Thursday, December 11, 2008

Steve Patterson: Supernatural Lucidity - A Writer Behind Every Stump

November 26, 2008
Interview by Followspot (cont'd)

(**Photo credit: Steve Patterson, Angels and Demons)

from Pavement Productions to Dramatists Guild to Barack Obama

FS – Pavement [Productions] lasted 18 years? You produced new work, and then you also did staged readings of new work, and then you worked a lot with Stark Raving Theatre. Do you have plans for any type of production company after that?

SP – Not at the moment. I said I retired and I don’t know… I retired Pavement. It’s kind of a never-say-never kind of thing . I might change my mind. But if I do do something, I see it more as doing staged readings or concert readings. I really don’t want to be a full-fledged producer again. The last play I produced fully was Dead of Winter earlier this year. Those were the ghost plays I wrote and I did that with the Bluestockings. It was a blast. But, you know, there was somewhere in there when I was setting up the box office and I went, “I’m just not having as much fun as I used to.” But I’m very proud of that part of Pavement’s whole thing was to do new plays and we never did, in 18 years, a play that was established.

FS – How many plays do you think you brought to the stage?

SP – Maybe 30, something like that. We used to do anthology shows, 5 shorts plays built around a theme. The best anthology show we ever did was Life and Death on the American Road. It’s all about road trips, and we actually turned that into a full production. We had a play by Lorraine Bahr, Scott Coopwood was in the cast . It was a kick.

FS – Did you just feel [Pavement Productions] had gone its way?

SP – Lisa Abbott, who was the director I worked with for like 10 years, since ’95, she got a tenured teaching position in Savannah and moved down there and I just didn’t want to carry it on by myself. We were co-artistic directors and she was our resident director and I had built up a rapport and the way it kind of turned into would be like we’d take six-months off and somebody’d get an itch and go, “Hey look at this. Wanna do this?” and then we’d do something. We were a gypsy company. At that point [I didn’t] want to break in a bunch of new people and set up a new crew, and her husband was my technical director as well. I just felt it was time to move on and to focus more on writing, so I can achieve world domination. If you wanna achieve world domination, what the hell would you do with it? It’s all kind of downhill from there.

FS – What is the Dramatists Guild and why should I join it as a playwright?

SP – It looks really cool on your resume. I’m co-rep for Portland. Andrea Stolowitz is the other co-rep. I became a member of the Dramatists Guild in 1993. I had a play done in Los Angeles and, at that time, there were entry requirements [for the Dramatists Guild] so that got me into the Guild.

The Dramatists Guild does a number of things. For one thing you have access to market reports, what theatres are doing. They publish a guide to theatres and opportunities and contests and festivals. It’s more detailed and up-to-date than Dramatist’s Sourcebook. They also have a business and legal staff that you can turn to. They have sample contracts that you can look at and if you’ve got somebody offering you a contract and you go, “I don’t know, this looks funny, they want to own my dog,” you, literally, as a Dramatists Guild member can call up the Guild, and you can go, “I have to give up my dog. I mean, what’s the story here?”

They have some other things – emergency funds for playwrights. They have some facilities in New York a room you can have readings at, and I believe they have some discounts on hotels and stuff like that. So there’s some cool stuff, but the really important thing the Dramatists Guild does is when theatres of a certain level begin doing your plays, when you start getting LORT theatres, Broadway, and all that good stuff, the Dramatists Guild has got contracts that have been negotiated ahead of time. As a Dramatists Guild member they [the theatres] have to abide by those contracts. You can go outside of those contracts but it’s really not kosher. It’s in your favor anyway. It gives you a certain level of pay, and it gives you some power over – [the theatre] can’t cast without your okay, they can’t change a word without your okay, and that kind of thing. Of course, it gives us playwrights some really important stuff like never sell your copyright, you always own the copyright, you’re just renting the use of the play to a theatre and, obviously, you never give away subsidiary rights like film. I mean it’s really good business stuff and they have a number of very good publications too. When I was first starting, I’d like to [remember] the woman’s name - she used to be their business manager - and I had a question and I left a message and she called me back, and we talked for like an hour. It was pretty incredible. And I was nobody, nobody - think I’d written three plays, but I was in the Guild.

