Behind the Scenes
Learning about How I Learned What I Learned
Did you know that, though he never set out to act, August Wilson had his acting debut in How I Learned What I Learned at Seattle Rep in 2003? After 20 years, we are celebrating the anniversary of the world premiere of this piece. Check out this How I Learned What I Learned Meet & Greet conversation with Director Tim Bond and Costume Designer, Wilson’s widow, and executor of Wilson’s estate Constanza Romero as they share what went into the play, the magic of August Wilson’s writing, poetry, music, and more.
A Few Opening Words
“This is really a legacy moment for Seattle Rep to revisit this work. When you hear the wisdom of August Wilson from 20 years ago there is so much that he can teach us about the moment we are in right now,” shares Kaytlin McIntyre, Artistic Producer at Seattle Rep.
A Funny Sense of Humor
“August was a very, very funny person. His wit was incredible in the sense of his satire. In public he was a little more demure and people would just have to bring him out. Then he would start telling his stories and he would create a flock. Then people would be all around him,” Constanza shares, reminiscing about Wilson’s personality.
Constanza continues, “So he started to think about what he called ‘stand up.’ And I said, ‘Stand up? Like, okay.’ He started to work on these one-liner kinds of things, like the t-shirt for example.”
After mentioning the idea of a one-man show to [former Seattle Rep Artistic Director] Sharon Ott at a dinner party, How I Learned What I Learned started to become a reality. “I’m so glad [Sharon] did that because it forced [August] to do it. He tried to do everything, but—the fact he had some deadlines and that he had to really go to a rehearsal. First of all, he never liked to have schedules, he never liked to show up at a certain time or certain date. And he really hated to have the discipline it takes to be an actor—he really hated all of that,” laughs Constanza.
How did August Wilson Decide on this Autobiographical Piece?
Constanza shared how the conversation went with August:
Constanza: "What do you think is going to be your theme?"
August: "Well, the one thing I know is that it is not going to be autobiographical."
Constanza: "Okay, one of your works of fiction, that’s terrific.”
Time flies by, as all artists know, and “the calendar like in those old-fashioned movies the dates would kind of disappear. Then [August] turned to me one day and said, 'The one thing I know is that it is going to be autobiographical.'”
Personally, Constanza calls this piece, “A portrait with a young man, even though it has segments going forward in time and going back in time to when he was a boy. It really is a terrific portrait of August and the influences [he encountered], everything that happened to him. He wove it into his play.”
Did You Know?
- The description of the world of the play and the official title is How I Learned What I Learned (And How What I Learned Has Led Me to Places I’ve Wanted to Go. That I Have Sometimes Gone Unwillingly is the Crucible in Which Many a Work of Art Has Been Fired)
- August Wilson left home at the age of 20 years old
- In the script, the role is written as "The Actor" not "August Wilson"
"The Actor" Role
After having conversations with Steven Anthony Jones, Tim Bond knew he was the person for the role: “You have to have a warrior. You have to be what we call the Wilsonian Warriors to be able to do this role. And Steven is that, an absolute warrior—a warrior of the word—a warrior of a process, of integrity as an artist, as an African American man, to be able to really dig deep to the complexity of our existence.”
Constanza says, “We have to understand that this show is going to be done by an actor, so what are the things we need to do for an actor to make it be for an actor? The actor is not being August Wilson on stage, but is telling the stories. That’s why Steven will look like August Wilson, but there is a lot of Steven there. You’re [Steven] telling us the stories also through your lens and your own experiences as being a Black man in America.”
The experiences August Wilson encountered in the Hill District and with the people of Pittsburgh at the time “tempered him like in a crucible, like a piece of metal being tempered by all of those experiences, of being in jail, dealing with racism, dealing with his first jobs, and standing up for himself and finding his own voice and self-respect and self-actualization as a Black man in America,” shares Tim. Throughout the play we can see that “that shaped him as an artist, and the wisdom that comes from that and the resolve that comes from that is really what this piece is about.”
From Bricks to Books
In terms of set design, one major source of inspiration was the Hill District, August Wilson’s home for the first several decades of his life, which is known for primarily brick buildings. Tim shares, “There are many things about bricks that felt important to me but felt like it wasn’t enough.” After engaging Nina Ball, the Scenic Designer for How I Learned What I Learned, “We spent 6 weeks—two months? I don’t know. I think we went through 13 renditions of this piece.”
“Then it finally hit me one night that the books that are part of the library, the knowledge of when he left high school at the age 14-15 over a terrible incident with a teacher that he doesn’t go over in this piece. He self-educated himself, he was an autodidact. He just swallowed information.” The idea of books that looked like bricks came to life. “These environments take you to through the different locations and memories of the young’s poet experience,” said Tim.
“Xavier Pierce has done extraordinary lighting that captures the jazz, the mood, the atmosphere that captures that crucible,” Tim continues. The poem (broken into three parts in the play) and the nature of his poetry informed the design of the show. “The difference between when Steven is recounting the stories of the poet and when the poet is digging into his craft as a young poet. That’s what we were after in the production.”
Painting a Portrait of a Literary Giant
Tim concluded this Meet & Greet with these beautiful words: “[How I Learned What I Learned is] very funny, it’s so much funnier than you can imagine. That rascal that was August Wilson. What is so astonishing is the gift that he has given us as the audience, as artists, what are the things that shaped one the greatest playwrights of all time. That is a gift, that is a profound gift. His relationship to music, to love from when he was a little guy to when he was an adult until he meets Constanza, which is one of the most moving passages I’ve ever read in any play and beautifully spoken by Steven to capture the transcendence of love in such a powerful way.”
Celebrate the 20th anniversary of How I Learned What I Learned, on stage through May 14, 2023 at Seattle Rep.
Meet & Greet photos by Sayed Alamy. Production photos featuring Steven Anthony Jones by Jenny Graham.