Interview by Followspot
from the Oregon Book Award to Riding a Motorcycle on Wet Pavement
Followspot – The Oregon Book Award. You’ve been nominated a few times and now you’ve won for Lost Wavelengths. What does this mean in the larger picture for you and the play itself? How does it feel to win one, personally and professionally?
Steve Patterson – This is the third time I’ve been a finalist, so it was literally three time’s a charm. And I know everybody says “I didn’t expect it” but I didn’t expect it. And, in fact, when Keith Scales came out with a guitar, I thought it was Francesca Sanders for I Become a Guitar, and then he started doing my lines and I went, “Uh-oh.” You know, it’s funny about the Oregon Book Award. The first one I was nominated for was my second play, which was Bombardment.
FS – And how long ago was that?
SP – 1991, and all of us who were nominated were all from Stark Raving Theatre so it kinda put Stark Raving Theatre on the map. And it gave me an indication, “Oh, this is the way I should go,” as far as writing plays. It was my second shot out the gate and, up to then, I’d been writing fiction and journalism. So this feels like a nice completion of some kind of a journey. The second time I was nominated was for Altered States of America, which was a good production and a great cast and got good reviews, and died because it was Christmas time. And it was very painful, the whole experience itself. Being nominated for that was a good vindication. So this, like I said, [the award has] got kind of its curve, you know.
As far as what [the award] means for the play, I’m hoping that it gives it a little extra pedigree, and that people start to notice it more. I do have it out to a couple places. I don’t want to say where I’ve got it because it’s kinda karma. But I think it opens it up to other theatres, and I’d like to start to take it, since it is a JAW [Just Add Water/West] production, to the regional theatre level; that would be ideal. We’ll see. You gotta be kind of canny about where you go with the premiere.
FS – You only get one world premiere.
SP – Right. I wouldn’t withhold it from somebody who was awesome for that but you kind of want to judge that a little bit. If somebody wanted to premiere it in Portland, though, I’d think about it because it’s a homegrown thing.
FS – Have you had any feelers from anybody in Portland yet?
SP – I’m talking to one theatre.
FS – I desperately want to ask but I will hold back. Have you made revisions since the JAW premiere?
SP – I did a fairly extensive rewrite quickly because I wanted to get it in shape for Humana. And I got it sent it off to Humana and it was graciously declined; but at least I got the rewrite in. I’m sure it would change in rehearsal, because it’s never been through a full rehearsal process, but it feels like a complete play – the story’s complete, the characters are complete, that kind of thing.
FS – And the rewrites just came out of everything you heard during JAW and the workshop process?
SP – You find out where people aren’t understanding things or you find places it feels like it’s spinning its wheels a little bit, where it’s not quite getting traction. It was actually very funny – the first day of JAW, [the cast] reads their plays… and mine had eleven songs in it so my cast was just reciting the songs and it was just like deadness would fill the room and I left going “Oh my play sucks so bad” ‘cause there were these other gloriously constructed plays. We did clean it up during the week but by the time we got the music it was a much different experience.
FS – Did you write the music yourself?
SP – I wrote the lyrics and Hal Logan wrote the songs. He wrote eleven songs in a week. He’s done a lot of sound design for various theatres. He’s got his own studio. In fact, when we did the show, rather than record the guitar parts and have the actor mime the guitar playing, we put a music stand in front of the actor and then we ran an amp up behind him so when we actually did the show, Hal sat off to the side and played live. And when you were watching it, Casey McFeron, when he was playing it, you couldn’t tell he wasn’t actually playing it; it was a beautiful effect.
FS – So sum up Lost Wavelengths.
SP – Lost Wavelengths is essentially about a guy named Murray who works for a public radio station and has an oddball program where he plays outsider musicians. And there are a number of these outsider musicians around the country, and some of them have got to be well known. There actually was a guy, Irwin Chusid at WFMU in New York, and he had a show called the "Incorrect Listening Hour" where he would play outsider musicians. And he was one of the first guys to break some of these folks.
