A Conversation with Steven Yockey

Playwright Steven Yockey

I heard that playwright Steven Yockey (www.redkingdreaming.com) was in Indianapolis for the opening of his new play, “Octopus,” at the Phoenix Theatre.  On a whim, I asked if I could interview him on the day before the show opened.  He said yes!

So then I scrambled to read more about his work and to prepare questions beyond “Where do you get your ideas?”  It was interesting to read about his career on the Internet, so when we met at Henry’s on East coffee shop Wednesday afternoon, I had several questions.

He graciously answered all of them, even the ones that were really just for me rather than for my blog readers.  Steve listens like a playwright, or at least the way I imagine all good playwrights listen:  intently, compassionately, and with no nonsense but a lot of humor.

Our conversation was a great blessing to me.

On Playwright as Collaborator

The Phoenix Theatre’s production of “Octopus” will be the third production among theatres in the National New Play Network.  The show was originally developed and produced by Actor’s Express Theater in Atlanta, Georgia, where Steve is from. It has also been produced by the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, California.

I asked if it is always part of the process for the playwright to visit a theatre that is premiering his or her play.  Steve said not necessarily, but Phoenix director Bryan Fonseca had invited him to visit any time during the production schedule for “Octopus.”  Steve chose to come three days before opening.  He has been offering comments all week with the understanding that they are just information for Bryan to consider.

“Bryan said something really great to me when I first got here,” Steve told me.  “He said, ‘I want you to tell me anything you want because we are all here for the same reason: to make a strong production.’

“The beauty of theatre is that it is dependent on the collaborators,” Steve continued.  “My play on the page is not literature, not in my opinion.  It is meant to be lifted.”  I.e. – lifted off the page by the voices of the actors and the vision of the director and designers.

Steve watched me scribbling down quotes for a moment and then said, “You know this is all going to sound very pretentious, don’t you?”  I protested, but he shook his head and said, “When you go to write this out, you’ll see: very pretentious.”

And you know what?  He was right: “My work is meant to be lifted” does sound pretentious.  But it didn’t feel pretentious when Steve was saying it.  It felt humble.  And it was a reminder to me about why I find plays exciting:  a play IS more than words on a page.  A good play is filled with possibilities.

On “Growing Up”

Steve started writing plays when he was 25.  He is now 32.

“I started out very prescriptive,” he told me.  In other words, he gave lots of detail in his stage directions.  “I was also very pushy with directors.”

Pretty quickly, though, he learned that “It is very misguided, especially for (someone in) theatre, to be all ‘my way or the highway.’

“It’s about developing a trust.  A professional lighting designer understands a lot more than a playwright does about lighting design.  A professional director understands more about how to interact with actors.”

He laughed, “Actually, just about anyone knows more about how to interact with actors than I do.  I never talk to actors because I will say things like ‘Just talk faster!'”

Steve has no ambitions to become a director.  He is a writer.  “My work is much, much stronger when other people direct it.”

Nor does he want to act.  He has acted in shows before, but that is not where his calling lies.  “I am an emotionally demanding playwright…I think actors like to be challenged.”

Based on what I heard from the “Octopus” actors after opening night, I think so, too.  More about this in a moment.

For someone who is now so dedicated to theatre, and who has had so many other plays produced before this one, age 25 seemed old to me for Steve to have written his first play.  “What did you do before that?” I asked.

“I started off as an economics and international business major,” Steve said.  “I was always in love with the idea of theatre but I didn’t want to fall in love with it because I had this (other) idea of what I was supposed to be, what my life was supposed to look like.”

But somehow, I guess, he surrendered to who he really was.  This impressed me, and suddenly, age 25 seemed very young to have arrived at that point in his life journey.  Many of us take much, much longer to reach self-acceptance.  I’m still working on it, myself.

“I had my quarter-life crisis,” Steve explained, making me laugh again. “We live in America where everyone’s a child forever, you know.  I had my quarter-life crisis and I started writing plays.”

On Inspiration and Help

We returned again and again in our conversation to the importance of collaboration.  “Ninety-nine percent of the time, having so many voices coming into the mix makes my work much better than if it were just my voice.”

We also talked about people who have helped and inspired us.  Steve said that one of the people that he is especially grateful for is Kate Warner, formerly of Actor’s Express in Atlanta, now artistic director at the New Repertory Theatre near Boston, Massachusetts.  “She gave me many resources and opportunities, first to see my short plays fully produced, then in the form of commissions to explore longer work.”

