An interview with Brett Neveu
Just prior to the start of rehearsals for Harmless, TimeLine artistic director PJ Powers (PP) chatted with playwright Brett Neveu (BN) about his work in Chicago and beyond, what inspired him to write Harmless and what lies on the horizon for one of the city’s hottest writers.
(PP) How did you first get interested in playwriting?
(BN) In one of my high-school lit classes I was supposed to write a final project at the end of the semester. I really had no interest (and kind of stunk at) writing papers, so I asked the English teacher if it might be alright to write a play instead. He looked at me as if I were a crazy person but told me that he thought it would be fine, as long as I followed it through. I chose to write an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Sheesh. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but found that I really enjoyed putting it all together. I also received a rare (for me) “A” on the project, which was also motivating.
(PP) What drew you to Chicago?
(BN) The theater scene. In the early 1990s, my wife and I were living in Minneapolis, and I was attempting to insert myself into whatever I could at a place called The Playwright’s Center. Not having much success, I talked to a few friends who were living in Chicago. The group was doing a Pinter play in the basement of a café, and the show was getting good reviews (selling out even!). My wife and I talked, and not having really any strong ties to the Twin Cities, we decided to pack up and head a bit south to Chicago. Later I would realize that the café that they were selling out only had about 15 seats and smelled like mildew and dying vermin. But it didn’t matter by then; I was in Chicago, and I loved it.
(PP) So many playwrights can go years without ever having a staged reading of one of their plays, let alone a full production. But you don’t seem to go 6 months in Chicago without having one of your plays produced at a great theater. How do you stay so prolific and so connected to a variety of companies?
(BN) Luck and perseverance in regards to the productions. I’ve been in Chicago for awhile now and have gotten to know all sorts of people at all sorts of companies. I started asking folks if they took scripts, and many of them did. So I handed things off a lot. I also wrote plays that were easy to do in a small space (Eagle Hills, Eagle Ridge, Eagle Landing, which was produced by Factory Theater in 2002, takes place at a table in a bar), so that helped secure productions. As far as being prolific goes, I’ve had a number of opportunities present themselves that required me to write. My residency with Chicago Dramatists gave me the chance to hear my plays read publicly, commissions from various companies continue to keep me writing, and then there’s the ever-present Midwestern work ethic.
(PP) This year you had your first success overseas with a production in England of your play Eric LaRue. How was that experience?
(BN) It was a life changer. Working with the amazing director Dominic Cooke (and an amazing cast and crew) taught me a pile of lessons regarding my role, my responsibilities — and gave me new insight into my work. The first production of the play was in Stratford, in a converted and ancient boathouse. The intimacy of the theater reminded me of a number of Chicago spaces. But then half a year later, when the production moved to London’s West End, the space was much bigger. I was a bit frightened about the transfer to the larger venue, but everything worked out wonderfully. A lesson there, too, I think.
(PP) We have been talking for a few years about having you work at TimeLine, but you’ve always joked that the plays you write are sort of about history, but sort of not. I tend to find your plays to be very historically rooted and also very politically conscious, but I suppose those qualities might not immediately jump out at all audiences. Do you think of yourself as a political writer?
(BN) I don’t, but I do think that I write about people caught up in circumstances that politics has informed or helped to shape. I try to inject my characters with a connection to an uphill battle against those far-off folks in power who make decisions that affect them directly. An example would be American Dead. The plot centers on a man grieving for his murdered sister, but it’s also about that same man carrying the weight of his grief in a town that has been blighted by the closing of industry, the death of the family farm and the prevalence of methamphetamine. These aspects are shaped by those within and also those living far, far away.
(PP) The thing that always strikes me about your plays— and the thing that forces me to think about them for days and days afterwards— is that so much of your action is under the surface, whereas a lot of playwrights beat you over the head with “what the play is about.” People kid you a lot that your plays are just ordinary people sitting around talking about nothing. But then they walk out of the theater with their minds absolutely racing, and they don’t know what just hit them. How the heck do you do that?
