Listen to people filing out of a production of a John Steppling play, talking about what they thought of it, and you'll usually hear comments reaching for a point, and not quite getting there. "Those people were pretty wasted." "It was a short play, but it was long too." "Sad, but it was funny, you know?" And then: "I felt like I was watching ghosts onstage."
Some hear the sound of ghosts in his plays, which suggests dramas with reverberation, with a past and a present. These listeners, a growing number, think that John Steppling just may be the purest, finest poet of the stage that Los Angeles has produced in this generation.
But with the tradition-breaking form of his work--an uncommon fusion of cinematic short scenes, language in which silence counts as much as the words, absurdist as well as contemplative moods--some audiences feel out on a limb. (A perfectly fine place for them to be, in Steppling's opinion.) Impatient with this newness, they attach the catch-all term wasted losers to Steppling's characters--like the ex-surfer in "The Shaper" or the broken-hearted dog breeder in "Standard of the Breed."
That may continue with his new play, "The Thrill," opening Tuesday at Taper, Too, the Mark Taper Forum's smaller theater.
Steppling, as he does on many subjects, views the dilemma in two ways. First, "I don't look at them as losers. That's a cruel label." Then he says that, since he can't control the way people think of his work, he won't worry about it. Quoting his mentor, Murray Mednick, playwright and founder of the Padua Hills Playwrights' Workshop/Festival, Steppling says: "It's about the work. Everything else is extra."
One essential extra: It's also about being seen. He has worked--constantly and at enormous volume (19 plays to date)--for the past 11 years on the fringes of L.A. theater, where new theater is born, even if the theater houses there don't survive.
"Close" (1983) was at the Factory Place Theatre. "The Shaper" (1984) was on the Night House stage, then moved to the Met Theatre. "Children of Herakles" (1987) showed at the Boyd Street Theatre. Not even the ghosts of these plays can be heard in those theaters now; they are all defunct. Even Padua, where Steppling learned theater and continues to teach workshops and write plays, appeared not long for this world until last year, when it revitalized itself at its new Cal State Northridge home.
"A precarious existence" is how Steppling described the past decade during a series of interviews. He is neither "successful" nor "unsuccessful" as measured by awards or box office, but he is a surviving stalwart committed to a life in the theater.
Steppling, at 38, looks like a man who takes care of himself, and if he's standing next to his two dogs--Chez, a hulking English mastiff, and Blackie, a bulldog--he'll erase any notion of the artist-as-wimp. But scratch a well-built man, and you'll find a sickly child underneath.
"I was hit with all the childhood diseases," he recalled, "and not just once. I had measles six times. I stayed in the hospital a year, recovering from blood poisoning that happened after a gall bladder operation, which I had to have after an accident. I was puny in junior high.
"But my dad, whom I loved greatly, was so fearful of the world that I got an attitude about weakness, that I wasn't going to be like him. I grew pretty big in high school, but I was still a withdrawn loner."
He remembers how his parents' house would be always open to his father Carl's pals in the movie business. "They were mostly single or divorced, bitter, disappointed, angry guys, usually out of work, living in crappy single apartments around us in Hollywood. I learned how to crack jokes from them, but what I heard most of all was a defeatism that said, 'Don't even bother, kid, because life sucks.'
"All of them had come to California. It was a place where you got stranded." Steppling characters are often emigres to the Golden State. They might arrive on the scene after hitching a ride on a Hormel meat truck. They come from places like Rochester, N.Y., or Las Cruces, N.M., or, as with Nat Pink and partner-in-hustling, Walter, in "The Thrill," Providence, R.I.
"My dad and these guys crop up in my plays because I was so affected by them," he explains. "I was around them all the time. I love the West because it's still big and open and a frontier. But history gets plowed under here. That, and my upbringing gave me this sense of exile."
The closest Steppling came to a theater education was a sense of bloodline--Carl was an actor, and his grandfather, John Steppling, had acted in D.W. Griffith's silent films. Carl read Shakespeare to him. Steppling took one theater course at Hollywood High, "but I can't remember what it was about. The only schoolwork I ever cared about was a report I wrote on Beckett's novel, 'Watt.' "
He left home at 16, playing hooky from school and spending more and more time reading. "My roommate and I decided to read 'The Great Books' series (a multivolume compendium of Western literature) for our classical education. My lower-class mentality yearned for credibility."
