Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 195: Andrew Hinderaker

Andrew Hinderaker

Hometown: Madison, WI

Current Town: Chicago

Q:  Tell me please about your play at the Gift.

A:  "Suicide, Incorporated" is set inside a company that edits its clients' suicide notes. The company's boss, seeking to expand and ultimately franchise his business, targets the male demographic (since men ultimately complete 80% of all suicides). So he hires a hotshot male writer, straight out of Hallmark, to be his star employee. But from the get go, it's clear that the new hire has little intention of helping his clients die.

The piece begins as office satire, but ultimately lands in the realm of drama, exploring the often undiscussed relationship between suicide and masculinity. The play was developed at a number of wonderful Chicago institutions - Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Chicago Dramatists - but ultimately found a home at a tiny storefront I *love* called the Gift Theatre.

Q:  What else are you working on?

A:  I have a play entitled, "Kingsville," that's set in an America where children of all ages can legally carry guns to class. That piece premieres at Chicago's Stage Left Theatre in October, so we're just finishing up casting right now.

I also have a short piece in American Theatre Company's Silver Project, and am honored to be on a bill with the likes of Maria Irene Fornes and David Henry Hwang. And I'm just finishing up a play called "Dirty," about a porn company for the social good. I'm developing that piece with Chicago Dramatists and we'll have a public reading of the play at the end of July.

Q:  If I had six months to spend in Chicago, what plays, theaters or artists would you suggest I check out?

A:  First, make sure those six months are October-March, because Chicago is lovely in the winter.

Chicago artists... at the risk of leaving out some extremely talented folks, I'd insist that you get to know the following artists: Playwrights - Mia McCullough, Tanya Saracho, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Marisa Wegrzyn; Directors - Jonathan Berry, Meghan Beals McCarthy, Megan Shuchman; Actors - Michael Patrick Thornton, Phillip James Brannon, Brenda Barrie, Francis Guinan; Dramaturges - Aaron Carter, Jennifer Shook; Artistic Directors - Russ Tutterow, Vance Smith, Thornton

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  Okay, this is truly embarrassing, but when I was a boy I used to collect those Starting Lineup sports action figures. Remember those things? They're actually worth a lot of money now. Like, if I'd kept them in the packaging, I could sell them for a lot more than I can sell my plays.

But honestly, what kid keeps his action figure in the box? So I'd tear them open, get the action figure out and play a pretty healthy game of make-believe. But I wouldn't just concoct stories of sports triumphs; I'd give each of the figures backstories, personal struggles that they had to overcome in order to hit that grand slam in the bottom of the 9th. Looking back, it's kind of ridiculous; I mean, I was like 6. But I guess from the beginning I've been fascinated by questions of character and getting to the root of who we are as people.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  Make it more approachable. To me, this involves a number of fundamental shifts. First, theater needs to be more affordable. Second, the stories themselves need to reflect the broader audience that theaters wish to attract. Third, we artists need to do a better job building a relationship with the audience. I'd like to replace every post-show talkback with a post-show announcement that says, "The entire cast and crew will be at the bar next door. Come join us for a beer and we'll chat." And for that matter, let the audience bring a beer into the theater and relax. This should be a place where we can enjoy ourselves.

Finally, I think we all need to be very careful that we're not just writing and performing exclusively for the theater community. What I mean to say is this: theater professionals read a lot of plays. A lot. It's inevitable that we're drawn to pieces that feel new and different. But before selecting and hyping one of those plays, we need to ask two questions: 1. Is it entertaining; and 2. Does it have something to say? I'm all for smart plays but I have no patience for intellectual exercises. I love experimental work, but plays that are weird for the sake of being weird drive me nuts. And to me, that kind of work exacerbates the stereotype that theater is for nerds and elitists. To me, theater is about telling a story in the most exciting way possible - before a live audience.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A;  I'm inspired by artists who are both honest and fearless. The list is exhaustive, but absolutely includes Shakespeare, Chekhov, August Wilson, Sarah Kane, Conor McPherson, Stephen Adley Guirgis, Suzan Lori-Parks, and Michael Patrick Thornton.

So apparently, if you've got three words in your name, you're on my list.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  My favorite plays that I've read/seen this year have been "Love Person," "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity," "The Brothers Size," and a couple plays by Sam Hunter. These are writers with wildly different styles -- Aditi Brennan Kapil's writing is lush and gorgeous; Kris Diaz's play is vibrant and fun; McCraney is supremely theatrical and Hunter's work walks this unbelievable line between morbid, peculiar and poetic.

But I think all four of them are talking about the American experience in a very personal, yet profound way. And more specifically, they so brilliantly depict figures who are left on the outskirts of that American experience. And that type of character fascinates me.

At the end of the day, I hope to write plays that are entertaining, emotionally honest, and wildly ambitious in how deeply they explore the human experience. The plays mentioned above set the bar incredibly high on those fronts.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  See and read a ton of plays. Get a sense of the companies and the artists that are doing the kind of work that inspires you. Get to know those people. It's about building relationships and that takes time.

Blind submissions are tricky. I use them for competitions and playwriting conferences, but no longer submit blindly to theater companies. It's been my experience that plays aren't produced that way.

Find a supportive community, whether it's a writer's group, theater company, etc. It's crucial to get feedback from people you trust, and giving good feedback makes you a better writer.

Above all, be gracious. This is an extraordinary community where people will go out of their way to go to bat for your work. Remember to thank them and remember to do the same for others.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  "Suicide, Incorporated" runs through July 25th at the Gift Theatre:

"Kingsville" runs October-November at Stage Left Theatre:

And complete info on my work can be found on my website,


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