A Conversation with James Still

IRT playwright-in-residence James Still

Last Sunday afternoon (5/4/08) I drove downtown to the Starbucks on the Circle to interview James Still, playwright-in-residence for the Indiana Repertory Theatre

Actually, he had invited me for coffee and conversation, which is not quite the same as an interview.  After we shook hands and said, “Nice to meet you” and so on, he tried to ask me about myself.  However, I knew he only had an hour or so, and I was greedy for information for my blog readers, so I asked if I could take notes while we talked about his art and then write about our conversation as part of my “Indy Theatre Habit.”  He graciously agreed.

We spent an hour-and-a-half together, exploring a wealth of subtopics related to the main topic of theatre.  It was exhilarating.  And inspiring.

Mind you, sometimes I felt as if I were in a movie scene with him, a scene whose dialogue was occasionally driven by the people from the playwright’s shows who dropped by to give him hugs.  “That was Nick,” he would say, for example.  “He was in a production of my Anne Frank play…”

This was not a bad thing, and I am sure that the appearance of these supporting actors in our “scene” was truly coincidental, but nonetheless, it was odd.  And somehow flattering.

The feeling of being in a movie was compounded whenever I thought about the fact that I was chatting with a person whose art has been shared all over the world, a person who has collaborated with people such as Bill Cosby and Maurice Sendak.

But in any case, during all of the time that I was playing a theatre critic in the window of Starbucks, I also felt very comfortable and…special.  I was, and am, honored that James Still went out of his way to spend time with me, and that he shared so generously and thoughtfully some of his ideas and experiences related to his art.

The following is not a report of our conversation as it happened, but rather a collection of Still’s comments grouped into subtopics in a way that is, I hope, enjoyable to read.

On why theatre is important: 

Still said that theatre is a necessary part of being human.  “You’re in the dark, with mostly other strangers.  At its best, it is a communal experience that is life-changing, or at least life-challenging.  It challenges your notions about what it means to be human.

“At its most neutral it can just be FUN.  And God knows, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

On his roots:

When he was 11 years old, one of his teachers in his small town in Kansas gave him a stack of five books to read.  One of them was The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank.  He was blown away by the enormous significance of the Holocaust, and a little embarrassed not to have known about it before.  Years later, when he was living in New York City, he met a woman whose stepfather was also Anne Frank’s father.  And later, after a lot of interviewing and other forms of researching, he wrote a play called “And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank.”

Also when he was growing up in Kansas, he discovered the plays of William Inge at his local public library.  “It was one of my first light bulbs.”  Still mentioned that May 3 had been Inge’s birthday.  “He won the Pulitzer prize for ‘Picnic.’  He also wrote ‘Come Back Little Sheba’ and ‘Bus Stop.'”  Hearing Still talk about Inge made me want to go read his work, too.

Still’s dad was a basketball coach in their small town in Kansas.  James loves sports, too.  When he was in college (University of Kansas) he took the cast from the show he was directing to a basketball game.  He told them to “watch this audience, this crowd.  How can we get people to care this much about what we do?”

Still said that theatre and sports are different, but they are both primal.   Some people don’t think of theatre, of art, as essential.  They don’t yet realize that it is.  Of course, sometimes people are just in survival mode.  He knows what that is like from when he was a starving artist living in New York City.  “But then, let’s collaborate” (let’s tell the hard stories)…”To watch other people’s struggles (in a show) can be very cathartic.  Theatre can potentially contribute to the good in the world.”

Sometimes, though, he thinks about what it would be like to do something else beside theatre.  “But I’m 48.  I’m in this.”

I asked him what he would have done instead.

“Maybe take a year and build homes in New Orleans.  Work on the problem of clean water in Africa.   Sometimes I think I should have gone into politics, spent my time and energy that way.  Now, my checkered past wouldn’t let me do that.”

I laughed and asked him to give me an example from his checkered past.  He laughed, too, and thought about it for a moment, but then he got very sober and said, instead of answering, “Theatre is still a place where you can make art about the messiness of life and not risk being punished for it.  I don’t know how we are ever going to elect” (as president) “someone who is human” (if we keep expecting the candidates to be blemish-free.)

He went on:  “This sounds fancier than I mean it, but I think of myself as a cultural anthropologist.  I am interested in how we got here, and what we will leave behind. The art we’re creating – what kind of clues will that leave behind?  How will it define who we are?”

He said he doesn’t suffer from writer’s envy.  Prizes, prestige, they come and go.  He is happy for other writers’ success.  He knows there was no way that it came easy.  Even if a playwright has the financial support of a trust fund or whatever, “You still have to write the damn thing!”

Still said, “I gravitated towards writing because I thought it was private, not about me.”

I laughed out loud when I heard this.  But I knew what he meant.

