Life, and ’after’ :: Steve Yockey on His New Play

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday January 6, 2011

When EDGE catches up with Steve Yockey, he's doing what any bright young playwright whose work has commanded critical acclaim and delighted audiences might be expected to be doing: writing an adaptation of Phaedra, a character from Greek mythology who falls in love with her stepson, to the chagrin of all. Her story has been the subject of a few plays over the course of the millennia, most notably by Ancient Greek playwright Euripides, French playwright Racine, and American playwright Eugene O'Neil.

"I think it's gonna be updated to a contemporary style, and definitely Theater with a capital 'T,' " Yockey tells EDGE about his take on the classic, and going on to promise "some really fun images and re-imagined moments. I'm myth obsessed, but was mostly inspired by the Racine version. So I'm keeping one nod to that." Adds the playwright, "Should be fun. At least, fun for me; people might not even notice it, but it's fun for me."???

The mind races. What nod to Racine's version could Yockey have in mind? The play's juicily dramatic refrain of, "Ah, cruelle!"? Or perhaps he will find a way to import the French twist on sexually charged, if somewhat inappropriate, affairs of le coeur? Complicated relationships are, after all, something of a specialty for Yockey, whose play Octopus deals with a gay couple and their new friends with benefits--another couple. (Say, wasn't there an imposing creature from beneath the waves in Racine's version of Phaedra, as well? Are we to be treated to a briny behemoth?)

Then there's his play Large Animal Games, in which a hip young crowd fall in and out of love (not to mention they are frequently in and out of a sexy underwear shop), all while hunting down big game. (One of them is even on safari.) If love is a great and untamed beast--and we have reason to suspect as much--then Yockey is its fearless wrangler.

With his new work, afterlife: a ghost story, Yockey explores more complicated emotional terrain, following a bereaved married couple--they have lost their only child--into the Great Beyond. The New Repertory Theater's artistic director, Kate Warner, has worked with Yockey before, in Atlanta, when Warner was artistic director of Dad's Garage. Now Warner brings the talented playwright to the northeast--or rather, back to the northeast; his new play was given a reading at the New Rep early last year--for its latest leg of a rolling world premiere.

From Saturday morning TV-style melees (Cartoon) to clutches of odd people caught in even odder situations (Subculture), Yockey has shown himself willing to dive into the thick of things literary and dramaturgical. What made him think to venture beyond this mortal coil?

"I think the idea of an afterlife brings comfort to people--the idea that there will be some sort of closure or something beyond our daily struggles," Yockey tells EDGE. "Some sort of reckoning that allows us to come to terms with everything that's happened throughout our lives.

"It's interesting to me... the play itself is more an exploration of grief and the anachronistic quality of grief. It's fascinating to me the way that people experience grief in different time signatures; that what has been a long period of mourning for one person may be far too short a period of mourning for another, despite what popular psychology tells us is the appropriate grieving process. And this has been explored in many ways, clearly, but I am often left feeling odd or cheated when I see movies or plays that tackle the issue and wrap it up with a neat, clean out." ??

After a moment, the playwright adds, "I also thought it was a really interesting way to tackle a ghost story, frankly. Or rather, I thought a ghost story would be a good lens for exploring this idea."???

At which point, EDGE wonders: If we think of an afterlife as anything that follows our life so far, what stops people from living the life they want? Why push off dreams and ambitions for some vague future or even for some hoped-for realm of existence after death???

"I'm sure that there's a myriad of reasons, but I feel that there are two things that can definitely cling to people--fear and regret," Yockey replies. "If you try something and fail, that feeling stays with you, especially if it's a large thing that you don't do well. That experience can haunt the way that you choose to engage with opportunities for the rest your incredibly short time here, which in and of itself is another totally personal observation," Yockey adds. "I'm sure there are any number of people who would tell you that life is very long-very, very long.

"And then fear, also," Yockey continues, "and I don't mean in the religious sense, that we behave in a certain way here because the expectation is that we'll be rewarded for it. Because I believe for the most part people who are good to one another [do so] because it's in their nature, not because of a promised reward--although that's a very nice story. I mean fear of the unknown: if I let go of what I know and grab on to this new thing, what will become of me?"?

Continues Yockey, "Again, these circle back to an idea of absolution or some sort of reckoning... reckoning has such a looming connotation, so I'm not sure that's the word. But this idea that there will be a moment or an opportunity to gain perspective and clarity about the life that's been lived, yes, I think must be very comforting."???

One reviewer suggested that afterlife is a "post modern take on The Divine Comedy." EDGE inquires whether Yockey thinks that observation came close to the mark.

"Huh," the playwright responds. "I think it's an interesting way to view the second act of the play. I'm not familiar with that quote, but it's a flattering thing to hear!" Yockey hesitates before saying, somewhat apologetically, "It's a difficult thing to talk about, because the play contains a certain amount of the unexpected on a large scale, especially considering where the audience begins Act One. So it's a bit tricky to talk about in detail, but I enjoy that someone made that comparison."

