A visit to the Bay Area from David Greenspan is a rare treat. A visit by Gertrude Stein even more so. It's kind of a twofer this weekend as Greenspan delivers his version of Stein's lecture on the theater, Plays, amid a wide-ranging Stein retrospective (Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories) at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (which occurs simultaneously with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's new exhibition, The Steins Collect). Although Greenspan is not often seen on stage in these parts, the inimitable New York City playwright-actor — whose brilliant comedies are often as rich in humor as in formal and intellectual surprises — has had his share of productions in the Bay Area. SF Playhouse recently mounted the musical Coraline (for which he wrote the book) and She Stoops to Comedy. A little further back. Thick Description and the Jewish Theatre had a hit with their coproduction of Greenspan's Dead Mother, or Shirley Not All in Vain. Greenspan spoke to the Guardian by phone from New York ahead of his appearance at CJM.
SFBG The Stein lecture you're presenting ran in rep with the New York revival of your 1999 play, The Myopia, in which Stein is also referenced. Was that the first time you'd done the lecture as a piece of theater?
David Greenspan I've done it periodically, one night here, one night there. And then I did it for a benefit for a theater company. Melanie Joseph, who runs the Foundry Theatre in New York, I invited her and she loved it. So when we began playing The Myopia, we decided we would include [a performance of] the Stein lecture in tandem. I had never had anything approaching a run before.
SFBG What drew you to that lecture as something to perform?
DG I've become interested over the last number of years in the theatrical possibilities of nontheatrical texts. I did this piece called The Argument, which is based on Aristotle's Poetics and the writings of a man named Gerald F. Else, who wrote about The Poetics. The Argument recites the first half of The Poetics. I'd been toying with that for a while, and I'd also done -- in a reading for a friend, a fellow playwright -- the Stein lecture, and it went over so well, people so enjoyed it. So, besides the interest in the non-theatrical text as a performative work, it is an intriguing lecture.
And I should say, it's not that it's not performative. Even The Poetics. They're both performative pieces in the sense that they're both lectures, so they would have been given. Whatever difference between a lecture and a performance, it's a presentation. So there's theatrical potential in them. But I guess I was fascinated by her observations about the theater, how it addressed her own concerns, recollections, and reminiscences about growing up watching plays, and references to her experiences when she finally moved to Paris. I found it rather rich historically as well.
SFBG There's that wonderful line you quote in The Myopia about theater as something that's actually happening&ldots;