Episode 57: Acting Up: Interview with Playwright Steven Stack
Lindsay talks with playwright Steven Stack. He’s got a fantastic new one act melodrama coming out called She Wrote, Died, Then Wrote Some More.
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Lindsay: Welcome to TFP, The Theatrefolk Podcast. I am Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk. Espero que estés bien. Gracias por escucharme.
Alright. So today we are acting up with another Theatrefolk playwright interview. Today I am so pleased to talk to Steven Stack. We have one of Steven’s plays already in our catalogue, The Bottom of the Lake, and upcoming, the fantastic melodrama mystery, She Wrote, Died, Then Wrote Some More. But more on that in a moment. So first I have to say, hello Steven. Hi.
Steven: Hi, Lindsay.
Lindsay: How are you?
Steven: I’m doing great. I just got back from a carnival, and the family’s all asleep now at this point. [Laughs]
Lindsay: So basically you’ve worn them out…
Lindsay: …and so you can have a couple of minutes to talk to us.
Lindsay: So first off, where are you right now? Where are you?
Steven: I am in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, which is the land of the trolls.
Lindsay: Oh, like really? Like what kind of trolls?
Steven: Well, they’re wooden trolls. They have been carved. I don’t know the actual history but there are a lot of them, and there was a recent article that said that we needed more, so now they’re recruiting like a bunch of wood carvers and they’re all working on giving us more trolls, so it’s going to be awesome.
Lindsay: So does that happen often, that life is so good in Wisconsin that…
Lindsay: …[laughs] the needing of more trolls is an issue?
Steven: I suppose. It was a front page in our Mount Horeb newspaper…
Steven: …so it’s big time.
Lindsay: See, I love that. See, that’s the kind of place that I want to live in. [Laughs]
Steven: It’s pretty festive. It’s a highly enjoyable place to live.
Lindsay: So that’s my next question. So have you always lived in Wisconsin?
Steven: Oh no, I am actually from South Carolina, and I was teaching there full-time. I had just started a drummer program for sixth, seventh and eighth grade, and then I auditioned for a play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Steven: And there I met my stage manager Maggie. Turned out that we were meant to be together, I suppose. We got married, and she was going to get her master’s degree at UW-Madison and…
Lindsay: And you just followed along and the rest is history.
Steven: Oh yeah, I thought it was pretty awesome. I was like, “Okay, I’m all set up here in South Carolina, and let’s just leave everything and see how it turns out,” so.
Lindsay: That’s okay. Craig and I, my Theatrefolk partner, we met in a play as well, only I was playing Lizzie Borden.
Steven: Oh, nice!
Lindsay: And he was dad, so at the end of every night, basically ended up with me with a huge meat cleaver over his head.
Lindsay: So, you know, theatre romance is…
Steven: It’s a beautiful thing. [Laughs]
Lindsay: So since you are there, what is it like being a playwright in an area that is sort of nontraditional, I would say, for theatre?
Steven: Well, I’m fortunate that there’s a studio that I happened to work at in Mount Horeb called Forte Studios, and there’s dancing, acting and voice there. So I get to do a lot of my stuff there because I’m the writer for them, and we have a lot of talented kids there, and then we’re only about 20 minutes away from Madison…
Lindsay: Oh, okay.
Steven: …which is huge for the arts. So it works out really nicely.
Lindsay: I love that. I love hearing about places that—you know, we don’t have to go to hubs, right?
Steven: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.
Lindsay: That we can make…well, you can make your work wherever. I think that’s one of the great things about being a writer, is that really you can be wherever. You just need to, as you say, find some folks to put up your work.
Steven: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.
Steven: And the kids here too, it’s amazing. I remember when I first came there—I got hired—because we moved to Mount Horeb because we had our first daughter and we wanted her to have a backyard, because we’re in Madison. And I got hired there, and my first couple of days, or my first year, there were like 13 actors in two classes, that’s it. And now, I’ve been there five years and we’re up to over…around 60 now.
Lindsay: That’s wonderful.
