Taflan, Smart and Wilson

During a cold winter night in Chicago, after rehearsals concluded, John Taflan, one fourth of the Diamond of Excellence, sat down with Mat Smart and Steve Wilson, playwright and director of The 13th of Paris to talk shop, sports and where the search for love begins…

John Taflan
Mat, You’ve said you like to write because the most important plays to you are the ones where you explore the questions you can’t answer. What was the question you were looking to answer out when you were writing [The 13th of Paris]?

Mat Smart
It’s a question I’m still asking; that I still don’t understand. I have this idea of what love can be. I want my wife to be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met and the person that I think is the coolest in the world. I don’t want to feel like I’m settling. So I have this grandiose idea of what love could be and should be. Sometimes I feel like I’ve kind of hit into that and then something happens and it doesn’t work out or it’s not the right match. There have to be times when things aren’t great or where you have a boring day; a boring dinner. It’s like in the play when [Vincent] talks about how you can run out of things to say. But that’s not the end of the world. I’m trying to bridge the gap between what I think…hope love can be and what it is or what it is for me. What it is for each individual relationship. So I still feel like I don’t quite know the answers to it. I hope the play says, “Everyone’s got to find their own way.” Love is unique. But…I’m not married.

John Taflan
There are certain archetypes we all know and that we all assume and strive for: This is what love should be. This is what love is. And its often defined in this very grand sort of way. But what’s nice about the piece is the focus on the small things being important. Love being the culmination rather than a top-down thing.

Mat Smart
Well Steve—I’m going to flip this here—Steve just got engaged. So, how is this play speaking to you now that you’re marrying the woman of your dreams?

Steve Wilson
It speaks to me a lot. It spoke to me when I was in this relationship before it became an engagement. That’s when I found [the play]. I found it last year and it spoke to me a lot because I had similar questions in my life. I had similar situations of sitting in a room in silence and thinking, “Is this right?” “Should I be doing something?”

I’m 37 years old and I’m getting engaged now. But I’ve always had that pressure from either family or friends or other ex-girlfriends. For me it was never about that. It was always about finding the right one and I wasn’t going to settle for anything. And I’m sort of a hopeless romantic, too. I’m very into the idea of romance and being romantic.

My parents were divorced. There was divorce all around me. And now it is so rare to see love happening. And then when love does happen, people have a negative attitude. Now the norm is to go, “Oh yeah, that’ll last.” Or maybe people aren’t saying it, but the attitude is there because the statistics are showing it. And I just thought this play was so lovely to me. It helped push aside doubt for me and it gave me a lot of hope. For me, it reassured what I was doing and how I felt. It really helped me be ok.

Mat Smart
One of the coolest things that came out of this show for me was after it premiered in Pittsburgh: This woman sent a letter to the theater and they forwarded it to me and she was like, “I just wanted to let you know that my husband and I have been married for 40 years and usually when we get home he just plops down on the couch and watches TV; we don’t really talk. After we saw your play, we got a bottle of red wine and we sat and talked and the TV wasn’t on and it was one of the most romantic nights we’ve had in a long time.”

It was cool that a couple that had been married for 40 years responded to the play and that [it] made them have a more romantic night. I think that if that’s what the play does, I think that’s successful. If it makes people have a little more romance or love in their day.

John Taflan
What drove you to the original idea for this piece? I know you were in Paris visiting a professor and you came up with the germ of the idea for it…

Mat Smart
I was on my way to Africa (which was the inspiration for Samuel J. and K.), and I had a layover in Paris before and after. I was in a cool, retro hotel—a really cheap hotel—in the 13th district and I was asking these questions about love in the relationship I was in. And I did go have a steak au poivre and walk around the city just feeling very romantic. I went down to the big Virgin Megastore in downtown Paris and bought a CD player just so I could buy the CDs of romantic French music to listen to for the one day I was in Paris. I couldn’t wait. And that’s where I heard the Yves Montand song that’s in the play.

The next morning when I was having my croissant in the breakfast area of the hotel in the 13th, there was this old photograph of an old man with a dog next to him at a café table by himself, drinking a glass of red wine. I immediately took out a piece of paper and wrote this scene between Jacques and Chloe when they were at the café. That scene is not in the play, but I wrote that right there and I think the play came out of that.

John Taflan
It sounds like the sort of confluence of all these special, tiny events into one big beautiful magical thing you were talking about at the end of rehearsal, earlier. You have all these unique ingredients and they all come together into one moment that just says, “Ahhhhh! This is something. This is something that is important for me.”

Mat Smart
A play is like, “I have this question I don’t know the answer to.” I’m wrestling with [it], and then it’s sort of an avalanche of these little things where enough things line up that there is this critical mass when you start writing For me, it was seeing that black and white photograph of this man at a café by himself.

John Taflan
Steve, how have you and Mat worked on this show together since you’ve been involved with it? (Aside: You guys couldn’t see this but Mat just took a big swig out of a bottle. Bourbon, was it?)

Steve Wilson
As a director, the way I approach directing is very collaborative. Some people think I’m crazy because I allow so many voices to come at me. Eventually, I sort out what all the voices are, but I’m very inclusive in the process of everyone in the room: Getting feedback, getting thoughts, getting ideas. Having Mat here was a blessing. I just gave him free reign to interject where he wanted to. There are a lot of great ideas that’ll come out of it. And there’ll be ideas that he gave me that won’t be right for this production and they might not end up sticking. But, do I appreciate all of them? Hell yeah.

I think you’re lucky when you have the writer in the room. You can ask them those questions that have been weighing on you. You can say, “I’m having a really hard time with this moment of this scene. What the hell does this mean? Can you shed some light on it?” Having Mat experience five productions of this show, he’s got a lot of experience with some of the stuff. He can throw out ideas and things that may have worked in other shows that we might steal.

John Taflan
Have you guys made any sort of changes at all to the script? Are you sticking to what you originally wrote, Mat?

Mat Smart
It’s actually published now. There are some things that I hear and I’m like, maybe I could shift that word. But I think I shouldn’t mess with it. I’m not in the place where I was when I wrote it. I’m just leaving it…I had the idea to change a word to “it.” If that’s what I’m thinking about, I should just leave it alone.

Steve Wilson
This was a nice highlight for me: We finished rehearsal and went to the Roscoe Village Tap, which is mentioned in the play, and we had some beers. And we shot pool. We watched the end of a hockey game.

Mat Smart
The Blackhawks beat the Penguins.

Steve Wilson
The Blackhawks did indeed beat the Penguins.

NOTE: Mat Smart, being from Naperville, is a life-long Chicago sports fan. Steve Wilson, born in Pittsburgh, is, well… You get the point.

Check out LiveWire’s production of The 13th of Paris at the Greenhouse Theater Center (running through April 17th)… more info at www.livewirechicago.com/paris

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