(BN) That’s a question I get a lot and one that’s difficult to answer. Mostly, it’s the way I hear things. I’ve always been an observer (like most writers) and as a kid, most conversations were a puzzle to me. I would try to insert myself somehow, but mostly ended up stumbling. As a result, I think I stood back and tried to figure out the puzzle. My writing is most likely a continuation of that. Also, I grew up in Iowa, where people don’t often say what they mean, even in the most tense situations. The need for inclusion in a small town far outweighs the need to tell somebody how he or she really feels, so true sentiment gets shoved far below the surface. A person has to be an emotional map-reader to figure out how to navigate all of that, and I guess I was drawn to that kind of map.
(PP) What inspired you to write Harmless?
(BN) Two things: an article about a similar incident happening in California and my inside-my-head argument about art and responsibility.
(PP) This is not the first time you have collaborated with director Ed Sobel. Why do you find yourself working with him so much?
(BN) Ed and I — this is a cliché, I know — have developed a shorthand, which makes rehearsals easier. Ed was also one of the first literary managers who met with me about my work and one of the first theater professionals to take a direct hands-on approach to helping me develop my plays. He’s read nearly everything I’ve written over the past 10 years and has probably had an impact on about every one. He serves as a mentor, a friend and someone I can lean on and trust. Plus, he’s a heck of a director — I’m lucky to have him in the room.
(PP) This is also not the first time that you’ve worked with TimeLine company member David Parkes. He has appeared recently in American Dead and Heritage at American Theater Company. Is David slowly becoming your muse?
(BN) Muse? Hmm… If he wasn’t such a lazy goof and violently terrible actor — then yes. OH, MAN, am I kidding! You can tell I’m kidding, right? If I wasn’t kidding, I wouldn’t have embellished so comically. With the word “violently.” See? Kidding.
Seriously, though, I often say — and so does Ed Sobel — that for some reason there are actors who naturally hit my dialogue in just the right way. David is one of those folks; no matter the play, it seems like the role was written just for him. He also has a presence and style that sync up with the characters in my work. David’s performances are also well calculated and heavily thought out but give the appearance of ease and underlying gravity. So, in the end, yeah. He’s a muse. The jerk.
(PP) I know that you like to be very involved in the rehearsal process. Do you tend to do a lot of rewriting throughout it?
(BN) It depends on the show. Some plays need more rewriting than others, and some need just a tweak or two. Ninety percent of the time the rewrite process is quite heavy, especially at the start. Mostly the rewrites are about clarity, since I do largely rely on subtext, and changes are made based on actors’ responses to roles. I often find myself watching the actor grow in his or her role and then finding rewrite ideas within his or her discoveries as they come.
(PP) We have yet to begin rehearsals for Harmless, yet you’re already hard at work on another project for TimeLine. It’s our company’s first new-play commission, and we couldn’t be happier to be developing it with you. Set amid the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, it’s taking shape as quite a wild ride, even in early drafts of the script. Hopefully TimeLine audiences will get to see it in the near future. How did that idea come to you?
(BN) I had done some research and found that there had not been too many plays written about the ’68 convention, but many aspects of the rough-and-tumble Chicago theater scene had been born or tested in the chaos of those days. Story theater and street theater exploded, and those folks creating the wild work — Bob Sickenger, Paul Sills — perpetuated a tone and feel that has lasted to the present day. For the play I wanted to work on for TimeLine, I felt the need to capture that tone and feel of back then and show how politics and theater can collide to help embolden and inform us about our current political decision-making.
(PP) What else is coming up soon for you?
(BN) I have a show called The Meek, directed by Brennan Parks, which opens in May at A Red Orchid Theatre, and the film version of The Earl, directed by Jim Sikora, should be popping up sometime in the late spring. Oh — and my wife and I just had a baby girl in October. So I may not be so prolific for just a bit.