Interview with a Playwright: Ike Holter
Ike Holter is a celebrated playwright whose poignant stories chronicle life in modern America with quick wit and exceptional relevance. Holter is the resident playwright of Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. He is also the 2017 winner of the Windham-Campbell Prize for drama.
Playscripts is proud to license Exit Strategy, Holter’s play about the fate of a Chicago school seemingly doomed to close, and the community and the energy of the teachers and students within it.
Check out this interview about his work!
How did you initially become interested in playwriting?
I started in high school; one acts and all that. I could write ‘em pretty quick, and I loved getting to work with actors and directors and designers, so when I started looking at colleges, I knew my best bet was kind of following that path.
What excites you most about theatre?
It’s fast, in more ways than one. If we are in previews, I can check with an actor, then give them a piece of writing that’s about something that just happened that day in the world–if you’re doing a modern piece, it’s really exciting to sit in an audience and hear about something that happened incredibly recently. It makes it feel truly alive, and a little bit scary. The feeling of being surrounded by strangers, but also feeling safe, and getting your worldview shaken and then released–you can figure out a lot of stuff about yourself in two hours. I think few spaces do that better than a theater.
This piece [Exit Strategy] is a real look at the education system in Chicago and the recent school closings, what drove you to speak out about these events?
I mean, it’s education: everyone has a dog in that fight. The school system of a city or town draws a direct line to the economy, to the workforce, to the way families work. When 50 schools were shut down overnight, it shocked the city and the country. We had a horrible, awful, gutless sellout of a mayor who made one decision that then impacted millions. I have friends that are teachers; I’ve taught, and continue to teach. I wanted to do a story that really looked at the idea that when you take away a school, you disrupt an ecosystem–that has massive, massive ramifications. And I don’t think you understand that by seeing a blip on the news or a headline–you need to hear how these people speak, and see how they love, how they fight. Then, it’s not just a statistic; people hopefully see it as someone’s life.
Chicago is a hub of art that you have certainly made a stake in, what stands out to you about the Chicagoan community of theatre makers?
Yeah, there’s no one else doing new plays like Chicago. The audience is thirsty for stuff that surprises them, and they like being able to get on something before it becomes a big thing. The designers and crews who work on new plays are well versed in the changes that need to be made, and the directors jump from new play to new play; they know how to deal with them, how to respect them, and not just dive in with ego. Chicago is also an exciting city that is still half the price of a place like New York. I could afford to work a side job, find my voice, and do a couple new plays a year here, and I couldn’t personally have done that anywhere else. You can do a show that has cheaper running costs, will run longer, and get a lot of respect without going bankrupt. I love putting up new stuff here.
Did you have great teachers growing up who put their lives out on the line for their students that shaped your life, and perhaps this narrative?
I did! Some have callbacks and secret mentions in Exit Strategy!
What do you advise to aspiring playwrights?
The only wrong way to write a play is by writing what you think people want from you. Write your version, not someone else’s. If it speaks to you, if it has your quirks, if it dives deep into stuff that YOU are interested in seeing, nothing can top that. You will be happy with the production, even if it’s not a hit. Your voice makes something become a singular experience, and that’s what audiences crave. The more we try to make our voices like “the next so and so” or “in the spirit of”, the more we confuse an audience. Nah. Just do you. That doesn’t mean write only for people that look like you–there’s a weird, creepy lack of diverse voices getting plays produced–it just means make your characters specific. Make their stories specific. Actors love that stuff, too. So yeah: make stuff that you, yourself, would pay 25 bucks to see. Start there and you’re gonna be awesome.