Nov 10, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 523: Steve J. Spencer
Steve J. Spencer
Hometown: Dayton, OH
Current Town: Chicago, IL
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Couple of plays. One is about a brilliant fourteen-year-old girl being slowly crushed by our culture. Another is about a suicidal game show host. Another is a Winesburg, OH rip-off about bath salts and squatters. Doing readings of three other plays, too.
Q: How would you characterize the Chicago theater scene?
A: Inaccurately. There seems to be a hierarchy, a strict food chain of who is cool and successful and who is beneath contempt. But once you climb the ladder to the next level, you're left puzzled: there seems to be a hierarchy on that level, too, made up of a strict food chain and hapless losers. I suspect the next level up is like that as well. An illusion of class and status at each level, when in reality, we're just a bunch of people contorting ourselves into what we think are appropriate postures. Sure, some people on higher levels shit on you, and some are decent, unpretentious folk. Mostly, we've replicated the same bullshit status system we became artists to escape from, primarily because it's ingrained in us by age four. It is a persistent illusion. And most of us know it. Yet we still act like it's real. Or at least I do.
Oh, and someone said Hollywood is like high school with money. Theater is like high school without money. Bullshit status we know is false but are too afraid to disregard.
And the cool kids in the theater cafeteria deserve our compassion as well.
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. My dad is the best man alive. Kind. Funny. Has worked himself to death his whole life. Growing up, something unfair happened, something that was not his fault. We almost lost him because of it. I was young and I couldn't figure out how such a decent man, a real Father, could be destroyed for doing nothing wrong. It didn't so much as leave me with a sense that life was unfair, it left me with a sense that our way of life is insane. It doesn't work. Look around. Not working. And at the heart of it is inequality.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Fire Chris Jones. Seriously. He can't write, and he can't write because his taste sucks so he spends the majority of his reviews trying to justify his own taste. It's gotten to the point where he cannot successfully describe the plot of a play because he lacks conviction in his own taste. Which is his only job. His authority is just another illusion, like the theater hierarchy or like money; if we don't believe in him, he'll go away. If he were fired all the church bells in Chicago would ring forever.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: William Sayoran, John Osborne, lots of people. But nobody has influenced me more as a writer than my dad. A kind human.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I want to see theater about something. It doesn't have to be political. It doesn't have to be about a social problem. That'd be nice, considering we're going to shit, but it doesn't even have to be about love. Tell me something that you have to tell me. I often leave the theater and go home and read, say, Milan Kundera and get really sad. I pick up Kundera and he tells me about his life. He tells me what it was like to be a human at his point in existence. He tells me something human. The difference between reading Kundera and seeing most plays is shocking. Most of the plays I see tell me nothing. And not every play has to be about something; it can just be about itself, it can just be entertaining. That's fine. But we have plenty of entertainment. Tell me something that it will kill you not to say.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Art will not save you. Your career will not save you. It will not keep you warm at night. I wish teachers would tell us that. Art is not the most important thing in the world. It's not more important than the people in your life. That's all you have. I've learned that the hard way.
Other than that, you are free to do whatever you want. If an AD says "we can't do that," please remind him or her that we can and should do whatever the hell we want. "We can't do that." Wrong. We're free. To do whatever the hell we want. You could punch your boss, God won't stop you. You could even produce an unmarketable play.
Oh, and take the traditional trajectory to becoming a playwright (school, MFA, connections, form company). It's a clear-cut path. Just try to say something while you're at it.
I hope I don't come off as too bitter. Eh. So be it. I'm nice in person. Where it counts.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: at the Chicago Dramatists: January 12 Annual Showcase of the NEW Resident Playwrights
FLOATER by Stuart Flack
EARTHQUAKE CHICA by Anne García-Romero
A WORK OF ART by Elaine Romero
INVISIBLE THERAPY FOR THE IMPOSSIBLE WORLD by Steve J. Spencer
February 23 MAY YOU LIVE IN INTERESTING TIMES by Steve J. Spencer