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.