In November 2020, Studio’s Associate Artistic Director Reginald Douglas interviewed playwright/director Ike Holter about writing and rehearsing I Hate It Here for its world premiere at Studio. This is an edited and condensed version of their conversation.
Reginald Douglas: What’s inspired you in your career? You’re a playwright. You’re a director. How did it all start?
Ike Holter: I started in Chicago. Chicago has a lot of big theatres and a lot of small theatres. I came up here when I was 18 years old to go to DePaul. Once you get to know a few people within the city who work, the general mood is that we have to introduce you to so-and-so. You’ll go to so-and-so’s party, and you can work the box office. Oh you’re the box office? Why don’t you sit in on this workshop? So it was kind of a monkey bar system of this leads to this leads to this.
I grew up as someone who wanted to do it all—back from grade school I was writing shows and directing shows. Chicago is the place that fused all of it together and made it a possibility. I love New York and I love all these other huge cities. But me being a twentysomething and figuring things out, I couldn’t pay $1,000 a month for rent. In Chicago I paid $300 a month for a huge place with a back yard and we did shows inside it. Moving to Chicago lit a different kind of spark in me to create.
RD: Something I’ve always admired is even pre-pandemic, you’re working in lots of different mediums and genres, not just theatre. What has that been like, as a playwright and director?
IH: In March, as things started closing, I figured that things wouldn’t be back soon, wouldn’t be back for a year, probably. So I asked myself, “Who am I if I am not this? Am I only a playwright? Am I only allowed to create within a proscenium set or a black box? Or, am I good at other stuff? Is theatre the most accessible and fun way for me to get my voice out there?”
So I reached out to the Chicago Tribune and have been writing a column. I got in touch with people and said I wanted to make a short film.
Yeah, it was really depressing for a minute. But then I realized we all have to level up. We’re making movies now. We’re making albums—if you’re doing an audio play that doesn't have a connected plot, embrace the idea that it's an album. It’s been great working on I Hate it Here, working with our great dramaturg Adrien. We’ve been able to break down the idea of the piece being a theatre show. Because really—there aren’t rules any more, it’s the Wild Wild West.
I’ve always been someone who likes changing hats. I am a writer, director, producer, activist, outspoken sonovabitch...all that other stuff. And this year I've been like, “Oh, I have to utilize all these things.”
RD: I think you’re spot-on here: We have to tell stories in a new way. Can you talk a little about being a playwright and director on a world premiere—how do you balance the two roles?
IH: Well, first of all, when I got the email from Studio in April, I was really excited because that was the first time I saw a theatre saying, “We have to get ahead of this. We have to figure out how we continue to tell stories.”
So I was so excited. I was like, “Oh, please!” I have a lot of ideas kicking around in my head everybody does, but I have never written a play purely because I wanted to just get it out of me. Plays aren’t books. I wrote it knowing I knew how I thought it should work—knowing I was thinking of directing.
I Hate it Here is stories and scenes and a couple songs from a lot of people who are at a breaking point. A lot of people who are at the edge of the Old World and going into a new world, whatever that means. It is about 2020, but at the same time it is about any year where people are suffering and pushed to a break. This is a play that starts out like a Broadway musical and then goes into, like, weird indie thriller and then goes into a drama.
It all came together in a really cool way—I could call my friend Behzad and say, “hey you’ve got a great microphone. I wrote you three scenes; let’s hop on Zoom and get this done.”
I think when you listen to it, it'll sound different from what you're used to thinking an audio play can do.
RD: Can you talk a bit about the process of recording the audio play with the actors and sound designer Mikhail Fiksal?
IH: Wow, I met Misha during the Bush years. We go back a long time. But yeah, he is a great designer, a fast designer, and that's one of the things I like about him.
Audio plays aren't new. I remember growing up listening to Prairie Home Companion. By Garrison Keillor. Every Saturday night with my family. So as a kid, I was like, “Oh wow, they're doing all of this stuff live.” So I've always grown up with the idea that anything is possible.
One thing I’ve had to work with the actors on—that I’ve learned on other audio plays—is when actors only have their voice, they’re going to push their voice to the actual limit to achieve what their body cannot. So I'm not saying it was easy, but it was very fun. It was very fun saying, “Here is this insanely intense monologue where if you were on stage you would be aware of your voice. You would be aware of the way that your hair looks, the way that your nose is doing this. If you had a cold. Whether your costume is too tight. You’d make sure the light hits you.”
There's all this other math that goes with performing in person. But here I think when people listen, they're going to hear surprisingly raw vocals and choices that actors can only do with audio.
Add all these elements in an and there's a safety and the fluidity of that. I think that was that was really cool.
RD: What is your vision for the future? What are you looking forward to and what do you hope is the read on of the American theatre after this pandemic?
IH: After this age of people working and seeing work without not being in proximity to each other, no one's going to forget—if I can do a meeting through Zoom, I’m not going to fly. We don’t need to be so focused on presence in the room.
And it’s true about our audiences as well. I have friends who are disabled who have been saying this their entire life: “If I can't go, I can’t see it.” But that’s not true. I hope now, after all these experiments, we figure out a way to really think about what we lose when we’re not accessible to people.
And there were a lot of promises this past summer; a lot of white leaders within the theatrical field said, “No more, we're going to stop this. Stop this racism, we're gonna stop it.”
I don't have anything much to say about that, but we all took their receipts and we all kept them, so I'm very anxious for them to fulfill their promises.
I haven’t seen any theatres fulfilling the actual goals they put out there yet, including that they’d program to have their seasons written, directed, and cast with people of color—just to represent the world we live in. I do think that's a start for people to fulfill the promises they made during the pandemic, and to never forget that.