Lindsay: So do you do…is it after-school stuff? Do you do summer stuff? Like what kind of stuff do you do with them?
Steven: Well, at Forte, I work with them, I teach two nights a week. I teach one class…well, I start at age 7, and I teach all the way up to senior and high school, basically, and so those are the three classes I teach there. And my daughter is going to start her second year in my acting class now, so…
Lindsay: Well, now you’re in for it. [Laughs]
Steven: I know. She was pretty good. She had to get over the fact she couldn’t call me daddy in class.
Steven: She had to call me Mr. Steven, so that was a big…that was a trying thing for her. But then I also…
Lindsay: Mr. Steven.
Steven: Yeah, it was really funny because when she’d go, “Daddy!” I’d go, “What? Mr. Steven.” Like, “Alright, cool. Thanks.” But then I also teach at a summer camp, two summer camps now, with WCATY, which is a gifted and talented program…
Steven: …for middle and high school. So I do that during the summer, and I use the monologue exercises that you put out in your blog recently. It was fantastic.
Lindsay: Excellent. Pass it on, pass it on. Well, I was looking at your site, and one of the things you do in the summer, you guide teens through the running of a play.
Steven: Mm-hmm. I had never done the high school before, so I really wanted to do that. So what we worked on this year was I introduced them first with writing with the monologues and they just progressively got better, and then we introduced…they did a “what happened next” scene…
Steven: …either based on Albee’s Zoo Story or Death of a Salesman. They got the choice of which one they wanted to do like an extended scene somewhere down the road.
Steven: We started there, and it was really cool because most of them really connected with The Zoo Story, like that just seemed to resonate with them.
Lindsay: Is that right? Why do you think that is?
Steven: Well, we spent a lot—one of the ways, when I teach acting, is I really…because I really value creating like the character a lot, like I sometimes get lost in that and I forget I actually have to stage it, but what we do is delve into them, their personalities, because I feel like for an actor to play someone else, you’ve got to be able to understand who you are.
Steven: So we spend a lot of time in the early classes like delving into asking that question of who they really are, not the characters they play for other students or for their parents or anything, but what they’re really all about. And so getting into that, and then getting into The Zoo Story too and talking about all the things that were going on. And Theatre of the Absurd like just opened up all these doors, because one of my students even laughed. He was like, “I totally had a crisis one day when I was walking around after class where I started questioning everything.”
Steven: And I was listening to him, I was like, “And?” And then he looked at me and he was like, “And I’m much better now.”
Steven: And I was like, “Well, it’s great to hear! I’m glad it helped.” But yeah, I really fixate on that, and I think they really connected there, and I gained an appreciation for Theatre of the Absurd that I had lost when I performed Waiting for Godot in college with a student director.
Lindsay: Ah, yes, and?
Steven: I had nightmares about that whole rehearsal, because I played Godot, so I would often…my roommate would tell me, he would wake me up and go, “Would you stop complaining about your feet hurting.” So it didn’t leave me ever. [Laughs]
Lindsay: Oh, it scarred you. It scarred you for life.
Lindsay: That’s okay. I have seen a couple of bald sopranos that…
Lindsay: I just sit there and go, “Did you read the play? Did you read the play? Do you know what’s happening? I don’t think you know what’s…” and then…
Steven: I know, right?
Lindsay: …from there, so.
Steven: Oh man. Oh, I’m having flashbacks right now.
Lindsay: Okay, we’ll just leave.
Lindsay: Although, it tails quite nicely into…I think you and I have the same thing where we focus on youth, right?
Steven: Oh, absolutely.
Lindsay: We work with youth, we write for youth. And is that something that you chose or it kind of chose you?
Steven: Well, I think it kind of chose me when I was in middle school, to be honest.
Lindsay: Oh yeah? How come?
Steven: Well, because I had what—I imagine most people have this experience. Like my middle school years were awful.
