John Steppling was, once upon a time, an American playwright, hovering over the West, a ghostly and dangerous presence, chronicling the madness that nobody else wanted to notice. He now lives in the opposite of Southern California—a small town in Norway. For Steppling, the dream coast is now cipher and code—abstract and distant, but still very real, more real than if he still lived here. Easier to endure. He exemplifies the artist as outsider.
What makes Steppling so important in the canon of American playwrights is that he alone understood how to transmit to an audience the precise dimensions of a particular kind of life lived on the sharpest edge of the razor, where days faded into the sunset under a blistering California sun, and the nights were just as hot, and even more awful. The entropic fall in a Steppling play is long and steep, and at the bottom, there are broken friends to keep you company, in whichever sort of hell you’ve made for yourself.
I met him in 1982 at the now-defunct, lately lamented Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop, where I was a smart-ass apprentice filled with ambition and earnestness, qualities almost every other playwright there found repellent (I would have, too, come to think of it), with the exception of John, who was entertained by my burgeoning ambivalence, which seemed akin to his own. He taught workshops from the hip, with a kind of cool California sound to them, more Mose Allison than Bill Evans, but certainly a bit of both, with some Miles Davis to boot. One of his off-the-cuff remarks struck me as an absolute truth: “In order to make something true, you have to embrace failure. You just can’t do this without embracing failure.” This I understood. There had to be risk involved or your work would suffer from the deficiency of not being visible under the lights, on the boards. If you did not find the piercing historic resonances of the work you did, and that work’s context historically, your play would have a kind of anemia about it.
For a moment in the 1980s, Steppling was produced by the Mark Taper Forum, but never on the main stage—his plays were mounted instead in the more experimental Taper Too, a source of frustration for him and a tacit admission that the establishment was made nervous by works like The Dream Coast, a play peopled by dissident outsiders on the far outposts of the movie business. At the Taper, Robert Egan championed him, and worked with a kind of Jesuitical zeal to get John into the palace, as it were. The Dream Coast opened on the same day that 52 Pick-Up, Steppling’s brilliant and surreal screen adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel, directed by John Frankenheimer, opened in movie theatres. Both works examined the secret terror within the greedy promises and mirages that make up so much of American life for so, so many Americans in the shadows.
As the ’80s wound down, Los Angeles Times critic Robert Koehler declared Steppling “the purest, finest poet of the stage that Los Angeles has produced in this generation.” In the ’90s, Steppling wrote a sort of early-mid-career masterpiece, Sea of Cortez, a play that spread the toxicity of the American West Coast southward to an illicit cancer-treatment clinic in Baja, where the doomed were shilled to death by an indifferent doctor who resembled nothing so much as a weary, soul-sick studio executive who knew he had a flop on his hands. Again. The play scared people with its dark Goya blackness, and doors started to slowly close in that particular way that the establishment has of silently and regretfully backing away from the unpalatable. It was just a fact of life, and Steppling, stoic within his frustration and deeply self-reliant, began to teach more and work a bit in TV, and find ways to make plays without institutional support.
Steppling left the States in 2000 and taught film in Poland at the National Film School. There was a brief trip back in 2002, where he did Dog Mouth at a small space called the Evidence Room, where audiences were thrilled to welcome back a kind of underground hometown hero. The play was a hallucination set in the desert, awash in a tide of hyper-articulate, half-mad criminal patois, and steeped in the ironies of man ruling a dead kingdom. It was entirely riveting and horrible to behold in its loveless majesty.
Steppling returned again in 2010, to be closer to his grown son, Lex, who had a young family. He and his wife, Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling, moved to the high desert, and John wrote in a Starbucks whose regular clientele consisted of meth dealers and white-supremacist bikers.
There was no work to be had here in TV. None of the larger theatres appeared to be moved by his re-appearance. John again conducted workshops on his own, commuting from the desert to L.A. to teach and put up shows with Lex, under the aegis of their new theatre company, Gunfighter Nation, which examined the intrinsic violence in America’s oft-whitewashed history. The exertions of working in the millennial corporatized New America, a post-Clintonian, post-Bushian “yes we can” miasma, proved unworkable. For John, America had become a vast and messianic corporation.
And there you have it: He could find very little reason to stay on here, and seemed to accept that America for him was best seen from afar.
John launched my career by co-producing my play Mizlansky/Zilinsky for L.A. Theatre Works in 1985, on nights when his play, The Shaper, was dark. The Shaper was the first of his plays to come to the attention of the theatregoing public, and it was a body blow of a piece, about the denizens of a surf-shop who break and enter at night. It had the formal rigor and morbid looseness of a Beckett play. I have never shared a stage with a greater artist, and I have shared the stage with many artists in the years since.
