Eric Steele is a busy young Dallas playwright and screenwriter who thinks theater and film aren't mutually exclusive art forms. With his show The Midwest Trilogy, now playing through April 7 at Second Thought Theatre, he's combined two films and one live actor into a single 90-minute production.
Just off his daily bike ride around White Rock Lake, Steele, one of the owners of Oak Cliff's Texas Theatre, was up for talking about the trilogy, which includes short films called Cork's Cattlebaron and Topeka, and a live one-man play titled - get ready - Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self.
Steele says the pieces were inspired by his experiences over two years of traveling the Midwest on business for a technology research company. Things are not good out there, he says. The recession is taking a toll and hate-spewing groups like the Westboro Baptist bunch are gaining a following. Here's Steele, talking about the show, his admiration for its star, Dallas actor Barry Nash, and how he found inspiration in the isolation of corporate travel:
"The Midwest Trilogy is about the heartland of corporate America, not Wall Street. It's about three separate but linked towns, three different people who are tragic characters in corporate America. And specifically one instance in their world and their lives that is their moment of catharsis.
"The idea to combine film and live theater was presented to me by Second Thought Theatre. Steven Walters [founder and artistic director of Second Thought] had said he'd loved Bob Birdnow [performed at last summer's Festival of Independent Theatres]. But Steve felt that not enough people in the theater community had had a chance to see it. He was aware that I had written two correlating pieces. His idea was to have these three presented as one evening. "The way the evening works is, we've set up the Bryant Hall stage as a hotel convention center in the Midwest. You have name tags and coffee in Styrofoam cups and bad cookies. There's a projector in the middle of the room. When the lights go out, there's a narration, the voice of the boss. The experience begins from there. The film part of the night is presented as instructional videos. The final piece is Bob emerging as the motivational speaker.
"This is a co-production between Second Thought and the Texas Theatre. Our idea with this is to make it more of a psychological effect on the audience. As though when you go to a sales conference, when you're watching a video or a PowerPoint, you know there won't be any surprises. And then have that shift with a live body coming in, where anything can happen. I think it's really interesting. I think we're going to see more of that kind of stuff.
"The film Cork's Cattlebaron has three characters. Los Angeles actor Robert Longstreet plays the Boss. Robert's one of the finest actors I've ever seen. He was at SXSW in three different films. Frank Mosley plays his young employee. Frank's a Dallas actor and filmmaker new to theater scene. Alicia Anthony plays the waitress.
"Topeka is a short film about a young man from New York who goes into the Midwest for a meeting. Before the meeting he stops at a coffee shop and enters into what he suspects is a cult gathering. It's a culture clash over coffee, and it was inspired by the Westboro Baptist church and this feeling of hostility that seems to bubble up from that area of the Midwest. All the vitriolic arguments about religion, women's rights and women's bodies and what they can do with them - all of these things that are so private have become so public. It seems like I cannot escape hearing about what's happening in the middle of this country and it's as though we're in a pre-civil war era again. It's so volatile, it seems. This piece of theater plays with that.
"I am so lucky to have found Barry Nash, who plays Bob Birdnow in the third piece. His performance in this is beautiful. I have grown to respect him as an actor and as a human being. He's one of the most genuine, wonderful men I've ever met in my life. I have him to thank for a lot of this. Barry had been a part of the first reading of the play at Kitchen Dog Theater and Birdnow really spoke to him. [He also starred in it at FIT.] He stayed on me for a year and a half to produce this. He believed in it. I have him to thank for really orchestrating this.
"In 2008, I spent 200 days on an airplane. Traveling for the company I was with, I would meet clients in Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma. A lot of this project came out of isolation. I was alone in these towns, in hotels, on airplanes. I was in cities that I didn't know anyone in. The recession had just hit. Everyone was in fear of losing their job. I think a lot of these things came from that. I related to the film Up in the Air. The Clooney character is sort of turned on by that power of being able to breeze through airports and get frequent flyer miles. My stuff is the opposite of that. I was miserable. This came out of my pain and trying to make sense of it without going to a therapist. I wrote about it.
"I feel pulled to work in live theater because I can't get away from it. The element of being with other people watching flesh and blood onstage -- I love it. I think there's a reason why live theater has been with us since the dawn of existence. It never goes away. Being able to see another human being live onstage -- there's nothing like it."
The Midwest Trilogy runs Thursday-Sunday through April 7 at Bryant Hall (next to Kalita Humphreys Theater), 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or go to http://www.secondthoughttheatre.com/
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