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Hysterical Historiography

In this, the first of a two part interview, playwright and Times Quotidian contributor Rita Valencia speaks with Gunfighter Nation Artistic Direct John Steppling about his motivations to form the new Los Angeles based laboratory theater group. In Part Two Valencia will be speaking with Lex Steppling about the youth connection and contributions to Gunfighter Nation.

Gunfighter Nation presents The Alamo Project
An Interview with Rita Valencia and John Steppling

The Alamo Project is an evening of short plays about the Alamo. The Alamo, the legendary 1835 seige of a Texan mission, is emblematic of the ease with which past events can become myth, and how myth serves the purpose of the mythmakers. As part of this process, history, real history, becomes irrelevant…but there is the devil to pay. And that’s where Gunfighter Nation steps up, with a body of idiosyncratic plays that twist the tale in totally unexpected ways. It’s a late night event to begin after the regularly scheduled play at the Odyssey Theater. So have an dopio espresso after dinner and head on down.

This is the first group project of Gunfighter Nation, a new coalition that has formed of young, socially and politically active youth and experienced writers and actors. Many of the older people have a history in this town as a sort of underground literary movement. Some were members of Padua Playwrights and others have joined the fold more recently. They share a unique utopian, idealistic vision that contrasts with the latent cynicism of commercially driven art-making which dominates the current cultural domain. (And it’s a membership that’s had multiple theater awards, grants and productions to their credit, but have eschewed a commercial or academic/institutional career.)

The name Gunfighter Nation comes with a quote by D.H. Lawrence: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer”. At the outset, the group embraces the notion of owning a legacy which is steeped in the ugly stereotypes that we recognize as American, but wish to disclaim, and transforming these ideas by actively inhabiting them. I took a few minutes to speak with Gunfighter Nation’s artistic director, John Steppling, at Burrito King in Silver Lake about the genesis of the company.

Rita Valencia : What is it you are trying to accomplish with Gunfighter Nation?

John Steppling: I returned from living out of the country eleven years and wanted to start a group, but had no grand plan. The idea was to start with people whose work I respected and create a laboratory setting for theater and eventually film. Crucially, we would work without joining into the competition for turning out an economically determined product. No auditioning. No ulterior motives to be adopted by Hollywood, or a big institutional theater, or ANYBODY. So I got together with my son Lex, and Wes Walker, Guy Zimmerman, others like Harvey Perr, and we had a discussion about the idea of putting on work with “no critics”, and also to make this be an educational process: a laboratory setting for theater and film with a pedagogical dimension. We felt it was important to attract people who had not necessarily worked in theater: young writers and community activists. My question was, is there a hidden voice within the culture that we can develop?

Now, “Alamo” is a theater project, and to that end we’ve developed a mutually satisfying relationship with Ron Sossi and the Odyssey Theatre which is free from bureaucratic hysteria, political correctness and the unnecessary pressures of unrealistic economic goals. But even though we have been able to pull together a show and a venue, we are emphatically not creators of product. This is perhaps an impossible thing in a society that is over saturated with commodification…

RV: Theater has been dying for years, trying so hard to be financially viable.

JS: It is interesting, after being away from L.A., to come back to the institutional theater scene in Los Angeles, and to find that the Mark Taper Forum not only has no interest in creating art, but a vested interest in destroying it. Art is challenging to people’s conventional concepts about the world and as such it is not a stable business venture. Entities like the Mark Taper Forum are closed to the community on not just an institutional level but on a psychic level. This is precisely why there needs to be a group like Gunfighter Nation, creating a community which is process-oriented, not goal-oriented, where we are looking for what works in a piece of writing and what does not. As soon as the economic is prioritized you have created the first and most profound obstacle to transformation, and you will be crippled. There are economic realities which of course we recognize, and we are not offering solutions, only attitudes and techniques. That’s why we have reached out to people who are engaged in social justice issues.

RV: Don’t social activists tend to be suspicious of artists?

JS: Well now, on the left wing, or “progressive” side, art is supposed to be morally instructive and supportive of the ideology of progressive politics. On the right wing, “conservative” side of the culture, the arts are seen as entertainment, escape, and a vehicle for celebrity. Both are wrong. The problem on the left, with its demand for moral instruction, and then its marriage with political correctness, results in this confusion about the anti-hierarchical, and the confusion leads us to a lack of discrimination, a lack of rigour. You don’t do anyone a favor by lying to them. So where we are at with “post-modernism” is that there are questions that need to be asked and are not being vigorously pursued. Perhaps only a full economic collapse will open the dialogue on these questions. You cannot separate the economic and the cultural.

RV: Hasn’t high art, art that requires a certain level of training and knowledge to appreciate or enjoy, always been an experience for the very few?

