caffe Cino and La Mama, like Sam Shepard, who was sort of an éminence grise. I really was infatuated with the slightly self-destructive patina the whole thing had while at the same time it was married to a genuinely searching sensibility. There was something very romantic about it — an ideal of theater I’d never really experienced before or since. There was no looking-for-the-main-chance thing going on. We’d just work on these ridiculous plays. I remember I wrote a play for a mailbox. It was just a tape recorder in a mailbox, and people would stand next to it and listen and nod. There’s always been a sense that if you’re a playwright in Los Angeles you’re in the wrong town.
How did that feed into the attitude at the festival?
I think the Padua attitude generated a sort of useful contempt. I remember prattling on as only a 20-year-old can to a wonderful actress who was there, about a star who had come to Padua. I was probably going on at length, and she just stared at me and said, “Why don’t you just go suck cock in Hollywood?” That was the prevailing sense about Padua. I think it had a very clear outsider’s contempt — coupled, of course, with a bit of envy.
How did living in Los Angeles affect your voice as a playwright?
I think my experience in South Africa played a much larger role. We lived in an entirely privileged white culture with servants, as did everyone one we knew. At the same time, I was an outsider in that culture — being American, gay, Jewish, lonely — and that made me empathetic with others on the outside. But I saw myself as so complicit, ridiculously complicit, even as a little boy. You spent a lot of time trying to be a decent person and just get by, and in that sort of Chekhovian decency and just-getting-byness, I developed a huge mortification that followed me back to the States and to Los Angeles. And that’s what informed my writing.