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1000 Playwright Interviews The first interview I posted was on June 3, 2009.  It was Jimmy Comtois.  I decided I would start interview...

Jun 23, 2017

I Interview Playwrights Part 956: Stephen Bittrich

Stephen Bittrich

Hometown:  Grew up in a small town — Seguin, Texas.

Current Town:  Austin, Texas for the past 3 years after living for 27 years in NYC

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  A collaboration with playwright, C. Denby Swanson, and actor, David Marantz, called I AM MY OWN SANTA. Colin (C. Denby) is doing most of the actual writing, Dave has been lending great stories about his life experiences, and I’m there to throw out ideas, help structure, help support, help dig deeper. Sometimes I feel like it’s just an excuse for the three of us, who like each other quite a lot, to Skype and hang out every few weeks. We recently got a small grant from Scriptworks to bring Dave to Austin to work on the play in person and to do a reading at Hyde Park Theatre (a wonderful little space of about 80-85 seats in central Austin). The working together and the reading went quite well, and I think we got some solid ideas for the next draft. I’ve been very impressed to see how Colin works up close.

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

A:  I started off wanting to be an actor. My father (now retired) was an English professor at Texas Lutheran College (now Texas Lutheran University), and my mother a middle school English teacher, so I lived in a literary house growing up with rooms and rooms full of books. And my father directed a lot of the community theater productions as well as some college productions in Seguin while I was growing up. When I was about 7 or 8 my dad asked me to play the Indian Prince (or the “Changeling Boy”) in an outdoor college production of MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. This is the child that Titania takes care of and fawns all over, and Oberon is somewhat jealous and wants the boy to be his own henchman. I was a shy kid, and I wasn’t particularly interested in doing it, but my dad bribed me by saying that I could climb a tree. I was very much into climbing trees, so I finally agreed to do the little part. Well, I discovered even at that young age that I kind of liked being fawned over by scantily clad fairy college women. I think I was probably hooked on theater at that point.

I don’t know if that explains who I am as a person, but that’s how I got the theater bug. I also got the movie bug from my dad…

My dad also taught a film course (or often used films to compliment classes like World Lit), and in those days he would get 35MM prints of these movies and bring the projector to our home, and we’d show them on the wall of our “TV Room,” the floor of which was covered with shag carpet and loads of pillows. I could thread the projector myself even at a young age. I remember 3 films in particular that he’d get year after year, ULYSSES (with Kirk Douglas), ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, and THE MUSIC LOVERS (a Ken Russell film about Tchaikovsky). ULYSSES I must have seen 40 or 50 times. (I think I even ran it backwards once). My parents reminded me that when they would take student groups to Rome through the college during the interim semester, my sister and I went along, and we could easily identify the mythological figures featured in the statues much to the amazement of his students (who could not). I was obsessed with mythology for a while. I created a Greek mythology board game in elementary school which was kind of a rip off of the game of Life.

Okay, okay, since you ask…

In junior high I had a teacher name Daryl Fleming who was great for kids like me – those with a little more than average ambition to be creative. I pitched to him that I wanted to write a STAR TREK play and would cast myself as Captain Kirk. He told me to run with it, I did, and we put it on for some of the other classes. My first play.

Sorry, you asked for one story!

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

A:  I wish there were more theaters that made doing new plays their mission. The Drilling Company in New York did that for a time Off Off Broadway. Then they lost their space, and now they do mostly Shakespeare in the Parking Lot and Shakespeare in Bryant Park. I hear from some theater Artistic Directors that new plays are a tough sell, so I wish there was a plentitude of easy grant money support for that mission. It’s important, I think.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Sam Sheppard, Edward Albee, Caryl Churchill, Tom Stoppard, Annie Baker, Adam Rapp, Shaw, Chekov, Shakespeare. Shout out to Artistic Director Hamilton Clancy and all the members of The Drilling Company. That was my “sweet spot” for 15 years, and they produced about 14-15 of my one-acts, a couple of my full-lengths and encouraged several other full-lengths to be developed. I long to find that place again that’s working on new plays and is excited to hear what I’m working on.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  This is the most difficult question… because there’s not any consistent rhyme or reason. I’ve been very excited by things that have surprised me and were passionate and unexpected… often imperfect. A lot of the most exciting stuff has been in smaller venues. The exciting ones usually make me want to go home and write. I got a cheap ticket to an all male AS YOU LIKE IT once, and I thought I was going to be bored. I loved it. I still remember a crazy wild thrilling version of OEDIPUS REX put on by La Cucaracha Theater (now gone, I think) in the mid-80s. I saw CLOUD NINE Off Broadway before I officially moved to New York, and that blew me away.