But the idea was that I took it a step further where Murray is kind of an Alan Lomax - travelling around the country doing field recordings of these people – oddballs – and he’s really on the trail of this one guy who calls himself Enola Guy who doesn’t grant interviews, always uses a pseudonym, and doesn’t play live. Turns out he’s kind of a faceless nobody, but he’s written all this music and won’t own up to it. So the play is about Murray trying to find Tom and Tom trying to connect with Murray but it’s kind of like they’re ships that pass in the night; they don’t quite make it. And they’re also drawn by the complications of the two women in their lives. Claudia is a reporter, a radio reporter who’s tagging along with Murray and….gets involved with him. And Julie is kind of a relative of Tom’s, the actual Enola Guy, and she kind of brings him out of his shell but that doesn’t turn out either. It’s a play about people trying to connect but never quite make it.
FS – You love dark subjects. I was thinking that Lost Wavelengths for you is almost a comedy because, two extreme examples I have [of your previous plays are]: A wife sets up a dinner for her bound and gagged husband and then you have another summary that [reads] “a spiderlike manipulator plays on the insecurities and paranoia of others.”
SP – That was factual. Sorry, it’s the Dick Cheney life story.
Yeah, I am pulled towards the dark, I make no bones about it. But I’ve got two strains. One of them is that I’ve written a number of these very realistic plays about war and, particularly, reporters at war, Waiting on Sean Flynn and Liberation, which was published earlier this year. It was published by Original Works Publishing. It’s an online publisher and they do acting editions. A play which hasn’t been produced yet, in fact it hasn’t even been read - I’m stilling working on it - called Depth of Field [is] about a photographer. Then I have the other side, what I call my dream plays, which are more fantastic or surreal. And they’re really dark too. But I like to work humor into it. I mean, it’ll kill you if you don’t have some humor in it. Liberation is a tough, tough play and awful things happen in it and awful things get talked about but there’s gallows humor that runs through it too.
FS – Tell me briefly what Liberation’s about.
SP – Liberation’s about a newspaper office in Sarajevo. It’s trying to stay going during the siege. And they bring in this Serb deserter who’s going to testify at all these eyewitness atrocities and the Serb army surrounds the building ; they have 24-hours to give him up or they get stormed. It’s a happy go lucky little piece. … Should’ve been a musical really.
FS – Any reason your plays are so dark? You have a few that say you attempted to make it funny or a comedy but it just didn’t work out.
SP – I know when I’m going to write a drama. I have the feeling when I go into a drama what it’s going to be. The things that have been comedies … I just have a weird imagination I guess so I’m drawn to that black kind of humor, surreal gallows humor. Delusion of Darkness - we called it an ultra-violet comedy.
FS – That’s a really good title.
SP – Actually, that’s funny because it was called Illusion of Darkness and Myra Donnelly read it and handed it back to me and said, “You should call it Delusion of Darkness,” which was kind of an homage to William Burroughs. It was very twisted. We had great fun with that. We did that as a late night at the Back Door [Theatre] and we sold out our entire run and everybody loved it, except Steffen Silvis. So that’s batting four hundred.
That play actually went on to Jobsite Theatre in Tampa. They did great with it even though they had to close for a night for a hurricane. And then a little theatre in Christchurch, New Zealand did it at the University of Canterbury and it ended up walking away with a bunch of awards. How strange is that? But it’s kind of fun right now - there’s a theatre in Lawrence, Kansas which is looking at the play, and Lawrence, Kansas is where William Burroughs lived for the last ten years of his life. So I’d have to go to Lawrence.
FS – Did you set out to write an entire cycle of war plays?
SP – Originally I was thinking it was gonna be a trilogy of war plays about reporters at war and then I wrote Next of Kin, kind of not about reporters and out of the sequence. I really feel that with Next of Kin and when I finally finish Depth of Field, which is the photographer play, to my satisfaction, that I’m done with the them, because I know a little too much about war than is maybe healthy. (Laughs) I was corresponding with Carolyn Steinbeck, who was married to John Steinbeck, Jr., John Steinbeck's son. And John Steinbeck, Jr., was a reporter in Vietnam and he died a couple years ago and we were talking about Vietnam and I said, “So do you flinch when a helicopter goes over?” and she goes, “Yeah, post traumatic stress disorder is catching.” And it kinda does come with the territory. You become so filled with the stuff that you read.
FS – Is [reading] where you’re getting most of your background?
