Before the pandemic even reached the United States, Ike Holter (he/him) was thinking of taking a bit of a break from theatre. He had just finished up Lottery Day, the seventh play of his Rightlynd Saga, in spring 2019 at the Goodman, culminating five years of his cycle of Chicago plays premiering at various venues throughout the city. Theatre, as Holter would later say to me in a phone call, takes up so much time, it’s good to get away for a bit.
Obviously, that bit turned out to be much longer than anticipated once the pandemic hit and theatres shut their doors. But these closures opened a new existential question for Holter: “Who am I if I’m not this?” Holter asked rhetorically. “Am I just ‘Ike the Playwright’?”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, he hastened to add. But it’s easy to feel labeled or pigeonholed in the arts. So 2020 became the year for him to break out and pursue new passions. On the heels of writing a 2019 episode of Fosse/Verdon, and after speaking with producers at Chicago-based Nice Work Films, Holter continued to follow his heart toward television: He is the lead writer on recently announced limited series about Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor.
“I’m passionate about wanting to do stuff in TV and film,” Holter said. “So for the first time, I started chasing that instead of just waiting around for things to come to me. With theatre, I said, ‘Who am I if I’m not bound by waiting for a company to do a show? Why don’t I start doing work on a smaller level that can reach a lot more people?’”
So he did. Holter branched into audio plays, producing an aural version of his play Put Your House in Order. In the first week the audio play was up, Holter said, it was listened to by more folks than had seen its entire month-long run at Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre in 2017. Audio plays also opened the door for Holter to turn Midnight Society, an annual backyard Halloween production reminiscent of the horror series Are You Afraid of the Dark?, into a holiday special that saw a digital audience much larger than could fill a Chicago backyard.
“This year was terrible,” said Holter, who turned to watching movies, hiking, and cooking as ways to escape in his pandemic downtime. One upside of the shutdown, though, was the chance to “talk to people around the country and say, ‘This isn’t a show we’re doing—call it a concept album, call it an audio thriller, whatever.’ But I finally got the chance to work at a much faster rate and a much bigger rate.”
Holter pointed to the world premiere audio production of I Hate It Here, which he wrote and directed as part of Studio Theatre’s Studio in Your Ears series of audio plays. The play, commissioned by Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre and available to listen to through March 7, looks at the complex ways people do and don’t deal with a world that is teetering on the brink. Normally, he said, a play like this might go through many workshops and Q&A sessions. This process was more simple: speaking with the literary manager, artistic director, associate artistic director, and his cast and crew.
“It was just a really fun process to be able to start the conversation of, what does it mean to work quickly with tools that we’ve learned from theatre on something that is very much not theatre,” Holter said. “And I liked it; I’m going to do more of it.”
Last week, I had the chance to talk to Holter about how his 2020 experiences will influence his theatremaking moving forward, where the theatre industry stands entering 2021, and how he’ll tell the world Harold Washington’s distinctly Chicago story.
JERALD RAYMOND PIERCE: People don’t talk about Harold Washington nearly enough, so I’m glad there’s going to be a series on his legacy. Chicago can put his name on a library, but it also feels like half the people who live here forget who he was. As you’ve been doing research, have there been any things that particularly stood out about his legacy?
IKE HOLTER: I’m really big on knowing voting numbers. I like convincing and forcing people to vote. I really like highlighting the idea that, if you turn out, if you get people to turn out, you can actually have a voice. Washington and his crew did some really incredible grassroots stuff in the ’80s and had the highest turnout in the history of people voting here. Stuff like that, I’m excited to go deeper into, because you’re right—he’s not talked about enough on a local level. And on a national level, people have seen so many other great people who’ve been inspired by him, like Barack Obama. I think it’ll really surprise people how much they didn’t know about this person who was in clear sight.
When the announcement came out, a political reporter from WTTW tweeted that it would be “a disaster unless *actual* Chicagoans are involved,” and many people spoke up to point out that you are indeed a Chicagoan, as are the producers. Can you talk a bit about the importance of having that sort of local understanding for a story like this?
You can just tell if you live in a place and the people who don’t live in that place are writing it or working on it. That’s not to say that you can only write where you’re from; I think that’s a case-by-case thing. For something like this, I think you want a person who knows Chicago and knows how the different communities are. In the seven-installment Rightlynd Saga, my job was to look at the city and dramatize it by seeing what was actually going on inside of it. So even though Rightlynd is obviously a fictional neighborhood, it lives and breathes with the history that was happening in Chicago at the time.
