A decade ago, if you had asked L.A. theater insiders who was the quintessential L.A. playwright, John Steppling probably would have headed the list.
Steppling's bleak, elliptical dramas about the underbelly of the Southern California dream had been produced often in small L.A. theaters in the 1980s and early '90s, winning Steppling a Rockefeller fellowship and awards from the writers' organization PEN West and the LA Weekly. His work was influential enough that "Stepplingesque" was sometimes used to describe other writers' plays that seemed to be in a similar vein.
And that vein was pure L.A. Born and reared here, Steppling wrote almost exclusively about his home region, and he was little known outside of it. His only New York production ("Teenage Wedding," 1991) was either unnoticed or panned by that city's critics. Steppling appeared to be an only-in-L.A. phenomenon.
Since then, however, Steppling has spread his wings. Although his new "Dog Mouth," which opened Saturday at the Evidence Room, is set in the Southwest, it was written in Paris and first workshopped in London. When he flew to L.A. to stage the play's premiere, Steppling left behind a temperature of 17 degrees below zero in his new hometown of Krakow, Poland.
Even before he left L.A. "for good" four years ago, Steppling, now 50, had spent much of the preceding two years in Thailand, correcting English texts of Thai journalists for the Bangkok Post--which, he said, "meant guessing what they were trying to say."
Why did he leave his native turf?
"Such a complex of reasons," he began, after introducing his 22-year-old Polish wife, Anna Kuros, in the Evidence Room lobby on the first day of rehearsals. Steppling looks much as he did when he lived here, with an intricate tattoo covering his left arm, a couple of rings in an ear and a rakish goatee.
Before he left L.A., Steppling had been supporting himself by writing for Hollywood (his favorite credit was "Animal Factory," a 2000 film directed by Steve Buscemi). But it was work that he found "less and less satisfying. I was being offered teen movies, reactionary crime stories, and I wasn't making enough money to justify doing what I didn't like."
He was also tired of seeing his plays produced only in small L.A. theaters. Any money that he made from them was "incredibly modest," he said. "Half the time I ended up putting my own money into them."
Two of his '80s productions, "The Thrill" and "The Dream Coast," were under the auspices of the Mark Taper Forum--but at the 99-seat Taper, Too, not the main stage. "I've known [Taper artistic director] Gordon Davidson for 20 years. I guess if he was going to put me on the main stage, he probably would have," Steppling said, at the same time admitting that he wouldn't want to be "a court eunuch who writes the kind of plays that make Gordon Davidson happy." American theater, he said, "is at a place where not much good stuff gets done, certainly not in the big institutional theaters."
He also felt a wider disaffection with American culture, which he believes "does not trust art very much. It's thought of as another way to anesthetize or distract yourself or as therapy. Quality has been confused with popularity. Art should help awaken you, not numb you."
In all, he said, "I started to understand the impulse for artists to leave where they're from. You have a personal history that becomes burdensome. And that adversarial relationship that artists should have with their society sometimes is easier to manage from farther away."
Steppling first chose Paris because of friends there. After a year, during which he wrote "Dog Mouth," he applied for jobs teaching English in several countries and finally accepted one in Kielce, Poland. "Going to Poland to teach in Kielce," he said wryly, "is like saying you're going to California to teach in Susanville or Red Bluff."
Steppling met his wife in Kielce, but after eight months there, they moved to London, where he knew an agent and several producers. He had received an offer to do a screenplay adaptation. That movie went nowhere, he said, but he did get a job as a story editor on a BBC cartoon called "Popetown"--"like 'South Park' meets the Vatican," he said. "I deeply suspect it'll never get on the air."
A workshop production of "Dog Mouth" took place in London. But the city was impossibly expensive, he said, and while he was working to pay the bills, "there wasn't enough time to do theater." After a year, the couple returned to Poland, where costs were lower. Kuros began university studies in Japanese in Krakow, and Steppling returned to teaching English--which allowed more time to write plays than did "the hysteria and hustle of the film industry."
Krakow, he said, is home for the near future, although he acknowledged it's not a perfect fit. "I've always hated cold weather," he said. "I'm a wimpy Californian. The irony is not lost on me."
Although Steppling's mother, Hildegarde Bielinski, was the daughter of immigrants from Poland, Steppling spoke no Polish before moving there. But he's learning the language, and he reports that most Poles younger than 25 speak English, which is replacing Russian as the second language.
In fact, he said, with the incursion of U.S. chain stores and fast food, satellite dishes and e-mail, "I sometimes feel like I'm in a very far and very cold suburb of Los Angeles."