But a shock came when he arrived in New York after a European sojourn at the end of the '60s. "A pal of mine handed me Louis Ferdinand Celine's 'Journey to the End of the Night' and William Burroughs' 'The Job' and 'Naked Lunch.' They weren't what I was used to. They showed me that art could be dangerous. They refused to go mainstream. That attracted me."
It was like walking from the respected neighborhood of upright literary citizens into a crime zone of artistic outlaws, the same kind of discovery he had experienced with his original ambition, music.
"I worked at my piano skills like crazy for years, and at about 17, when I first heard jazz from (John) Coltrane and Miles (Davis) and Thelonius Monk, I started listening differently."
Then in New York, in 1970, a turning point: "My cousin told me about Theatre Genesis, where Sam Shepard's 'Mad Dog Blues' was on. In about a minute of stepping through the door, I met many of the people who have subsequently deeply mattered in my life. Kathleen Cramer, Mednick, Bob and Nina Glaudini, Shepard, Tina Preston--most of the core that started Padua eight years later."
Genesis was the coolest of the cool, counterculture theater underground, which also survived the '60s and retained a continuity through Shepard's own work and Padua.
But it didn't turn Steppling into a playwright. "No, I was writing poetry, reading Jean Genet, Henry Miller, the Spanish surrealists such as (Federico Garcia) Lorca, and started using heroin. I spent much of the '70s in a narcotized haze." Life wasn't going well: after "beating a rap" for armed robbery, he ended up caretaking at a Silver Lake school where Bob Glaudini taught in 1978.
"Bob told Murray that I was writing, and Murray just asked me to write a play for the first Padua festival. It was called 'Science Fiction,' of which, I pray, no copies exist. We were one big family, mostly staying at Murray's and Kathleen (Cramer's) house."
Steppling says that he had no idea how to write a play or how to direct, which he had to do "because no one wanted to direct my plays. But you pick up a lot of things. Sam (Shepard) had this goofy play the first year, 'Red Woman,' which Bob performed. I saw what kind of control Sam exercised, getting the work done and up on its feet in time for the festival, and not trying to get it perfect."
With that imperfection comes criticism, which he says he's always eager to hear. Still, there is the occasional sore spot. One is the knock that a school of Steppling wanna-bes has emerged, young playwrights so enamored with his writer's voice that they have imitated him. He has voiced concern about it in the past, but Kelly Stuart, a playwright friend and member of Heliogabalus, the theater group Steppling and Glaudini founded in 1987, feels the charge is exaggerated. "There was some of that a few years ago," she says, "but writers around him are now doing work--some flamboyant, verbose stuff--that's very unlike him."
Playwright Jon Robin Baitz (a former Steppling student) recalls when, after a performance of "Close," he asked Steppling if he wasn't in some way ridiculing the burned-out people in that play. "I was skeptical that he felt any compassion for these people," says Baitz. "He said that he didn't want to discuss what he felt were my conventional notions of compassion, that he was perfectly satisfied with his capacity for compassion."
("Compassion is an important quality for me," Steppling explains. "It's just that failure is a more interesting playwriting subject than success.")
He won't come out and say it, but a writer's strength of will is likely what helped Steppling escape heroin for methadone, and then, more recently, escape methadone.
"I was still addicted, only it was legal. Traveling was tough, since there aren't a lot of methadone clinics. When I took 'The Shaper' to Louisville (home of the Actors' Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival), I had to take long trips several times a week to Lexington (Kentucky) for my dose.
"I knew intuitively that if I didn't quit before I was out of my 30s, I never would. The decision was definite for me, but part of me worried if I could keep writing without the dosage. The drugs did open up parts of my mind and unconscious, which are critical to my writing process."
Thus far, his process is holding firm. Like a man who wants to spread the good news he's received, Steppling will hand you the card of a Venice-based herbalist whose work--along with exercise and meditation regimens--he claims detoxified him.
