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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Steve Barkhimer on the Adventurous Life

Steve Barkhimer
Revered Boston actor (currently appearing with fellow BPT alum Richard Snee in Alan Ayckbourn's Living Together at Gloucester Stage), director and alumni playwright Steven Barkhimer talks to us amid a hundred projects. We caught up with him on email. 

What are you working on now?
I’ve been enlisted to help create a set of shows, three of which previewed as workshop productions in April and May 2011. Ben Evett, who started the Actors Shakespeare Project, had an idea for a theatre event, a sort of mini-series, which would be neither a fixture like Shear Madness nor simply an open-ended soap-opera. The hope, of course, is to have a number of shows, each of which stands independently and is satisfying in itself, but would spark an interest in seeing the whole series.

I’m working, incrementally, on writing and re-writing several other plays, including one for which the Massachusetts Cultural Council kindly granted me an Artist Fellowship Award. That one is fancifully autobiographical; among the others are a historical drama in verse and song, one is more brooding American-mythic, another is science-as-performance-piece; another is an adaptation of ancient classic from India -- I'll spend six weeks of my summer in India, in fact, trying to enlist some reliable assistance on that.

I’m slated to appear in, and provide music for, a production of Twelfth Night for the Actors Shakespeare Project this fall and will direct The Merry Wives of Windsor for them in the winter. Very exciting.


What advice do you have for other newly minted playwriting MFAs?
It would be absurd for me at this point to pretend I have any wisdom to offer advice to new MFAs.  I’ve not had enough of my writing staged to offer any sage words on getting plays produced. On the other hand, I have plenty of strong opinions and predispositions, and things I think are worth considering: that productions are by their very nature collaborations, and not all writers are writing for the theatre congenial to them; that writing is rewriting; that without compromising your art or integrity, you must not allow perfection to become an enemy to progress; that unless you are an artist of stunning genius, clarity and precision, that good directors and actors do not need your micro-managing, come to the table with plenty of ideas, and that you should keep your eyes and ears open to their responses, learn how to give other artists the space to contribute to, augment, complement, catalyze your vision into the living event.


What inspires the characters in your plays?
I’ve usually written scenes starting with a situation, and allowing characters to develop out of that.  Sometimes – and it may sound like a flimsy excuse to generate a character, but sometimes you just have a rhythm in your head, a phrase that you can imagine being said in a particular way, and a character comes along with it, or a situation suggests itself. I’ve gotten them from books, from people I’ve known, and from pieces of myself that need to talk to one another. And some have just beamed themselves in from beyond the asteroid belt or sounded from some subterranean cavern, de profundis.


Do you ever write roles for yourself?
I’ve certainly written roles that I’ve wound up performing, and pieces for solo performance, but it’s not an especial desire at this point. Perhaps it should be.  I am planning to write a one-person show, though, based on a specific individual.


What play would you really like to have a chance to direct?
Richard II, Measure for Measure, Euripides’ Helen, any Chekhov, I think Marlowe’s Tamburlaine would be wild, Brecht’s Jungle of Cities or Baal. Kroetz.  Beckett’s Act without Words.


Are you ever tempted to direct your own work?
I’m aware of the pitfalls of such an arrangement, but they don’t persuade me that I shouldn’t do it.  So, yes, I’m not only tempted, I would definitely do it.  But I think I stand to learn more, have more fun, and am more likely to have a much richer piece, if I let someone else direct it at this point.


What do you like best about live theatre in comparison to acting in movies?
The word “live” says it all, doesn’t it?  How does one feel watching a church service on television?


Do you have any sort of routine you follow when writing?
Not at all. I would love for it to be steadier, more reliable. But I go through a very cliché pattern: bursts of inspiration and industry, followed by stretches of downright sloth and disinterest; furious activity alternating with epic indolence; procrastination and the imperative for immediate action always contending for the upper hand.


How do you get your new plays recognized?
Mercifully, I have a network of professional friends whose advice I can seek first, and whose counsel I trust. I don’t have enough old plays out there to get new ones recognized by any fixed scheme. Plus, I know it’s a terrible thing for any artist, but alas, it’s not all that uncommon: I seem constitutionally disinclined to advertise myself. However, necessity has often forced me to do so, and if ever I write something that I think is terrific and deserves producing, it will mean what it’s always meant: you send a letter, better, you get on the phone, better still, you knock on the door, and you say “hey, you don’t know me, but I think you should”, and if they don’t want to, you’re no worse off than before. If they do, it may be the beginning of an adventure.

(A special thanks to Development Associate Megan McCarney and alum Terry Byrne for preparing this interview.)

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