I wanted to know how those commissions worked.  Steve said that Kate would say to him, “Do you have an idea?”  Steve would say “Yes” and write a one-page description.  Kate would read it and say, “Yes, I will do this (produce this.)”  Then Steve would go write the play.

“Most successful people have at least one or two or three people who opened doors for them,” Steve said.  For him, Kate was one of those people.  Director Mark Routhier, formerly Director of Artistic Development for the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, was another.

I wish I had thought to ask Steve if collaboration has ever back-fired on him.  Or maybe a better question would be: how do you think you will handle it if you ever find yourself in collaboration with someone who seems to be taking your play in a disastrous direction? 

But maybe that is just one of the risks involved with doing theatre.  Maybe there is no way out but through in such situations.  Hmm.

On the Value of a Master of Fine Arts Degree

Steve completed his MFA in Dramatic Writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2008.

“Was it worth it?” I asked him.  “What does having that degree do for you?”

“Yes!  It was so worth it!” Steve said.  “Getting an MFA gives you the time, opportunities, and resources to improve your writing, to have people ask you questions, and to explore and to refine.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman was his thesis advisor at NYU.  The single most important thing she told him was something along the lines of: “You need to write so that your writing has as much of who YOU are in it as possible.  Don’t write to please other people.  People look to be inspired by an individual voice that stands out among many.”

“I don’t know whether it’s true or not,” Steve said after a moment.  “But I cling to it.”

At first (before grad school) he wrote plays with simple production requirements and small casts because he wanted them to be produced.  “But in grad school we were told not to worry about getting produced.  Engage the idea and see where it takes you.”

“Octopus” is the first play he wrote in grad school.  He fully embraced theatricality for this piece.

On Being in Love

“Does being in love help or hinder you as a playwright?” I asked next.  This question was just for me, because I had been thinking about it in terms of my own writing and my own relationships.

“Hinders,” Steve said immediately.

“Why?”

“Because it provides a kind of contentment that calms the sort of agitation that makes me want to write.”

Then he smiled and quietly added, “Which is not to say I don’t welcome that calm.”

“So what do you do?”  I meant: how do you keep writing and yet still have a satisfying love life?

“I just mess it up,” Steve laughed, meaning his love relationship. 

I laughed with him, but I am also going to keep hoping that Steve and I both find a way to be simultaneously successful in love and work.   Steve is moving to San Francisco next week.  I hope true love awaits him there.

On Other Playwrights to Know

For most of our conversation I just asked whatever question came to mind, but at the end of our time together I consulted my list to see if there was anything we hadn’t covered. 

Ah.  “What other playwrights do you like?”

Caryl Churchill…I love her use of language.  Also a British playwright named Sarah Kane.  Unfortunately, she died at age 29 but she left us a few plays that I love because they are raw, authentic, unnerving, powerful…”

After the Show – On Playwright as Actors’ Resource

I had not seen or even read “Octopus” before I talked with Steve.  The next night I went to see the opening performance at the Phoenix.  My detailed thoughts on the show are here on my blog, one post after this one.  The short version of my review is that “Octopus” is an intense show, full of satisfying surprises both in terms of the story and the staging of it. 

After the show, there was a reception in the lobby.  I breathed through my shyness and chatted individually with four of the five actors.  Each of them told me how much it had meant for them to have The Playwright available to them this past week. 

Nate Walden, for example, said, “The playwright came to see a run-through.  Afterwards, he and Bryan (the director) went out and stayed up late talking about it.  The next morning I got a call from Bryan, asking me to come in and try some new things.  This was three days before opening!  But it turned the character around for me.  I was able to take Max in a whole new direction.” 

Nate gave me specific examples of things he had tweaked, but I’m sorry, I wasn’t in note-taking mode so I can’t repeat them to you.  Whatever he did though, was effective.  Nate’s portrayal of the rapacious Max is compelling.

In fact, now that I think about it, I have seen all five of the “Octopus” actors in at least one other production each, and four of them in several shows each.  I have enjoyed all of their work before, but in “Octopus,” each of these actors shows more depth of interpretation, more nuances, and just better all-round command of their chosen art form than I have ever seen them give before.  So…I think actors do like to rise to the challenge of emotionally demanding material such as Steve’s play.

After the Show – On Age-ism and Engaging the Audience

During my conversation with Steve at the coffee shop, I asked him to tell me more about “event theatre” and the work he did with Adam Fristoe at Out of Hand Theater in Atlanta.  Fristoe is one of three co-artistic directors there. 

