Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Never Give Up: An Interview with Playwright Keith Huff

MCT Education confesses unabashedly to falling in the ranks of Keith Huff fandom.  After the playwright visited MCT for the first rehearsal of THE DETECTIVE’S WIFE, he graciously consented to an interview so that our patrons might also get to know the artist behind the words just a bit better.  Enjoy!

MCT: What is your personal attraction to the mystery as a genre?  Is it the search for Truth, as your character Alice Conroy puts it; the lure of constructing a puzzle; or something else altogether?

Playwright Keith Huff
HUFF: All of those things, really.  In addition to being a bit of a mystery junkie myself, the personal attraction of the mystery genre in a theater piece is its immediate accessibility.  As Alice Conroy, contemplating the appeal of popular mysteries and the nature of mystery itself, says in the play: “In canned mysteries, nobody ever gets away with murder.  The investigator always sees through the ruse.  It’s the single inviolable law of the genre.  Break that law and whoever’s pulling the levers behind the curtain will be called out as a fraud.  An imposter.  More of a criminal than the criminal or criminals of his or her creation.”  As audience members, we know the rules going in.  A body drop at the outset.  A solution to the whodunit (and why) by the end.  More to the point, I’ve been very interested lately in exploring popular genres theatrically.  A STEADY RAIN, which went to Broadway (with Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig), was shaped by the rules of the buddy-cop genre.  BIG LAKE BIG CITY, which recently premiered at Lookingglass Theater this summer (directed by David Schwimmer), was shaped by the rules of noir crime genre popularized by James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler.  I have a new play in development TELL US OF THE NIGHT) that is a police procedural and THE DETECTIVE’S WIFE, of course, is a murder mystery.  My interest, however, does not begin and end in merely emulating these genres to tell stories theatrically.  Implicit in the form of each piece are larger questions.  In THE DETECTIVE’S WIFE, for example, Alice asks why people find the mystery genre so appealing.  Is it because our very lives are so hugely mysterious and unsolvable?  Alice poses this question in the play, but she’s also living it.

MCT: Do we like our fictional mysteries packaged this neatly because the mysteries we encounter in real life never come to us as neatly packaged?

HUFF: That depends on the person.  The mysteries we encounter in real life cause some of us a great deal of anxiety.  Others, though, find real life mystery intriguing.  Keats called the capacity of a person to live in Mystery and Doubt “negative capability."  Some people have more “negative capability” than others. 

MCT: A playwright’s process is a solitary one.  Where does your process as a writer in this medium start, and how does it unfold?

HUFF: The playwright’s process is solitary.  But that’s what I love most about writing plays.  I wrote THE DETECTIVE’S WIFE straight through.  What I mean by that is Alice spoke her first line (“When my husband was gunned down on duty, I lost my voice.”) and I just wrote it down and got out of her way – I let her tell her own story.  I did not outline the play first.  Alice had a mystery to solve so I followed her down dead ends and all the way to the end.  My process of discovery of Alice’s story was the same journey she takes, the very journey she takes the audience on.  I try to write plays that are “experiential” – an experience.  I experience the story while I write, so I want audiences to have that experience as well.

MCT: Chicago’s home for you and your family.  The city also features in many of the stories you have crafted or have in development, both for the stage and television.  What about Chicago inspires or flavors your work?  What do you think it is about Chicago that draws audiences?

HUFF: I get asked this a lot and I answer the question differently each time.  Today I’d have to say I really enjoy the way Midwestern people speak, the way we put together ideas, the way we express ourselves.  Language is so integral to identity.  Midwestern speech has an enjoyable musicality all its own, just as East Coast plays are “so New York” and West Coast plays are “so L.A.”

MCT: What’s on your bookshelf or in your Netflix queue?

HUFF: I’m currently reading The Revolution Was Televised and The Accountant’s Story (Pablo Escobar’s story told by his brother Roberto) on my Kindle.  I just read Power Systems by Noam Chomsky.  NetFlix: “Orange Is the New Black,” “Portlandia,” “Luther,” and “Derek.”

MCT: What advice would you give to writers in the trenches?

HUFF: It’s cliché but: Never Give Up.  My manager said to me again the other day: Keith, it took you 30 years to become an overnight success.  It’s a little embarrassing to think of it that way, but it’s true.  While I was writing, trying to get my plays produced, I had another career.  I was a Medical Editor for more than 25 years.  When A STEADY RAIN went to Broadway in 2009, I was finally able to leave that career track and make a decent living as a writer, something I’d always hoped for (but at times seemed impossible).  After Broadway came offers to write for “Mad Men” and “House of Cards.”  I sold original TV pilots to HBO, AMC, and STARZ.  It all still seems surreal (and a little bit crazy) to me.  But I broke through because I never gave up.  And when additional opportunities presented themselves, I was ready for them because I never gave up.  So Never Give Up!

More about THE DETECTIVE'S WIFE Playwright Keith Huff:

Chicago resident Keith Huff grew up in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin and graduated from Wilmot Union High School. He most recently served as a writer/producer for the first season of the Netflix original series “House of Cards.” The series has been nominated for nine Emmy Awards, including Best Drama Series.  He was also a writer/producer for the 2010 season of “Mad Men.” In 2009 his play A STEADY RAIN had a sold-out Broadway run starring Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman. A screen version of that play is also in development. THE DETECTIVE’S WIFE premiered in 2011 at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois. Huff has also written a television series pilot based on THE DETECTIVE’S WIFE. His latest play, BIG LAKE BIG CITY, premiered in June at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre, directed by David Schwimmer. His other plays include DEEP BLUE SEA, DOG STORIES, GRAY CITY, HARRY'S WAY, PROSPERITY, PURSUED BY HAPPINESS, THE AGE OF CYNICISM and THE BIRD AND MR. BANKS and have been produced off-Broadway, internationally and nationally. He has an MFA from the University of Iowa's Playwright's Workshop and he also briefly attended Marquette University. An emeritus playwright of Chicago Dramatists, he is the recipient of a Writers Guild Award, a Jeff Award, the Cunningham Prize, the John Gassner Award, the Berrilla Kerr Award, and three Illinois Arts Council Playwriting Fellowships.

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