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Fodor and Chautauqua: A Happy Marriage

Kate Fodor

Playwright Kate Fodor returns to Chautauqua with her new play, Fifty Ways

Failed marriage is a subject that has intrigued playwrights since antiquity. Medea anyone? Hey, Agamemnon, your wife thinks maybe a bath would relax you…

Kate Fodor’s new play, Fifty Ways, is about a marriage in trouble, but she swears there’s comedy. “It’s about what happens to a marriage when someone falls ill and events from the past make complications,” says the playwright, speaking by telephone. “These are smart people who can’t help but be funny in spite of themselves.”

Fifty Ways follows a married couple living in Woodstock, New York, during one summer and early fall,” Fodor explains.

Fodor may well be the greatest contribution the Chautauqua Theater Company has made to the larger theater world so far. In turn, Chautauqua has been good to this playwright. She is the first ever recipient of the Chautauqua Play Commission for her new play, which opens next week. The commission comes with $15,000 in funding and is given in conjunction with the Writers’ Center and the backing of the John C. Court Family Foundation.

100 Saints You Should Know focused on ordinary people searching for faith while overcoming the obstacles of their personal flaws. The script put Chautauqua’s new play festival on the map in 2006, with patrons lining up—and in some instances being turned away.

In 2009, Fodor offered Chautauqua audiences Rx, an urbane comedy about romance and self-interest, set amidst the scheming machinations of the lucrative pharmaceutical industry.

100 Saints You Should Know and Rx both went on to success in New York City where I found them to be fresh, insightful, and marvelously entertaining. Fodor tells stories in a distinctive voice and places contemporary issues into narrative in wonderfully engaging, and frequently hilarious ways.

Now, with Fifty Ways, Fodor turns to a subject that has fascinated playwrights since antiquity—marriage, or to be specific, failed marriage. The production has been directed by Ethan McSweeny.

Fodor has said that she is intrigued by the stories people tell themselves to account for their own bad behavior. At the time the commission was announced, she observed, “When you watch somebody behaving in a way that seems outlandish to you or immoral to you, what is their own internal narrative that’s making that behavior make sense to them? I think that’s a fascinating question as a playwright.”

In this regard, Fodor notes that the institution of marriage is a kind of ground zero as a landscape where everyone has their own equally true yet incompatible version of events, motivations, and outcomes.

In addition to biting humor, the play also contains another Fodor signature, adults who are having problems interacting with adolescent characters. The theme runs through 100 Saints and again comes to the fore in Fifty Ways.

“That similarity between the two plays just occurred to me the other day,” says Fodor. “I thought about that. Why am I so interested to write about teenagers? I think adolescents have that unique combination of being old enough to think sophisticated thoughts, and being young enough to be unusually open and honest.”

Chautauqua has turned out to be very important in Fodor’s career, but it almost didn’t happen.

“A short time after my daughter was born, I got a call that they wanted to do 100 Saints,” she recalls. “I had just had the baby and I thought, ‘I can barely get myself dressed! Why should I head out to this remote place I’ve never heard of?’ So I declined. I mentioned this to my mom and some family friends and they got all excited. ‘Chautauqua! That is a very important place. This is an amazing opportunity. You’ve got to do this!’”

Needless to say, she’s glad she did.

“Interestingly,” Fodor continues, “Chautauqua has been very important to me, and Ethan [McSweeny] and [CTC artistic director] Vivienne [Benesch] have been wonderful to me, but this summer will be the first time I will actually be able to spend some significant time at Chautauqua, rather than just flying in and out. I’m very excited about it, too, because we have the whole creative team from Rx off-Broadway—Ethan is directing, Lee Savage is doing the set, and so on. I have no visual sense as a playwright; I think of storytelling but not how to get there on stage. I really want to take a class in set design for more insight, but for now, I’m always delighted to see how Ethan and Lee get me there.”

Any insights into the ride she’s taking us on in Fifty Ways?

“Any spoilers?” she asks. “Well you know it’s about a marriage at a moment of crisis, of course, but there are surprises that I don’t want to give away. Let’s just say it’s a complex and difficult marriage, some betrayal, some abandonment, and things don’t necessarily turn out as you might expect.”

I can’t wait!

Fifty Ways plays July 20-29 in the Bratton Theater on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution. Order tickets by phone at (716) 357-6250.