What Andrea and I is – the Guild has a magazine called The Dramatist that comes out every two months so we’re writing reports about Portland, what’s going on. Like Andrea wrote an “Introduction to Portland” piece, and then I wrote a piece about the Fertile Ground Dramatists Guild meeting that Andrew [Golla, Portland Theatre Works] did. And for Fertile Ground we’re gonna bring Gary Garrison out, Dramatists Guild Executive Director, have a Town Hall meeting, which is open to anybody. But mostly you know, as far as for Dramatists Guild members or other interested playwrights [the meeting is about] what the Dramatists Guild is about from the guy who runs it. And we’re also, this is kind of in formation right now - we’re still working on the details - but we want to have a forum afterwards about playwriting and how to make it work better in Portland, what new work needs, what people would like to see. So we’re gonna try to put a panel together.

FS – Ideas about who might be on the panel?

SP – I know that Lue Douthit is going come up from Oregon Shakespeare and beyond that I’m not sure right now. I don’t know. I don’t want to say anyone else because I’m not sure that they’re committed. That’s the only person I know of. But we’d love to get Mead [Hunter, Literary Director, Portland Center Stage] and other people. Andrew would be great. He’s such an easy-going guy. But I think it would be great to bring in somebody like James Moore [co-Artistic Director, defunkt theatre] too. Somebody who’s out producing something too as a playwright.

FS – That pretty much covered the Dramatist’s Guild unless there’s something else you want to share that hasn’t really been covered?

SP – The only thing I can really think of is what I felt personally about joining the Guild and ponying out my money. What it gave to me was a feeling that I was a professional playwright. Suddenly I belonged to this organization that had Edward Albee on the Board, and [it] felt more like the big time and it gave me self-confidence and it made me take things more seriously in a way. [It] also felt like I had my back covered as far as legal stuff. And, to tell you the truth, I’ve never had recourse to turn to the Guild to resolve anything but I also learned enough from the Guild contracts and things like that and information. Now they have a website – back then they didn’t have a website. In fact you can download contracts directly from the website. But I learned enough that I find my way around. Dana Singer was the woman that talked to me for awhile. She wrote a book, I believe it’s The Stagewriter’s Handbook, like THE book to get because it’s got all the legal stuff in it. It’s great.

FS – Do you have any hopes what [Barack Obama] might do for the arts under the new administration?

SP – One question we’re going to all wait to hear on come January is what kind of budget we’re gonna have given the economic situation. I do know that one of the people he has on his transition committee is Bill Ivey and that’s promising because Bill is one of those people who bring people together. He kind of soothed the culture wars during the 90’s at the time when the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] was being demonized by Jesse Helms. I think he’s a good guy. I don’t know that he’ll become NEA head, but I think he’s a good guy to guide transition. Back when Obama was running I went and checked out his arts platform and it’s pretty good, he’s got some good stuff in there. I don’t expect him to come out and say “I’m gonna restore grants for individual artists,” but he might. But I don’t expect him to say that because that would be stupid. (Laughs) I know he’s very big on bringing arts into the schools, [he] thinks that’s very important. I think that’s very important too because these poor kids who aren’t math whizzes - they’re dreamers and stuff like that – we should let them dream. They dream some cool stuff. One of the things he wants to do is resolve some visa issues for example that have kept some artists out of the country like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for one. So that’s positive. Also, he wants to send US artists abroad as ambassadors. Other countries do do that. That would be great because we’re not very well liked right now but the one thing that we are still liked about is our culture. They like our music and our movies. One would hope they like our plays.

FS – Imagine choosing the ambassador of culture.

SP – That would be an awesome responsibility to do that. To be the representative of the United States as an artist. I don’t think they’ll be picking me any time soon….Mr. Patterson has a little bit too much violence and drugs in his plays. I don’t know…Buenos Aires, maybe.

I think those are sort of the positive things and [Obama] had a couple of other planks that I forgot. There’s was nothing that blew me away, but they were all good ideas. I think that’s going to be down the list when they’re trying to keep the country from spiraling down the drain. I like him. He’s making smart choices. We’ll see. I can’t really remember feeling this excited about a candidate, and that was actually during the election too. He just reminded me a bit of
Bobby Kennedy, not quite as fierce but he was kind of like the guy I’ve been waiting for for a long time. He’s got a lot of potential to live up to. He’s got a lot of challenges ahead of him. The mistakes he makes won’t be as bad as the things that Bush did on purpose everyday.

