Listen to people filing out of a production of a John Steppling play, talking about what they thought of it, and you'll usually hear comments reaching for a point, and not quite getting there. "Those people were pretty wasted." "It was a short play, but it was long too." "Sad, but it was funny, you know?" And then: "I felt like I was watching ghosts onstage."
Some hear the sound of ghosts in his plays, which suggests dramas with reverberation, with a past and a present. These listeners, a growing number, think that John Steppling just may be the purest, finest poet of the stage that Los Angeles has produced in this generation.
But with the tradition-breaking form of his work--an uncommon fusion of cinematic short scenes, language in which silence counts as much as the words, absurdist as well as contemplative moods--some audiences feel out on a limb. (A perfectly fine place for them to be, in Steppling's opinion.) Impatient with this newness, they attach the catch-all term wasted losers to Steppling's characters--like the ex-surfer in "The Shaper" or the broken-hearted dog breeder in "Standard of the Breed."
That may continue with his new play, "The Thrill," opening Tuesday at Taper, Too, the Mark Taper Forum's smaller theater.
Steppling, as he does on many subjects, views the dilemma in two ways. First, "I don't look at them as losers. That's a cruel label." Then he says that, since he can't control the way people think of his work, he won't worry about it. Quoting his mentor, Murray Mednick, playwright and founder of the Padua Hills Playwrights' Workshop/Festival, Steppling says: "It's about the work. Everything else is extra."
One essential extra: It's also about being seen. He has worked--constantly and at enormous volume (19 plays to date)--for the past 11 years on the fringes of L.A. theater, where new theater is born, even if the theater houses there don't survive.
"Close" (1983) was at the Factory Place Theatre. "The Shaper" (1984) was on the Night House stage, then moved to the Met Theatre. "Children of Herakles" (1987) showed at the Boyd Street Theatre. Not even the ghosts of these plays can be heard in those theaters now; they are all defunct. Even Padua, where Steppling learned theater and continues to teach workshops and write plays, appeared not long for this world until last year, when it revitalized itself at its new Cal State Northridge home.
"A precarious existence" is how Steppling described the past decade during a series of interviews. He is neither "successful" nor "unsuccessful" as measured by awards or box office, but he is a surviving stalwart committed to a life in the theater.
Steppling, at 38, looks like a man who takes care of himself, and if he's standing next to his two dogs--Chez, a hulking English mastiff, and Blackie, a bulldog--he'll erase any notion of the artist-as-wimp. But scratch a well-built man, and you'll find a sickly child underneath.
"I was hit with all the childhood diseases," he recalled, "and not just once. I had measles six times. I stayed in the hospital a year, recovering from blood poisoning that happened after a gall bladder operation, which I had to have after an accident. I was puny in junior high.
"But my dad, whom I loved greatly, was so fearful of the world that I got an attitude about weakness, that I wasn't going to be like him. I grew pretty big in high school, but I was still a withdrawn loner."
He remembers how his parents' house would be always open to his father Carl's pals in the movie business. "They were mostly single or divorced, bitter, disappointed, angry guys, usually out of work, living in crappy single apartments around us in Hollywood. I learned how to crack jokes from them, but what I heard most of all was a defeatism that said, 'Don't even bother, kid, because life sucks.'
"All of them had come to California. It was a place where you got stranded." Steppling characters are often emigres to the Golden State. They might arrive on the scene after hitching a ride on a Hormel meat truck. They come from places like Rochester, N.Y., or Las Cruces, N.M., or, as with Nat Pink and partner-in-hustling, Walter, in "The Thrill," Providence, R.I.
"My dad and these guys crop up in my plays because I was so affected by them," he explains. "I was around them all the time. I love the West because it's still big and open and a frontier. But history gets plowed under here. That, and my upbringing gave me this sense of exile."
The closest Steppling came to a theater education was a sense of bloodline--Carl was an actor, and his grandfather, John Steppling, had acted in D.W. Griffith's silent films. Carl read Shakespeare to him. Steppling took one theater course at Hollywood High, "but I can't remember what it was about. The only schoolwork I ever cared about was a report I wrote on Beckett's novel, 'Watt.' "