Steven: I was bullied and all these kinds of things. It was a terrible experience. But when I got into college and I started realizing I really liked to teach, my first impulse was like, “You know what? I want to go back in the middle school because maybe I can make it just somewhat better for someone else.” And so I started teaching in middle school, and then you’re aware of, like, usually seventh grade’s my favorite because they’re like, they’re not the cute sixth graders anymore and they’re not the big eighth graders, so they’re just kind of in the middle…
Lindsay: In between. They’re so in between.
Steven: And they’re so like messed up too, you know?
Steven: And I really identified with them, and I really wanted to write for them, you know, as a way to go, “Hey, you know, everyone’s messed up in the end, but this is something specifically for you.” And that started I guess when I was 12, but I didn’t know it then, clearly. I didn’t sit there at 12 and go, “One day this is going to pay off, when I become a playwright…” So I didn’t do that.
Lindsay: Yeah, that’s what we all do. We all go, “Yes, my hell is going to be beneficial…and financial gain someday.” [Laughs]
Steven: Instantly, totally.
Lindsay: Yeah. [Laughs]
Lindsay: I just think that…I feel the same way in that this group, that group that we work for and we write for, it took a long time but I just find them so…they’re so fascinating and they’re so insightful in a lot of ways that I’ve obviously forgotten, and I just think it’s a great time to give them a script and see what they do to it. Like what is it like to be in the rehearsal room with these guys?
Steven: Well, I mean, it’s so college because you see the glimpses, because one of the things we always talk about is don’t forget the 6-year-old that you once were…
Steven: …the one that was just so free, and it’s cool to see the glimpses come out and to see how hard they’re working, because once they start discovering the character and start…when we talk about objectives, and they have a moment onstage that really works and they’re like, “[Breathes deeply] That makes sense!” and it’s just so rewarding just to watch them and also see them grow, because some of the students I’ve worked with now have been going on like six or seven years straight…
Steven: …and it’s so funny to see the growth, and the insight they have and the excitement is just really fun. They love feedback, because I’m so obsessed with feedback of all sorts…
Steven: …so now they are, too.
Lindsay: So what does that mean, like what kind of…you mean feedback from them or feedback to them?
Steven: Both. Like because I ask them a lot of questions, because they take a hand in basically the development of the script, because when I’m writing for Forte I’m writing directly for the actors I know I’m going to have…
Steven: …and it’s kind of like I write it and read through it, and then my wife edits it, edits it, and then we see if it works, and then they get it and then they start giving feedback on things too. They ask questions about, “Well, why do I do this?” Most of the time I have an answer. Sometimes it’s, “Well, I don’t know. I need to fix that.” So that happens sometimes.
Steven: But then we talk about it after the rehearsals and stuff, where they give feedback to each other and to me about like what scenes we need to work and some of the dialogue that makes sense and some that doesn’t. So it’s kind of neat that way.
Lindsay: Because they don’t know any other way, I find them to be insanely honest.
Steven: They’re very blunt, yes. [Laughs]
Lindsay: In the best of way, and then in the “oh, you just hurt my heart” kind of way, but it…
Lindsay: But that’s fine. It’s good. I would prefer that. I prefer that rather than somebody couching it in some soft, fluffy language and not really getting to the point. But okay, so this kind of works into, talk about, how do you write? How do you start a play? Do you start with a theme or like one of your actors or…?
Steven: Well, sometimes it’s just I see something and I go, “I want to write a play about that.” It could just be an object or an idea. Like for The Bottom of the Lake, the first thought was, “I want to write a play about isolation.” And then it was, “But I want it to be a ghost story at a lake with a bunch of other stories attached.” And then it becomes like writing that basic idea out and just jotting down notes of, “Well, what could work?” and then just constantly writing notes on like basically a little notebook and then filling it up, and then trying to figure out, “Oh, okay, who would be my main character?” Who would this be about?” And then just go from there.
Lindsay: Are you a pen and paper person when you start?
Steven: Yeah, definitely at the beginning. I love the little memo pads.
Steven: I’m obsessed with them because I’m also obsessed with wooden clipboards. And I don’t know why…
Lindsay: It’s the trolls. The trolls have gotten to you.
