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Small Jokes About Monsters: An Interview with Out Playwright Steven Strafford

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By Donalevan Maines

About 10 minutes into Small Jokes About Monsters, we learn that Ryan, the middle of three brothers, is gay.

Of course, you and I know from the beginning of the dark comedy by out Chicago playwright Steven Strafford, but the audience as a whole doesn’t clock the tea until it’s stated by Ryan’s older brother, John.

I say “about” 10 minutes because, generally, we figure that 10 pages of dialogue equal 10 minutes on the stage. Not so with brothers John, Ryan, and Derek, as they spit out one-liners “at the speed of light,” says Strafford. He laughs when OutSmart reminds him that an early draft of the play script specifically advised that Ryan, although gay, is “funny, not bitchy.”

“I forgot I had put that in there,” he said recently, by phone from Chicago. “Sometimes, an actor, especially if you cast a straight actor, they fall back to ‘bitchy queen humor’ as a failsafe. But if Ryan starts out bitchy, there is nowhere to go from there. Besides, his humor is joyful and delightful. He doesn’t use humor to push people away, but to bring them closer.”

(Even when it’s been laid out for the actor and director, they don’t always seem to get the memo. For example, when Neil Simon’s 1970 Broadway comedy The Gingerbread Lady was adapted into the 1981 movie Only When I Laugh, James Coco portrayed Jimmy as a mincing gay stereotype, despite stage directions that said, “James Perry is in his early 40s, portly, and probably homosexual. Probably, but not obviously.” The result was that Coco was nominated for both an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Raspberry for the year’s Worst Supporting Actor. He “lost” the latter to Steve Forrest as Joan Crawford’s lover, Greg Savitt, in Mommie Dearest.)

Joshua Kyle Hoppe, who plays Ryan in the premiere of Small Jokes About Monsters at The Landing Theatre Company (LTC) this month, says he knew intuitively that Ryan shouldn’t be portrayed as a flaming queen.

“Something struck me about the character,” explains Hoppe, an out Montrose actor. “The material is so heavy and rich. Any kind of camp would take away from the message of the play, which is about family.”

The play’s family, in addition to the brothers, who have met to read their father’s will, include their mother—the deceased’s ex-wife—who plows in, turning their secret getaway into a nostalgic night of crying, drinking, and fighting.

Wary of his mother crashing the party, Ryan sighs, “I am not emotionally prepared for her spin on things. She is the Fox News of family gossip.”

It is definitely not a Norman Rockwell moment.

Strafford drew on his own family to create the play’s characters, including himself as the middle brother, who is gay and in recovery.

“An actor in his 30s, smart, funny, loves making jokes, has battled drug addiction and alcoholism” is how Strafford describes Ryan in the latest version of the script.

Houston audiences were introduced to Small Jokes About Monsters when it was one of four plays to win staged readings last spring in LTC’s fourth annual national search for unproduced scripts. To claim his prize in the LTC’s New American Voices Play Reading Series, Strafford traveled from the Windy City to attend the readings and enjoy the buoyant reception his play received.

“It was lovely and surprising and overwhelming,” he says. “It was crazy.”

Several months later, LTC contacted Strafford about mounting a full production of the play in the theater’s 2016–2017 season.

The news came as Strafford was performing his one-man show, Methtacular!, two nights a week at Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre, while also portraying Chick Clark in the musical Wonderful Town. (Chick is the original “fake news” editor; when he sends an aspiring writer on a bogus reporting assignment, it leads to complications that include a chaotic Conga line down Christopher Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village.)

“That was as good a week as it gets,” says Strafford. “Everything was coming up me.”

Meanwhile, LTC put out another national call for new plays, this time in the wake of recent fatal confrontations involving police officers in black neighborhoods, as well as the tragedy at Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were massacred and many others injured in a terrorist’s shooting rampage on June 12.

A dozen short scripts, including dallas/love the bomb by out Houston writer/performer Josh Inocéncio, were produced September 22–October 1 at LTC under the banner of The Redemption Series.

In that production, Hoppe was cast as a newscaster reporting on the Pulse murders, so his lines kicked off the evening with a spoken-word poem-play called “before the worst shooting in u.s. history, they were dancing.”

“My character looked right at the audience, so I got the sense that they were uncomfortable, but they were really willing to listen. I think the show did its job, that way. I am attracted to theater like that, which holds up a mirror to the world we live in and says, ‘Look, this is us.’” 

The Redemption Series was Hoppe’s return to local theater, since earning a bachelor of fine arts in 2013 at the University of Houston, then launching his professional acting career at Peterborough Players in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

“It was me breaking back out into the Houston scene,” he says.

“I would be lying if I said that the Pulse massacre didn’t shake me to my core,” says Hoppe, who grew up in Sugar Land, graduating from Kempner High School. “During our work process as actors, we sat around a table and talked about how the recent violence has affected us. I told everyone else how a gay bar like Pulse is a safe haven for us in the LGBT community. Now, when I go out with my buddies, we are looking over our shoulder, not knowing whether somebody else could intrude on our space and commit mass murder in the name of hatred.”

In exchange, African-American players in the show described to Hoppe how they are frightened and alarmed by police shootings in their communities.

“Shooting after shooting, it makes them feel just as vulnerable,” says Hoppe. “I feel a lot more connected now to the Black Lives Matter movement. That movement is our movement, too.”

At UH, Hoppe portrayed Cripple Billy in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, Jaques in William Shakepseare’s As You Like It, miserly Sim Gammon in John O’Keeffe’s Wild Oates, and the increasingly cynical Chaplain in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children.

Hoppe also helped found the Vagabond Theatre Project at UH, where he served as the artistic director and directed Patrick Marber’s Closer, out playwright Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy, and a series of original works written by fellow UH students.

“I loved directing. I actually miss it,” says Hoppe.

He joins Colin Brock, Rachel Dickinson, and Jonathan Gonzalez in Small Jokes About Monsters, which is directed by Clinton Hopper.

What: Small Jokes About Monsters
When: January 12-February 4
Where: The Landing Theatre Company, 1119 Providence St.
Details: landingtheatre.org or 562.505.7469

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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