He said, “These past two months, with the IRT celebrating our ten-year relationship, I have spent a lot of time talking about myself.”  He has enjoyed it – “The celebration of a not-famous writer is an amazing thing, and having two of my plays going on at once?  That is something real!” – but he is also looking forward to going back to being more private.

On children’s television:

Still was the head writer for 50 episodes of the “Little Bear” television series for children.  He worked with three or four other writers.  They would usually have several stories going on at once, rather than completing one story and then moving on to the next one.  Although he did not get writing credit for every episode in the series, he was a ghost writer for every single one because he was the head writer.  He checked each episode for consistency of voice, etc.

He also did 80 episodes of another children’s television show called “Paz,” which is still running on Disney Kids, TLC, etc. 

These were great experiences for him.  “I really like the people at Children’s Television,” he said. “They are not cynical.  They are in it for the reasons you would hope: they feel a sense of responsibility to their audience.  It was hard work, but it was also a pleasure.”

He said he chooses his children’s projects very carefully.   “So much of what is produced for children is not responsible or good.”

On being BUSY:

James Still is very busy.  For one thing, he will direct “Rabbit Hole,” by David Lindsay-Abaire, for the IRT’s Upperstage next spring (April 21-May 17, 2009.)  He will also have three world premieres of his own plays in the coming season: 

The Heavens are Hung in Black” was commissioned by Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.  It will premier there in February of 2009.  Still directed “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” there in 2004 and remembers how haunted the place still was by Lincoln’s assassination there.  However, this new play takes place in 1862, in the middle of Lincoln’s presidency.  His son has died, his wife, Mary, is fragile, the war is dragging on, and he is experiencing depression.  This piece is a look at Lincoln the human being.

“The Velvet Rut” will also premier this coming season, but the location has not been released yet.  It is about a high school English teacher who survived a mass shooting at his school, but who is unable to go back to teaching.  He meets a Boy Scout named Virgil who takes him camping.   By becoming a boy again, the teacher is able to become a man again.

Most exciting of all, to me: “Interpreting William” will premier on the Mainstage of the IRT May 12-May 31, 2009.

On “Interpreting William” and workshops:

“Interpreting William” is not, as I had first thought, a play “about William Conner,” the founder of what is now known as Conner Prairie. Still said that Conner is in the play, but it is really about a college professor who realizes that some of his choices have mirrored those of William Conner.  It is about his consideration of his future choices.  The play switches back and forth in time.  “It is not a pageant where people wear moccasins.” It is a contemporary play with contemporary language, inspired by the life of William Conner.   It is also about abandonment.  Twentieth century stories of abandonment.

I am looking forward to seeing it!

When we talked, “William” was about to be in workshop the following Tuesday and Wednesday.  I asked what it meant to “workshop a play.”

Still said that some people call it “development” instead of workshopping.  In any case, it can last anywhere from two days to two weeks.   A director and actors are brought in to read the play aloud in a skillful way and then share comments with the playwright afterwards.  These people are not necessarily the artists who will be hired for the actual production.

A dramaturg is also present to be an advocate for the text: to keep track of the drafts, track the changes, point out inconsistencies, etc.  He (or she) also does whatever research might be needed during the workshop process.  Part of his job, too, is to ask great questions.  They don’t need to be answered in that moment, but often the dramaturg’s questions help to break something open in the script in a useful way.

“William” went through a three-day workshop early on.   On the first day, everyone sat around a table and the actors read the script aloud.   Then they talked about it.  Then, Still went off and pulled an all-nighter writing revisions.  The next day, the actors read aloud the re-write and talked about it.  Still wrote some more.  On the third day, an invited audience came in to listen to the actors read aloud.  Afterwards, everyone asked questions and made comments.  Still went home to write some more.

In October, he had a five-day workshop of “William” at the Madison Repertory Theatre.  After the first reading there, Still holed up for two days to write while the actors rehearsed the pieces that they already had.  During that workshop, too, there was an invited audience.

This week (actually last week, as I write this blog post) the cast for the workshop will include a Native American actor brought in from California to play Conner’s wife.  She will also test out the text culturally.  They will do a reading at Conner Prairie with an invited audience that will include several of the Conner Prairie staff.

On writing:

For “Iron Kisses“, there was a two-week workshop in Rochester.  Carving out this chunk of time allowed Still to actually finish the play: he wrote the third scene there during a series of all-nighters.

As the writer of a play, he often feels that he is playing catch-up with the characters and story, or that he is getting out of the way of them.  When he was working on “Iron Kisses” he had a sudden and powerful realization that the ending – in which the sister asks her brother, “Billy, tell me a story about mom” to help her grieve their mother’s death – is really the beginning.  He said, “I understood the play in that moment.”

Still said there is nothing consciously manipulative about the way he writes a play.  All of the writing is done from the characters’ needs.

