Field Day

Barbara Field’s new play, <em>The Dwindles</em>, may be her last. But the matriarch of Minnesota playwrights is not about to go quietly

“I’ve never been one to strip my clothes off,” Barbara Field says when we meet at a Starbucks in St. Louis Park. She clarifies with another metaphor: “I don’t bleed all over the stage.” At 75, however, the playwright behind the Twin Cities’ most beloved production, A Christmas Carol, which she adapted in the 1970s, is baring her soul.

“I’m scared to death,” she says of this month’s premiere of The Dwindles at the Playwrights’ Center. “There are some very painful parts of my past in there.” Field came to Minneapolis in 1962, having grown up in New Jersey (“Have you played Monopoly?” she asks. “I grew up on the yellow—in Marvin Gardens”). Her then-husband taught physics at the University of Minnesota, but the couple eventually divorced and Field was certain she’d end up selling stockings at Dayton’s. Instead, in 1971, having taken playwrighting classes from the beloved actor/writer Charles Nolte at the U, she founded the Playwrights’ Center with several other students. Michael Langham, the Guthrie artistic director at the time, soon hired her as the theater’s first playwright-in-residence, and the rest is so much figgy pudding.

Field began The Dwindles about four years ago, and only recently returned to it. “I began having dreams,” she says. “About myself, my children. And when I’d wake up, I was feeling things I hadn’t felt in 50 years.” The play is set in an artists’ colony filled with aging individualists—a composer of atonal music, a famous scenic designer, a black tap-dancer—each of whom, Field says, is really her. “Am I an African-American tap dancer?” she asks. “No, but try being Jewish in Minnesota.” The characters, scarred by life yet still wounding each other, represent a dichotomy she’s come to believe: “Some people are born parents, others are forever children. Picasso was probably always a child.” She drains her cup of coffee. “I think this might be my last original play. I’m an old lady. I don’t know if I have anything left to say.” She moves toward the door. “But I think I did need to bleed all over this one.”