Friday, August 20, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 240: Jon Steinhagen
Current Town: Chicago
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm spinning a bunch of different plates at present. Currently, my play THE ALTOONA DADA SOCIETY PRESENTS THE VELVET GENTLEMAN is playing at the New York Fringe, produced by the fabulous people at Playlab NYC - performances continue through August 26th. Here in Chicago, I'm deep into rewrites for ACES, a "Las Vegas comedy" that will open in May at Signal Ensemble Theatre. Next week, Raven Theatre is presenting a 3-performance workshop production of my play DATING WALTER DANTE. This October, Marie Kemp is directing a black box production of my play SOMETHING MORE COMFORTABLE at Syracuse University. Sometime this fall there will be a second reading of a new play that was recently read at Chicago Dramatists, BLIZZARD '67. In the hopper is a first draft of a play called MENDICITY CITY - which manages to combine Depression-era Chicago and vampires - and a bunch of short stories burning to be written, but - alas - time is at a premium, so they ferment as notes only for now. I'm a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists, so I'm also working to get my next project ready to be read at our Saturday Series readings, which happen every weekend (barring holidays, of course) and are enormously fun and helpful in the development of the plays!
Q: You are also an actor. How does your writing affect your acting and vice versa?
A: I learn something new about storytelling with each new role I play and from every actor with whom I share a scene. I recently ended a long run of Neil Simon's THE ODD COUPLE - I played Felix - and I was amazed at the rhythm of the language, the pacing of the humor...but also found another layer to the play I didn't suspect was there. I don't know that I would have found it had I not been physically engaged in the story. I just opened Tom Stoppard's THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND at Signal Ensemble Theatre - I'm playing Birdboot, the philandering critic - and the richness of the language and the density of ideas is astounding. As if closing one show and opening another in a space of nine days isn't crazy enough, I began rehearsals this week for CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, in which I'll be playing Big Daddy. Table readings have been amazing. That play's got the best second act of any play I know - maybe one of the best acts anywhere, really. Essentially, performing these great roles in these great plays reminds me, always, that as a storyteller myself I ought to focus on the "what happens next?" of the story, seek urgency, and examine my story ideas in terms of "what makes this day [in which the play's action begins] different from all the others?" And - as a playwright - it has always been of utmost value to me to have informal, table readings of my new scripts, because nothing replaces hearing how an actor speaks the dialogue. Lastly, because I'm an actor and know so many fantastic actors, I tend to lean towards peopling my stories with characters that I'D want to play: male, female, young, old...anthropomorphic...
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was eight or nine years old, I won a prize in a state-wide poetry thingamajig - one of those conferences where schools are solicited for entries from students. I had written a poem called "Toast," which was essentially an brief ode to toast, the text shaped like a piece of toast. I got to go to the conference, which I remember very well for so long ago - the guest speaker (I do not recall who she was) spoke on creativity, and illustrated a point about imagination by posing the basic of a situation and asking the students to come up with the backstory. Evidently, I raised my hand and concocted a rather lurid and racy response (something about a dogcatcher's wife poisoning the dogs as an act of revenge for divorce proceedings). Everyone laughed at me because that came out of the mouth of a child. I recall being somewhat upset by the laughter because I was being dead serious. Nowadays, I'm not so upset.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I'd love to see more collaboration between theater companies. I realize that's a very tall order - the logistics of co-producing a show, getting the opportunity organized, getting the talent lined up...but I think it would be huge fun and an excellent way for those who tend to be a little isolationist within the bound of their theater company to meet new people, get new perspectives on stories and audiences...and maybe even have the wherewithal to produce new and established plays that require larger casts.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I started out writing music and lyrics for musicals, and Frank Loesser's work inspired me at the outset and continues to be a golden hallmark. I tend to have influences and heroes from many disciplines, not just theater but movies and literature as well: Woody Allen, the collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes, Steven Millhauser, Kevin Wilson, Will Eno, Agatha Christie...Edward Albee looms large in my life and thoughts...Mia McCullough's work made me consider attempting plays as well as musicals - she's the playwright I wished I could be...Theresa Rebeck is brilliant, as she does wonderful work in theater, television, and literature (her two novels are prizes)...
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: All kinds, I find all of it inspiring, from "The Bald Soprano" to "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" to "The King and I" to "Next To Normal" - that, and everything that's happening now and tomorrow. I'm always keen to find out what's coming up next, what playwrights are writing, how they're writing it, and how they are telling their stories. I am very lucky to be living and writing during a very inventive time.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Get involved with a theater company, somehow. Even if you can't act, find some way to connect with the people who will someday be directing, acting in, producing, designing, and marketing your work. Keep lots of notebooks. See as much as you can. Read the old and the new. Ask people how they're doing. Ask them what they're working on. Encourage them to tell you their stories, and they will ask you to tell them yours - it's the best and easiest way to determine if what you're dreaming is going along in a way that energizes you and someone else. Be a person people are happy to see. I'm reminded of a Gertrude Stein quote, which I shall now paraphrase and probably misquote, but: start with a small audience - if they understand you, they will make a big noise.
Q: Plugs, please:
Playlab NYC presents
THE ALTOONA DADA SOCIETY PRESENTS THE VELVET GENTLEMAN
at the New York International Fringe Festival
through August 26th (Venue #15)
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
opening May 2011