SP – I was a journalist for awhile. So what really brought me to it was that point of view of being a journalist, and war is about the most extreme activity you can imagine and, so not to mine it for dramatic potential, but damn it’s human life and everything is important. But to answer your question, I read a lot of books and then I read a stack of Vietnam books two and a half feet tall. I also have talked to a lot of vets and talked to reporters who covered Vietnam, made friends with a couple of them as well. In fact, one of them was Tim Page, Sean Flynn’s best friend during the war. And when we premiered Waiting on Sean Flynn in Chicago, he sent us photographs of Sean Flynn that had never been published and we got to hang those in the lobby. It was great. Tim Page was the inspiration for the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now. Stoned hippie dude taking pictures of Vietnam.
The single most moving experience I’ve had as a playwright was one night after – Stark Raving Theatre premiered Liberation – and I went down to the show in the middle of the run to see how it was going, that kind of thing, and somebody afterwards said, “I want to introduce you to somebody,” and introduced me to this little tiny blond woman who said she walked out of Srebrenica to Sarajevo. Srebrenica was taken over by the Serbs and the men were massacred. And she walked out with nothing in her possessions except her feet and she thanked me for writing the play. Those are the kind of moments that make all of the hassle and BS of theatre worthwhile. It’s those kind of like gem-like moments.
FS – Tell me what’s the hassle and BS of theatre?
SP – When you are a producer you are everybody’s problem solver. So you know there’s that aspect of you’re about to go on and somebody can’t find a piece of their costume and is flying into panic and everything else stops. You know, just that kind of thing. On the other hand, actors and theatre people are some of the most generous people I’ve ever met. I like ‘em.
FS – That reaction you evoked from that woman is that one thing you aim for, to evoke a really strong response, or do you aim for your work to be political, to send across a message?
SP – Actually, if I had a goal in my writing, and this would be whether I was writing something fantastic or surreal or whether I was writing something hard and gritty, is I want it to feel true. Finding the truth in things is to me what’s important and you know the audience is going to take away from it whatever they’re going to take away from it. I certainly, tend to underwrite. I don’t want to force them into a position of thinking one thing or another. I want to let them figure it out for themselves. Hemingway said good writing was like an iceberg, seventy-five percent of it’s under the surface. Sometimes it makes it tricky because you don’t know whether you’re not giving them enough. So it gets a little dicey and that’s where you work things out in workshops, and readings, and stuff like that. Either that or you figure out what you’re trying to say. (Laughs)
FS – Do you have a muse? And tell me, what the hell is a muse?
SP – It’s a subscription service out of Iowa. I don’t really want to give the address out. Do I have a muse? I don’t know where ideas come from, I’ll put it that way. I do know that music leads me into things. I’ll listen to an album over and over again because it starts putting images in my head. Sometimes it comes to fruition and sometimes it doesn’t. I just stay open to things, find stuff in the newspaper and I clip ideas. [With Next of Kin] I ran across about the same time a story about a guy who was a casualty assistance officer and a then about a guy who was a Marine recruiter, and they weren’t connected at all but I was just going like, “God, that’s so stressful what they do” and it’s important too – I have great admiration for those folks. And then I thought what if they were in the same family? And then it was like BING! So that’s where that comes from. I read omnivorously.
FS – Any particular music that’s inspired you?
SP – One of these days I‘m gonna write that play from Leonard Cohen’s first album but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m blanking on it. I might come back to it, if I can think of something specific. But I do know that certain pieces of music that we’ve used in plays have become so emblematic that I can’t listen to the music without thinking of the play. We did a play of mine called Malaria, Lorraine Bahr directed it, and she chose Sarah McLachlan’s "Possession" as the pre-show music so that song was the last song playing as the lights went down, and I hear that song in a café and suddenly I’m back in the theatre and the lights are going down. And the same thing with Jimi Hendrix’s "Hey Joe" for Sean Flynn and it’s like I hear the song – it has a whole different meaning.
I was just thinking about Marc Acito [who] just had his play [Holidazed] open, and I was thinking about the experience of when you have a play really open and there’s that moment when everybody’s in there and you know the stage manager’s closed the house, the lights start to go down, and there’s like this panic moment going “There’s no way out now.” And it’s so fun but it’s so hair-raising at the same time. It’s like riding a motorcycle on wet pavement. It’s a kick.
