My plays have never been known for being especially frothy. Blue is, apparently, my favored color–in clothing, language, and music. I suppose that reflects my outlook. Humor, however, serves an an antidote to the blues, on-stage and in life, so I try to find it even in the heaviest work. Another requisite in tackling the serious is to do it very, very well. I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in that, but, believe me, I have tried. Serious themes deserves the best, and I’ve spent many sleepless nights wondering if I’ve done the work justice.
The last few years, I’ve largely focused more on the fantastic: plays exploring the psyche or utilizing magic realism or alternate realities, and I’m turning, also, to exploring the human condition through our relations to the arts, of late writing about music and photography. But, for a good number of years, I was known as the “war guy.”
That is, I wrote a series of plays–four in all–about war and its aftermath. Three explore the subject through the characters of journalists: Waiting on Sean Flynn (Vietnam); Liberation (Bosnia); and Depth of Field (Liberia, Sierra Leone, and 9/11). Reporters, serving as our eyes and ears during conflicts open a breathtaking, immediate window into war narratives. Plus I used to be a reporter–never a war correspondent, though (I get asked)–and I have great admiration for those who put themselves at risk to the show the world the cruelties of which we are capable. They’re also damned interesting people, which makes them fun to write about.
Flynn and Liberation have been successfully produced multiple times (and Liberation has been published by Original Works Publishing). Depth of Field remains in progress. I’ve finished a number of drafts, but I still haven’t quite cracked the code on that one. I haven’t given up, either.
The fourth play, Next of Kin, stands as a sort of coda to the trilogy, shifting the focus from reporters to soldiers and their families, whose vital stories I felt remained somewhat unaddressed by the other plays. Next of Kin, looking at Iraq, is also the most contemporary work. It’s a good, strong play, I think, which had a very successful staged reading last year with the splendid folks at Portland Theatre Works; I’m currently shopping the premiere to theatres around the country.
Though I never planned it, the plays developed their own arc. Flynn asks why we’ve come to war, and whether we should stay or go? Liberation, acknowledging we’re trapped in war, asks how much do we sacrifice to tell the story? Depth of Field asks whether, after surviving war and paying the price, why return. And Next of Kin asks what we do and who we are when its over.
Writing these plays has been, I think, a substantial, unique accomplishment. (I have kind of a dream of having them collected in a single volume someday. Maybe it’ll happen, though it’s hard to say, given the state of both theatre and publishing these days.) I didn’t set out to do it: it just happened. They’ve made me a few bucks along the way–not very much. But they have rewarded me, however, so richly in terms of experience, introducing me to people and places I’ll never forget (and never want to, even when the memories are ghastly).
They’ve given me a chance to work with brilliant directors, actors, and designers on a subject that seems to bond artists they way soldiers and reporters bond in the field: everyone knows this is a serious, important issue that demands our best, and the subject tends to strip away our bullshit because, let’s face it, it’s about living or dying, killing or being killed. When you work like that, you get down to the core of your collaborators, exposing who you really are, and it’s one of the primary reasons I have such deep affection and admiration for those who work in this tough, sometimes ephemeral business. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn to like your colleagues, and they become your friends; if you’re really lucky, you’ll come to love them.
The plays have also afforded me some of the most intense audience interactions of my career. During ther performance, the theatre feels beyond electric, the air supercharged. Total strangers, speaking to me after shows, have told me stories they may have never told their families. After a performance of Liberation, a Bosnian woman told me how she walked, barefoot, away from her hometown as its men and boys were being systematically slaughtered. And then she thanked me for having the courage to tell the truth. Never, ever have I felt so simultaneously honored and humbled. That moment remains a treasure I will carry to my end.
Finally, this subject has allowed me to talk to and exchange letters and e-mails with with veterans and war correspondents, which has been worth every minute of sweating through the work, worry, and heartache that comes with making theatre.
I feel these plays have deepened my soul. When I pick up the morning newspaper and read so-and-so many have been killed or wounded wherever they’ve been killed or wounded this day, the pictures and feelings that come to my mind may be different than yours. Not better or worse, just…different. If you have a heart, you can’t write about war without it changing you, and you can’t write about war effectively if you don’t have a heart. Sometimes I think it’s damaged me, you know? Just a little. Knowing a little too much about the worst humans can be and the most terrible things that can happen to us. Whatever I’ve learned and kept inside, It’s nothing compared to those who have been there, and it’s paid me back more than I could ever imagine.
This Memorial Day, as we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I just want to take a moment thank all those who have served–and those who have reported the world’s self-inflicted catastrophes–for putting your very lives at risk. That’s it. A small and quiet acknowledgement that’s but a pebble in the ocean compared with your experience. With a special thanks, from as deep as I can reach, for those who have been so gracious to share your best and worst stories with me.
Here’s to the day when all our work becomes obsolete.
2 thoughts on “Another Shade of Dark”
Steve, thanks for the great blog. Being in DC during Memorial day makes me think about war and the sacrifices of soldiers a lot more deeply than before. I am currently playing a veteran war photographer in Tom Stoppard's "Night and Day." It feels like old hat after playing Petar in your Liberation! But having played these guys, I too get a sense of what our journalists risk out there to bring out stories. Stories we may latch onto and make much of, or stories we may (sadly)ignore. Heatherington died in Libya while we were rehearsing, we were both 40. I remember the renewed air-strikes in Bosnia while we were rehearsing Liberation. Things dont change very quickly. Its funny playing this character, George Guthrie, the seasoned, battered version of Petar. But somehow, i think Petar, and the memories of that harrowing play are in there making him tick. At the end of the play George says, "I've been to a lot of places, people do awful things to each other, but it is worse in places where people are kept in the dark, it really is. Information is light, information about anything is light. That's all you can say really." I think Petar would agree. – Daniel Flint
Thanks, Dan, for the great comments (and for the terrific work so long ago). The stories, indeed, go on and on. Libya's been really tough on journalists, probably because they're not covering the war with a professional army (or, if they are, they're so managed they can't get the story out). In that way, Libya's more like Bosnia than, say, Iraq. Petar and Ismail are still probably my favorite characters from "Liberation"–Petar, I think, because he's so flawed but trying so damn hard; he just seems terribly human. It's funny, but, a couple years ago, a big-name theatre asked me if I'd consider rewriting "Liberation" for their consideration, and, though I was tempted professionally, I declined, partly because I just couldn't go there again, down that deep into…dark, and partly because I had such affection for the characters that I couldn't do it to them. Still probably the toughest, most uncompromising play I've ever written. And, yes: Petar would agree wholeheartedly. All the best, man….