Playwrights tend to be perpetual freelancers—long-term relationships, at least with theatres, aren’t typically part of the deal. Instead, relationships can last anywhere from a torrid afternoon (a reading) to a giddy month (a production) to a year or two of ups and downs (a commission). Or a mutual affinity might develop between playwright and theatre that leads to multiple productions over the course of the playwright’s career, but even that arrangement isn’t one of daily and maturing intimacy. Instead, it’s likely to have the peripatetic rhythm of a couple who keeps breaking up and getting back together—not so much Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as, well, Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee.
So it was particularly noteworthy when, in April, Indiana Repertory Theatre of Indianapolis commemorated James Still’s 10th year as playwright-in-residence there by producing a pair of his plays.
The plays—Looking Over the President’s Shoulder and Iron Kisses—were both small-cast, modestly scaled affairs presented and designed with IRT’s customary artful elegance. Both plays resonate with contemporary issues: Iron Kisses directly invokes recent legal struggles over gay marriage as a central plot point, while Looking, in its story of an African-American man who worked as a butler at the White House over the course of 21 years and four administrations, can’t help but inspire implicit analogies to another African-American man currently campaigning for a very different job at the White House.
Both plays are fundamentally affirmative in outlook. The conservative parents in Iron Kisses confront their son’s sexuality with openness and flexibility. Frustration and resentment could have been the galvanizing qualities of Looking Over the President’s Shoulder, as it views its protagonist’s work as a servant to people who are powerful, white and sometimes racist—but instead Still’s play takes its cue from its narrator, who advises the younger, angrier black men in the White House kitchen to “be as humble as possible, ignore it, have pride in yourself. You can be manly without being overbearing.” The character’s choices, as a result, seem inevitable; his sanguinity becomes not just natural but admirable.
“I think right now in history,” Still says, “the riskiest thing is to write with generosity.”
But there are more differences between the two shows than similarities. Looking is a remounting of a play that IRT premiered years ago and which went on to more than a dozen productions around the country; Iron Kisses was developed elsewhere, produced several times and published, and IRT has only just staged it. Looking is a historically based one-character show, with David Alan Anderson in IRT’s production inhabiting the real-life butler Alonzo Fields with disarming panache. Iron Kisses is a fictional two-hander in which Ryan Artzberger and Constance Macy played siblings and also each played, at various times, both of their parents—it’s a cleverly theatrical packaging for an otherwise straightforward tale of family ties tested and strengthened. Looking was enshrined on IRT’s mainstage proscenium with a pristine set that evoked the distancing gravitas of Washington’s ceremonial edifices. Iron Kisses played on the upper thrust stage on a starkly simple set.
But the most important detail, for IRT and, seemingly, for many in the audience, was authorship. Both these works are James Still plays, and thanks to Still’s ongoing relationship with IRT, the writer is a known quantity among Indianapolis theatregoers. Given the conventional wisdom that selling new and unfamiliar plays is hard, the healthy attendance at the performances I saw—one a Thursday matinee, the other a weekday preview—was notable. “Usually less-known plays don’t fare as well as better-known ones, but Iron Kisses is looking like it’s going to make its goal,” observed IRT senior marketing manager Megan McKinney during the run, “and it’s almost totally unknown.” Still is not just a playwright here—he’s also a brand.
The sustainability of a theatre career is always a topic of debate—consider Mike Daisey’s recent one-person show How Theatre Failed America, which argues, among other things, that regional theatres should serve as artistic homes for their creative collaborators. Or Scott Walters’s modest blog-posal that so-called theatre tribes foster localism by tying playwrights to individual theatres as fully compensated employees. So the long-term productive symbiosis enjoyed by Still and IRT would seem to be a glimmer of hope, a model of how things could—or should—work. And it is. But it’s also more complicated than that.
For instance, the playwright-in-residence gig isn’t what Still lives on; it doesn’t pay for his health care. Also—perhaps more surprising for a playwright-in-residence—Still doesn’t actually reside in Indiana. He’s a few time zones over—in Venice, Calif.
The relationship between Still and IRT has thrived precisely because of these idiosyncrasies and seeming contradictions—it has, in fact, grown into exactly the kind of thing both the playwright and the theatre want and need.
On a morning following a mild Midwestern earthquake in April—befuddling Still, who has yet to experience a tremor in Southern California—Still and IRT artistic director Janet Allen sat down in one of the theatre lobby’s hospitable groupings of cushy chairs to talk about their past 10 years together. Earthquakes notwithstanding, it’s been generally a smooth and steady ride for both of them.
Still first landed on IRT’s radar in 1991 when he was in Indiana as one of the finalists in the Bonderman National Youth Theatre Playwriting Workshop. Allen was associate artistic director at the time, and, she recalls, “One day I walked into our cabaret and somebody said, ‘There’s this play Amber Waves that you should listen to, and this is the guy who wrote it.’”
IRT would eventually commission Still to expand Amber Waves from one act to two and go on to produce it; then the theatre picked up his play The Secret History of the Future, which was, like Amber Waves, a Kennedy Center commission.
“I directed it,” Allen recalls. “Which was pretty silly, because I don’t direct much.”
“And I didn’t go see it, for some reason,” Still says.
