Preserving August Wilson's Voice
Todd Kreidler, who helped to conceive the Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright’s final written work, returns to Pittsburgh to direct that play, continuing his mission to keep the master’s words alive.
KREIDLER photos by terry clark
In the five years before his death, August Wilson often spent hours in the evenings talking to Todd Kreidler on the telephone.
When Wilson would call Kreidler around 6 p.m., Kreidler’s wife, Erin, would say, “Tell August, ‘Hi,’ and good night,” knowing that was the last she would see of her husband that evening. The conversations covered everything from dialogue for Wilson’s latest play to music and current events.
When the two men were working in the same town, morning calls replaced those in the evenings. Kreidler’s phone would ring around 7 a.m.
“What are you doing, man?” Kreidler remembers Wilson asking.
“Nothing,” Kreidler would reply.
Wilson would tell him to meet at “their spot,” which varied depending on the city in which they were working. In Seattle, it was the Mecca Cafe. In Chicago, Cartons. In Boston, Au Bon Pain. In Los Angeles, the Original Pantry Cafe.
In Pittsburgh, their spot was just outside the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s O’Reilly Theater, where the pair met in 1999. They took long smoke breaks, leaning against a wall and watching passersby, while discussing their work that fall on the production of the world premiere of Wilson’s “King Hedley II.” The play was set to christen the O’Reilly, the new downtown home of the Public, in December. Kreidler, then 25, was the assistant to Eddie Gilbert, the Public’s artistic director at the time; Gilbert assigned Kreidler to assist Wilson during the play’s five-week run.
“We made a strange-looking couple,” says Kreidler, now 40. “Me, a baby-faced white kid — I looked like I was still in college — and one of the world’s most prominent playwrights.”
Now a Broadway writer in his own right, Kreidler has spent nearly a decade striving to expand and burnish Wilson’s legacy as its dramatic executor. Kreidler combines his intimate perspective on Wilson’s creative process with commitment derived from their personal connection to ensure Wilson’s plays will reach new audiences. As co-founder of a national speaking competition for high-school students, he’s helped to ensure the next generation is introduced to Wilson’s voice. He’s also directed Wilson’s plays across the country, including “How I Learned What I Learned,” the autobiographical one-man show and final play completed before the playwright’s death in 2005.
Kreidler, an Apollo-area native who lived in LA and New York City before moving back to the region two years ago, returns to the Pittsburgh theater scene this month. He’ll direct “How I Learned What I Learned” — a play for which he is credited as a co-conceiver — at the O’Reilly, where the two men forged their relationship.
“It’s overwhelming,” Kreidler says. “It’s a couple of homecomings. Certainly it’s August’s hometown and my hometown, and the Pittsburgh Public Theater is the beginning of my life.”
Ted Pappas, the Public’s producing artistic director, notes Wilson and Kreidler’s relationship as well as their shared history with the company. “He’s family,” Pappas says of Kreidler.
Wilson’s relationship with Kreidler was akin to that of father and son, and their connection confirms Kreidler’s role as a fitting carrier of Wilson’s torch, Pappas adds.
“The legacy matters enormously to him on a personal and an artistic level,” he says. “He recognizes the immeasurable importance of August Wilson in the history of American theater, but August was also a very, very close friend of Todd’s. He has determined that he can keep that unique voice alive and resonant in the American theater.”
Kreidler graduated from Kiski Area High School and Duquesne University, where he majored in philosophy and English. He began writing plays at age 17 and saw his first produced two years later at the Pittsburgh New Works Festival. Later, he became a freelance reviewer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — a role that led to his introduction to and eventual hiring at the Public.
After he met Wilson in 1999, Kreidler initially addressed the playwright in a formal manner, although Wilson tried to insist on a first-name relationship.
“It was hard,” Kreidler remembers. “I’m a kid from Pittsburgh, and he’s August Wilson.”
As the two became closer while preparing for the opening of “King Hedley II,” Kreidler became comfortable enough to drop “Mr. Wilson” for “August.” Their dynamic shifted further after Wilson asked Kreidler to look at a speech he wished to incorporate into the play. The two bantered about how to weave in the section until Wilson agreed with Kreidler’s suggestion.
After the show completed its five-week premiere in Pittsburgh, Wilson asked Kreidler to travel to Seattle and assist behind the scenes during the play’s run there. At breakfast one morning, Wilson said, “Todd, man, you got six more stops till Broadway. You want to come?”
Kreidler eagerly accepted the role of Wilson’s assistant. Later, he became Wilson’s dramaturg, or adviser who assists with research, adaptation and development of plays.
“I put my stuff in storage,” he says. “It’s one of the few times in my life I don’t think I took a minute of it for granted.”
Gilbert, who later served as a groomsman in Kreidler’s wedding, says he was a little surprised to lose his assistant.
“But I have to tell you, it didn’t take me long to figure out this was an opportunity [Kreidler] couldn’t miss,” he says. “Everything he knew and learned about the theater had been learned in Pittsburgh, which is a wonderful sort of opportunity. But what August offered was to see the rest of the theater world in America. I think I very quickly came around to the view that he was to be congratulated.”
After the two-month Broadway run, Wilson returned to Seattle, where he’d lived since 1990. While there, he sought Kreidler’s input on his next play, “Gem of the Ocean”; it would become the first installment in Wilson’s “Century Cycle” of 10 plays. “Gem” opened in Chicago in 2003 and on Broadway in 2004; the final play in the cycle, “Radio Golf,” opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre a few months before Wilson’s death on Oct. 2, 2005.
In the years before Wilson died, Kreidler was a frequent visitor to Wilson’s Seattle home. Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, says Kreidler was one of the few people admitted to Wilson’s near-sacred basement workspace.