Q:  A defining moment as a playwright?

A:  I was a finalist for Actor’s Theater of Louisville’s 10-Minute Play Contest. They picked about eight 10-minute plays to actually produce that year, and mine was one of them. At that point I was perhaps more of an actor than a writer. I decided to go to Kentucky to be a part of the experience and stay at this gorgeous historic hotel (the Seelbach). I was treated with such deference by the literary department and staff of ATL. They invited me to rehearsals for the one-acts and also invited me to sit in on a rehearsal of THE ADDING MACHINE that Anne Bogart was directing at the time. It was so different from how I was treated as an actor – (“Can we get the ‘talent’ to shut up for this next take?”) And I thought, “Wow, I could get used to this. I wonder if it’s always like this… the honored playwright.”

Q:  Why Austin now and what has your theater experience been like there?

A:  I grew up in Texas about an hour from Austin. Some close friends of mine I knew from NYC theater moved to Austin to start a family, and I stayed with them for a beautiful week of relaxation and catching up. When I left I got a text about how I should move to Austin. I wasn’t sure if they were joking, so I asked and waited for the response. Their reaction would literally seal my fate. If it had been lukewarm I’d probably be in NYC right now, but they were so enthusiastic (“Yes! Come!”) and offered to put me up in their guest house for several months. I had divorced rather recently and was having a difficult time affording New York and/or finding the right roommate fit, and I felt my life had become about working to pay rent. So I decided to go on a little adventure. Life is always changing, sometimes so slowly you don’t notice. And sometimes you need to embrace it. That was three years ago. People in Austin complain about how expensive it is. It’s cheaper than New York.

I’ve seen a lot of cool theater since being here. I think the quality is quite good – very talented pool of artists. The various groups can be a bit insular. And I wish there were more new plays being done. I guess I was foolishly dreaming that having been published about 8 times and produced around the country (and the world) people would be asking me to read stuff I’m working on, but the truth is that it’s hard to get people to “let you play” wherever you go. You just have to keep working at it and keep wearing them down!

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

A:  If you write to entertain yourself, and you keep at it, you will receive some profound rewards along the way. If your definition of a profound reward is a lot of money, you may want to think about doing something else. Find a small theater doing new work you respect and do your best to join their family.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Keep an eye out for the next incarnation of I AM MY OWN SANTA which is a dark, bitter, and redemptive one-man show about theater, love, family, cater-waiters, Hanukkah, and the last Christmas tree on the lot.

For people looking for my plays, Broadway Play Publishing (www.broadwayplaypub.com) handles my Texas farce, HOME OF THE GREAT PECAN (www.homeofthegreatpecan.com). And my other plays are handled by me on my website (www.StephenBittrich.com and here, www.shortplaysforhighschools.com). My shorts particularly get about 20-25 productions from high schools and colleges during the year.

Recently I shot and edited 4 short films for the Cherry Lane Theatre and La Femme Theatre Productions’ Off-Broadway revival of THE TRAVELING LADY by Horton Foote. The films document a trip to East Texas by Jean Lichty, who plays Georgette in the production. (And my production company, Brain Fire Entertainment – which I run with Earl Ameen – provided the equipment and support – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLlfwDeAeVpX7ByurJKYW9sfPKe2cNtNiW)

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