I know there will come a day—sooner, I hope, rather than later—when some brave artistic director appraises John Steppling’s plays and says, “Now.”
The conversation that follows took place via e-mail in the late spring of this year.
JON ROBIN BAITZ: What was it like to return to the U.S. in 2010, after so many years overseas?
JOHN STEPPLING: When I returned after a decade in Paris, London and Poland, I wasn’t under any illusions. I got in touch with people I knew in Hollywood and in Los Angeles theatre, but the problem in the U.S., in terms of theatre, is that you have a limited audience. Not just in numbers, but in sophistication. A sort of final domestication of radical voices seems to have taken place. Harold Pinter, Sarah Kane, Peter Brook, Herbert Blau, on to Murray Mednick and Sam Shepard and Franz Xavier Kroetz, Thomas Bernhard—that felt over. I spoke with the big theatres, but they had no interest.
My son Lex and I got in touch with Wes Walker, Guy Zimmerman and a couple of others—we decided to meet, write, maybe think about some sort of informal company. We had no money. We were not part of that network of grants and so forth—and that was fine. One can become entirely a grants-generating machine, forever on some Sisyphean treadmill reaching for basic survival. Anyway, as we spoke, one of the ideas that was circulating, and which I had pondered for a while, was how to keep the work from becoming a commodity. The Taper, for example, develops plays. The idea is to have a hit play. Nobody develops writers.
In 2010 we did a few one- and two-night, collectively developed pieces. One was called The L.A. History Project, a montage on the identity of Los Angeles. We took from people as diverse as Mike Davis, Reyner Banham and Richard Slotkin. We called our group Gunfighter Nation, in fact, from the title of Slotkin’s book.
In the meantime, I ran a workshop—and we had some great people. For a year and a half we worked on a 12-hour radio serial, In the Desert, a Highway. I was living outside of L.A., near Joshua Tree, so the desert was on my mind. The desert was a sort of mystical destination every day after rehearsal—despite a two-and-a-half-hour drive each way. The only place to support us at all was CalArts. They were great, and allowed the recording of this radio project. In fact, they just finished the final retakes, without me.
The climate for theatre in L.A., though, is pretty depressing, almost nihilistic. I managed to get a production of my play Phantom Luck up at the Lost Studio—it was the first time I felt theatre had stopped being fun. We had very good reviews—I won the L.A. Weekly award, in fact—but I doubt that more than 400 people total saw that play. The sadness went beyond half-empty houses; it was the basic lack of energy, of vision. I felt actors were mostly worried their managers might be offended, or if a small part in “Breaking Bad” was going to conflict with a performance. There were a handful of true believers, as we called ourselves. You feel as if you are part of a small, marginal priest class of a dead religion—a secret sort of Coptic cult hidden away in the desert. To emerge twice a year to perform some strange ritual of purification.
Last year the L.A. Review of Books published a stunning manifesto of yours—a collection of aphorisms that are simple distillations of a life spent stripping away ornamental ideas about making theatre. How did you come to write it?
I wrote most of it sitting in Starbucks up in Yucca Valley, surrounded by BFC (Bikers for Christ) and various survivalists and meth addicts. It was sort of a perfect place.
I had wanted to write on theatre for quite a while. One reason for this is that if you look at dance, or painting, or visual arts, or film and poetry—you can find a fair amount of serious writing devoted to those mediums. If you read interviews with good poets, you will hear, usually, some pretty cogent analysis, and some serious thought devoted to their craft. In theatre, you have almost nothing. You have…I don’t know, David Mamet’s platitudinous blathering, and it’s exactly that sort of generalized pap that passes for theory. You almost have to go back to Herbert Blau’s Blooded Thought, and Brook’s The Empty Space. Christ, Empty Space was more than 40 years ago! I think this paucity of serious critical writing on theatre speaks to the state of theatre in the English-speaking world. Maybe everywhere, though I know there is a fair amount of German-language theory on theatre. In the U.S. we don’t have Heiner Müller—the best is maybe the Wooster Group, and they’re running on fumes (creatively speaking) these days.
What would you consider an ideal education in the theatre? You have a voracious auto-didacticism that I think theatre people could learn a lot from.
My wife always says I would be happiest teaching some post-graduate seminar in a remote university town somewhere…that I survive emotionally by way of teaching. I think this is true, to a degree. I love teaching. And I love theatre. I love theatre more than film, and believe me, I love film. But theatre is unique, and its importance is gigantic.