JS: You cannot sustain any communal memory or consciousness with mass media product. The country is starving–psychically and spiritually. High art is unavailable to the culture at large–so how can anyone even have a chance to develop a taste for it? Big theater/art institutions have become culturally irrelevant. But they have the potential to reclaim relevance. This is a question that education needs to address. A great number of people, given access and tutelage, would make art and respond to it. But there is a vested interest in stopping that from happening. It is like being at a supermarket with only Pepsi and Coke. Buying up the cultural shelf space right now are the big media empires. Theater becomes pathetic–maybe they put up an August Wilson revival with a movie star in it–to what end? The Taper, the Geffen, South Coast Rep–are on tenuous ground financially. They should all go out of business. Young writers need a place to experiment, to fail, to succeed, to learn; not to aspire to these middlebrow graveyards that are institutional theaters. The Taper and its ilk are totally irrelevant. Can ANYBODY in this city actually say, “I can’t wait to see what the next season of the Taper is going to be”?

RV: You mentioned excluding theater critics from the group and from the shows.

JS: The reason we decided we didn’t want them is because they are part of this problem. What use are they to artists? They don’t help getting audience to shows, they are a nuisance and an irritating insult. On the whole they are uneducated, philistine, and interested only in pandering to the institutional theater they serve.

Art must be disruptive, awakening, and personally transformative. Adorno said that the rise of fascism in Germany was largely a result of the destruction of education after World War One. Today we are besieged with a vulgar barbarism that we have to stand up to if we are going to survive as a community of artists and thinkers.


  1. Nancy Cantwell says:

    It seems that Mr. Steppling is looking for love in all the wrong places. A reset of expectation levels might be in order. One look at the board of directors of the Center Theater Group should give you a clue that this is an entertainment venue, not a cultural petrie dish. Total economic collapse? Careful what you wish for. Front and centre on the Odyssey Theatre’s home page is an URGENT request for funding in lieu of the Los Angeles City Council’s decision to rescind the $1.00 per-year leases for 116 nonprofit organizations. Mr. Sossi predicts that without such economic support the Odyssey will be closed within months.
    And really Mr. Steppling, who among us is not a critic? Oh right, I forgot, you are not offering any solutions only attitude.

  2. john steppling says:

    Let me try to clarify Ms Cantwell’s confused notions of economy and culture.

    The fact that the board of directors for the center theatre group is full of philistines, is exactly the point. A flagship theatre run by such people has managed over the last forty years to lock down almost all arts funding and grant giving (to theatre) and to effectively marginalize most small theatres.

    The fact that the Taper (CTG) and other large cultural institutions exert such dominance speaks to the virtual paralysis in the arts system. Thats the point.

    As for total economic collapse………..well, those with nothing to lose have, er, nothing to lose. Im not wishing for total collapse, only suggesting that such a total makeover might be the only thing that can begin to reclaim genuine authenticity in the arts. That the hegemony of big arts institutions has be mediated, or all you are ever going to get are bland non-threatening junk — the spiritual version of Doritos.

    As for Ron and the Odyssey; Im certainly aware of the problems. I hope the city stops short of shutting down these organizations (in essence) . It would be more short sighted thinking on the part of the desperate U.S. government,…..including down to city level. But such is the current crisis in global capital. But I certainly never suggested otherwise in the above interview.

    Sticking to Los Angeles theatre though, my distaste for the ruling brie and chablis cartels that run these moth eaten mausoleums is profound. The petit bourgeois “intelligensia” has always recoiled from the disturbing energy of the under-class. The dialectics of culture and the ruling class remains, and so we see in Ms Cantwell’s snide defensiveness about keeping the facade of respectibility in place. As for who of us is not a critic…………..um……………we are speaking of those who are PAID to be critics. Those with exsposure in corporate media. (does this really need to be explained?)

    So no, we dont offer solutions, we offer our work. One would hope that is what actually matters. One would hope transformation begins with work……and a giving voice to people denied that voice by a repressive corporate machinery that sub contracts its cultural carpet bombing to places like the Center Theatre Group.

  3. john steppling says:

    * the hegemony of big arts institutions has to be mediated, or all you are ever going to get is the bland non-threatening junk one sees on the stages of big LA theatre — the spiritual version of Doritos.

