Theaterwork’s Production of Steven Dietz’s Inventing Van Gogh | - June 9, 2011

...a thoughtful and unsettling investigation of the interplay of time, art and self that is expressed physically via the tortured mind of a contemporary painter...

Beginning on June 17th, 2011, for seven performances, Theaterwork (TW) will perform Steven Dietz’s Inventing Van Gogh (IVG), a thoughtful and unsettling investigation of the interplay of time, art and self that is expressed physically via the tortured mind of a contemporary painter, Patrick Stone, who is attempting to come to terms with his faltering career as a painter and the nature of true art.  The playwright subverts chronological time and notions of madness and sanity in Stone’s philosophical bull sessions with the romantic, passionate van Gogh who is placed in counterpoint with the contemporary art world’s skeptics, crooks, and faux artists.  Coerced into considering a commission of a forgery of the supposed last self-portrait of van Gogh that the famed artist reportedly (and most likely apocryphally) was working on the day of his suicide, amoral and corrupt art authenticator Rene Bouchard hints at Stone’s possible complicity in the curious death of the blocked artist’s mentor, Professor Miller, who whole-heartedly believed in the existence of the “lost” last painting of van Gogh. With questions about art and life that evoke both Henry James’s The Aspern Papers and tabloid murder mysteries along with a reinvention of historical time that creates a universal and passionate present, Dietz creates an interesting intellectual puzzle and a very entertaining and passionately argued definition, evocation, and defense of the nature of meaningful art.   

Patrick Stone’s long-term and intense dislike of van Gogh’s painting lies at the heart of IVG.  He deeply distrusts the Dutchman’s lack of technique and, more essentially, his “glow,” the passion with which the master infuses his work that is based on such human emotions and experiences as sexual love (Marguerite) and comradeship (Gauguin).  Stone’s artistic and philosophical conflicts result in a historical synesthesia in which colors “speak” and physical forms “shape shift” to defeat the limitations of space as the playwright does similarly in his subversion of conventional time.  These philosophical issues are embedded and played out in IVG in a dialectic that compares the exterior, surface representational contemporary art that is a negation of the self with the interior, below-the-surface traditionally romantic rendering of the artist’s emotional life that is a definition of the self.    In such an equation, photography is a non-art and even “a sort of theft” that is in keeping with the contemporary art scene dominated by copies and forgeries while van Gogh’s romantic painting is a form of reinvention and unique commitment to life.


In David Olson’s fifteen year tenure as artistic director of Theaterwork in Santa Fe, he has produced over one hundred plays of classic and contemporary world drama that have challenged, informed, and entertained local audiences.  Dietz’s IVG certainly fits within this tradition.  In a telephone interview with David Olson on June 1, 2011, we began with a brief overview of the 2010-2011 TW season:  “With the company deciding to do only four productions this season, there were fewer opportunities and harder choices to make from the fifty to sixty plays that are on my desk [at any one time].  We strove to create a well-rounded season that began with the intimate The Drawer Boy and then moved to the wild and crazy as life can be The Rug Merchants of Chaos.  The next production was the transformative and surprising Antigone that was performed in a unused city swimming pool to which I have heard nearly every day for two months from audience members about the play [as a moving personal experience].  Inventing Van Gogh is a return to a very intimate and very theatrical play that is in the author’s words ‘evocative, not representational, and aggressively theatrical.’” 

David Olson found a key to the style of his production in van Gogh’s advice to Stone within the play—“Accent the essential…Leave the rest vague’”: “We are doing the play in the round with viewers on two sides to reinforce the notion of the audience members being present with others.  The set starts with empty spaces; after the intermission, changes in the furniture and set occur to create a dizzying and fevered structure that surfaces and recaptures these underlying forces that stops and starts [and repeat themselves].  This clear presence of the liminal where discovery is just beyond a veil or a breath away occurs [frequently] in real life when we say “I felt like I had been there” or when we feel a breath on our neck that takes us away from a situation if only for a moment.  Such a style also serves David Olson’s view of art: “At its best, art is fire and the audience needs be warned.  It is a rebellion and is born out of a disagreement with this world.”   

A major reason David Olson was drawn to Dietz’s play was an affinity with the playwright’s position that “art doesn’t come from madness”:  “I [Olson] believe he [van Gogh] was never more lucid than when he was painting.”  In response to my inquiry about Dietz’s “titling Act One as “yellow” and Act Two as “blue,” David Olson believes that the essence of such a plan is less concrete than metaphorical: “[This is about] falling into a color, a state, in which [one] discovers something new, something different.”  Such a perspective supports the shifting nature of color (and life): “[Our performance] floor is painted and is full of color—the colors of crows in a cornfield—which comes and recedes as tonal changes [via lighting] occur….thus [the physical nature of the play] mirrors van Gogh’s struggle to find a voice in paint.”  This sense of absence and physical loss is also evoked in TW’s production by empty rooms and empty chairs.