That’s also what I’m excited for. People obviously don’t talk about Harold Washington enough, but people don’t talk about Chicago enough. The political game here is insane. There’s just a lot to talk about with Chicago, and I think people put it on the back burner like, “Oh, that place exists. Oh, that’s the third biggest city in the country,” and that’s enough said. Whereas I’m so used to turning on my TV or going to a movie or sitting down in the theatre and hearing all these New York stories and knowing that I had to have a really clear idea of what the Bethesda Fountain was, being told I need to know what Saks Fifth Avenue is, all this other stuff. I want people to get like that with Chicago. I want them to say, “Oh, this is a city that deserves respect, and I can see a story that takes place there just because.”
Since you’ve worked in both television as well as in theatre, and theatres across the country are working through this whole digital realm, do you see anything that it feels like theatres aren’t necessarily capitalizing on that television does well?
I think something that TV does really well is saying, “What do people want?” Back in the old days, I remember pre-internet watching a “must-see TV” lineup, and being like, “Oh, this new show is awesome, I can’t wait to see where they go.” And then in three episodes, it’s gone, and you’re like, “Oh, I guess it got canceled because not enough people watched it.” Theatre doesn’t operate like that. They say, “Oh, this was popular in one place, it’s got to be popular here.” Then they get really confused when something that was big in another city isn’t big here. One thing I really want theatre to do is just start talking to your audience about what they actually want to see and what they do not want to see.
You know, we had dozens of millions of people taking to the streets, and there was all this talk about truth and reconciliation when it comes to race. That’s awesome. Even more awesome would be, when we come back, to see that actually acted upon, with people talking to their subscribers and talking to people who don’t go to their theatre. There’s this loop-de-loop of, “Oh, nobody’s coming to see our shows, how do we make money? And it’s like, if you didn’t do the same thing that everyone else does, or if you talked to your audience or you actually said, “We live within a diverse community, maybe we should lean into that”—maybe there’s people who would come to shows if they see someone who looks like them on the poster. Let’s start there. But yeah, something that TV does that I wish theatre would is just listening to when people want something and when they are not interested.
I get these things in my email—I’m not a subscriber anymore, I’m someone who buys single tickets. No one’s asking the questions, they’re asking soft questions like, “How are you feeling? Give us a scale of one to 10, are you excited to come back?” It’s this work exit interview question, like, “Did you have fun?”
Questions that you don’t actually have to ask, or are very passive.
Yes, that you can’t actually engage, because they’re afraid of getting the answers. If you have questions like, “Would you sit in a theatre with masks, with the vaccine, and pay full price?” I would be interested in what people have to say about that. If they said, “Are you interested in seeing more shows that show diverse racial representation?” That’s really good data, because then you can find out what your audience is actually thinking about, instead of saying, “Oh, they always want to see a show in February that has Black people being subjugated to history’s worst nightmares.”
Theatres haven’t really changed fast enough the way other industries are changing, like music, film, and television. A lot of it is the shutdown, but as we know, major theatres are putting out audio plays and digital work. So on the outside it seems like things are shut down, but we know that people are still working, planning next season and the season after, and grabbing that money. I just wish they would talk to this audience that’s kind of patiently waiting to hear what’s up.
Going back to your work, does it feel like the discoveries you’ve made over the last year are going to change how you approach things once theatre is fully back up and running, whenever that happens?
Oh yes, very much so, down to where it’s bigger than me. It’s talking to actors when they’re like, “I’m so glad that since we’ve all been doing self-tapes correctly and we’ve been getting cast from them, maybe we can stop the barbaric process of calling people in for three callbacks where they have to take off work and go across town, because apparently we can still get booked if we do them on our phones.” I think that is so great. I just thinks it opens up a lot of doors of equity. There’s people who have never been able to freely walk into a theatre because of physical disabilities. Since we’re so good at live streaming now, what’s to say that when we’re back seeing shows, a camera can’t be there and they’re recorded? You can have a live stream for people who pay for a ticket who cannot actually physically be in the theatre.