Steven: Absolutely. Yeah, I guess.
Steven: And apparently I say absolutely a lot, too.
Lindsay: I won’t count.
Steven: Alright, thanks, because I’ve already been…it’s like 32 at this point. But no, like the wooden clipboards, I like carry it around, and I have my pen and I’m jotting down notes and things, and sometimes I’ll even have it all out, and then I’ll rewrite it because apparently I need it neater.
Steven: And then I’ll move…once I get to that point, then I barely look at it when I move to the computer to type up a brand new outline.
Lindsay: Isn’t that funny? It’s just…it had to get in you, right?
Steven: Mm-hmm. Absolute—yeah. See, I stopped myself there. So yeah, and that’s how it works, and then I keep going through it, and once the outline gets there, and then we’d start getting the rough draft going.
Lindsay: How many drafts do you go through before you’re ready to put it on its feet?
Steven: Oh, well, it depends on timing, because sometimes for the studio I may have from idea to actually rehearsals maybe a month and a half.
Lindsay: So you work on a…you’re a timeline guy, or a deadline guy.
Steven: Absolutely, yeah. But, so yeah, that happens that way. Sometimes I have longer. Like from summer camps, I just come up with the idea. Like this summer, I came up with the two ideas for the next summer…
Steven: So I have a way longer time. But basically what I do is once I could go through many, many drafts and then I give it to my wife who’s my editor, and she just kind of goes through the whole thing and then gives it back to me, and then I try to fix it…
Steven: …fix it from there. And so then I give it to one of my friend, Alex Bledsoe, who’s a writer…
Steven: …and he goes through it with his perspective. And then I also give it back to Maggie, and then I combine their two perspectives, and then I think it’s ready for rehearsal.
Lindsay: So feedback seems like it’s very much the thing that drives you in terms of making sure that your work is the best it’s going to be. It’s how other people see it.
Steven: Oh yeah, because even with acting in college, I was that way. My director would type up notes for me and send them to me…
Steven: …because I really wanted a lot of feedback. That’s one of the things that drew me to Maggie, because our stage…I mean, our director for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was kind of one of those lay on the floor, kind of direct and not pay attention or give feedback…
Steven: …and it drove me nuts.
Steven: So she would take a bunch of notes for me and then give it. So it’s the same thing. I really rely on that to get another viewpoint. Like you, for instance, too, I have never forgotten what you did for Welcome to the Neighborhood when you gave that…
Lindsay: Well thank you.
Steven: Yeah, when you gave that feedback, you took the time to write that out, it basically made me a better playwright altogether for everything I do now, so.
Lindsay: Well, it’s based on, you know, I’ve gotten those form letters back and you’re just like, “I don’t know what to do with this.” You know, like, “Why am I being turned away?” And there are a lot of reasons, and sometimes it has nothing to do with the strength of the play.
Lindsay: And at any time that I can kind of go, “Here’s what I think,” without being too pushy…
Lindsay: …I’m going to try. Both The Bottom of the Lake and the new play of yours that we’re going to publish…
Lindsay: …She Wrote, Died, Then Wrote Some More, which I say quite carefully because I’ve been saying it wrong, I’ve been saying it She Writes, Died, Then something else…
Steven: [Laughs] Maybe that should have been the title.
Lindsay: No! No, no…
Lindsay: …I like the new title.
Lindsay: And with some of your other stuff too, mystery seems to be really what…it’s really integral to your work.
Lindsay: Why do you think that is?
Steven: Well, I think that working with all audiences and working with the young age, I don’t think the audience listens that much. I think they know what to expect, especially working in the studio, is like they just kind of sit there and they’re going to applaud at the end. But I really want them to have to pay attention and to like give them stuff that they’re not expecting to see, so they can’t just zone out and think about their days or something like that, or go, “Man, this show’s really lasting a long time,” you know, things like that, or just think about their own child’s performance. I want them to be engaged, and mystery’s just a really fun way to do that because it’s kind of, you know, you’re just unwrapping that present and you don’t know what’s going to be under that next layer, and most of the time when I’m writing I don’t either, and just go, “Oh, okay, cool.”
