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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Trieschmann finds inspiration in his home state

Werner Trieschmann
Alum Werner Trieschmann and I have a connection beyond BPT – I went to middle school and high school with two of his cousins (one of whom is Catherine Trieschmann, an esteemed dramatist in her own right) in Athens, Georgia. I am delighted to have connected with him in this way, and have the opportunity to learn a little about his latest play!

Tell us a little bit about Disfarmer.
It’s a play that began as a commission from a new and exciting company, TheatreSquared, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. They were looking for plays about an Arkansas subject for their first New Play Festival. Disfarmer was a portrait photographer who worked through the Great Depression and World War II in Heber Springs, a relatively small town. Disfarmer died an obscurity but years later his work was discovered and he’s now considered one of the finest photographers this country has produced. Disfarmer’s story is fascinating on many levels. Perhaps the most intriguing part is that he changed his name from Mike Meyer to Disfarmer and put forth the story that he was picked up by a tornado when he was a baby and dropped on the doorstep of the Meyer family. 

Now there’s a real Southern tale! Did he ever offer any explanation of why he did that?
Not that I have read or heard. The assumption offered by most people writing about Disfarmer was it was his way to distance himself from his farming roots and identify himself as an artist. I like to consider him an early and much more daring version of Lady Gaga.

Michael Disfarmer
Three Girlfriends, ca. 1940
Steven Kasher Gallery, NYC
You are an Arkansan, living in Little Rock, and the play must be of great local interest there. How did you first learn of Michael Disfarmer and how did you begin to research his story? Give us a little insight, if you will, into some of the discoveries you made and how they helped shape the story of your play.
Oh yes, Disfarmer is of intense interest here. My play has had three different readings in the state and there have been people at the readings who had their picture taken by Disfarmer. I learned of him through a feature story I did for the local newspaper in 2005 (I worked for the paper until about two years ago). My story focused on two New York City photo collectors who went hunting for Disfarmer prints in Heber Springs. These Disfarmer prints were sitting in photo albums and attics of families spread throughout town. Soon after the prints were purchased (and it was estimated that they spent millions), the collectors had Disfarmer exhibits in New York City. Disfarmer had been first discovered in the 1970s (he died in 1959) and this was like the Disfarmer frenzy 2.0.

My play goes back and forth between Disfarmer’s life and 2005 during the spending spree by the New York collectors. What was great is that while I was writing I figured out the play was less about Disfarmer --- though his journey is still a big part of the play -- and more about the tension between city and country and the monetary vs. personal value of the photos.

Disfarmer’s portraits are hauntingly beautiful. What did the people who sat for him say about the experience?
Disfarmer’s photos are haunting – that’s an excellent way to describe them. He captured these people as they were and not as most portrait photographers would, which would be dressed in fancy clothes and smiling.

The general consensus, at least as I understand it, is that a) Disfarmer could and would take his time, sometimes taking up to an hour for the light to be right to take the portrait (and he used natural light for his work) and b) he was quite eccentric if not outright mean. That last point is a point of debate that’s come up during my readings. Some don’t think Disfarmer was that harsh in the studio. But I can’t imagine he could be as prolific as he was without barking at people. It’s pretty clear he wanted a certain look and had to fight for it.

What’s next for Disfarmer?

A production in Boston at a certain facility where I went to school would be great (hint, hint). In all seriousness, I am curious to see how Disfarmer plays outside Arkansas.

Of course, we know there are playwrights everywhere, but a lot of people don’t give much thought to what the life of a playwright must be like outside of a huge urban setting, i.e. New York City. What is it like being a playwright in Little Rock, and how does your location impact your work?
I would be a playwright and write plays no matter where I lived. It’s an unfortunate addiction I can’t quit. That said, the kind of playwright I am fits quite well where I live with my wife and two young boys. Since I graduated from BU in 1989, I played the game that every playwright around the nation plays, meaning trying to get my work in the best theatres. I had plays produced in Los Angeles and around the country. But about 10 years ago, I published my first play, a full-length comedy called You Have to Serve Somebody. Then about four years ago, I made a conscious effort to write plays for the high school/community theatre market. These plays are tailored specifically for that market and go directly to the publisher. This first one of this batch is called Paper or Plastic? and set in a grocery store. What I found out was I have a talent for this and so now I have a total of nine plays published and, last year alone, I had something close to 100 productions of these plays. A couple of these plays were produced in England, Italy and New Zealand. This kind of work is easy to do from Little Rock, especially in the age of the email. Now certainly I don’t have a community of playwrights here but the theatre in Little Rock is plentiful (we have the state’s largest and oldest professional theatre in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre). Of course the cost of living in Little Rock beats New York all to heck. Arkansas is where I was born and raised. It’s my home.

A hundred productions? That’s amazing! What kind of “day job” complements all this? I’m always interested in the “other” things artists do.
I am an adjunct theatre professor and freelance writer.

What are you working on now?
I need to finish a commission from a publisher. I’d like to market Disfarmer (since I’ve done so much with publishers lately I’m actually a bit rusty on getting my work out there). Then I have tiny scraps of ideas for plays that will hopefully bloom into something. As I said, I have an addiction to feed.


  1. Interesting that there is so much interest in bringing Mike Disfarmer's life to the stage right now. Just last year I saw Dan Hurlin's Disfarmer at the ICA.

  2. With puppets, right? I wish I'd seen that!

    It *is* intriguing that there is such interest in Disfarmer right now. His portraits really do pull the viewer in. Fascinating.