Front Row Q&A: Keith Huff
Chicago's rising online-medical-editor-turned-playwright is now conquering not only the theater world, but movies and TV as well.
A Steady Rain runs at TheaterWorks through May 8. For more info, call (860) 527-7838 or visit theaterworkshartford.org. We're also pleased to report that Tell Us of the Night, Huff's third play in his "cop trilogy," will be workshopped at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference in July. Visit theoneill.org for schedule information.
Have you seen the TheaterWorks production of A Steady Rain?
I really haven't been involved at all, other than emailing back and forth with [Executive Director] Steve Campo. The only other connection is that [actor] Aaron Roman Weiner has worked in Chicago—it's kind of an interesting link that I've seen him here. Then, years later, he ends up doing a play of mine in Connecticut. I've never met him; it's just interesting to see him pop up in my play.
Tell us about the play.
If it's okay, I'd like to talk about it structurally first. I wrote A Steady Rain along with two other plays; together, they're kind of a loose trilogy of Chicago cop plays. The second—The Detective's Wife—has its world premiere in Chicago in June. The third is called Tell Us of the Night. A Steady Rain grabs onto the rules of an established genre. It's really a film/TV genre, the "buddy cop" story, utilizing only two actors onstage. The Detective's Wife grabs onto the rules of the murder mystery, and Tell Us grabs onto the genre rules of the police procedural.
What I wanted to do was explore . . . When you see these genres play out on film or TV, there's almost a prescribed morality that they're handing you. Because I married into a police family—my father-in-law was a lifelong Chicago cop—we had so many conversations about the moral gray areas that law enforcement officials find themselves in on a daily basis. I wanted to take those established genres and thread through them the moral obverse of what we're used to seeing.
So it's a "through the looking glass" approach . . .
Funny you should use that phrase, because in The Detective's Wife my character's name is Alice, and there's a very specific scene about her stepping through a looking glass and going into this dark world where she's never been before, and it changes her whole world view and her life. Instead of giving you the idea that everything is black and white in terms of good and evil and right and wrong, these three plays explore those concepts from different vantage points. They take the established genre rules we're all familiar with and give audiences a different way to think about them.
So if you take something like "Law & Order" . . .
I know this sounds ridiculous, but I've never even seen a whole episode of "Law & Order." The representations of law enforcement on network TV . . . I think they need to be almost like a lullaby; like people need to go to bed believing the police are catching the bad guys and that the bad guys are being caught.
In my trilogy, sometimes the good guys are the bad guys, and vice-versa. A Steady Rain is running in Paris, Spain and Budapest right now. In Budapest, they've translated the title as Good Cop, Bad Cop. The fun of the play is that you walk out at the end not sure which one is which. And what's exciting about it is that it shows that if a story is told in a genre people understand, it's easier to challenge them. You've given them a safety net; they're off for the ride. Theater can still challenge us in ways that television can't.
Also, the great thing about theater is you have a captive audience, right?
Especially when your play is only one act!
And it's a two-person play, with both dialogue and monologues?
Right—once in a while they'll turn to each other and there'll be a formal scene. The two men talk about at least a dozen other characters in that world. Audience members have said they've felt like there were more than two people onstage, because all these characters came to life for them.
I should tell you about the genesis for the play. I worked in storefront theater in Chicago my whole career, which doesn't have the big budget or capacity for special effects they have at the Goodman Theatre or Steppenwolf Theatre Co. Basically, they're 50- to 75-seat theaters with minimal lighting. So I thought, how can I tell a powerful story without all that spectacle? I wanted to go back to the primacy of storytelling. It's very engaging because it allows each person in the audience to participate in the creation of the story, like reading a book. I think that's a really solid engagement device; the play is not a passive experience. If people drink heavily beforehand or don't get enough sleep, they're going to have a harder time.
One of the things I've read about it is that there's an incident recounted in it that's drawn from the Jeffrey Dahmer story.
That actually took place in Milwaukee. I had read this New York Times article about three policeman involved in an altercation over a Laotian boy. He was drugged out and naked when he was picked up and then returned to the custody of Dahmer, who ended up killing him. He was 14 years old. That was an awful combined mistake; a bad call. What struck me was that these cops were on trial in The New York Times, fighting for their jobs, well before Dahmer was put on trial himself. It indicated that the society at large was looking for someone to answer for Dahmer's crimes. There was an element of injustice to that that appealed to me, that I really wanted to explore.
Were you pleased with the show's run on Broadway?
I loved it. That was such a great experience, working with Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman. I had expected, because they're big movie stars—and producers also—that they'd give this 30 percent of their attention. But they completely cleared their schedules for three to four months. I was there for the entire rehearsal period. They were so focused, so wonderful to work with. It was one of the most enjoyable rehearsal periods I ever had—there was a lot of laughter and a lot of really great discussion, and I thought they were really fantastic onstage. Here are two guys who helped sell every ticket—the play earned the highest grosses, week to week, of any nonmusical show in Broadway history—and now it's being staged around the world.
