Fourth in a series of four profiles of the playwrights of the 2013 Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays.
He might call himself “Just a kid from Detroit,” however he’s anything but that. If there was one word to describe Steven Simoncic, we would describe him as cool. In speaking with other artists about Simoncic, they’ve described him as a renaissance man, and as an artist’s artist. He’s a musician, a film-maker, and a playwright, but there is far more to him than that. We’ve come to view him as a man with an amazing giving soul and it’s our belief that he is on his way to bringing cool back to the American Theatre. You get the chance to experience just a taste of that coolness with his newest play, Once Upon A Time in Detroit, directed by Jen Poulin at the Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays.
How long have you been writing plays? / What brought you into the world of playwriting?
My path to playwriting, like many paths in life, has been circuitous and a bit dubious. Growing up in Detroit, I was surrounded by characters and storytellers, the kind of folks that held court on front porches and card tables after the streetlights went off. The brutal honestly and almost pathological lack of pretension of my home town informed, at an early age, the kind of stories I hoped to tell, and the lens through which I wanted tell them. The themes that consistently rise to the forefront of my obsessions have to do with race, class, culture, socio-economics and survival in the modern American urban village, and my work tends to focus on places where the collars are blue, the houses are brick, and the people don’t get a lot of stage time in the American theatre.
In terms of the craft, I began as a fiction writer — writing short stories — and ultimately received an MFA fiction. Living in Chicago, an amazing theatre town, I found myself getting more and more interested in writing for the stage. Like a lot of writers in this town, my first “ah ha” moment was when my very first 10 minute piece was accepted into the Saturday Series at Chicago Dramatists Theatre. I will never forget sitting in a water-stained rehearsal room at Dramatists and hearing, for the first time in my life, a trained, dedicated actor and a talented director bringing my words to life. I was anxious and nauseous and excited and humbled – it was your first kiss, your first beer, your first pack of firecrackers and your first ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl all rolled into one.
Who are some of your artistic influences?
This is the kind of question one would like to answer with some obscure Eastern European playwright from the 15th century whose tragically beautiful work is as brilliant as it is unbeknownst to the unwashed, uninformed masses. But instead, I’m just going to be honest. Even though I love Miller, Beckett, O’Neill, Lonergan, Shanley, Norris and Letts… the writer who has had the most profound and enduring influence on me and my work is Richard Pryor. Yup. That Richard Pryor. As a kid in Detroit, I remember listening to his Live on the Sunset Strip cassette on a Sanyo Walkman tucked under the covers of my bed. While not technically a playwright, he is the greatest playwright I have even experienced. In his work, everything is there — race, culture, honesty, integrity, love and lust, absurdity and intelligence, survival and pathos, the dignity and humiliation of the human experience skewered and revered, examined and challenged. His long form narratives always had an arc – a true beginning, middle and end – and he was able to seamlessly hop in and out of fully developed, fully rendered, fully realized characters creating car crash moments of conflict followed by moments of repose, relief and resolution. And the whole time he did this – by himself mind you without a single light cue, actor, director or set piece – he also took the piss out of the power structure, shining a light on the hypocrisy and hegemony of the king and his castle. This was purposeful art… powerful art… honest and in-the-moment art… wrestling with demons art. This was high art. At least to me it was. And I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone do it better since.
What drew you to the Dionysos Cup Play Festival?
I have a ton of respect for Polarity Ensemble — so a big part of my desire to be a part of Dionysos was to have a meaningful experience with the artists in and around PET. I also really like the structure of the Festival. The fact that you have time to work the script with a director and a dramaturg over the course of weeks and months is critical and incredibly helpful in the development process. Then to have it go up in a staged reading with some staging and blocking is a really valuable experience. The other huge appeal is getting to know the other playwrights — Chuck, Reggie and Darren are supremely talented writers and just good guys. I think it can be hard for a playwright to find, foster and develop community since it is such a singular pursuit — a festival like Dionysos builds community, and that is not only lovely — it’s necessary.
What inspired you to write this play?
Growing up in a lower middle class neighborhood in Detroit, I got the sense very early on that neighborhoods that had the capital (political or otherwise) to fight, could keep unpleasant things out of their community. The poorer neighborhoods with less clout and less representation ended up with the power lines, factories, land fills, incinerators, and retention ponds. That is — they literally got dumped on. The result was that people started to get sicker younger and die sooner.
I saw the same thing here in Chicago at Volo Bog in Altgeld Gardens. My wife is a former science teacher who started a charter school to serve the kids of West Garfield Park. As part of the amazing work she did in that community, she took her kids to Volo Bog to do water and air quality tests. The water and air quality was not only alarmingly bad — it was dangerous. It still is dangerous. The cancer rates, asthma incidence, and pulmonary disease run rampant in that area, and it is three zip codes away from the Gold Coast.
But my play isn’t an Erin Brockavich storm-the-castle-and-close-the-plant kind of story. It is about the people in these kinds of communities trying to survive — not just physically — but spiritually and emotionally as well. When I was writing this piece, I was far more interested in the tiny human victories of dignity and resilience than I was in taking on city hall.
What some of the challenges you faced in terms of this script?
There are several characters with several story lines — it was/is challenging to find the right balance of developing each story line while still maintaining the integrity of the protagonist’s journey — navigating that tension between the tangential threads and the core of the story was a challenge. In general, plot is where I tend to struggle, so I guess this piece was not unlike the others in terms of the challenges it presented.
Redemption and second chances seems to be a strong theme within this play, can you talk about that?
I think the theme of redemption runs deep in the veins of everything I write. In some ways, I think it is perhaps the ultimate dramatic theme. If you believe that the human condition is that of being flawed (and I do), then it follows that at some point there will be mistakes, transgressions and betrayals. But it also follows that there will be a chance for redemption — a glimmer of hope that we can somehow undo, amend, or at least explain and come to terms with the things we have or haven’t done. In some ways I think that is the story of our lives — so it has become the story of my plays.
What are you working on next?
My play Broken Fences debuts in NY in May and here in Chicago at 16th Street Theatre with the fabulous Ann Filmer in September so I am working on getting that script landed and tight for those productions. I also have a commission for a short piece from Step Up Theatre that I am working on. Other than that, I am excited to hop into a new play that may or may not have something to do with bingo and gun ownership.