State Of The Artist: There's No Percentage To Be Gained In Being Rude

Jun 24, 2019

 

Chicago Playwright Douglas Post's award-winning plays have been globally produced and widely published. He has been commissioned to write screenplays for Warner Bros. and NBC, teleplays for WMAQ-TV, and radio adaptations of his scripts. He's even been nominated for an Emmy. He is a founding member of Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble, is on the faculty at Chicago Dramatists, and serves on the Council for the Dramatists Guild

In short, Douglas Post is successful and I wanted to find out how. I wanted to see firsthand how he keeps himself in a constant state of creativity. I followed him for a day and interviewed him in his favorite places in Chicago.

We picked Doug up on a snowy February morning at his home in Irving Park.
Credit Connie Kuntz

I picked him up on a snowy February morning outside his house in Irving Park. When we pulled up, Doug was shoveling and chatting with his neighbor. He put down his shovel, said goodbye to his neighbor, and got in the car. We headed north to Lincoln Park.

 

Lincoln Park is home to Greenhouse Theater Center which is a producing theater company, a performance venue, and theater bookstore. Doug has been coming to the Greenhouse for decades as a patron and playwright. We spoke on the same stage where he has had five plays and one rock opera produced. 

Though Doug has seen dozens of theater productions here, and countless others across the globe, he said seeing theater isn't where he draws his inspiration. 

"I tend to get my ideas more from the world, more from what I read, and more from what I am ruminating about than seeing other people's plays," he said.

We talked about his reading culture. He said he was reading a collection of plays by current and former playwrights. We talked about David Mamet, a playwright and author who wrote in his book "True and False" that "Most plays are better read than performed." Doug disagreed:

"Well, Mr. Mamet -- also a Chicago boy -- I think has very strict ideas of how his plays should be performed. And I think because of that, the experience, it's more fulfilling for him if he can simply read the text. That is only one part of the experience. I do think plays are literature, but in order to be fully understood they have to be produced in three dimensions with living, breathing actors moving through space."

Doug has many talents, one of which is expressing a strong opinion in a kind way. I asked him how his gentle demeanor informs him as a person and as a playwright.

"I don't think there's any percentage to be gained in being rude to people," he said. "But in terms of my writing, I think about text and subtext a lot, so sometimes my characters may superficially seem very nice, but there's other things going on underneath. There's the thing that they're saying, and there's the thing that they're really saying underneath all that."

That is definitely true. Without spoiling anything, Doug's plays often contain characters who are charming murderers. His plots are difficult to predict and take surprising twists and turns. And his intriguing plots equate to great roles for men and women. 

We delved into his crime culture. Doug wasn't exposed to crime as a child. Doug was exposed to the world and theatre. His father worked for Shell Oil Company and the family moved several times before Doug went to college. They even lived in England for three years. He said his parents took him and his brothers to see theatre because it was less expensive than hiring a babysitter. So at an early age, he was constantly exposed to theatre and art. He said he became truly aware that crime happens in high school when he read the Greek tragedies.

"I read 'The Oresteia' first. I remember reading Eugene O'Neill's 'Mourning Becomes Electra.' And you know, I remember reading some Shakespeare, too. You become aware that violent acts are often the basis of great drama," he said.

As he matured, his understanding of crime deepened, especially when he became a father. He and his wife have two sons who are now adults. When their sons were young, Doug was a part of a neighborhood association in Irving Park that dealt with crime, gangs, and graffiti. He talked about his involvement.

"Part of it was my own curiosity. I really wanted to know what was going on around us. In time I began to realize, 'Man, there's a great drama here,' so at some point, when I left the organization, I wrote a play called 'Comden Mall Community Activists,' which is loosely based on that experience. But that's probably the closest I have come to experiencing the criminal element," he said.

After talking at the Greenhouse, Doug and I drove to his second location of inspiration, Pritzker Pavillion in Millenium Park. On our way there, we talked about Chicago being a "city of neighborhoods" and I asked him if he likes Irving Park more than Lincoln Park. 

"Well they're two very different neighborhoods," he said. "I mean, Lincoln Park has been gentrified, I think, to within an inch of its life. I think we feel that Irving Park could use a little bit of that gentrification, so I think if we could take some of what's here and bring it to the northwest side, we'd be doing alright."

Douglas Post at Pritzker Pavillion in Millenium Park.

After we parked, we strolled through Millenium Park, and Doug talked about how it informs his creativity.

"I love coming out to the Pritzker Pavillion, experiencing live music, experiencing the crowds. There's this fantastic view of our illustrious skyline."

He spoke about architecture and his grandfather.

"So my grandfather, Joseph Slupkowski, first generation Polish American, was an architect in the City of Chicago and designed a number of prominent buildings, including the Polish National Alliance Building, which is now where Jeanne Gang and her company have set up shop." Doug says this would have thrilled his grandfather.

After Millenium Park, we drove to Welles Park, which has an outdoor volleyball court. Playing volleyball is an activity that nurtures his creativity and focus. 

"I love being on the beach. I love being near the water. I love playing a game where all I have to do is try to keep a ball in the air."

A playwright keeps many balls in the air. As they write dialogue, they design sets, imagine costumes, props, lights, and much more. Our last stop was the place where the craftsmanship happens, inside his house in Irving Park where he and his wife, Nancy Heap, raised their two sons. 

Once inside, Doug was greeted by Nancy and his golden retriever. I noticed the doggie bed was in the center of the living room, as opposed to a corner or side of the room. I think this sign of respect for animals is another great clue about what contributes to Doug's success.

A happy and pampered golden retriever is another clue into what keeps Douglas Post successful.
Credit Connie Kuntz

   

We walked downstairs to his office, which tidily teems with inspiration. It is stocked with thousands of books, well organized by what Nancy calls the "Dougy Decimal System" (the books are organized by genre not numbers).

There are a myriad of musical instruments. There is a victrola. There are board games. On his desk is a typewriter and a cup of freshly sharpened pencils that is somehow more refreshing than a bouquet of flowers. Doug says he uses his typewriter for filling out forms such as paying bills because, ironically, the neat writer does not have neat handwriting. He has a computer there, too. That is what he uses for playwriting.

Doug designed and built this office. He spoke to the inspiration for it:

"This room is very much patterned after a library that exists at the O'Neill on the third floor of the main building where I used to spend a lot of time."

Doug has developed many plays at the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference and the O'Neill National Music Theater Conference. He continued:

"I would go up there to write or rewrite. I would go up there to read. It was not unlike this -- a big old table surrounded by books."

He's surrounded by books in a house of love and music, in a neighborhood he understands, in a city he enjoys, in the state of the country of the world that produces his plays. His plays have provided work for hundreds of artists and intelligent entertainment for thousands of people. I asked him why he keeps writing.

"I suppose I just like doing it."

Douglas Post's adaptation of "Howards End" runs August-October at Remy Bumppo in Chicago.