There are all these exciting new avenues. What I’m afraid of is, people are treating this as some kind of Band-Aid. Whereas, I’m like: We’re never going back in a big sense. Once you tell people that this workshop could have been done on Zoom, it not only frees up a lot of budget, it frees up a lot of artists’ time. We’re told so often to drop everything at the drop of a hat, like there’s an opportunity for an opportunity: “Even though your job pays for your rent, you should leave it right now if you want the opportunity for this opportunity.” As a director, and as a writer too, once we get into talking about casting or callbacks, I’m going to be saying, “Do we actually have to call these people? Why don’t we just get a tape first? We can watch this.” Then, if we absolutely need you, we can get them in.
I just hope people hold onto some of these ideas and realize that, even though we say we’re going to get back to normal, that’s just something we’re telling ourselves. Everything’s changed. We should take advantage of that, because even though this is a terrible time, good things can come out of changing bad habits.
We really can’t talk about everything changing without talking about We See You, White American Theater’s demands and that movement within the theatre. It’s surprisingly been about seven months now since that started. Have you seen changes that feel like we’re moving in the right direction? Does it feel like people are biding their time until we get back? How do you think the progress has been?
First, I just want to say that I think what they’re doing is awesome. It’s just so cool that they are mobilized, that they’re telling people’s stories, and that they’re proudly saying, “We’re not asking for much, we’re literally asking for basic things.”
I think your question was, have I seen change because of it? I have seen the change in more artists being very outspoken, which I think is amazing. I have not seen a change in big organizations actually saying, “You are correct, thank you.” That’s all that it is. I’ve talked to people who run theatres, and these conversations are always like they’re in the middle of a fucking Salem witch trial. It’s like, “How could they, how dare they? Did you hear?” And it’s like, what did they say about you? “They said we don’t hire enough people of color.” Well, how many people of color do you hire? There’s three in the office. What they’re saying is not shocking. What is shocking is people acting like they have to be shocked by it.
So, in terms of person to person, I have seen a big change in people bravely speaking out about their experiences, which in turn helps the next person, which in turn helps that person help that person. What I have not seen is white accountability.
Is there a form of accountability that you’re specifically looking for, or is it more of a feeling throughout the industry?
Accountability is such an umbrella statement because it means so many different things at different times. With this, I think people hear “accountability” and say, “I have to release a statement.” And then you see these flood of statements and it’s like, “See? Accountability. Bam!” And it’s like, no, that’s not accountability. That’s just you stating the obvious. Accountability, if you have never produced a show with a writer or director of color, is doing that. Accountability is also saying, “You’re correct.” That’s what I think is missing. It hurts me sometimes to see theatres who have done racist things, knowingly or unknowingly, it does hurt a bit to see woke statements from them that seemingly come out of the ether. It’s like, who wrote this? Because this is not what you all sound like.
That’s not to say that people can’t change. Yes, people can change; everyone can change. It just seems weird when these people haven’t thanked those who’ve helped them come to this. They have not thanked the artists in their community whose movement they’re jumping into and commenting on. It’s just pretty weird when someone can say, “I’ve changed overnight and it’s going to last forever,” and not, “I’ve changed because I’ve ignored people asking me to change for a while. They were right, I was wrong. I’m going to do better.”
What we’re hearing is, “We don’t stand by racism.” And it’s just interesting how people let big platitudes like that slide. Like when someone says, “Hate has no home here,” it’s like, so what does live there, and why and when did that happen? You can say hate has no home here, but if people have terrible stories about feeling like they don’t belong there, then maybe, instead of saying a platitude, you just say specifically, “We did not do good about fostering an environment that was acceptable for non-white people. We’re going to do this. This is our action plan.” I just haven’t heard many action plans. I’ve heard a lot of people say they’re going to do something, but that was back in, what, June? It is deep into January.
It feels so important to keep having these conversations and putting pressure on people to make sure they stay focused and are not just going through the motions yet again.
Yeah, it feels like every time something happens, people wait and then they see a really good script that someone does and they just kind of repeat that script. And I get it, times are scary. Like, I looked at 2021—first of all, I knew it was going to be crazy, nothing changes because you just move into a new year—and I was excited because it’s at least an opportunity for everyone to collectively say, “We’re not going to do that again.” There’s a lot of shit going around, but I’m like, if these people in power actually want to change stuff, we all know that they could. It’s just that simple. This is a new year. If someone says, “I’m making a promise to do something,” good. That’s better than most, but you actually have to do it. You can’t just put out a platitude. We heard. And then what?
Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is associate editor at American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!