"When John gets into something," says Stuart, "he gets into it all the way. He started bringing these weird herb teas to our rehearsals and workshops--stuff like Essence of Ghekko and Essence of Deer Antler. One English mastiff isn't enough; if he had the room to breed mastiffs, he would. That same drive maybe explains why he's produced so many plays."
At times, it seems nothing will get between Steppling and what he wants. In fact, he was so determined that actor Tim Streeter play "The Thrill's" Nat Pink that, when Streeter couldn't make the trip, Steppling drove to Portland, Ore., picked him up and drove back in time for the start of rehearsals.
"The Thrill" is set in a Northridge shopping mall, where several people--not all of them wasted losers by any means--cross paths in strange, predatory patterns. They suggest, as in many Steppling plays, the bottled-up sexual tension at the heart of the work of renegade psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, whose teachings Steppling is currently studying with a private group.
Steppling began writing the play because he wanted to write a part for his wife, Diane Defoe, who plays the central role of Linda, and, as he is wont to do, left town--this time for a Santa Fe motel room--to start it. "We did a reading at the Taper. Only (Taper associate artistic director) Robert Egan was interested, and he asked me to bring it to the Taper's New Works festival which he runs. I rewrote it again. In between, I did 'Standard of the Breed' and 'Teenage Wedding' for Heliogabalus, and 'Theory of Miracles' for Padua. So 'The Thrill' isn't a new play, even with the latest re-writing for Taper, Too. It contains new and old parts of me."
Egan and Steppling are co-directing the new/old play, just as they did the author's "The Dream Coast" at Taper, Too in 1986. In rehearsal, they alternate with each other as they give notes to the cast; while Egan can be specific, Steppling refers to a single sheet on which he has jotted sparse notes, but which can trigger lengthy comments. Egan observes that "one of the challenges of John's writing is that his scenes start midway into action or conversation."
The term Steppling has coined for the actors to pour on the emotion during rehearsal is "duck sauce." He loves cracking ultra off-color jokes to loosen up the company, but he doesn't hesitate to chide: "A long pause is fine; an eternal pause is too much."
Maybe even more than Chinese herbs, education is an obsession with Steppling, though he dismisses any autodidact label. The Heliogabalus group came into being when many of the Padua artists wanted to continue work beyond Padua's few summer weeks of activity. (The group's name, that of one of the last demented Roman emperors, was picked at random by Steppling and Glaudini from a book on Antonin Artaud.)
It's also been a kind of extension of Steppling's own workshops: study of non-theater texts, from Freud to Nietzsche to the Bible, is as important as putting on a new play. "It's one way," Glaudini explains, "of seeing ourselves in terms of world theater, and reminding ourselves of the ideas that first excited us about theater."
Another idea that links his workshops and Heliogabalus is, in Steppling's words, "the importance for the artist to embrace failure."
Other ideas are political, and Steppling encourages study of Marx and theorists like Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno. This, despite the fact that his plays never come across as overtly political. "My experience and reading end up in the atmosphere of whatever play I'm working on, and a lot of it has to do with surviving in a society which is sick and oppressed. My characters talk about their jobs or lack of them because having a job is what surviving in this country is about."
In line with his view that "Beckett is more revolutionary than Brecht," he claims not to think about politics when writing. "To the contrary, I try to let magic take over. I wouldn't begin to explain what it's like when that happens."
Steppling's way of keeping the magic going is a kind of act of resistence against temptations. Chief among them is the big money of movies. He does film-script rewrites, scripts-for-hire (like the Elmore Leonard adaptation, "52 Pick-Up"), even the occasional original script (such as the unproduced Barbet Schroeder project, "In the Life"). Most of them are just jobs.
But the money from them also serves as a buffer against the playwright's common demon, the hunger for a hit. And even though Padua students like Baitz and David Henry Hwang ("M Butterfly") have had their hits and mainstage productions in regional and Broadway theater, and Steppling has not, he claims not to mind.
"I never expected success as an artist. I don't know where I am in the American theater, and the people who run the theaters probably aren't sure either." Then he adds disarmingly, "the pressure to have a hit isn't inside me, because I honestly don't think I'll ever have one."