Are plans for a movie version of A Steady Rain underway yet?
I've sold the film rights to EON Productions, the company responsible for the James Bond films. I've written two drafts of a screenplay, and just turned in an outline for a third rewrite. It's been an involved process to turn this two-character play into a full movie—I'm realizing all the characters mentioned in the story. And the structure of the play isn't sequential; we've been exploring whether to maintain that for the film or go a different route. I think Daniel and Hugh get first right of refusal when the script is ready.
How long have you been working as a playwright?
More than 25 years. It wasn't until October 30, 2009 that I was able to leave my full-time job and just be a writer. I was a medical editor for over 20 years, the managing editor of Orthopaedic Knowledge Online. It's the website for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. I was trained by the American Medical Association.
I've always been interested in theater. I did a little acting, but I was never very good at it. My last professional acting job was in college, for Cort Theater's summer Shakespeare Festival. I had a minor role, and I remember someone said my cue line, and I was sort of standing there listening to the play like the audience—forgetting that I was in it and should be performing. That's when I realized I didn't have the constitution and focus to be an actor. I was always more interested in the whole picture than my lines.
I've also written a few unpublished novels. They're all in the first person—I've found that if I get a character talking, I like to just get out of the way and let him or her tell the story. I think that's very much a theatrical mode of storytelling.
Are there any playwrights who are heroes of yours?
Well, I've always been a fan of Edward Albee. And I think one of my biggest influences has been Vladimir Nabokov. He's written so many novels in which a character will be telling a story, and as you read it, you realize that you're readinging another story as well—about the psychology of the character. I guess the best example of this is the novel Pale Fire. It's fascinating because it's about a crazy college professor who steals a poem from his next-door neighbor, then goes and hides in a cave in the mountains. And he writes the book "Pale Fire" which is an annotation of this poem, explaining how the poem is all about him, how he's king of this fictional kingdom and the poem is all about his adventures. By the end, you realize he's completely out of his mind. It's wonderful, the multiple levels of story that come through. I've always been intrigued by that.
I was looking at one of your bios, and it said you've developed plays at the National Playwrights Conference in Waterford.
Yes, two—Birdsend and Mud People. This was back in the Lloyd Richards era. I worked with Robert Schenkkan and Doug Wright, who introduced me to my first theater agent—both Pulitzer Prize winners. I met a lot of people who I kept in touch with over the years.
You've also been a co-producer and writer for the TV series "Mad Men," and just won a Writers Guild of America Award for that.
I was involved with "Mad Men" for Season 4, and am done with that now. I just joined the union, so that was very exciting, to win the award for my first TV project. it was a very exciting time to work on the show, because at the end of Season 3, it was as if the show runner had just blown up the whole premise. Because they left the firm and went off to start a new business. So I joined at the point of a cliffhanger; it was a fresh start, and I don't think it was gimmicky at all. It was very much like business in America. Corporations are bought out all the time; people have an emotional investment in what they created. It was great to see the characters—and the writers—regroup and say, "We're going to start over." Especially since this all takes place in the mid-1960s, and the whole buttoned-down, Rock Hudson/Doris Day culture is starting to be challenged. It was exciting to walk these characters into a more culturally open and free time, when a tidal shift in our society was taking place.
I left "Mad Men" because I have other TV projects to work on. I sold a pilot to HBO: "The Brothers Buczakowski," which is loosely based on The Brothers Karamazov. It's set in Chicago, about three brothers vying to take over their father's commercial construction company. I also just sold a pilot to AMC, which I'm developing with Stephen Spielberg and Dreamworks TV, called "Why We Fight." That's going to be a big ensemble piece like "The Wire," one of my absolutely favorite shows.
The focus is that Obama allocated $60 million in federal stimulus money to Chicago, to do a mentor program. So many kids from grade school to high school age were killed in the city in 2009, the money is to identify 200 to 250 kids who are currently at risk of being killed or killing someone else. The money is to assign each of them a mentor, on call 24-7, whether a kid's dad is beating his mom or he simply needs help with homework. The mentor's objective is to keep these kids in school and insure their survival until graduation. It was Stephen's idea to have a show about this really bold social experiment, and he came to me to develop it. It won't be a traditional TV show; more a fictional show based on reality.
With any big experiment like this, there are people invested in its success; there are also people who anticipate failure. And is this the initiative that can fix this problem? I don't know. The show will spend a lot of time getting to know these kids and their mentors and exploring the underlying economic issues. I think it's sad that we need to hire people to keep these kids alive. I going to explore what that says about our society and civilization.Front Row Q&A: Keith Huff