Dallas — The weekend, Kitchen Dog Theater begins performances of Blackberry Winter, a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere by Steve Yockey. If’ that’s not enough Yockey for you, his The Thrush and the Woodpecker starts performances in rep the week after (also an NNPNRWP) and a staged reading of Mercury will happen on June 4. It’s all part of the 18th annual New Works Festival at KDT, this year at at Undermain Theatre as KDT is in transition between spaces. Interestingly, in KDT’s early years, one of the spaces it used was Undermain.
The season, or “Year of Yockey,” marks an unprecedented interest for a contemporary playwright. He was one of the 20 most produced playwrights in the 2015-16 season, as reported by American Theatre magazine. The rolling world premieres helped with that number—Blackberry Winter has already been at Salt Lake Acting Company (Salt Lake City), Actor's Express and Out of Hand Theater (both Atlanta), Capital Stage (Sacramento), New Repertory Theatre (Watertown, Mass.), Oregon Contemporary Theatre (Eugene, Ore.), along with Kitchen Dog, it also opens this weekend at Forum Theatre (Silver Spring, Md.); and The Thrush and the Woodpecker has been at Actor's Express (Atlanta), and after Kitchen Dog, opens at Custom Made Theatre Company (San Francisco).
Yockey currently writes for Scream on MTV and Supernatural on the CW. TheaterJones sat down with him at Oak Lawn Coffee to discuss his current work and musings on powerful theater.
TheaterJones: When did you start writing plays? Have you always been drawn to playwriting?
Steve Yockey: It scared me a little bit, so I stayed away from it when I was in undergrad at the University of Georgia. I kind of dipped my toe in it, but it was also intimidating because there’s a certain mindset that the stories you tell have to be worth people’s time.
After I graduated I did a year-long internship at Actor’s Express in Atlanta, they’ve become an artistic home for me since then. They produce a lot of my world premieres and they do it really well, they have a commitment to new work. I worked in the Atlanta theater community for a few years and then I got into grad school at NYU. That’s where I stopped worrying about writing for production. I started writing things I was passionate about, grander theatrical gestures and that’s where things really came to life.
How did you move forward with your career after grad school? You currently live in LA, correct? How did you end up there?
After I graduated from NYU, I thought “What do you do with this master’s degree in Dramatic Writing?” I did a yearlong residency with the National New Play Network at Marin Theatre Company. They fully submerged me in their season planning process and all of the awful “Sophie’s Choices” that they have to do. Like, “We’ve narrowed it down to 10 plays that we love, but we can only do five.” So when you get the “We’re not going to do your play email” you think, “ok” rather than “They hate me!”
I did that for a year and my agents in New York said, “You’ve always talked about writing for television. Since you’re there on that half of the country, go down there and check it out.” They hooked me up with an agent. After six months, things started to click and I sold a project.
You know there’s a certain feeling you have in New York and Los Angeles where you feel a little bit like window shopping, like those people are doing a cool thing and I want to do that too. So selling that first project made me feel like I can do this, I should stay here and try this.
You just need something to click and it makes it much easier to keep carrying the rock up the hill, because the older you get the much larger the rock.
How did you connect with Kitchen Dog Theater? It’s not that often that any theater will do two plays by the same playwright in rep.
I was at the showcase of New American Plays in Washington, D.C., and I went out to dinner with Aimée Hayes, the Artistic Director of Southern Rep in New Orleans. We went to this steak house and it turned into a group of 10-15 people, and I sat next to Tina Parker [KDT Co-Artistic Director]. She was a trip, and I loved her off the bat with no expectations of working with Kitchen Dog. Of course, at that point I was still learning regionally what different theaters produced. Because you can’t just throw your work into the void, you don’t know who is getting it and what they’re responding to. You really need to get to know theaters. Later, I realized the amount of new work that Kitchen Dog does and the degree of quality in which they do it. They wanted to do a reading of The Thrush and the Woodpecker in their New Works Festival. By all accounts it went really well but I couldn’t see it because of work. And then this year after they saw a reading of Blackberry Winter, Tina and Chris [Carlos, the other Co-Artistic Director] said we’d like to apply for a grant and do these in rep.
Are these two plays connected in some way to make the repertory format make sense?