“We probably didn’t give you any money to come out!” Allen laughs.
In the following years, Still would periodically drop Allen a line from New York to update her on his projects. He worked with IRT on his play And Then They Came for Me as a freelancer, though he found himself increasingly occupied with writing for television and film. And then came TCG’s National Theatre Artist Residency Program, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which solicited applications from theatres who wanted to forge a residency-based partnership with an artist. The opportunity caught Allen’s eye, but when she called Still up to talk about it, he told her, “Well, you know, I’m kind of over the theatre.”
“Janet’s phone call in late ’97 came at an interesting time,” the writer observes. “I had taken that whole year off from the theatre. I knew what I used to love about the theatre, but I didn’t know if it was what I still loved about the theatre. I wanted an up-to-date answer to that question.”
When, to Allen’s surprise, IRT got the grant—and then a renewal of the grant for a second two-year term—both the playwright and the administrator had some things to figure out.
“They’d never had a playwright-in-residence before, and I’d never been a playwright-in-residence,” Still says. “We went in with open hearts. I will say, it was refreshing to have an artistic director who’s a dramaturg. We didn’t direct my residency—we dramaturged it. We let it evolve organically.
“I was very naïve,” Still continues. “I really wanted to believe it was possible to work in a community where it didn’t matter what my play was about, that people would come just because I was their playwright-in-residence. It was naïve to want that to happen in two years.”
“It took five years,” Allen says.
“I have a great interest in how a community interacts with a theatre,” Still says. “I have a huge interest in theatre being an integral part of our lives. That’s hard to do as a freelance artist. Originally I thought the only way to do that was to be an artistic director.”
The way Still and IRT made his residency work so well was by building it on two seemingly incompatible features: He remained a resident of California, and yet he was plunged deeply into the day-to-day concerns of the theatre, spending anywhere from a couple of days to several weeks in Indiana each month. “I was in heaven,” Still enthuses. “Business cards! A desk!” The problem that sometimes plagues artists-in-residence (who, even when they’re in residence full-time, are usually there on a temporary basis) is that they never quite feel like they belong in the work space; everyone else has tasks to do and they’re just transient accessories, blissfully free of mundane responsibilities but also, it seems, of real relevance. But Still wasn’t an extra body rattling occasionally through the corridors, wondering where things were and trying to remember people’s names. He attended board meetings. He saw every show. He made friends among the IRT audiences and in Indianapolis in general. He started directing shows. “I don’t remember when it was that staff and board members started asking, ‘What does James think of this?’ but it happened,” Allen laughs.
Yet every time Still and Allen revisited the notion of Still’s moving to town permanently, they always agreed that he should stay where he is. “I realized his biggest value, apart from his core artistic abilities, was that he had distance,” Allen says. “I could call him and tell him in two minutes what’s happening and invariably the first four things out of his mouth are the best pieces of advice I’ll get. He’s dramaturging the institution.” Plus, it’s good for Still’s work—and his mental health—to maintain some separation. “I was afraid I’d stop writing,” he says. “I’d be cleaning the bathroom here, literally—the sense of ownership is so deep, the only way I can survive it is to leave it periodically.”
IRT doesn’t maintain a “James Still slot” in its season programming and has gone a full season without producing something of his. “We place commissions with other writers,” Allen says. “There’s no presumption that we’re going to produce everything James writes, or that everything new we produce will be James’s. And I think there are some things that he wanted us to do sooner than I got around to doing them.” Meanwhile, Still is of course free to do work elsewhere—Allen flew to L.A. to see his play A Long Bridge over Deep Waters at Cornerstone Theater Company, and suppressed feelings of possessiveness when Madison Repertory Theatre in Wisconsin did a developmental reading of a Still play scheduled to be produced at IRT next season. But if the relationship starts to have too few strings attached, it’s reasonable to question whether it’s still serving its purpose.
“I don’t want to go on assumptions. I’ve asked Janet,” Still says, “‘Is it time to have another playwright-in-residence?’”
“And I absolutely think about that,” Allen says. The position is now in the company’s strategic plan, but when does IRT’s playwright-in-residence stop being James Still? “When we stop being enthused by it,” Allen says. “When it stops working.”
“Part of the value of the playwright-in-residence idea,” Allen continues, “is that for our audiences, theatre is not just Shakespeare and Molière, but it’s this guy, who you could run into at the grocery store. And he’s not a freak, and he’s not rarefied. It humanizes the thing.” Still tells of a woman who approached him in the IRT lobby, recalled seeing Amber Waves—which is about a family struggling to save their farm from foreclosure—and started to cry all over again because her father had been a farmer and the play was, on some level, telling his story. “It’s that whole thing of people saying, ‘We didn’t know people wrote plays about people like us,’” Still says.
Still came to IRT already possessing that Midwestern sensibility—he grew up in a small town in Kansas—as well as an overarching interest in the role “place” plays in his work. IRT and its audience have given him an abundance of opportunity to explore those interests. “James has helped me really co-author the idea of what we do with the audience relationship,” Allen says, in summary. “It’s saying to the audience: ‘There is something worthy to be told about your life on stage.’”
Eric R. Pfeffinger’s play The Other Desk recently premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisville. He lives in Toledo, Ohio.