Birthday Candles (US/UK), playwright Noah Haidle’s look at one woman’s experience with aging over the course of a century, was a hit with audiences in its world premiere at the Detroit Public Theatre in 2018 and during its Broadway run in 2022. Using the act of baking a cake as a metaphor for growing old, the play charts a unique path for the main character of Ernestine. We recently touched base with playwright Haidle to discuss the special ingredients hidden within his latest work.
ON ERNESTINE’S JOURNEY
For people unfamiliar with Birthday Candles, how would you describe the story it tells?
“90 years in 90 minutes. Better hold on.”
That was the tagline on the poster.
I was standing outside the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street and watched a teenage passerby read it out loud to her father and they both said (approximately), “Huh, sounds pretty good.” I don’t know if either actually went to see it and/or if they thought it was pretty good or not, but it accurately describes the journey of Ernestine, whom we meet on her 17th birthday and follow until her 107th.
CRAFTING A MULTIFACETED CENTRAL CHARACTER
The central role of Ernestine presents an exciting acting opportunity, as she is seen over a century of her life. What made you decide to employ this unique approach to charting her story, specifically in writing the role for one performer?
Beyond telling a story, the first duty of a playwright is to provide collaborators with opportunities to achieve their best work. Traveling from age 17 to 107 without leaving the stage once is a big test of technique and endurance, one that I hope will appeal to many actresses game for a rewarding challenge.
What encouraged you to write Birthday Candles? Tell us about the play’s genesis.
To help pay for some toilets.
I was living in Detroit where my friends had just founded a new theater. They commissioned a new play from me and programmed it for the following season without me having written one word. The three founders (Sarah Winkler, Sarah-Clare Corporandy, and Courtney Burkett) didn’t have their own building yet, so I declared, “I will write a play so successful I’ll help pay for your toilets.” The play quite unexpectedly went from the Detroit Public Theatre straight to Broadway, and the founders were able to tell that remarkable story during a capital campaign for a theater of their own. When that new theater did in fact open, they gave me my own toilet, which may prove to be my most enduring legacy.
I was touched by the ways Birthday Candles weaves together themes of humanity — like friendship, family, and mortality — and manages to deliver them in a lighthearted way that surprises an audience. Did these themes arise naturally, or did you intend to fold them into the play?
Just like the tagline of the poster promises, Birthday Candles runs 90 minutes. I guesstimate I spent one thousand hours shaping those 90 minutes. Everything is there with intention.
Whose works would say have influenced your efforts as a playwright, particularly on crafting Birthday Candles?
I straight-up stole (“stole” in the tradition of T.S. Eliot’s adage “minor poets borrow, major poets steal”) the concept of Birthday Candles from Thornton Wilder’s one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner (also published by Concord Theatricals in the US and UK; go check it out, it’s fantastic). Rosey Strub, manager of his estate (the Wilder Family), saw a reading of Birthday Candles at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, found me in the lobby afterwards, and said, “It seems like you may have been influenced by The Long Christmas Dinner.” I said, “Influenced? I straight-up stole the entire thing!”
Through my sincere act of creative appropriation, I’ve had the great fortune to have been welcomed into the Wilder Family. We sold the script of The Long Christmas Dinner in the lobby of the American Airlines Theatre. Tappan Wilder, literary executor of the Wilder Family, participated in a talkback after a show to discuss how Birthday Candles continues in the non-naturalistic theatrical tradition of The Long Christmas Dinner, and I recently made a contribution to an upcoming issue of the Thornton Wilder Journal — which was a big deal for me — watching Our Town as a high school sophomore made my brain explode, and that explosion helped me want to become a playwright in the first place.
2022 Roundabout Theatre Company production of Birthday Candles (Joan Marcus)
CREATIVE AND AUDIENCE REACH
What about the prospect of staging Birthday Candles do you hope will inspire directors?
The permission to have fun.
I’m a firm believer that while the playwright writes the script, the director writes the production, and Birthday Candles was built to be especially elastic, since all the parts can be played by actors of any age or race.
If you read Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, in the opening stage directions he tells you all the books he wants to populate the bookshelf. I say, hands off — that playwrights should prescribe as little as possible. Not because I don’t know what books I’d like on the bookshelf (which, for Birthday Candles, would be weird in the first place because not many people have a bookshelf in their kitchen), but because the function of a playwright is to offer your work for interpretation, and the more prescriptive you are about that interpretation, the more you handcuff the imaginations of your collaborators. You want to inspire the artists who choose to do your work, and the more you tell them how to do their jobs, the more you limit the amount they can invest of their own hearts.
I used to see a play as a blueprint, and then as a treasure map, but recently I’ve decided a play is a simple tool, like a hammer. Nobody needs to be told what to do with a hammer. The better the play, the closer any production will come to the spirit of the playwright’s original intent, no matter if you set it on Mars or in the year 1842 or which books you decide to populate the bookshelf (if you make the odd decision to place a bookshelf in the kitchen).
Why do you think Birthday Candles is a good fit for high school and college theatre programs?
When the play was done in Berlin, the part of Ernestine was played by a 69-year-old, who had to look back through her past to re-discover the spirit of her own youthful persona. A high school or college-aged actress will have to transform into her 107-year-old self by inventing the spirit of her future through the long gaze of her imagination… which I’m betting might explode some brains.
What do you hope an audience will take away from seeing a production of Birthday Candles?
The necessity to pay attention to the grace and beauty that reside everywhere in your life, every day.
Header Image: 2022 Roundabout Theatre Company production of Birthday Candles (Joan Marcus)