In the comparatively heady days of the late 1980s — heady for local theater, at least — director Robert Egan over at the Mark Taper Forum took an almost proprietary interest in a young playwright whom critic Richard Stayton had dubbed L.A.'s only playwright. The fringe set of that era described John Steppling as the voice of the city, for creating inarticulate American-Pinter characters in such plays as his self-directed The Shaper, populated with surfboard builders and beach dwellers who glared at each other across emotional voids, and against riffs of electric guitar. His characters were from, and remain in, the margins of society, not unlike Steppling himself. (Steppling's other plays include Teenage Wedding, The Dream Coast and Neck.) The Taper's attempt to elevate Steppling to L.A.'s entry in the national playwright sweepstakes didn't quite work out, the way it did, say, for Steppling's peer, Jon Robin Baitz. Yet the Taper did produce Steppling's The Thrill in one of its new-works festivals.
Steppling dabbled in film, having adapted Elmore Leonard's 52 Pickup for director John Frankenheimer. The 59-year-old also has been a director and an artistic director of playwright companies such as Heliogabalus and, currently, Gunfighter Nation. Today, after several years abroad, Steppling is back in L.A., making his home in the high desert's Yucca Valley.
In a 1990 interview, Steppling recalled: "I remember driving through Ely, Nevada, early one morning. Newspapers were blowing on these empty streets and a couple of very spectral figures huddled in the doorway, and I thought, 'Who are these people? These half-drunk cowboys at 10 a.m., playing penny slots in this incredibly bored fashion in a broken-down casino.' ... You learn more about society and the truth of the society you live in from those people. Having one foot out of society allows that person to be in a doorway, seeing the truth from the outside."
It's from the margins that Steppling remains an eloquent commentator on our own city, and the larger culture it represents. His most recent absence from Los Angeles was marked by an 11-year stint in Poland (where he taught screenwriting at the Polish National Film School in ód) and Norway — because his wife, Gunnhild Skrodal, is Norwegian.
He says, only somewhat facetiously, that he just can't recount how many wives he's had. He can, however, keep track of his children — one son, Alexis, whose mother is Natasha Mitchnick. Alexis is himself now a father, awaiting his second child, and Steppling is here to spend time with his grandchildren. But only for a year, maybe longer, he says. He's made some commitments here, and he'll see how things work out.
Among those commitments is his current leadership role in Gunfighter Nation, where Alexis is associate artistic director. Half the group consists of the elder Steppling's peers from the 1980s — playwrights such as Rita Valencia, Wesley Walker, Guy Zimmerman and Harvey Perr. The other half consists of a younger generation brought in by Alexis, largely with a background in community organizing.
On September 17, the group opens its second in a series of short plays, this version at Hollywood's Lost Studio and based on Los Angeles history, from 1830s governor Pio Pico to 1960s mayor Sam Yorty. And in late October, it opens Steppling's new play, Phantom Luck.
The company's youth, he explains, is bringing in a new audience that doesn't go to the usual theaters.
"I said, I want you young people to read Peter Brook's The Empty Space [about the possibilities of where theater can occur] because that's the best template for our times. We're pitching site-specific works in Palm Springs, and [director-composer] O'Lan [Jones] talks about this at her company, Overtone Industries: Find an empty Circuit City, and get some backing and put up [a performance] there."
The father-son bond has created a kind of community-based theater, not unlike L.A.'s heralded Cornerstone Theatre Company. "I want to do what Cornerstone is doing, without feeling that we're social-engineering anything," Steppling explains. "I think it should be about the art first. I think the art should contain this stuff of the social fabric, somehow. And I admire what Cornerstone has done in many ways. My son brings in the Latino communists, and suddenly we're all talking about [19th-century California Governor] Pio Pico. One of our actors is right out of prison, never been onstage — he's bringing a whole other experience."
Steppling says he learns from them about life in other communities, "but we give them the art. I tell them to read Peter Brook, read Grotowski."
Upon returning to California, Steppling was struck by the new economic realities. "It's a strange time in the U.S. It's like the Great Depression, it's dire. You don't get that feeling, just how acute the financial problem is, when you're away. Out in the Yucca Valley, every weekend there are 50 garage sales —'must sell for food.' It's really startling. This extraordinary depression has also served to reveal what were the lurking pathologies of America, and it's disturbing. It's stuff that we always knew was there, these resentments. Now people are so put-upon, so desperate. If they have a job, they look to target the most powerless illegal immigrants, and drum up these absurd nonissues — gay marriage, illegal immigration — just an excuse to vent a lot of anger and resentment. The other thing that really strikes me, is how ubiquitous and partisan the media have become."
Tethered to the economic decline is what Steppling views as the leaching out of theater and art from the culture. "Maybe it's the way education has been eroded since Reagan. People that I formerly thought of as dedicated theater artists are either defeated and not working, or they're just clamoring for the crumbs from Hollywood in an increasingly desperate way. ... [Sociologist Theodor] Adorno said this thing I quote all the time: 'The rise of fascism in Germany can be directly related to the end of education after World War I.' So as you have an increasingly ignorant population, of course you have the ascent of Sarah Palin.
"But I see signs of optimism in a few places. It's tough because it's this postliterate culture — I had film students who only wanted to read technical manuals on lenses. After six months of watching Fassbinder, I saw them downloading obscure films by Bresson. You can't just throw that at them. You have to provide historical context. That's what's not provided after the decimation of arts education. All we get is dueling reviewers. The template becomes the Academy Awards."
Steppling sees reasons for hope, now that fine indie films such as Winter's Bone and The Prophet are getting made and distributed. "I wish theater would catch up a bit. All these spaces are limping by, and the Taper does another production of The Glass Menagerie, and Burn This. And in the smaller theaters, do we really need another production of All My Sons right now? Or dinosaur renditions of Shakespeare showcasing actors for 47 people a night?"
(Steppling describes his own sliced-back adaptation of King Lear — with Goneril and Regan spoken in Norwegian and the other roles in either Polish or English — as "fairly traditional.")
"These tired old reactionary guys that run these theaters live in some fun-house fishbowl and they don't see the world around them. The thing that strikes me, either they do not reflect on the madness that's out there, or they do fake outreach, like the Taper, the identity-politics theater — enough already, enough."
Living in the desert, Steppling is talking to the city of Indio about the Date Festival grounds, "which is a kitsch wonder. What architectural hideousness has replaced what used to be this oasis of date trees," he reflects. He's pitching a site-specific work for the grounds, but doesn't yet know if it's going to be a film or a theater piece.
Don't mistake Steppling's harsh critique of our theater for despondency.
"I'm now almost 60," he reflects. "I think if you just survive, you stop worrying about things. I just want to do something I enjoy doing, with people I enjoy doing it with. And the possibilities are there. I'm optimistic."
L.A. HISTORY PROJECT: PIO PICO, SAM YORTY AND THE SECRET PROCESSION OF LOS ANGELES | Presented by GUNFIGHTER NATION at THE LOST STUDIO, 130 S. La Brea Ave., L.A. | Sept. 17-Oct. 2 | (323) 933-6944.