Lindsay: Why do you think that…do you think it’s your particular audience that you’re dealing with because they are mostly there to see a specific performer or is that audiences in general? Like that’s a very interesting perception that we’re not listening.
Lindsay: Why do you think that is?
Steven: Well, it’s definitely for the audience that I work with because it’s a studio and they’re used to performances and things, but I think sometimes in our society we’re just so, like, we want instant gratification…
Steven: …and we’re used to it so much of getting fed exactly what we expect. Like I’m a huge sitcom fan, and you know, I can watch and zone out because you know what’s going to happen.
Lindsay: Because you know what’s going to happen.
Steven: Yeah, and in my opinion, it’s like if you get trained that way, that, “Oh, it’s going to be handed to me, I can zone out,” so you may go into an environment like a theatre and go, “Okay, well, I know what’s going to happen,” then you just kind of zone…
Steven: And I just think that’s, you know…I don’t know, it’s not entertaining for me. So I try to throw that out there. And I could be totally wrong…you know, I’m not sure.
Lindsay: No, I think that…well, I think you need to write to what you observe, you know?
Lindsay: Like that’s what writers do, is they see what’s happening, and to see what’s happening in your audience and kind of going, “Well, I would like to address that and perhaps, you know, make that not happen…”
Steven: Oh yeah.
Lindsay: …I think is very cool, because when I think, too, what is very interesting for you, is that you are writing for a very narrow niche, and yet the people who you are writing for, even though you’re writing for very specific actors, it just becomes very universal because I never get when I’m reading your stuff that it’s for a specific studio, for a specific actor. It’s more universal than that. So do not put down your instincts, Mr. Stack. Mr. Steven.
Steven: [Laughs] Alright, cool. [Laughs] Yeah, because you know, I don’t ever want to come off, you know, even with my students, just like, “You know, this could be right or maybe not…”
Steven: Because since I live in a world that I think that more or less everything’s a shade of gray…
Steven: …you know, so I… I used to not think that, but this allows me…it allowed me to grow a lot as a person when I said, “You know what? There are more ways to look at things than just one way.”
Lindsay: Well, that’s the great thing about theatre, and that’s the great thing about when people see our things. I’m always amazed when somebody comes up and says, “Well, this must be about this,” and I’m like, “Really? Do you mind if I write that down? I never thought of that.”
Steven: Oh yeah, it is, because I remember I wrote a short scene called The Rock, and it could have been, like there are a lot of things, because basically the concept was that there was this girl who was waiting by a rock and this other person was going to work, and the whole scene was about the fact she was waiting for the rock for some reason…
Steven: …and so it could have been a lot of different things that it was, because that was the whole intention. So I remember talking to a parent afterwards, and he was like, “I like that scene.” I was like, “Yeah, so what did you think?” He goes, “It was weird that she was waiting for a rock,” and then he walked off.
Steven: And I was like, “Okay.” [Laughs]
Lindsay: That’s what people get. What people get is what they get.
Steven: Yeah. I was like, “That was a metaphor.”
Steven: Yeah. [Laughs]
Lindsay: There was more than a rock. Okay, so let’s end this though on…let’s tie this in a bow on this whole notion of feedback. First of all, what do you think, if you’re talking to a young writer, what would be the piece of advice that you would give a young writer who’s looking at you with very wide eyes and saying, “How do I become a writer?” What would you say to them?
Steven: I would tell them to focus on the work, that their objective is to put all their focus on the work and telling a good story, or telling a story, to just put their focus out. Don’t make it about anything else but the characters and the world they live in, and just starting writing, and then see where it ends up from there. Because any worrying that you do about like how are people going to look at it or anything else just becomes…turns the focus inward…
Steven: …that it’s not about the story anymore. So what my advice would be is to focus 100% on the work, and it’ll take care of itself there. And then, get plenty of feedback afterwards and let people read it, and keep your ego out of it.
