Real Talk with Ike Holter

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conducted by Catherine Miller

I had heard tall tales of the playwright with the signature rollerblades, so when I scooted on over to the Garage Rep at Steppenwolf last spring, I knew exactly who Ike Holter was the minute I spotted him. Since its critically acclaimed run at the Garage Rep, Holter’s Hit the Wall has gone on to run at Theatre on the Lake and most recently at the Barrow Street Theatre, Off-Broadway. He is an active member of two well-known Chicago theatres: Nothing Without A Company and The Inconvenience, a company made up of many DePaul graduates.  In the fall, the Goodman Theater announced Holter would be a part of The Playwrights Unit, a year-long residency program where writers are able to develop new work and be supported by the company. But all of this notoriety beyond Chicago has not gone to Holter’s head; he is still as cool, calm, and collected as ever. He still travels by blade and gives his dish of “real talk” as much as he can.

Returning to the hallowed halls where he fine-tuned his craft as a playwright, Ike Holter was commissioned by The Theatre School at DePaul to pen the final Showcase play of the year; one specifically written for the graduating MFA3 actors. Most fittingly, Kitchen Sink will be the last play of the Showcase season to be performed at the Reskin; a place where Holter spent many of his days as a student at The Theatre School. He is also the first alumnus to be asked to do so. 

How did your years at The Theatre School help you get acclimated to the “real world” of theatre?

I think what is interesting about The Theatre School, in all the programs, is that you are working hand in hand with people who you will then work with when you get out. One of my favorite teachers was Carlos Murillo, who I’ve worked with outside of school as well. His demeanor and his casual notes; it was a lot of “real talk” that then prepared me for when I went out in the real world. It wasn’t like, “Oh I’m so scared. What does it mean to be a penniless fucking writer?”  I learned from these people’s demeanor and how they themselves work as artists.

During your time here you went through Wrights of Spring, which is an interesting process for a student to get thrown into. What are your favorite memories of WoS?

I still do stuff that is like Wrights of Spring, like Abbie Fest, which is a big seventy-two hour festival put on by Mary Arrchie, which has that same kind of feel. One of my favorite memories was when I did a reading of my play Good Worker, which we then did the next year, and one of my actors dropped out, so I just stepped into that role. Instead of doing all this fancy stage stuff, it was one of those moments like in Sister Act 2 when they’re like, “TAKE OFF YOUR COSTUMES.” We were just like, let’s sit down and read this play in front of the audience. And we had a good audience there, too. It was basic but really intense, because you’re getting feedback from some great people and it’s really about showcasing the artist. I have nothing but love for Wrights of Spring. And I’ve come back and seen a few readings.

You’ve come full-circle in a way with The Theatre School, first being a student and now being the first alumnus asked back to write the MFA 3 show, Kitchen Sink. How does that feel?

It’s so weird. It’s good. I started here in the Fall of 2003, which is almost ten years ago. And one of my first crews was working on a show directed by Dexter Bullard, The Servant of Two Masters at the Reskin. I was backstage doing lights, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could actually do a show with Dexter? I mean, that’s so crazy cause this theatre is so big!” And it’s kind of bizarre cause we’re the last Showcase production that happens in that theatre. It’s this weird, full-circle thing. It’s really fun and I really like this playwrighting program and Dean Corrin has always been very supportive of my work. Even as a freshman I was like, “I’m never going to have anything going on a stage this big! This is preposterous!” And now we’re looking at the floor plans and going, oh my god, there’s so much stage here! I’ve been training myself not to write a play this big. It’s always been, let’s do a four person drama or, at most, a ten person intense drama where everyone is being used all the time. You know, ensemble, ensemble! But now all those rules, I can break them! Now, we can have something drop down from the ceiling and let’s have a big fight scene and in this scene, let’s have the character paint this random wall. It’s kind of fun!

Speaking of Kitchen Sink, I’ve read the most recent draft and I was wondering where this idea for a big, old school heist came from, because you don’t normally see that type of thing portrayed on the stage.

Dexter approached me about writing the play during Hit the Wall and I wanted to do something that was the complete opposite of what that play was about; all the civil-rights stuff and all these big, dramatic scenes. I wanted to do something that was very crafty and tactile and swift. I love heist dramas. I love fast-talking. Thin Man meets Jackie Brown, that kind of thing. And once I met the MFA 3 actors, I thought they were all very funny. Some of them like fight-choreography and some of them like singing as well. So let’s put that together in a jumble and since we have a stage that is so freaking big, let’s play a trick on the audience so they don’t realize they’re watching the heist until it is actually happening. The space that I was working in, the amount of people and the attitude of it all, very “devil may care,” all played into the idea.