On getting ideas:

Still said, “There are fuses.  Characters and stories will wait only so long.  Then they move on to other writers.”

So…he pays close attention to what “rises up.”

But also, he said, “There are characters and stories who are fakes.  They think they should be getting your attention, but really they are tests.”  He has learned to say “no” to writing invitations that are not for him.  It is okay to let someone else write about those.

He tells himself, “It’s going to be hard” (to write the story, the play) “so which one am I going to focus on?  Which one do I want to spend so much time on?

“Writing a play is a love story, not a crush.  With a crush, one day you wake up and you ask yourself, ‘What was I thinking?’  You realize that you have invested all this hope and energy…” (on something that is not worth it.)

When looking for stories and characters to bring to life, Still said, “I am looking for the love stories.  We will fight, we will be angry with each other sometimes, yet at the end of the day, we will say, ‘I am still in this.  I am still working on this.'”

He feels about all of his plays that “there is something in this that I need to pay attention to.”

He also said that his plays have given him teaching moments – i.e., there is a reason why he is struggling with whatever he is struggling – and they have helped him develop patience.  “Plays can not be bullied.  You have to give yourself over to a play and let it reveal itself to you.”

He added, “The challenge, then, is to switch back to a more self-protective mode when the play is presented to the public.  It is important not to expect too much from the audience or the critics.  It is not fair to expect other people to care as much about your play as you do.  Dealing with that fact is part of growing up.”

“After all,” he said, “I’m not there for the ride home – I can’t control that, and that’s as it should be.  My nightmare is that they don’t talk about it at all!

He said that if he had the chance to do anything over, he would spend less time wishing he were able to write facilely, without risk and passion.  He said that now, he would stop writing if the only way to write was to do it self-protectively, without that passion.

He notices connections from play to play, and his skills build with each one.  In “Iron Kisses” he learned how to tell the idea that siblings have different moms and dads.

He also learns from enjoying paintings, dance, and fiction, even more than from reading other people’s plays.  He learns from observing how fiction writers deal with point of view, for example.

On being playwright-in-resident:

Usually, Still told me, residencies are fairly loose arrangements.  A residency is a way to give a writer health insurance, a desk, a phone, etc.  Some playwrights-in-residence help to earn their keep by teaching a class.  (Still doesn’t have time to do that much any more, though.) 

A residency is a recognition of a relationship.  A theatre will do a play by a certain playwright and the artistic director will want to do another play by that person, but then years will go by and sometimes it never happens.  A residency is not a promise that the theatre will do another play by that person, but it makes it more convenient, and therefore more likely.

Having/being a playwright-in-residence was a first for both Still and the IRT.  He said that he and the IRT’s artistic director, Janet Allen, were both very naive when they started, which was great because there were no rules.  They made it up as they went along.

The first time he came to Indy was in 1991.  One of his plays won a contest that is now called the Bonderman New Play Symposium.  He met Janet Allen then.  They liked each other, and started a collegial relationship.  This was before email, so they would call each other or write paper letters every once in a while, just to keep in touch.  It was 1996 (four years later) before she was able to produce another of his plays.  By this time they had really bonded artistically, and she suggested they apply for a grant to make him playwright-in-residence for two years.  That worked well, so they got that grant renewed for another two years.  That grant was not renewable after that, but by then the IRT’s Board had bought in and they found other ways to fund the residency.

Before becoming playwright-in-residence at the IRT, Still had had some intense experiences as a guest playwright at various other places.  Those experiences were good, for the most part, but they often felt unfinished.  He told Allen, “I want to be involved with the life and culture of a theatre.”  He wanted to have on-going relationships with the audience, the board, the staff – i.e., the whole community.

Still said, “It was naive to think that it” (the kind of relationship that he and Allen wanted him to have with the IRT and the community) “could happen in only two years.  It can happen over ten years.” 

He goes to Board meetings, strategy meetings, and other kinds of meetings.  He sees every production. In fact, he is flying in from his home in California just for 24 hours to see one of the preview performances of “The Fantasticks” (opening on the IRT’s Mainstage on May 27) so that he can participate fully in all of the artistic discussion about it.

Still said he hoped that people in Indy would reach a point where they go to see a play not based on what it’s about but because it is a play by James Still. 

I told him that I was at that point already.  I loved “Iron Kisses” and “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder.”  From now on, every time there is an opportunity to see a play by James Still, I’m there!

He said he doesn’t expect a love-fest all the time, but he wants people to feel that they are guaranteed a full experience whenever they go to see one of his plays.  He, in turn, wants to feel that even when they don’t like a particular play of his, they will come back to see the next one because of their relationship.  I.e. – there is respect on both sides.

His degree is in directing, not writing.  He directs at the IRT, too, and therefore works closely with all 80+ staff members there.  Writers don’t often go to all of the meetings that a director does.