I’d say the plays are related by themes of caretaking and what it means to be a caretaker, but they come from two different angles. Blackberry Winter was commissioned by Out of Hand Theater in Atlanta, and we did a huge amount of research as a company. Also, Carolyn Cook was involved from the beginning of the creation of the play who is going through similar circumstances of taking care of her mom. I have to say the play is as much theirs as it is mine, because it wouldn’t exist without them.
Thrush and the Woodpecker was a commission by South Coast Rep. They basically said, “You can write anything you want but no children and no pets,” because California labor laws are insane. So I wrote this odd little revenge play, a domestic modern version of a revenge play. It kind of sat for a couple of years.
I’ve been very lucky because as a writer in that my work moves through development into production very quickly. Which always helps because the more that you see your work in production, the more you understand how to ask for the things that you need in your script. So I have been lucky in that respect. It’s such a weird little play but it took a while for people to kind of click with it and to have three theaters doing it in the same season, it feels like that play will have a life.
How has the collaborative process worked for you since you live on the other side of the country? Have you been able to check in on rehearsals and design meetings at Kitchen Dog?
I guess you can call it checking in, the great thing about this grant is that it’s from TACA [Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund] and they gave us resources to come in multiple times. So I actually got to come in months ago and meet the guy who is doing puppetry [David Goodwin] for both shows and talk to Tina and it was great to be a part of those ground level design conversations. Tina’s done a great job of keeping me in the loop.
I met [Goodwin] over tacos and he’s doing stop motion animation with puppets. Both plays ask for shadow puppetry but you can realize it however is best for your production.
When you talk about how your plays have larger theatrical gestures, what exactly do you mean? What makes your theatrical voice different?
The first play that I had done around the country was called Octopus, which has a fully nude gay foursome in the first scene, and then at the end of the play the stage is flooded by hundreds of gallons of water. There’s a scene in the middle that takes place in the bottom of the ocean with a giant harpoon and a sea monster. I want to write theater that is theatrical, which sounds obvious but as you know isn’t. I’m a big fan of writing really intimate personal stories that brush up against something epic. And the best way to capture that mythic quality is to use this spectacle, like the stage filling with water or more blood than you’ve ever seen onstage—unless you’ve seen [Martin McDonagh’s] The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
Do these two plays produced by Kitchen Dog contain these larger theatrical gestures?
I think these are not as challenging from a production aspect but they are both very intimate plays. And they both utilize puppetry which is another reason why I think they speak to each other. But the play they’re doing a reading of, Mercury, is a whole other thing. It’s a very hard play to produce. This is what I want to write. And if no one ever does it, I guess I’ll regret it but I don’t know how else to tell the story.
Pluto, the play that recently had a rolling world premiere, has an upside down tree coming into a kitchen and a talking dog and smoke-filled things and a shaking refrigerator. When I first turned it in to the first artistic director that read it I just thought, “Good luck.”
But I’m always pleasantly surprised. Because the great thing about theater artists is that when they respond to something imaginatively, when it strikes a chord in them they get excited about figuring out how to do it, and that’s what makes each production different. It’s what those people are bringing into the table, it’s their imagination at work. You want your story to live in all of these different ways and for everyone to have a different experience with it.
Which playwrights inspire you?
I am obsessed with Caryl Churchill. She has evolved even though she didn’t really need to evolve. Because the work that she started out doing was sort of—I’m using the word differently now—epic theater. But not Brechtian, because it’s not about distancing but it’s grand in nature. Something like Mad Forest or Top Girls that is grand in act one, and then act two has two sisters at a kitchen table. The way those things are juxtaposed is so wonderful.
But as she’s moved along in her career her work has been allowed to evolve and distill further and further down, into the barest essence of what it means to engage an audience. And yet, it still continues to be as potent. To me that is craft, that is someone who is exceptional at their craft.
Have you been able to see any theater elsewhere here in Dallas?
I mean I’m only here for a couple of days, but Katherine [Owens] at Undermain was very nice. She got us tickets for the closing night at Jonah, and Len Jenkin was one of my teachers at NYU. I’ve never had the opportunity to see his work on its feet and I thought that production was stellar. And studying with Len was one of the highlights of my grad school experience. Getting to see his work and recognize, “This is what I want to do” made it extra special.