Even in the twenty-minute warm-up sessions that precede TW performances, the IVG actors are encouraged to work on and analyze the internal: “This play calls for interiority with the external arising out of the personal.  The cast needs to make this process concrete and go into a place that is literally physical.  At rehearsal this evening, I will take in different van Gogh prints and give each actor a different reproduction and ask them to take the painting in and name and work on the very different internal physical sensations.”  

TW is committed to a sense “that a play has to be an occasion at which something will happen” out of respect for an audience that has made an effort to come to the theater.  Furthermore, David Olson feels “a renewed obligation of the theater today.  Since our American world so surrounds us with stories that are meant to induce us to conform and to consume, [companies such as TW] must offer audiences stories that allow them to respond uniquely and to jump away from the conventional and to suggest what happens when we [they] enter a story.”  In responding to the “beautifully crafted lie of the theater,” the artistic director of TW believes that audiences, too, have responsibilities: “[An audience] can’t be passive.  It must be open, pay attention, and allow the story to happen to them.”


In a telephone interview on May 27, 2011, I spoke with actor and Theaterwork veteran Jonathan Dixon about his upcoming role as Vincent van Gogh in Steven Dietz’s Inventing Van Gogh, Dixon revealed how he goes about preparing for a role of a historically well-known character.  His first such performance was as Mark Twain in Theaterwork’s 2005 production of John Guare’s A Few Stout Individuals in which he played the famous American author and humorist Mark Twain who was going to publish the memoirs of a dying Ulysses S. Grant who is high on morphine for much of the action of the play.  Dixon began by attempting an imitation of the historical Twain: “I was doing his voice and it was rubbish, a shallow caricature. I then did a ton  of readings [of Twain’s work] and then looked at a number of photographs of the author to see how he looked and what his posture was.  I then put on this “wrapping” and found what was real within me and let it work itself out in the role.  This is a means of tricking the audience.  For van Gogh, I have a red hair and a beard as well as losing ten pounds which is my wrapping for this character.”  However, the ultimate challenge for Jonathan Dixon is to “get something real in yourself that resonates and triggers something [comparable] in the audience.  A play is not an intellectual exercise; it is playing something real.”

Jonathan Dixon sees part of his mission in this role is to take “the iconic stereotype of the crazy artist and deconstruct it.  Dietz has created a contemporary corrupting art world that is shallow, affected, cynical, greedy, self-important.  Obviously suffering from mental illness, van Gogh nevertheless appears to be the sane, well-adjusted, believable one.”  Dixon sees a key line in the play is van Gogh’s self-assessment: “My madness never made a painting.”  Dixon the actor has an interesting take on playwright Dietz’s talent: “When I first read the play, I wasn’t that impressed because the contemporary art world characters are so unlikable that they turned me off.  However, on further readings, I found that each character has a distinctive voice and that the lines are easy to memorize which only happens [for me] when the characters act and speak as they would [in the real world].  I even came to empathize with those modern screwed-up characters because they are so human.”                                                                           

Jonathan Dixon also praised the work of Theaterwork founder and artistic director David Olson who “does very well with fluid structures that intermingle past and present, the subjective and objective…They [such plays] seem to strike a personal chord with him.”  Dixon went on further in talking about his work with David Olson: “While there is a genuine appreciation of Theaterwork in the local community, I believe David is taken for granted.  He consistently turns out Broadway and West End-quality productions on a wide range of contemporary and classic plays.”

On a final personal note, Jonathan Dixon revealed that his title role in IVG is a “dream come true….At age fifteen, I saw Leonard Nimoy’s Vincent at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.  This was the first professional play and one of the first plays at any level that I attended.  I became a big fan of Nimoy and read his book on acting from which I got a sense of acting as a real craft and discipline… [Later, in preparation for my TW role], I purchased a CD of Nimoy’s Vincent and realized it was a taping of the very performance I attended in 1981!”


In IVG, David Olson is attempting to “transform the ordinary and real into something beautiful within the framework of a specific time and place….We (TW) are not creating a pageant but are employing our [theatrical] tools to compel people to step into a world that both physicalizes and internalizes a story [of obsession and imagination].” 


Theaterwork’s Inventing Van Gogh will be performed at the New Mexico School for the Deaf James A. Little Theater at 7:30 P.M. on June 17, 18, 23, 24 & 25 and at 2 P.M. on June 19 & 26.

Tickets are $15 for general admission and $10 for students.

For information and reservations, phone (505) 471-1799 or go to


Patrick Stone                               Elias Gallegos

Vincent van Gogh                      Jonathan Dixon

Dr. Gachet/ Dr. Miller                  Dan Friedman

Gauguin/ Bouchard                   Jack Sherman

Hallie/ Marguerite                      Trish Vecchio



Director                                         David Olson

Set Design                                     Ilana Kirschbaum

Props Master                                Richard Gonzales

Lighting Design/ Tech Director      Jack Sherman

Costumes                                      Deborah Kruhm

Stage Manager                              Hellena Schiavo

Assistant to the Director              Zoe Baillargeon

Box Office Manager                    Paula Olson