Hit the Wall blew up, so to speak, after its run with The Inconvenience at the Steppenwolf Garage Rep last Spring. How has that journey been?

It was weird. I met a lot of the people I work with at The Inconvenience at DePaul and we were just going to do a show. I said I want to do this and that I’m writing for these people. And then we put it up at the Garage, which was cool because it was Steppenwolf but even so, we’re getting our end in and trying to satisfy our own creative impulses by doing this play. And after it started running and it opened, there was this weird flood of really good reviews that came out and then boosted the show. In turn, more people started coming out to see it, and we eventually got extended. It was weird. I did not expect it. It’s not that I didn’t want it. It was just something I had to deal with. It was very unusual. I had to deal with a lot of things that I was not used to. It was very real.

Since you’ve lived and experienced Chicago for ten years, as a student and an artist, is there anything unique about the theatre scene here that has enabled you in your career?

Yeah, it’s scrappy. And I use that word a lot, but it’s true. I can go see a show at Mary Arrchie, which will get good notices and get a lot of people in the door. But at the end of the day, I know when they built that set, I know what materials they used, I know that their budgets are smaller so people are really using their imaginations and pushing themselves not because someone gives them a $100,000; it’s like, here’s $100, what can you do to make it look like $100,000? It’s scrappy and I like writing characters who are to the fringes anyway, so that definitely goes with that aesthetic. I’ve seen theatre in a lot of places and it’s very honest here and very real.

You are a member of two companies in Chicago: The Inconvenience and Nothing Without A Company, which makes it seem that you really enjoy collaboration. What aspects of the collaborative process do you find helpful?

The biggest thing is that when I write something, I like knowing it’s going to be produced. Novelists can just write something and someone will read it and it will sit there for a while. When you’re making a play, you need it to be read in order for it to feel complete. And working with a company, you know it’s going to be produced, you know who you can write for, you know all this stuff as a given before you even get into the rehearsal room. So that when you’re finally having that first read, you don’t have to think about how to write around this person or how to make this thing disappear since you don’t have technology or brainpower to do that. It’s fun. And I’m also working with my friends all the time, which is great. Not in a sweaty, gross way. But in a, “we all really like each other’s stuff and we’re all happy we can work together”- way. You have to spend a lot of time with those people in the rehearsal room. And if the budget’s really small and the people are really horrible, no one is going to have a good time. But if the budget’s really small and everyone’s really happy, then it’s going to be the best thing ever, I think.

You were selected for NPS with your show Good Worker, which then went on to win the Paula Vogel Award from The Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. What effect did that have on you as a young artist? 

The first time I went to KCACTF was in 2005 for my first Wrights of Spring, Short on Vacancy. And then I went back for One Fowl Swoop and finally, Good Worker. I met a lot of people there who I still keep in contact with. We were in the same age bracket, and we’re working at the same theatres, we were essentially in a peer group. Every year, when I was going here, there were normally four playwrights. You get to know these people very well, which is great, but with KCACTF, I got to meet other writers who were in my same age group and from all around the country. These were other people I could talk to, ask questions to, bitch to, and other stuff. It showed me that there is a much bigger canvas being painted. And that’s where I got my first paycheck as a playwright. The first thing I did was I paid for my friends and I to see Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It was pretty awesome.

Do you think there is a void in the American Theatre that young artists are attempting to fill through their work?

 I think there is and always will be. And if there wasn’t a void, then everyone would be running around, doing nothing. I think the void now is that there is so much technology, and it’s so hard to sustain an audience. But what is really fun about that, especially in Chicago, is that young artists are now realizing that they don’t have to keep doing Sam Shepard or the scrappy John Patrick Shanley plays. We need to do our own stories. We need to report about what’s going on, on that kind of level. People are already doing Shepard and Shanley, but now that game has changed.  And I feel that there’s a much bigger party atmosphere in seeing a show now, where you can see a concert before in the same location right beforehand. It feels a lot more welcoming. It’s the idea of just sitting there, in a proscenium space and waiting for a show to begin. You move to a small space now and it’s typically theatre in the round, and it has this DIY feel to it. With Hit the Wall at the Garage Rep, you were entering into a mood from the get-go, with the band blasting rock music. It’s different with the Barrow Street production because the median age there is more like late 50’s, early 60’s. But it was so fun at the Garage Rep, because I realized that most audience members were going to be closer to my age. Without preaching to the choir, you’re bringing more people into the choir. It’s like, “this is fun!”  Seeing a play doesn’t have to be this kind of boring thing where you’re only going cause you know someone in the show.

 
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