At the IRT, he is an insider-outsider.  One of the roles he plays is to be the guy who asks the “dumb” questions, who offers the perspective of a (trusted) outsider.

Still said that the people at the IRT work hard, 365 days a year.

I think Still works hard, too.  In addition to writing, directing, and team-playing, he also schmoozes.  He did not put it that way, but after his conversation with me he was headed for a dinner with some of the theatre’s sponsors.

On criticism:

Still goes through periods where he discounts all reviews.  “If you discount the negative, then you have to discount the positive, too.”  Sometimes he ignores reviews simply because “it is too much stuff for me to process” on top of everything else. 

Sometimes his agent protects him, tells him not to read a certain review.

He also thinks that reviews can be inherently disingenuous.   “It is disingenuous to discount the audience’s experience…Art IS subjective…(Therefore) the tone of a review is very important.” 

I agree: I hope that my reviews will always be respectful as well as critical!

Even though he sometimes ignores reviews, Still said the media has a responsibility to report on what’s happening.  “In other towns there is less theatre but more coverage of it.”

He never responds to critics, so this conversation with me was an experiment.  He said he just wants his work to be part of a larger conversation in the community.  A conversation that is energetic, passionate, considered, and respectful.

I would like that, too.

Still suggested that I read the essay by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman, author of “‘Night Mother,” about critics.  It was in the New York Times about a month ago.  I promised I would look it up.

Still said, “It’s very hard to be a playwright in this country.”  (However), “the job of a critic is not to be responsible for a playwright’s career.  It is also not to be a cheerleader or a Pollyanna.  However, it is important for a critic to be respectful.”   

There’s that tone thing again.

He also said, “If you’re going to write about the writing, be a good writer yourself.”  He said it was irritating to read people bashing the writing in a play when they themselves could not produce a well-constructed sentence.

He is suspicious when a critic thinks he has something to teach the writer.  “It is not a science.”  Again, tone is important.

He said, “With the best critics – even the mean ones – you get a sense of what their experience was.  Their reviews tell a story.  The tone of their reviews is not ‘look how cool I am, how cynical.'”

He said, “Reviews on the Internet are there forever.  There is no way to control it.  And yet it is connected to the future of the play.  Ideally, producers would read scripts and decide for themselves what they want to produce, but it is also natural for them to search the Internet to see what people thought of other productions of the play.  They can’t help but be influenced by reviews.”

It breaks his heart whenver he hears someone say, “There aren’t any good plays.”  Yes, there are!

His own test for art is: does it linger?  If not, then there is no depth for him, no usefulness, no impact.  It may be different for someone else, “but if I walk out of the theatre already thinking about something else” – that’s bad.

He encouraged me to talk with other playwrights, too. 

“But when it gets to be a chore,” he said, “take a break.  When the conversation stops being high-quality, take a break.  Artists deserve a high-quality conversation.” 

I assume reviewers do, too!

Still said he rarely goes to other productions of his own plays because the people there always want him to love their production, and sometimes he just doesn’t.  “Just because you work hard doesn’t mean you get a free ride.”

On the other hand, sometimes the hard work IS the reward.  “Maybe you took some kind of personal risk in doing the piece.  The audience, the critics, they don’t have to recognize that you are working on your own thing” (and that you are satisfied with what you accomplished.)  “That is not their responsibility.”

On Indianapolis:

“I have great affection for Indianapolis,” Still said, towards the end of our conversation. 

I realized as I was typing up my notes for this post that I could have asked James Still if I could write a book about him instead of just one lengthy blog post, and if this could be just the first of many interviews.  I don’t know if writing a book about him is truly my project to pursue, but I would love to know more about the process behind each of the rest of his plays, and more about why he likes Indy.

In any case, one of the reasons he had invited me to have coffee with him, I think, was to convince me that he has deep ties to this community even though he has never actually lived here in Indy fulltime.  That mission was accomplished.

I left Starbucks thinking, “Okay, so maybe James Still does not live here, but he is ours. And he is worth keeping.”

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

Updates – Here are some links to other Indy Theatre Habit posts related to James Still:

4/27/08 Theatre Review: “Iron Kisses” at the IRT

5/5/08 Theatre Review: “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” at the IRT

11/17/08 News About James Stills’ New Play “The Heavens Are Hung in Black”

11/24/08 Our Own James Still in the New York Times Today

12/31/08 Last Day Delights

2/7/09 Mailbox Monday: Zach (and Michael), Kevin, James, Marc, Emiliy, John, and Bill

5/3/09 Theatre Review: “Rabbit Hole” at the IRT

5/19/09 Theatre Review: “Interpreting William” at the IRT

6/28/09 Playwright News: James Still – Medallion Recipient

10/13/09 Theatre Review: “The Heavens Are Hung In Black” at the IRT

11/5/09 Mailbox: Congratulations to Playwright James Still!

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