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Five questions for playwright Stuart Meltzer about 'Goldberg Variations'

While in grad school in Manhattan, Stuart Meltzer used to listen to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” in his headphones while walking throughout the city.

Now, a little more than a decade later, that experience of bopping around to Bach has coalesced into a play, which is getting a world premiere by Island City Stage in Wilton Manors June 15-July 16.

“My journey with ‘The Goldberg Variations’ began with a love of listening to [late classical pianist] Glenn Gould playing Bach’s music,” says Meltzer, who teaches theater at the New World School of the Arts and is artistic director of Zoetic Stage theater company. “I have always been captured [by how] Mr. Gould seemed to get lost in the music and literally became one with it.”

The music piece, published in 1741, consists of an aria and 30 variations. The play is similarly structured with variations of how a family perceives, remembers and copes with issues. In 2016 “The Goldberg Variations” got a staged reading at Lynn University. Andy Rogow, the artistic director of Island City Stage, was not there, but afterward several people who were told him the piece was perfect for the theater company that produces plays with LGBTQ themes.

“I think people who had seen the reading thought it would be perfect for us because the lead character is a gay man who is working on accepting himself as well as being accepted by his father,” explains Rogow, who also directs the serio-comedy. “They also all really liked the twist that happens about two thirds of the way through the play. I was most attracted to the structure of the play, which veers of into different styles without any warning. I think it's going to make it a very fun play to watch.”

Meltzer answered more questions about “The Goldberg Variations”:

What is this play about?

‘The Goldberg Variations’ is about family, a man and his family and the events that happened over the course of one night that this man can’t seem to shake. Primarily the variation component is [the main character Caleb] is reliving and re-imagining of this night and what could have happened, what should have happened.

So how did music from Bach come to inform you writing this play?

I’ve always loved the piece of music from Bach, the ‘Goldberg Variations.’ I always found it funny that the music was named that, like Bach named it after some random Goldberg family. That was so funny to me. Of course I found out that it was named after the first pianist that played that piece of music. I just thought it would be an exceptional title for a play and the idea of family experiencing something that is very trying, but the only way they can deal with it is through humor. The music was the jumping off point. I wanted to put this piece of music onstage in theatrical form, so, to me, it made sense to make this family the Goldbergs.

How personal is this for you?

I don’t necessarily come from a family like this. I had similar relationships, being gay and coming out to my father who was a very, let’s just say he didn’t quite understand what gay meant. I was a late-in-life child for him. He was from a different generation. There is a part of this play about accepting who you are for better or worse. I think that goes along with both the father and the main guy in the story. To me, that was my personal seed of the play. There’s a lot there that is very similar to my relationship to my dad. There is a giant component of me in this, but it’s not me. I do tear up. I do get goosebumps. And I do laugh my butt off watching these incredible actors do the play.

With all that you do, when did you find time to write this?

I played around with the idea 12 years ago in my head. And then I became very busy. I run a very successful theater company in Miami and I teach, so writing for me became something that I never truly had the chance to do. I wrote for ‘Shorts Gone Wild’ and the 24 Hour Theatre Project sponsored by Naked Stage and collaborated on a musical version of my play ‘Better than Damn Good.’ I had another collaboration produced this last season at Zoetic Stage called ‘¡FUACATA!’ I am certainly supported and encouraged by...my husband-to-be Michael McKeever, who, as you know, is a very successful playwright. I was asked to participate in the [Jan McArt’s] New Play Play Readings series at Lynn University. That deadline got me to focus on this play.

So what was it like seeing this work that had been in your head for all those years performed in front of an audience?

For me, watching something along with the audience and feeling the audience’s vibration and reaction to the play, sparked a thrill in me. It really did. Hearing the wonderful actors onstage say these words and understand the humor and understanding the moments onstage that are not so nice, really gave me confidence in myself that I was able to tell stories in another way other than just being a director.

“The Goldberg Variations” runs June 15-July 16 at Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (due to the Stonewall Festival in Wilton Manors, there is no performance on Saturday, June 17); 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $35. To order, call 954-519-2533 or go to IslandCityStage.org.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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