Lindsay: The hardest thing to do.
Steven: Oh, isn’t it though? [Laughs]
Lindsay: Well, it’s my baby.
Steven: Yeah. [Laughs]
Lindsay: You’re insulting my creation. But I always do the three-day rule. I like write stuff down and then I put it in a drawer for three days while I curse them, and then usually after three days I look at it and go, “Oh, they’re right, so I should do something about that.”
Steven: Oh, having my wife as my main editor, and she’s really, really good, makes that way easier, because she gets rid of a lot of the stuff that I think is brilliant, because there was one time I thought an idea, a great idea, was pantomime commercials in the middle of a play…
Steven: …and she just started laughing at me. And I was like, “What? That’s a great idea.” And then like the next day or so I was like, “Okay, it wasn’t that good.”
Lindsay: Okay, okay, so let’s do this. So what was the piece of feedback that you have gotten that has just struck you, that just like…what was the thing that hurt you the most, the thing that just struck you the most when you got this piece of feedback, but then that stayed with you?
Steven: Oh, well, I can use it for acting because this actually changed me, because it actually happened…
Steven: It happened with acting but it affected my writing. When I was in college, because being a male actor you pretty much get the parts…if you’re somewhat decent you get parts, because you’re male and there are not a lot of male actors, you know, when I was acting and stuff, so I remember I thought I was the greatest actor in the world.
Steven: And then we had this whole like student directing thing going on, and I wasn’t cast as anything but a cricket player. And that was a bit part in a one-act, I had no speaking lines, and I was one of the three guys that always got parts. And I remember talking to this girl who I really, really liked, and I said, “Why didn’t I get any part?” And she was like, “I don’t want to talk to you about it.” I said, “No, you need to tell me.” And she said, “Because you’re arrogant, you don’t listen to anyone, you think you’re better than all the direction, and no one wants to work with you.” And man, that hurt…
Lindsay: [Laughs] Oh my God.
Steven: …really, really badly. And I’d love to say that I instantly agreed with her, but I didn’t. But kept quiet, and then a couple of days later, I realized she was absolutely right, that I had become that person, and from then on I really, really tried to learn from that, and that’s why I’m so open to feedback now, because of that moment, like, wow. And it’s helped in writing, too, that I’m better at listening to people and not instantly rejecting them because I disagree, so.
Lindsay: Yeah. I think that’s the biggest, the most important piece of feedback, or the most important advice I think that any writer can learn, is that listen, absorb, walk away…
Lindsay: …and then process…
Lindsay: …instead of that instant, “Oh, they’re wrong. Oh, I’m brilliant.”
Steven: Well, yeah, because in the end, if your goal really is to have the best piece of work that you can, then you’re going to be able to listen to any piece of advice because maybe it’s going to be the thing that takes it to the next level, so.
Lindsay: Which is what we all want, I think.
Lindsay: I think. Alright, Steven, this has been amazing. It’s really been great…
Steven: I’ve had a really fun time.
Lindsay: …talking to you, and I can’t wait to get your new play out there in the world and…
Steven: I’m super-excited about that, too. [Laughs]
Lindsay: [Laughs] Oh, I just think it’s fantastic. And have a…oh, we’re almost in September, so…
Lindsay: I hope your summer’s been good…
Steven: It has.
Lindsay: …and enjoy the last little bit of it, and we’ll talk soon.
Steven: Alright, you too now. Thank you.
Lindsay: Thanks, Steven.
Lindsay: Before we go, let’s do some Theatrefolk news. If you’re not on our Facebook page or haven’t been on our website in a while, this news is just for you. We’re offering a free info sheet and video course called Get Students Writing. How many times have students said, “I can’t write a play?” How many have you said, “I can’t teach playwriting?” This course is specifically for you with tips, techniques, exercises, and handouts to implement in the classroom immediately. Go to Theatrefolk.com/GetStudentsWriting, enter your email, and the course is yours.
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