One with an invigorating theater scene, he said. "Theater is a serious art form there, so people go to it with serious intent. There's a level of respect I don't find very often here." He mentions the city's long-established Teatr STU, whose leader, Krzysztof Jasinski, recently staged an "extraordinary 'Hamlet' that featured a horde of real, trained rats running across the stage, stopping at the apron and then running down a hole."
It sounds, well, Stepplingesque.
The title character in "Dog Mouth" is the leader of a criminal gang of hobos who has recently impregnated a young woman less than half his age. He's also a former trainer of fighting dogs, and "he has a longing for that part of his life in which he was esteemed for his excellence in breeding dogs. His reputation now is based on fear." The play was inspired by a newspaper article and a late-night tabloid TV documentary about a real-life homeless criminal.
Steppling acknowledged that the relationships between older men and younger women in his plays and the glimpses of the world of dog training--which was explored in greater detail in his "Standard of the Breed"--are themes that resonate in his life; indeed, "I'm willing to accept that everything I write is autobiographical on some level," he said.
When he lived in L.A., he raised Neapolitan mastiffs. Asked if he had ever bred dogs for fighting, which is illegal, he replied: "I think I'll refrain from answering that. Let's just say, 'I didn't.'" He gave up his last dog, a German shepherd, when he left L.A.
One of the characters in "Dog Mouth," a lieutenant in the hobo gang who is sent by Dog Mouth to do an unsavory deed, is played by Steppling's cousin Jim Storm. Steppling credits him as "the first person who mentioned theater to me." When Steppling was passing through New York in 1971, he visited Storm, who was involved in the off-off-Broadway scene. (Recalling those times, Storm said Steppling "passed out on my floor and didn't leave for months.")
While "Dog Mouth" isn't an L.A. play--the first half is set somewhere in the Mojave Desert; the second half takes place near Phoenix--it's in the tradition of Steppling's other plays in that it's very Western, the playwright said. "A truth of American culture can be found in the western expansion and the nature of the people who came here. When I was a kid in Hollywood, all of our neighbors talked about who had just come out from where."
"Dog Mouth" is not designed to placate anyone who has found Steppling's previous work too dark. "I'm amazed when people say, 'Your plays are so depressing,'" he said. "Just turn on the news, and see the carnage and suffering."
Steppling returned to L.A. for a workshop of "Dog Mouth" in December 2000, part of the Taper's New Work Festival. He and Taper producing director Robert Egan co-directed "Dog Mouth" there. Steppling said he enjoyed the use of the Taper's support network, and he thinks Egan is "a great critic and an astute analyst who made some essential suggestions."
However, he doesn't want to participate in any more Taper New Work Festivals. He said Egan could have made the same suggestions from simply reading the play--and in fact "has been helpful on plays that weren't part of the New Work Festival."
As for the festival itself, "it's a small bone tossed from the master's table," he said. "And I've seen too many plays ruined by development, where the original had energy and integrity, but the corners get rounded off. A play by committee is not a good idea. There is enough collaboration in the rehearsal process anyway."
Audiences saw the Taper workshops, and "once there is an audience, it's a performance, but one that's not entirely prepared," Steppling said. "There's never quite enough time. It's frustrating, and for me it's a dead end and a waste of time. I know they're not going to put me on the main stage."
Egan responded that he believes the workshop helped "unearth" the play. He added that the festival was not a dead end, for the play is now being co-produced at the Evidence Room and Padua Playwrights Productions--descendant of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, where Steppling began writing plays in the late 1970s.
Furthermore, Egan said, "John's plays are very intimate. I wouldn't want to see them get swallowed or damaged by an 800-seat venue like the Taper."
"Insulting nonsense," said Steppling, when told of that last remark. "That's just a way of justifying the fact that they don't produce writers like me."
Despite their disagreements, Egan said, "you've got to admire John's commitment to his own voice. He's not altering or bastardizing it to suit some producer." Egan called "Dog Mouth" "vintage Steppling in terms of the form and style. But in terms of the content, there's a new maturity, a new level of existential introspection that can come only with age."
Steppling, on the other hand, said his themes remain the same. But he believes the formal elements of his writing are entering a different phase. "It has to do maybe with streamlining the metaphysics and the emotions. It feels like I've zeroed in on the germane tensions, that the palette has narrowed and intensified."
Steppling has a bottom line on what he hopes to accomplish with "Dog Mouth" or any play. "Whether the ending is happy or sad, confusing or poetic, or it just stops with no ending, you should leave the theater haunted by that experience."
"Dog Mouth," Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Through Feb. 17. $20. (213) 381-7118.
Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer.