Playwright Noah Haidle will be watching for audience reactions when his Birthday Candles appears as part of Chautauqua Theater Company’s New Play Workshop at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Bratton Theater. Just don’t expect to run into him in the line for the bathroom.
When Haidle hit the career milestone of showing his first play in New York City at Roundabout Theatre Company as a young playwright, he took a trip to the restroom between acts.
“This guy turned to me during intermission and he was like, ‘Wow, worst play ever, right?’ ” Haidle said. “I swear to God. And I didn’t know what to do, so I was like, ‘Yeah, I know, right?’ And then I left and felt awful. I’ve never used a lobby bathroom again. And I will never forget that. Ever.”
While Haidle may be a little more cautious these days, he still calls an audience “a necessary, wonderful thing.” Birthday Candles runs in rep with Building the Wall, by Robert Schenkkan, through Saturday, with talkbacks following each performance. Haidle said if audiences see his play more than once, they’ll likely see different versions as he continuously updates the story.
Birthday Candles has an imaginative and fantastic quality to it. The play covers 100 years in the life of one woman, from her 17th to 117th birthday. As a writer, Haidle said he likes to shy away from naturalism.
Don’t count on seeing a recreation of Haidle’s own birthday traditions onstage.
“I mostly don’t even try to celebrate my birthday,” said Haidle, 38. “My first birthday was probably the best. I bet that was a great one. I saw some pictures once; it looked fun.”
Detroit Public Theatre — where CTC Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy is an artistic director and Haidle is on the board — commissioned Birthday Candles. The New Play Workshop, where new or developing works are staged with scripts in-hand, will help prepare the play for its life beyond Chautauqua.
CTC’s former artistic director, Vivienne Benesch, will direct the Chautauqua production as well as the Detroit premiere in May. Haidle said he finished Birthday Candles about three months ago, and since then has done four rewrites while in conversation with Benesch. Along the way, Benesch has shared design mockups and music samples with him.
Structurally, Haidle said he found inspiration in Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner, which similarly explores themes of family, traditions and time. That one-act play has a runtime of just over 30 minutes, but covers 90 years of holiday dinners in the same family home.
This will be Haidle’s first time at Chautauqua, and he’s hopeful audiences will respond to the themes in Birthday Candles.
“It seems like this is a place that’s pretty interested in what it means to have a meaningful life, and our position as humans in a larger sense,” Haidle said.
Haidle grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and said he wasn’t a creative kid. After reading a couple plays in English class, he became interested in playwriting.
He attended Princeton University and The Juilliard School, and is the recipient of several playwriting awards and grants, including three Lincoln Center Lecomte Du Nouy awards and an NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Grant.
His original screenplay for the movie “Stand Up Guys,” which starred Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin, and was produced by Lionsgate and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, opened in 2013. Later that same year, his play Smokefall premiered at South Coast Repertory in California, and then had an acclaimed run in Chicago before making its way to New York in 2016.
Similar to Birthday Candles, Smokefall features elements of surrealism while examining multiple generations of a family. Another of Haidle’s plays, Saturn Returns, was the story of one man at three ages, and his meaningful relationships with three women.
Haidle said he is drawn to watching people through time, and recently noticed it is a theme that has fascinated him since his early writing. At age 19, while studying philosophy at Princeton, he created the play Goldfish Memories, drawing on the common misconception that goldfishes can only remember three seconds back.
Without realizing it, Haidle put a goldfish in Birthday Candles. He named it “Atman,” which is Sanskrit for “soul.” It’s also the same name Arthur Schopenhauer, a philosopher Haidle studied in school, gave his dog.
Perhaps Birthday Candles, which has moments of sadness and laughter, has actually been in the works for much longer than Haidle realized.
“It’s life, but hopefully a little better curated,” Haidle said.