    (it should read……:))

  4. Guy Zimmerman says:

    I want to weigh in here in support of what John is articulating. He and I spent a decent amount of time unpacking the concept of “placebo art” on an internet dialogue with the left wing website Cyrano’s Journal, and the points we raised are certainly germaine. The role of cultural institutions in the States is largely to protect the population from the transformative energy that art has to offer. It’s not enough to suppress the arts. The real achievement is to celebrate something that looks and sounds like art but that is missing the transformative energy that makes art valuable to begin with. It wasn’t always this way and certainly things will shift again. Since the birth of the modern era a pendulum has been swinging…but it’s important to realize that it has swung waaaaay to the rightwing end of the spectrum…and perhaps now is on the way back. This is, of course, a huge topic, but I want to underscore the vitality artists like John bring to the table. It’s good to have him back.

  5. Lena Valencia says:

    I’m just shocked that John got my mom to set foot in Burrito King.

  6. Have you tried the soft tostada burrito?

  7. David Morris says:

    How, er, charming to see that there are people in the world who still believe ‘commercial’ art is somehow inherently superior to ‘non-commercial’ art. That kind of thinking departed with the 70s. No critics? That’s no surprise, given what they all have had to say about John Steppling’s work over the years. If he hadn’t been universally panned I bet the farm he would invite them in.

  8. john steppling says:

    well, thanks to rita for both these interviews (mine and lex’s).

    I do think its interesting that a couple of comments (one here and one elsewhere on this site but relating to me) have brought up this policy we decided on over at Gunfighter Nation, which was to not invite critics.

    I mean i think i got more than my fair share of great reviews over the years, and a good many bad ones. The decision had to do with the role, structurally, that critics have come to play in our culture………..and that is, as consumer advocates.

    Mr Morris seems confused about several things……(who is saying commercial is better than non commerical…….wtf?) but certainly the idea of inviting critics is not based on some fear of the bad review. Has Morris bothered to check the good vs bad reviews in my history>? I doubt it. But again, the question has to do with the role critics play. So maybe Morris might explore that one. I actually wish more people in theatre would stop pandering to critics. Imagine a world free of reviews………….

    we can only dream.

  9. Lex Steppling says:

    Mr. Morris’ comment carries the stench of a man who has a hard time sitting comfortably.

    The no critics policy evolved out of a discussion around the role of art. We are a process based group. Not an entertainment company.

    John Steppling’s production of Dog Mouth 8 years ago (his last American production) did not receive one bad review.

    What a weak handed slap of a comment.

  10. John-

    I understand perfectly your point of criticizing critics, and agree they don’t always endorse or censure based simply on the work itself. I feel a lot of feedback in general, from the art school setting upwards, is dictated by factors that rarely have much to do with the work at hand: factors such as who the artist is, where they are showing, the “conceptual” content of the work, gender, and so on. But I am curious for your thoughts on my take of criticism itself.

    As I am sure you know—anyone who has ever tried to verbally describe something visual knows—a large part of being a critic is being able to describe the content, in various different ways, of the show at hand. The politics of opinion aside, this simple act, perhaps the core job of being an art critic, seems very necessary. For a production such as the one you just produced, in order for people who could not see the production itself to still experience your work, someone has to undertake the job of verbally summarizing their experience of the night. Unless you feel all that artwork should be experienced firsthand, this seems to me a valuable service. Seeing this skill as being at the core of all good criticism, I feel hopeful, perhaps even inspired, by the idea (at least) of criticism.

  11. john steppling says:

    escaping artist.
    I agree……..look, i love real criticism. Ive learned a lot from various poets for example, from ezra pound to james wright to bly and Auden and Empson. All of them write about language so this was of great interest to me.

    And critics like robert hughes — notwithstanding that he wrote for TIME, was terrific. A very smart and penetrating analyst, free of the usual pretensions.

    And on and on and on. Criticism is the soul of art — i could argue that I think. No, my complaint is about what passes for critics………who are really reviewers. They are like restaurant reviewers. If you like souffle, you will love the new Taper production yada yada yada. They are only consumer advocates and most of them have no business writing about a field, a discipline, about which they know so little.

  12. Thank you John. I find this very refreshing. I can’t tell you the amount of conversations that I have with fellow artists about critics. I’m not sure what the answer is but I can say that the critics have destroyed some of the most promising and courageous of careers and work. I, like you, believe that there must be a place for people to experiment and find their voice. Downtown NY theater was just that place at one time. LA needs a place like that as well ,if it is ever to rise to a level of true artistic independence and grace. I commend you for your words and your courage. I too am attempting to blaze a trail. I wish you the best of luck and hope to cross paths with you some day.

  13. I didn’t know John Steppling was back. Many of his works have remained prominent in my memory for something like 30 years. Glad to see he is connected with Ron Sossi – a great guy I knew years ago. I love to go see a play cold – with no idea what it’s about – and let it hit me over the head – knock me out – etc. The only thing about reviews is they let me know the work exists – so I can go see it. I stumbled on this site today and I am reminding myself to make time for live theater. I will attend.

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