In my pre-interview reading I had come across an article about Out of Hand that was written by Heather Donahoe LaForge for Theatre Forum Magazine and posted on the Out of Hand website.  

In it, LaForge portrays Fristoe as age-ist.  I bristled while reading the article and thought, “Why do you have to go out of your way to say that you are NOT creating theatre for people my age?  Why do you have to act as if no one before your generation has ever created ‘work that titillates their audiences’ intellect as well as their desire to have a good time’?  As if no one before 2001 ever wanted ‘to work hard and make theatre that is more than just reading aloud’?  As if no one before the Out of Hand founders were born ever wanted ‘to make theatre, not just interpret it’?

I mean, if you are working to create theatre that creates buy-in for an audience ‘in the same way that a wedding, a football game, or a séance’ engages the attendees, why not just say that?  THAT’S what you’ve got going for you.  THAT is a very cool concept as is.  Why do you have to go out of your way to make people my age – your parents’ age – feel excluded and then allowed back in?”

Bleah.  I am ashamed to say that I worked myself into a proper fit over that article.  By the time I got to the end of it, I had clearly lost (temporarily, I hope!) my ability to not take offense where none was intended.  For all I know, Adam Fristoe was misquoted in the article, and even if he wasn’t, who am I to argue with a theatre team that has managed to stay up and running for eight years?

I also had to remind myself that I was interviewing Steve, not Adam.

But I was curious if Steve, too, thought that the only way to engage an 18-to-35-year-old audience was to make them do something physical, which seems to be the basis for “event theatre.”  I wondered if he, too, thought that “just” telling young people a good story could never, ever be enough to fully engage them.

I wondered: Doesn’t the story have to come first for any age audience?  What does “audience engagement” really mean, anyway?

I am relieved that Steve gracefully avoided the defensiveness of my questions in this part of the conversation.  He said that while theatre does change and become what each generation needs it to be, “Octopus” is a different kind of piece from “Cartoon” and the other “event theatre”-style work he did for Out of Hand. 

“The Fourth Wall stays intact in ‘Octopus,'” Steve said.  “It is realism, not naturalism.”

Or rather, in “Octopus,” magical, allegorical things like sea monsters are part of the story, but the people in the play react to the bizarre parts in realistic ways.

No matter what kind of theatre you’re making, though, and no matter what age your audience is, Steve said, “You’ve got to get them (audience members) in the first 10 minutes.  You also have to let them know where you’re headed and when they get to leave the theatre.”

Steve said that Bryan Fonseca told him that the Phoenix never remounts old shows.  They want to be always doing what’s new, what’s current.  Bryan told Steve that he loves “Octopus” because it is “an idea of what’s happening in the world now.”

“I appreciated that,” Steve told me. “And I’m glad he thinks that.”

Maybe I should have just left out the long chunk of this part of our conversation that is more about my issues than Steve’s work,  but I share it with you because now that I have seen a production of “Octopus,” one of the things I love most about it is that although it addresses generational differences it is NOT about young vs. old, or even about innocent vs. experienced or mature vs. immature.  It is not about any kind of “versus” at all.  It is much more layered than that.

On the Future of Theatre

“Theatre is nimble,” Steve went on in our coffee shop conversation.  “It is not a dinosaur.  It is broad, vibrant, amorphous, fluid… (That characteristic) is what will keep theatre alive.”

I also asked him, “Why theatre?  What not write film scripts or novels or…?”

He replied, “Nothing replaces the live experience.  It’s a different show every night.  People in one audience see different shows, of course, but also the show itself is different every night.

“And the catharsis of people in a room, in the dark, watching live people overcome, or fail to overcome, or fall, or fly…

“There’s nothing else like it.”

I couldn’t agree more.

*************** 

Steve Yockey’s “Octopus” continues at the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana through Saturday, July 11, 2009.  There will be no performance on Saturday, July 4, but there will be a bonus performance on Wednesday, July 1.  Duke Energy makes it possible for Thursdays to be “Cheap Seat Nights” for which the tickets are only $15 instead of $25.  Please call 317-635-PLAY (7529) to make a reservation.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

2 thoughts on “A Conversation with Steven Yockey”

  1. just as an FYI Steve is just as amazing a person as he is a playwright. After hanging out with him for the few days he was in Indy I was truly sad when he left.

    i am pleading with the Indy theatres to find a way to bring him back to Indy sooner than later

  2. I’m glad to hear that, Nate. Glad to hear that Steve was likable “in real life,” too, not just when he was being interviewed, and glad to hear that you are pushing to have him back here!

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