[Later via email Steve wrote: At one point, you asked about music as an inspiration, and I kind of drew a blank. I later remembered that there's one kind of hair-raising scene in Waiting on Sean Flynn (it ends up with one character getting a gun barrel shoved in their mouth, though nobody gets killed) that I wrote while listening to the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" over and over again. I was so shaken when I finished it--having essentially lived through it with my characters--that I had to go for a long walk to calm myself down.]
FS – You have a favorite play?
SP – Probably Waiting on Sean Flynn.
FS – Any reason it’s your favorite?
SP – I just loved being in that play. I loved writing it. And [in] all the productions of it, I loved bonding. It’s like the characters in it bonded as if they were soldiers. You know, there are a bunch of reporters who were following the fall of Saigon and trying to decide whether to stay or leave, and when we did it here in Portland we’d go close the bar down every night. And everybody was swearing like sailors. It was just great. There’s just something about that play that I like I lot. I’m very fond of Lost Wavelengths though. I’m really looking forward to seeing a production of it with all the pieces together. I think it’s got a nice bittersweet quality to it.
FS – What are you really proud of as a playwright? What do you feel your strengths are? What do you have to bring to the stage that is yours, that you feel maybe no one else brings to the stage? In short, why do you write?
SP – I write because I can’t not write. That’s the real honest answer. There’s moments that happen in theatre where … all the pieces are coming together and the audience is with you, and the actors are cooking, everything comes together [and] there are these moments of supernatural lucidity that are so rewarding, and you really can’t plan for them. But when they hit, you feel like you’ve really accomplished something. And you can - after awhile of working - you can feel it when the audience is with you - it sounds like the air gets sucked out of the room, and I remember somebody once said it felt like it happened in his living room. To me, in a way, that’s the goal. I mean I love to tell a good story. Comedy is hard, you know, because…it’s very rewarding to hear people laugh, because when they don’t laugh it sucks. And also when you write something that you feel like is giving somebody a powerful experience, you can tell when the lights come up, you can see it on their faces if they’ve been on a ride with you. I think that’s about the most you can hope for, is that your audience goes on a ride you’ve made for them. I don’t know what I bring to it particularly. I think I got a decent ear for speech and I have fun making pictures on the stage, but past that….?
FS – Anything you feel you would like to accomplish as a playwright? Ideas? Technique? Have you written your great play?
SP – I don’t know. I’ve written a couple of good plays. And the old cliché is you’re only as good as your next album, you’re only as good as your next play…. I think my goals have always been try and find something new and not repeat myself too much. One of the reasons I want to get done with war is because I don’t want to be the “war guy.” I always loved how Picasso would do all these different forms. He would paint and then he’d decide, Oh, I’m gonna sculpt, and then he’d go I’m gonna move to the South of France and make pottery. And it was all great and it was all Picasso - you’d look at it and go “That’s Picasso.’ That continually experimenting and trying new stuff, I think that’s a great model to look for. Not on…personal relationships, you know.
FS – And basic question: Do you have some favorite playwrights?
SP - Shepard; big influence on me. I think I got over Shepard by about my third play. Actually, I wrote this one play that was read once and it was huge and too long and I think it was just me taking all my Shepard and blaug [barfing sound], and then I was done with it. I love Beckett. Ionesco. Stanislaw Witkiewicz. I love Albee. I’ll be honest. A lot of the kind of kitchen sink [plays] don’t do a lot for me, though Death of a Salesman’s like the best frikkin’ play ever, man. So it just depends on the play. I love, without reservation, [Waiting for] Godot.
FS – Are you presenting something for Fertile Ground?
SP – I have a piece in PlayGroup. PlayGroup’s doing something. It’s a pretty fun project. We got at random a place in Portland and wrote about it. So everything is like set in Portland. I don’t want to say much more about it. We just read all the plays the other night and they were really cool.
FS – You want to divulge your place?
SP – (Coy) No.
[Later via email:
FS – Do you handwrite or use a typewriter or computer? All three?
SP - I write first drafts in longhand, then revise them as I type them up on a computer, then make successive revisions in handwriting on printed copies. The only problem with such a system is, if you hit a hot streak, sometimes you end up with plays waiting to be typed up. I currently have a couple one-acts languishing in notebooks.]
Next up! Steve talks Dramatists Guild, Obama, and new work new work new work