A decade ago, if you had asked L.A. theater insiders who was the quintessential L.A. playwright, John Steppling probably would have headed the list.
Steppling's bleak, elliptical dramas about the underbelly of the Southern California dream had been produced often in small L.A. theaters in the 1980s and early '90s, winning Steppling a Rockefeller fellowship and awards from the writers' organization PEN West and the LA Weekly. His work was influential enough that "Stepplingesque" was sometimes used to describe other writers' plays that seemed to be in a similar vein.
And that vein was pure L.A. Born and reared here, Steppling wrote almost exclusively about his home region, and he was little known outside of it. His only New York production ("Teenage Wedding," 1991) was either unnoticed or panned by that city's critics. Steppling appeared to be an only-in-L.A. phenomenon.
Since then, however, Steppling has spread his wings. Although his new "Dog Mouth," which opened Saturday at the Evidence Room, is set in the Southwest, it was written in Paris and first workshopped in London. When he flew to L.A. to stage the play's premiere, Steppling left behind a temperature of 17 degrees below zero in his new hometown of Krakow, Poland.
Even before he left L.A. "for good" four years ago, Steppling, now 50, had spent much of the preceding two years in Thailand, correcting English texts of Thai journalists for the Bangkok Post--which, he said, "meant guessing what they were trying to say."
Why did he leave his native turf?
"Such a complex of reasons," he began, after introducing his 22-year-old Polish wife, Anna Kuros, in the Evidence Room lobby on the first day of rehearsals. Steppling looks much as he did when he lived here, with an intricate tattoo covering his left arm, a couple of rings in an ear and a rakish goatee.
Before he left L.A., Steppling had been supporting himself by writing for Hollywood (his favorite credit was "Animal Factory," a 2000 film directed by Steve Buscemi). But it was work that he found "less and less satisfying. I was being offered teen movies, reactionary crime stories, and I wasn't making enough money to justify doing what I didn't like."
He was also tired of seeing his plays produced only in small L.A. theaters. Any money that he made from them was "incredibly modest," he said. "Half the time I ended up putting my own money into them."
Two of his '80s productions, "The Thrill" and "The Dream Coast," were under the auspices of the Mark Taper Forum--but at the 99-seat Taper, Too, not the main stage. "I've known [Taper artistic director] Gordon Davidson for 20 years. I guess if he was going to put me on the main stage, he probably would have," Steppling said, at the same time admitting that he wouldn't want to be "a court eunuch who writes the kind of plays that make Gordon Davidson happy." American theater, he said, "is at a place where not much good stuff gets done, certainly not in the big institutional theaters."
He also felt a wider disaffection with American culture, which he believes "does not trust art very much. It's thought of as another way to anesthetize or distract yourself or as therapy. Quality has been confused with popularity. Art should help awaken you, not numb you."
In all, he said, "I started to understand the impulse for artists to leave where they're from. You have a personal history that becomes burdensome. And that adversarial relationship that artists should have with their society sometimes is easier to manage from farther away."
Steppling first chose Paris because of friends there. After a year, during which he wrote "Dog Mouth," he applied for jobs teaching English in several countries and finally accepted one in Kielce, Poland. "Going to Poland to teach in Kielce," he said wryly, "is like saying you're going to California to teach in Susanville or Red Bluff."
Steppling met his wife in Kielce, but after eight months there, they moved to London, where he knew an agent and several producers. He had received an offer to do a screenplay adaptation. That movie went nowhere, he said, but he did get a job as a story editor on a BBC cartoon called "Popetown"--"like 'South Park' meets the Vatican," he said. "I deeply suspect it'll never get on the air."
A workshop production of "Dog Mouth" took place in London. But the city was impossibly expensive, he said, and while he was working to pay the bills, "there wasn't enough time to do theater." After a year, the couple returned to Poland, where costs were lower. Kuros began university studies in Japanese in Krakow, and Steppling returned to teaching English--which allowed more time to write plays than did "the hysteria and hustle of the film industry."
Krakow, he said, is home for the near future, although he acknowledged it's not a perfect fit. "I've always hated cold weather," he said. "I'm a wimpy Californian. The irony is not lost on me."