Three years ago, playwright-directors John Steppling and Robert Glaudini formed a theater company in L.A. called Heliogabalus, named after the cruel emperor in Artaud’s The Anarchist King. Declaring an intellectual niche in L.A.’s theater scene may seem like suicide—their first production was an adaptation of Children of Heracles —but critics and audiences alike have relished the group’s minimal productions of dark new plays and quirky revivals. Heliogabalus—a group of about 25 actors, writers and designers—did three plays the first year for about 1,400 dollars and three plays the second year for about 4,000 dollars. Although Steppling admits he felt, “completely burnt out and tired” at the end of each season, still he says, "It’s been really satisfying to do two seasons of just what we wanted to do without any interference." Heliogabalus has presented two of Steppling’s plays Standard of the Breed, with actor Harvey Perr, and Teenage Wedding, with Suzanne Fletcher. The Mark Taper Forum in L.A. produced The Thrill, a tawdry love story set in a shopping mall, co-directed by Steppling and Robert Egan. Steppling was a founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival. His other plays included The Shaper, Eddie Cottrel At The Piano, The Dream Coast, Neck, and Pledging My Love. He adapted Elmore Leonard’s 52-Pickup for director John Frankenheimer and recently finished an original screenplay for director Barbet Schroeder.
Harvey Perr When you did Standard of Breed, it seemed to me the critics were against your directing your own work, and now, a year later, Teenage Wedding, everybody is saying that only you can direct your own work.
John Steppling Yeah, there has been a weird turnaround on this. I’ve always felt that it’s important that I direct the first production of my pieces because it’s a way of finishing the play. Sometimes, it’s not nearly finished, and the rehearsal process is a way of finding out certain things about the play that need fixing. I really can’t imagine doing that seated in the back row while somebody else directs it. Harold Pinter directs his own work. Sam Shepard directs his own work. A lot of people do. Brecht directed his own work.
HP I think you have a very peculiar and unique view of the world that definitely affects the way you write. Could you talk about how that view has evolved?
JS In the beginning, I was drawn to what went on between the figures onstage and was much less concerned with language. I was fascinated with looks people gave each other. And among the people I read later on was Pinter. I read him and reread him and reread him. As well-written as those plays are, there’s so much about silence, how people look at each other and how someone will cross to a table and sit down. The ordinary things that we take for granted are not at all ordinary. To that degree, I feel a kind of kinship with Irene Fornes, who fetishizes objects on the stage and really will explore what a chair is about. As I started to learn to write, the language became more interesting, the language of theater, dramatic language. And I realized that it has nothing to do with duplicating reality. It’s always curious to me that people talk about—well, "so and so has a good ear," the implication being that he hears certain things and then transcribes. That’s not what one does at all. You’re trying to write the truth, not duplicate reality. As to how my world view has evolved, I have been drawn to certain themes and certain characters, and that is, perhaps, the disenfranchised. I remember driving through Ely, Nevada early one morning. Newspapers were blowing on these empty streets and a couple of very spectral figures huddled in the doorway, and I thought, who are these people? These half-drunk cowboys at 10 AM, playing penny slots in this incredibly bored fashion in a broken-down casino in Ely, Nevada. Not the very rich in Vegas, but these guys, the people who live on the fringe. Because, in some way, you learn more about society and the truth of the society you live in from those people. Having one foot out of society allows that person to be in a doorway, seeing the truth from the outside. I try to put it on stage without sentimentalizing it, without judging it or commenting on it in the end. You always comment on it somehow. It’s always you in some way, but I try to put it up there without making judgments beforehand about what it’s going to be. I sometimes have an emotion in mind, or a feeling that is real interior. But that’s about it. I just put them up there and see what happens and try to follow the inner logic to the end.
HP You lived your youth kind of lawlessly and certainly that has affected your work. But, at least on the surface, you seem a much less lawless person these days. How is that going to affect your work?
JS Yeah, clearly I’m a less lawless person. Whether I’m exactly a law-abiding person, I don’t know, but I don’t think I’ve become bourgeois or anything. People change and they don’t change. I understand why I did what I did in my youth. But I still have all that stuff in me, it doesn’t change. I still approach the world with a great deal of mistrust for its institutions and its governments, its authority structure and so forth. I’ve just been fortunate to make a little bit of money and have a little bit of success so I don’t have to live the way I used to. I sometimes feel guilty about certain middle class conceits that I adhere to at this point. I sometimes feel guilty about making my car payment. But you get older and you try to pick your fights better, I guess.
HP When I talk to people who’ve known your work for a long time, most people say The Shaper was the play that knocked them out.
JS Why The Shaper affected people and why that became such a big hit, I really don’t know. I think Standard of the Breed is a much better play. But The Shaper came out at the right time and the critics said the right things about it, and it may have been the themes: the aging surfers in Southern California are a kind of mythic California thing.
HP I’d like to talk about Theory of Miracles. It was just done at Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, and maybe it’s unfinished, but there seems to be the promise of something really interesting in that. A genuine despair; but with a kind of moral hope that I had not seen in your work. Although, I sensed a little bit of it in Teenage Wedding. Could you talk about that?
