“Fruma-Sarah (Waiting in the Wings)” is a new theatrical performance that is scheduled to open in New York this July. It focuses on a theater star named Ariana Russo who is weighed down by her years in the industry. Called upon to play Fruma-Sarah, the screeching deceased wife of Lazer Wolf, Ariana is tethered to the fly system where she meets Margo, a feisty substitute fly captain for the night. The show is essentially a love letter to theater which explores themes of isolation, drudgery, and the impact of being overlooked; sometimes you have to play a ghost to feel alive.
Playwright E. Dale Smith recently discussed this piece via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your talent for writing and what was it about plays that most interested you?
Dale Smith (DES): Live theatre has always fascinated me in a deep way. One time, when I was about three or so, my mom– a high school teacher– was taking her students to see a matinee of some play at the local college. She couldn’t find a babysitter, so she took me along. Reportedly I was rapt by the entire experience. She was worried that I would get antsy, of course, but that didn’t prove to be an issue. I was in awe. As an only child growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I had to find ways to entertain myself, and my fascination with live performance became a big part of that. I would create stories and act them out with my friends. I would put on concerts in my bedroom and use a jump rope as a microphone. I had a whole set-up with flashlights pointed at me and everything. So, to answer your question, I think that my love for plays and performance was almost genetic.
MM: How did you initially get interested in theater and how did you break into the industry?
DES: My first real experiences with theatre came in my senior year of high school when I had an extra elective that I needed to fill. I decided to learn more about the theatre that had always interested me. I was in my first show, and I was hooked! I went to The University of Texas at Austin where I majored in Theatre Studies. I had to take a playwriting class to complete the degree, and all of that childhood storytelling came rushing back to me. I received a James A. Michener playwriting award in undergrad, and I continued writing afterward. When I decided to attend grad school, I applied to several programs for playwriting and directing. I was accepted to Columbia in the MFA Playwriting program as a Shubert Playwriting Fellow, and that’s where I began to meet the people and make the connections that allowed my work to be seen on a larger scale. Then, the year after I graduated from Columbia, I met Braden M. Burns, our director. He has definitely opened a lot of doors for me, and we have been creative partners ever since.
MM: Why did you get the idea for “Fruma-Sarah” and how tough was it to design the somewhat unusual format?
DES: Actually, it was Braden’s idea. He has tons of ideas and throws them my way. I say no to 90% of them, honestly because they don’t interest me personally or I don’t really understand how the idea grows into a story. But this one just clicked. He was in a place in his life where he was feeling pretty stuck, and he just had this image of an actress stuck backstage tethered to the fly system waiting. Fruma-Sarah doesn’t enter in Fiddler for (on average) an hour and seven minutes, so one can only imagine how endless that time must seem. It actually started out as a one-woman show and the other character, the substitute fly rail captain, appeared in the second draft to help the story move along. I think that Braden pictured some aging diva in a Broadway revival, but I do a lot of work in the New Jersey Community Theatre scene, and so I took it in that direction. It allowed me to “write what I know” and share the humor, joy, and politics of this micro-community across the river.
MM: What’s your favorite part of the play and why?
DES: I can’t say that I have a favorite part, per se. I believe that if you are watching your own play and find yourself bored at any point, that is a clear indicator that you have some rewrites to do. I mean, if you’re bored by your own play, you can’t really expect for other people to invest in it. I definitely have some favorite one-liners, but I’m not giving those away.
MM: Was it a challenge to plan for live theater during a lingering pandemic?
DES: It was definitely interesting. We were just getting started on developing the play with Kira Simring, the artistic director at The Cell. It was an exciting time for the play, and then COVID hit. I was worried about losing the momentum, so I reached out to Kira to ask if we might do some developmental readings on Zoom. This was in April, 2020, mind you, so “Zoom Readings” weren’t really a thing yet. But she was all for it, so we started doing it virtually, and it really worked for this play. I actually think that the experience of quarantine enhanced the final script because as we workshopped it, we all had a much clearer understanding of how it feels to be stuck.
MM: What is some of the best feedback you’ve gotten about this piece thus far?
DES: Well, Jackie Hoffman said she loved it, so that was pretty great! But I think that what helped the show grow the most was that in every reading– live or virtual– the audiences always wanted to know more about Margo, the second character. So, she grew. And grew. And eventually the story started to shift from being about Ariana to being about an unexpected connection between two unsuspecting strangers.
MM: What other projects are you working on right now and what themes might you like to explore in future works?
DES: As a gay man, a great deal of my work has centered around queer themes. My show that has gotten the most attention up until now is called “Divine/Intervention,” and it is a bio play about the drag queen Divine. I was offered the opportunity to work on it after writing a trilogy of plays set in drag dressing rooms that really examine identity and the walls that we construct around ourselves as LGBTQIA+ people in order to protect ourselves. I think that my next work might focus on one of our predecessors that worked to break down walls instead of putting them up.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
DES: My goals would be for this play to be seen as widely as possible and for that visibility to possibly spark an interest in both some of my previous work and the work that I create in the future. I don’t really see myself as a Broadway playwright, but I would love to get more productions in off-Broadway spaces. I would be very excited to revisit Divine/Intervention in a professional setting. It was very well-received, and I think that there’s a real audience there. To be honest, though, I am also wrapping up my 22nd year of teaching high school theatre. That’s always been what I consider to be my career, and to even be asked this question is a little overwhelming and surreal. I am elated that this show is getting so much attention, and for the moment, I’m just going to enjoy where this journey takes me.