I think often that Americans don’t like feeling lost. They have been conditioned to anticipate a kitsch narrative. It’s almost as if they want an emotional GPS in their brain: Make sure I didn’t take the wrong turn, that I end up where I intended. When I tell students, look, you shouldn’t know where you’re going, you shouldn’t ever write outlines or have them in your head, they often recoil in horror. This runs so directly counter to what they’ve been taught. There is in most MFA programs a sort of crude, concrete recipe for writing, and this allows the instructor to feel safe. It’s mind-numbing, and it kills art.
If I were to construct a sort of curriculum, I think I would start with Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and then maybe The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s masterpiece, with that beautiful intro by Sartre. Maybe something specifically on colonialism. I would do this to make sure there is an understanding that suffering is a primary reality in the most concrete ways for tens of millions of people. And then perhaps a reading of Vedantic thought—the Upanishads, maybe. Something from Tibetan Buddhism, too. Then Shakespeare’s plays, plus Jan Kott’s book Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Ted Hughes’s book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, William Empson’s essays on Shakespeare, and John Berryman. I also think you have to know something of the King James Bible, and of Melville, and Charles Olson’s book Call Me Ishmael. There are a number of other thinkers and critics I would recommend: Rene Girard, Roberto Calasso, Norman O. Brown and Theodor Adorno, certainly.
Now, I know people will at this point ask: But why? We want to be playwrights. My answer is that to be able to write a genuine play means to understand, first, what a play is. How does theatrical “space” exist, exactly? I always point out that when children attend their first plays, at intermission you can rest assured that some of them will hurry up to the stage and peek into the wings, offstage. Why? Because they sense, rightly, that what’s really happening is always happening offstage. The offstage is the unconscious, in a sense. Think of those early cartographers, who when they arrived at that place where the known world ended would draw monsters and demons. Why? Because that is the unconscious, mystery, the unknown.
The stage is a place where a special space is created, and a special sense of temporality. It’s dreamwork. Now, film is a dream as well, but in a different register. And to understand this, to really grasp this, means to understand the expansiveness of Shakespeare, and then of Melville. But it’s intersected at some point too by a psychoanalytic dimension. The lost object, the way in which we all, mimetically, re-narrate what we watch and hear. I have a personal theory on this, having to do with the idea of the criminal—with why crime fiction and TV crime shows seem to show such durability. In some sense we know we are all guilty…it’s our own Oedipal drama played out. As Lacan said, we cannot really be loved by our mother unless we are a criminal.
Can you recall some of the exercises you used in your workshops?
Some I borrowed from Murray Mednick or Maria Irene Fornés at Padua, and Martin Epstein, too. But many are my own. I love to work with found text. I often suggest finding some occupational quarterlies or magazines—there used to be a great one called Casket and Sunnyside for the mortuary industry. Real-estate brochures, magazines about guns and ammo, dog breeding, beekeeping, industrial shoe manufacturing. The reason is that these works all contain a very specialized vocabulary. There is a poetry to the specificity of these rarefied areas of expertise. I suggest finding one and fashioning a scene or one-act out of it. You are allowed only 10 percent of your own words. The rest has to be from this brochure on Chinese Herbal Remedies. It’s amazing how suddenly that sound of “I-am-writing-a-play” goes away.
The second exercise is linked to space. To go write the scene sitting in a tree. Or buried up to your chest in beach sand, or stretched out under the house by the light of a flashlight. Fornés used to love different versions of this. It’s really about listening to your body, in a sense. That a certain discomfort will push the brain to say something—and usually not directly. Which is the point.
The third is to write a short one-act, all interiors, in which you must know the weather without anyone ever mentioning it (or entering shaking off their umbrella).
Another exercise—and I use this all the time—is to have a student read a scene. Then once everyone in the class makes their comments, I ask the author to draw a red line through every other sentence. Then we re-read it. It’s always better, 100 percent of the time. It’s striking just how much better. Suddenly the actor has space—he or she can react, can listen. And it’s amazing how coherent the scene remains. Why? Well, as you well know, because the actor is there filling it in. That’s what good actors do.
But I think really, among my favorites, is to insist that the main character be offstage, though it is allowed to hear his or her voice. This is all about getting out of your head. Every time I do one of these exercises, I try to emphasize that the writer must let go, stop owning it all. Stop owning any of it. Found text and specialized occupational vocabularies also sensitize one to the “sound” of words, of grammar. Often a fatal problem for young writers is that everyone sounds the same. And that’s exactly like the author.
We should end with you asking me a question.
I think it’s the same one: What is wrong that theatre has so little cultural traction?
It’s the accident of professionalism, which I think destroys the singularity of spontaneous craftsmanship. The great hope for me is that it can still be a great amateur’s avocation, requiring very little. It can be done for nothing if you choose, if you have the strength and the guts.
Jon Robin Baitz is a playwright who lives in New York City.