I want to say you could see that production anywhere as if that was a compliment, but I don’t think that’s true. Katherine’s production was pretty special. It was just so beautifully realized and clear, and gorgeous storytelling. Every moment of that production was filled and alive. And even people who weren’t directly involved with the scene were living and engaged in the world without drawing focus.
I have to say seeing that and getting to see these rehearsals at Kitchen Dog, the acting talent in Dallas is nuts. It’s really impressive. That sounds like I didn’t expect it, which isn’t the case. It’s really great to show up somewhere and see people digging into the work.
If you could give any advice to aspiring playwrights, what would it be?
I’ll tell you two things that I found very helpful, which I had to figure out on my own. I always credit Marsha Norman with the first piece of advice, and she’s gotten mad at me for misquoting her. But the gist of it is: “There’s only one you. It’s your particular perspective, your lens on the world, that people are going to find interesting. Not what you think they will find interesting.” Trust that inner impulse that tells you: “I want to tell a story this way.” Always pay attention to your craft, and always do the best version that you can of that, but you need to be you. She says it in more of a concise way.
Second, if you’re writing for theater, you have to go to theater you have to see what they’re producing. See how they are producing it and know those artists. And then you start to develop a relationship, because so much of playwriting is about artistic relationships and finding the people that you click with.
» Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival runs May 20-June 26 at Undermain Theatre.
- Our listing for Blackberry Winter
- Our listing for The Thrush and the Woodpecker
- The festival also features six staged readings of new works, including Yockey's Mercury and a new play by Dallas playwright Matt Lyle; see the schedule of readings here
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her Work in Progress column, she'll have conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.
NEW WORK CURRENTLY ON LOCAL STAGES
- Ophelia Underwater by Janielle Kastner, presented by The Tribe at Margo Jones Theatre, May 13-23 OUR REVIEW
- Kitchen Dog Theater's New Works Festival, featuring the National New Play Network Rolling World Premieres of Steve Yockey's Blackberry Winter and The Thrush and the Woodpecker, which will run in repertory, plus readings of new plays and PUP Fest with Junior Players, at Undermain Theatre, May 20-June 25 OUR LISTING FOR THE STAGED READINGS
SELECT UPCOMING NEW WORK
- Rover Dramawerks in Plano presents the world premiere of Larry Herold's Crisis, May 26-June 18 OUR LISTING
- The third annual Dallas Solo Fest, which features several premieres, presented by Audacity Theatre Lab at the Margo Jones Theatre, June 2-12 OUR ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE LINEUP
- Finding Myself in Bed, a new play by Stefany Cambra, presented by Proper Hijinx Productions in the basement of Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, June 3-12 OUR LISTING
- DVA Productions in Fort Worth premieres Jordan Cooper's Masked at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center's Sanders Theatre, June 10-19 OUR LISTING
- House of Bard's, a Shakespeare political mashup from Fun House Theatre & Film at Plano Children's Theatre, June 16-20 OUR LISTING
- Undermain Theatre does a staged reading of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (and Dallas resident) D.L. Coburn's new play The House of Clay at the Meadows Museum at SMU, on June 25
- Theatre Arlington participates in the American Association of Community Theatres' NewPlayFest and has the world premiere of Anthony DeLauder's Gracefully Ending, July 1-17 OUR LISTING
- The Festival of Independent Theatres, featuring several premieres, July 8-30 at the Bath House Cultural Center, Dallas OUR ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE LINEUP
- The Distant Echo of Ancient Youth, a new work from Johnny Simons at Hip Pocket Theatre, Fort Worth, July 8-31 OUR ANNOUNCEMENT OF HIP POCKET'S 40TH SEASON
- The Incident, a new work from The Drama Club, opens July 16; info TBA
- Don Quixote, a new visual theater adaptation by Lake Simons and John Dyer at Hip Pocket Theatre, Fort Worth, Aug. 12-Sept. 4 OUR LISTING
PREVIOUS WORK IN PROGRESS COLUMNS
- Len Jenkin's Jonah at Undermain Theatre (April 15, 2016)
- David Lozano and Lee Trull's Deferred Action in a co-production between Dallas Theater Center and Cara Mía Theatre Company (April 28, 2016)
- Janielle Kastner's Ophelia Underwater, presented by The Tribe at Margo Jones Theatre (May 11, 2016)
- Caridad Svich's De Troya, a developmental reading presented by Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth (May 13, 2016)