JS There’s probably a germ of it in Standard of the Breed, too. Standard was a real transitional piece in some ways because I ceased to be quite so unrelentingly nihilistic. My ex-wife said to me, after Standard and when I was writing Teenage Wedding —I was listening to a lot of Doc Watson tapes—she said there’s something expansive now that’s kinder, and it’s not exactly hopeful, but the sadness has a different quality to it that is maybe not as cruel. I always said what distinguishes great writers is their infinite compassion. Genet is just unendingly compassionate. Beckett, I think, is a very, very, compassionate writer. People always raise their eyebrows when I say that, but I think it’s absolutely true. Shakespeare is very compassionate. In Theory of Miracles, I was trying, with the central monologue to figure out, that when one’s life is an absolute failure, that maybe it’s not a failure. And maybe there are no failures. I think of my father’s life—and he certainly characterized his life as an absolute failure, and indeed he programmed himself to fail—and he failed. But what does that mean? It wasn’t a wasted life exactly. I guess there are no wasted lives. Maybe that’s really what Theory of Miracles came to be about in my mind. It was also about belief, that people expect miracles or something. I was reading all The Lives of the Saints, different books on 13th, 14th, and 12th century theology in Europe. They took miracles for granted. People talked about these strange cures. There are miracles to that extent everywhere. The telephone’s a miracle. But we’ve lost the capacity to think mythically. We have obliterated our understanding of all the demarcations between the mythic and the everyday. When you get in touch with the mythic, you gain great compassion. There’s a Chinese saying, "Who can call himself spiritual who does not fly." You have to rise above your resentments and prejudices. It’s really hard. There’s another thing about learning to love your enemy which I haven’t done yet. But I understand that. When you start to understand that there is a realm that exists that one should aspire to, your writing begins to enlarge and it enlarges emotionally. And in a way, that’s what’s really important to me now. People say, what are your plays about? They’re about the feeling that’s in them more than anything else.
HP Someone who admires your work said to me that you’re a people shredder and that you don’t really care about the people in your plays. If that’s so, doesn’t that put you more in collusion with your critics than with your admirers?
JS Well, if it were true, I’d be in collusion with critics, but I don’t think it’s true. I do care about the people in my plays. I don’t apologize for them. For instance, I cared a lot about the character you played in the Standard of the Breed. I had a lot of compassion for this guy, but he was a very selfish, damaged person. There were no excuses for his behavior. That doesn’t mean that you don’t care about him.
HP My relationship to that character in Standard of the Breed was interesting because when I left the stage after having been on for what—35 or 40 minutes—I would find that I had withheld so much feeling that when I actually walked off the stage, 80 percent of the time I cried, as if I just had to release some emotion that wasn’t really expressed. Except, of course, I wouldn’t have cried like that if there weren’t some real truth going on. And that’s what I sense when I watch your characters. They seem so self-deluding and, at the same time, rather content to be where they are in an odd way.
JS That’s how people are sometimes. There are people who are simply not equipped to analyze their predicament. And that’s part of the tragedy of it. That people may even make no effort, no real effort to get out of the situation that they’re in. I can think of both of my parents and a lot of my family and they made no choices. Just made no choice and that became their choice: to just continue on in this increasingly dead fashion. I’m not sure why that is, except they didn’t have the wherewithal, the understanding of things, to even make the most rudimentary improvement in that situation. They complain about it every day and do nothing because they’re terribly afraid of change. That’s the real tragedy and the real sadness. Certainly in Standard of the Breed there were people suffering this kind of inertia, who drifted with whatever forces picked them up and moved them along. They didn’t really know what they wanted and will probably never know. There are just these painful, inarticulate feelings that they have. This is a very unhappy country and people feel powerless and sad and nobody says anything about it.
HP In Teenage Wedding and The Thrill, what I like is that the central conflict is so dynamic, and yet ultimately, the play is not about that central conflict. It’s about something much larger.
JS I have always felt that bad writing was when you said exactly what you meant in the crudest fashion. Because language is very magical and strange and alchemical and, sometimes to say something, you have to find a roundabout way to get to it, to hear it. You can extend that metaphor to all of theater. I don’t like to be too on-the-money with things. Because I think it becomes reductive and trivializes what you’re trying to get at. The truth that one is trying to get at, is an elusive thing and buried in our unconscious. And to hear it and to feel it, you can’t just come out and say it or show it. You have to kind of point to it and inch your way closer. The Dream Coast is applicable to what we’re talking about. When we were rehearsing it, we approached dress-rehearsal and I was in a real state. I went to Bob Egan, the co-director and said, "Bob, this play stinks. This play isn’t about fucking anything, and I don’t want to do it. I want to pull it. I hate it. It’s not about anything. It’s just all this stuff and there’s nothing there that it’s about." He wouldn’t let me pull it and I was having a nervous breakdown because I really thought it was terrible. Dress-rehearsal wasn’t very good. Opening night was okay. I was still in this state, I couldn’t tell. And then the second night, I saw it and it hit me that what the play was about was my father. I mean, not only was it about my father, it was very specifically about my father. Situations that were from my childhood with my father, and I went, how did I not see that this was about my father? But the reality was, it was a very good thing that I didn’t know it because I could not have consciously said about my father, the things that I said in The Dream Coast. And that seemed like a lesson in trusting your instincts and letting things come out the way they come out and trusting that those impulses have some validity. The Dream Coast is about a lot more than my father, but had I snapped to what I was really saying early on, I wouldn’t have been able to say it.
HP How do you feel about the audience doing some of the work but not all of the work?
JS Yeah, they need to do a lot of the work. One of the problems with the audiences in Los Angeles is that they’re very lazy and they don’t want to work. People in this country are very afraid of feeling certain things. I think they’re afraid of feelings. They are certainly afraid of the whole experience of tragedy. There are no tragic writers and there’s no tragic art. The whole idea of tragedy has disappeared. Maybe what I would like to get to someday is to be able to really write tragedy.
—Havery Perr is a playwright and an actor whose plays have been performed in NY and LA. He is a member of Heliogabalus.