FS – To wrap things up: What theatre companies in Portland do you find exciting?

SP – Obviously I find PCS exciting because it’s kind of the flagship and I’m involved with them as a playwright, so I’m biased right there. I think ART’s been doing some fun stuff, some interesting things. Third Rail’s always a kick. And Vertigo’s fun, I like Vertigo, and defunkt. Milagro is consistently interesting. And there’s lots of funny little gypsy companies out there that are endearing.

FS – So it sounds like you think Portland is pretty thriving.

SP – Yeah, I mean every year there’s always interesting stuff happening. And we’ve had a few years where I was, “eh?” I wasn’t as interested in what was going on as others, and other people liked it, but that’s just my taste. I just saw The Receptionist and that was a damn good show. I hope to see more out of that team. I think that pretty much covers it. There isn’t a single theatre in town that I will go see everything they do, and it’s just because I’m too busy. I’ll go see something every couple of weeks. I finally caught Action/Adventure – I had missed all that stuff and it was just wonderful. Wonderful talent. Great stories. They’re funny and endearing and honest. I love a theatre troupe that is not afraid to be awkward. If it’s a true awkward, you know what I mean? Because sometimes I think we all try and make it a little too slick. You know one of the really cool things is when you’re watching a play, actually, it’s when you notice it’s not right - you can tell one of the actors is waiting for their line instead of being in the moment with the other actor. And you go, “It’s either been overproduced or they’re tired or the actor’s got problems.” But when that organic thing is happening, that’s really exciting.

FS –You have a photography exhibit going on. You want to talk about that a little bit?

SP – Actually my pictures right now are only up at Urbaca, if people want to take a look at them. I’ve been working on a new series and some time I’m hoping to put that up. It’s called Angels and Demons and I’ve shot about a dozen pictures. Janet Price, who does make-up, has been working with me and she’s really great. I’ve been working with actors who I [tell to] pick an angel or a demon and bring your concept and they’re all different. And all the angels seem to be a little roughed up and all the demons seem to have something cool about them. There’s a blurring of those identities in there. Eventually I hope to have a show out of that.

FS – What’s the one going on at Urbaca?

SP – The one at Urbaca is Theatre of Dreams, which is the one I worked on for about five years. It hung at CoHo for awhile and then it was at Common Grounds for awhile. I sold a few pieces out of it. I took a lot of pictures when I was a teenager into my twenties and then I kind of put it aside for writing. And then a number of years my brother-in-law gave me a great camera and just kind of gave it to me and I said, “This is such a wonderful camera I should get back into it.” So I did. It’s been fun. I do some stuff for theatres and things too. It’s nice to help out your friends. [PR Photography] is a drag to set up as a producer. It helps to get a good color picture in the paper; it brings people in.

FS – Anything else you want to share about yourself?

SP - I gotta say there’s a lot of really good playwrights in this town. It feels like a good place to be as a writer. There’s a writer behind every stump. I think some of it’s the rain, coffee shops.

FS – They are conducive to writing?

SP – They are. I hope that. You know, I really miss Stark Raving Theatre because when you went there, you knew you were gonna see something new, that hadn’t been done before. If there’s anything that I hope the Fertile Ground festival does is that I hope it gives theatres permission to take a chance [with new plays] because I know that it’s hard for them to roll the dice, because you can lose. You can get a play and it may not work, or may get bad reviews and people won’t go see it because they haven’t heard of it. Doing original work is tricky and risky but it’s also incredibly rewarding and I hope that the theatres in town will catch the spirit.

I just finished a new play.

FS – Want to divulge any details?

SP – It’s at a stage where I’m going to have it read at PlayGroup and I’ll do a rewrite. It’s called Bluer Than Midnight and it’s about the blues, the Civil Rights Movement, and the afterlife. Part of the research lead me to buy a Fender Stratocaster.

FS – So you play okay then?

SP – Uh, no. I’m working on it. I can play a 12-bar glitch. (Laughs)

And on that note of laughter, the interview ended.

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