That's okay. We don't want any spoilers here. Still, drawing comparisons to Dante isn't too shabby. It's better than being compared to the 1988 Tim Burton-directed Michael Keaton vehicle Beetle Juice, which also follows a married couple into the life beyond.

"Although I would own that comparison, too!" laughs Yockey. "Not with respect to this play, but I love that movie. Or maybe I just really love Winona Ryder--I'm not sure."???

The couple in afterlife have lost their child. That's a plot point that recurs in literature about unhappy couples. EDGE ventures to ask whether, for Yockey, a child's death represents the death of hope? Or the death of the relationship? Or is it more existential--the death of the future itself??? EDGER is about to speculate that the play is the author's cunning meditation on despair and entropy, only given a fresh new masque of Americana, when Yockey pulls your correspondent back to earth.

"In afterlife the death of the child serves more as an active turning point than as a metaphor," Yockey says. "It sheds light on the way that this couple has been relating to each other. I can honestly say that as the play progresses, it does eventually blow out into a world of metaphor, so the basic given of the loss of a child is very grounded in factual [experience] and not presented metaphorically."???

Chastened, EDGE focuses next on the play's unusual genesis. New Rep played a role in this play's development...??

Yockey requires no further prompting. "They have this really great reading series presented as a two part process. At the beginning of last season, I guess it was probably in October [of 2009], Kate Warner and Bridget O'Leary contacted me about it. I have a long relationship with Kate, artistically. She said, 'Is there something that you'd like to work on with us? We're going to do this series.' I said, 'afterlife,' and they both said yes. ??

"I came in for two days in early November," Yockey continues. "It was actually convenient timing because, even though I was in residence at Marin Theatre Company in San Francisco, I happened to be rehearsing a play in New York. So I just took the Bolt Bus up: a fun experience. They brought in a cast and we read through the play. There wasn't a lot of rehearsal or anything; we just read through the play and had a fantastic discussion about it. In fact, there was more time allotted for discussion and for questions from the cast and the artistic staff than for the reading of the play itself.

I took away everything culled from the reading to dig back into the play. And then I had the opportunity to have a week-long workshop in New Orleans at Southern Rep, who did the first leg of this National New Play Netwrok rolling world premiere, where I got to implement the notes from New Rep. I then brought the draft coming out of that workshop back to Watertown for part two of the New Rep process in February. This time there was rehearsal time allotted, and the audience at New Rep was invited to hear a public reading of the play. Followed by a talkback." Off the record, Yockey admits to an early fear of talkbacks--a fear that he had overcome well before he began developing afterlife. (Ooops, it's no longer off the record. Sorry, man.) "With this play in particular talkbacks have been fantastic, as far as people having great reactions, thematic questions and discussions in and amongst themselves," Yockey enthuses. "That feels pretty good."

"So, it was a two-part process and it happily coincided with this workshop opportunity at Southern Rep," Yockey sums up. "Between the two theaters I had a really beautiful development experience, unintentional as it may have been, and then they ended up working together in this rolling world premiere. I also got to keep the majority of the cast from the New Rep developmental reading for the actual show!"

Sounds better than sitting alone in a room somewhere.??..

"I'm okay with the sitting alone in a room part, even good at it," Yockey says, "but there is a certain point--it's playwriting, it's a blueprint. You need someone to actually build the house. At a certain point, after several productions of your plays, you start to get more comfortable, or maybe confident, in understanding what you're asking for. But you can always be surprised; the first time that you hear something out loud is always telling. It's also fantastic to have any opportunity to get people who are there to dig into the script and to do it with enthusiasm and professionalism."??

So, will it feel like a homecoming when Yockey returns to New Rep for the Boston leg of the play's rolling world premiere???

"I have to say, in more ways than one that's true," the playwright affirms. "It's going to feel like a homecoming in the sense that I think you mean, in that I have already met many of the actors and designers. The production sound designer even came to hear the reading back in February; and you'll see the lighting and sound are both crucial to the execution, especially in the first act of the play.

"But also, it's a homecoming in the sense that Kate Warner, when she was in Atlanta, commissioned my first four short plays and my fist two full length plays, and directed them. She also directed both the world premiere and the West Coat premiers of Octopus, which was basically my gateway play as far as getting a little more national attention.

"It's been two years since I've had a chance to work with her and I'm looking forward to it," Yockey adds. "I've found in the past (and continue to find in this process) that Kate has a particular vibe with my work, and understanding, and when I see my plays realized through her efforts, they are strong. They just work.

"I'm very proud of this play, and can't wait to see what's going to happen with the production," Yockey tells EDGE. "The response in New Orleans was great, bracing and complicated. I think that Boston is going to be even more so, and that is definitely thrilling."

For us, too. Now, about those sea monsters...

afterlife is scheduled to run at the New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown from Jan. 16-Feb. 6.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.