Kreidler recalls that another turning point in their relationship came during one of his visits to Seattle, when he arrived at Wilson’s home one morning so they could head to “their spot” for breakfast. Wilson answered the door and asked him to come inside. Kreidler was hungry and wanted to get going. Wilson insisted and led him into his basement.
“By that point, I’d been in the basement lots of times, and he had his big desk set up, and I always sat at the corner of his desk . . . and that day there were two desks down there,” Kreidler says. “[Wilson] said, ‘You need your own space.’ I’m welling up, and it’s like how men tell each other they love each other. I can’t imagine ever getting an award that would feel like that.
“It probably was one of the greatest relationships in my life,” Kreidler says. “He was best friend. He was father. He was brother.”
Romero, too, remembers the addition of the second desk. She also recalls the morning she went down to the basement to find Wilson and Kreidler slouched over their work stations, asleep. “They had probably spoken and talked all night,” she says. “There were times August said Todd was like a son he never had.”
In turn, Kreidler would pass on the name of the man who had meant so much by bestowing it on his own son, Evan August Kreidler, born two years ago to him and his wife.
“I wanted to name him after August but [decided] it was too weird [to think of saying things such as], ‘August, get over here.’ But August was [the playwright’s] middle name, too,” Kreidler says, noting that Wilson at birth was named Frederick August Kittel Jr. but later adopted his mother’s surname.
The Kreidlers asked Wilson to officiate at their wedding as they planned the ceremony in 2004. As neither Kreidler nor Erin is particularly religious, they say Wilson was the most fitting officiant for them.
“When people get married in front of a priest . . . [the priest is] marrying you because [he is] the moral barometer for the community,” Kreidler says. “[I told him] . . . ‘You represent morally and artistically this compass I want us to aspire to.’”
Wilson seemed humbled by the request. “He got kind of shy,” Kreidler says. “August was incredibly shy.” When Kreidler and Wilson sat down to write the ceremony, Kreidler says it felt like writing a play. “He’d say, ‘No man, we’ve got to move this here,’” Kreidler says. “It was one of the billion gifts but a great gift he gave me.”
The couple scheduled the wedding for Dec. 12, 2004, with an eye toward the original schedule for the Broadway opening of “Gem of the Ocean” a month earlier. That timetable, they believed, would give Kreidler time to get the show started and out of his head. Then the show lost its funding and a new producer stepped in, pushing the debut back to Dec. 6.
“The night before the rehearsal dinner I was writing our whole wedding,” Kreidler says, his voice turning quiet. “Within 10 months, we wrote a wedding and a funeral.”
The American Shakespeare’
About a year after Wilson’s death, Kreidler was working on a production of “Radio Golf” with Kenny Leon, who directed several of Wilson’s plays and later was nominated for a Tony Award for his 2010 Broadway production of the sixth play in Wilson’s cycle, “Fences,” starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. (Kreidler, an associate director for that show, says working on a revival or even a screen version of the play may be in his future.)
As the two men talked, their conversation turned to Wilson’s legacy.
“In high school, I read … ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ I read ‘Death of a Salesman.’ How are we going to be sure kids encounter ‘Fences?’” Kreidler asked Leon.
Kreidler had worked on the Public’s annual Shakespeare monologue competition, and he believed it could become a model for a similar competition focused solely on Wilson’s plays. “We always talk about August being the American Shakespeare,” Kreidler says.
In 2007, he and Leon founded the August Wilson Monologue competition, which began in Atlanta and now has chapters in Pittsburgh, Seattle, New York and five other cities.
Each year in May, around Wilson’s birthday, winners from each city meet in New York. They compete at the August Wilson Theatre before a celebrity judge such as Washington or a notable producer; past judges have met with and critiqued the students.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve done,” Kreidler says. “I feel it’s [growing].”
Kreidler says he also is heartened by recent developments that point to a future for Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center for African American Culture, downtown, despite the recent controversy that surrounded the finances and ownership of the center. He says he doesn’t feel qualified to comment on the specifics of that situation, which resulted in the sale of the building to three Pittsburgh foundations after a year-long court battle. Kreidler just wishes a statue of Wilson would be erected there.
“I do remember when they were going to name it after him,” he says. “I’m happy it’s something that bears his name. It’s an extraordinary building.”
Independent of his involvement with Wilson’s work, Kreidler has developed a fulfilling and varied career of his own. He’s written “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” a Broadway musical based on the music of Tupac Shakur, and an adaptation of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” He’s also working with Motley Crue musician Nikki Sixx on a musical based on Sixx’s book, “The Heroin Diaries;” a show performed by and featuring the music of David Foster; and “Beyond the Velvet Rope,” a “musiclub” act with music and lyrics by Andreas Carlsson set to premiere in Las Vegas.
Even while they were working on other productions, Wilson and Kreidler were steadily crafting “How I Learned What I Learned.” In 2003, it premiered at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Since then, the show has been performed in Atlanta and New York, with Wilson and, later, other actors in the role, but the Pittsburgh premiere perhaps is the most meaningful for Kreidler — and for Romero, a costume designer who will outfit the show starring Eugene Lee, who performed the part at Leon’s True Colors Theatre in Atlanta.
“It’s funny to come back,” Kreidler says of his return to the Public. “[Wilson is] always on my shoulder, so to speak. This show is sort of the most public form of one mysterious and strange relationship . . . The unwritten story is how I learned what I learned.”
"How I Learned What I Learned" runs March 5-April 5
Pittsburgh Public Theater, O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., downtown; 412/316-1600, ppt.org