Playwright Grateful for His Kansas Roots
January 29, 2009
by John Long
Playwright James Still traveled recently to Kansas City to work on the world premiere of his production, The Velvet Rut at the Unicorn Theatre with the director, cast and crew.
Still, a prolific writer whose work has been produced in cities around the world, lives in Seattle with his partner, but he has Midwest roots.
ďI grew up in a little town in Kansas ó Pomona ó which is about an hour and fifteen minutes from here, a town of about 800 people,Ē Still said on a cold, icy day after driving to the Unicorn from his parentsí Pomona home.
ďMy dad was the high school basketball coach, my mom was the banker in town, I was the paperboy. I was the oldest of three. Iím still close to my family. I try and see them when I can,Ē he said.
ďIíve come to be really grateful to have come from there. As a writer, I can say that one reason is because I feel like I can authentically write about small-town America, about the Midwest, with affection, with respect, with curiosity, with a certain kind of knowingness, having lived it. And because Iíve lived in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and now Seattle all my adult life, I also write in terms of the urban experience with an equal kind of authenticity.Ē
He said that a friend of his in New York once offered this comment about something he was writing: ďYou know, only someone who didnít come from here could have written about New York the way you wrote about it.Ē
ďItís interesting, our relationship to place,Ē Still said. ďI suppose in some ways thatís connected to, as a gay man, how do you fit in? How do you not fit in? Where do you find identity at an early age? How do you thrive?Ē
He said his unique point of view had made him a longtime observer.
ďI think partly itís the being gay, but also being an artist, being a writer, I think I observed in a very meaningful way from a very early age, noticing things. I think it also created a deep sense of empathy for me, and thatís been hugely helpful as a writer. Empathizing with the other, the outsider, somebody trying to overcome obstacles that seemed completely impossible ó I feel that all those are secret weapons in a certain way, things that Iíve learned to explore as an artist, as a writer, because I did live my version of that and I suppose, in some ways, I always will.Ē
Still said he knew from an early age that he was gay, or at least different.
ďIt didnít have a name, but I remember things from being five years old, having feelings but not understanding them. It wasnít until other people made it clear that that was Ďbadí that I was on guard about it. I think there was a wonderful period where I wasnít on guard about it, where I was totally enchanted with who I was and everything around me. And then thereís the reality of peer pressure when youíre older.Ē
Several plays of Stillís have been produced in Kansas City: Iron Kisses was performed at the Unicorn; And Then They Came for Me was produced at the Coterie Theatre; and Searching for Eden was produced at the American Heartland Theatre. He has also written for television and film and has been nominated for five Emmys and a Television Critics Award and has twice been a finalist for the Humanitas Prize.
How much of himself does Still put into his work? Itís a balancing act, he said.
ďIíd like to think that I donít leave any part of myself out of my work, that I bring it all to the table. Some of it is more obvious or relevant to certain plays. Ö Anyone who knows my body of work knows Iíve written plays that have gay characters, plays that donít have gay characters and only have straight characters. Iíve written plays about gay relationships, straight relationships, friendships between gay and straight people. I donít think I have a conscious agenda about the politics of all that. Iím very drawn to character, and those characters come to me with their own stories to tell.Ē
ďFor me, one way of looking at work critically, whether itís mine or someone elseís, is if I feel like somehow I am inserting my own self into a play to the point where itís overwhelming the characters and the situation, then I think Iím not doing a good job,Ē Still said.
ďMy job is to listen very hard to what these characters are coming at me with and eventually to craft that into a work of art. Iím excited every time I start a play, because I donít know who is going to show up in that play. That means I donít know their gender, I donít know their race, I donít know their sexual orientation, and sometimes they reveal that to me and sometimes they donít.Ē
Next Up for Still: A Show in D.C. About Lincoln
James Stillís next project is a new play he wrote about Abraham Lincoln, called The Heavens Are Hung in Black. It will open Feb. 3 in the famous Fordís Theatre in Washington, D.C., and run through March 8.
The play was commissioned by the Ford Theatre to honor the bicentennial of Lincolnís birth and the theaterís grand reopening after an 18-month renovation. Itís especially timely as President Barack Obama, who has shown a close affinity to the former president from Illinois, begins his term.
Still chronicled his three-year journey in writing the play, and the Ford Theatre has put his journal entries, notes and emails up on its website: http://fords.org/. (Click Performances and Events, then 2008-09 Theatre Season, then the name of the play, and finally Read notes from Playwright James Still.
Hereís a sampling of entries:
- Writing on HEAVENS in an old mansion in New Orleans that was built not long before Mr. Lincoln became President ... New Orleans during the Civil War is about 10 plays in and of itself, but I am holed up in this old house, having food delivered to the door. I caught Tennessee Williams peeking through the window; he offered me a drink and a knowing smile.†† If I donít sleep tonight or shave tomorrow, I will be mistaken for the Unabomber.
- It is nearly a week since the election, and itís still on everyoneís faces. Lincoln is mentioned daily in the news. Itís all pretty eerie and wonderful. Iím using it all as fuel for the new draft.
- I took the red-eye last night from Seattle. ... Rehearsals finally begin in Washington. I thought Iíd crash at the hotel, but it was 60 degrees, and I couldnít pass up the chance to make yet one more trip to Mecca ... Walked to the Lincoln Memorial.† In my sleep-deprived red eyes, everyone I see is wearing a black top hat. On my way to the Memorial, I find a Lincoln penny on the street. Perfect way to begin.
The Velvet Rut
Dates: Runs through Feb. 22.
Director: Joseph Price. Cast: Jim Korinke and Matthew Jayson Weiss.
Plot: The Unicorn describes the play this way: ďMr. Smith is a high school teacher who loves his students, his wife and his poetry.†While struggling to regain meaning and beauty in his life, he meets Virgil, a mysterious youth. Virgil takes him on a mind-blowing and soul-searching camping trip through the wilderness, teaching him that the change he seeks is just a matter of will.†The journey they take together reveals what they both need to survive.Ē
Tickets: Visit unicorntheatre.org, call 816-531-PLAY, Ext. 10, or go to the Unicorn box office, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo.
Special performances: ďTalk BackĒ performances, featuring a discussion with the director and actors after the show, will be Feb. 3, Feb. 8 and Feb. 10. A Play Before the Play Party is set for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 5.