May 30th, 2012
Moving a story like that of John Wayne Gacy, Jr. from the real world into a theatrical realm is no small feat. To get some insight into just how she approached the material, and what the process of the play has been like, we digitally sat down with playwright Calamity West for a gchat discussion about previous fictionalizations of Gacy, the difference a room full of artists makes, and the inspirational music of choice when tackling such a tricky subject. (Hint: it’s not what you’d think.) The transcript of the conversation is below, in a sort of dramaturgical word-poem; thanks to Calamity for sharing her insights with us, and don’t forget that The Gacy Play starts previews on June 23rd and opens June 28th!
Sideshow: I know you’ve already spoken about this in our Bandwagon newsletter, but just for the folks at home: could you talk a bit about the genesis of The Gacy Play?
Calamity West: Sure!
I didn’t know anything about John Wayne Gacy until [Gacy Play director] Jonathan Green told me about him. The part I remember most vividly in Jonathan’s telling of Gacy’s legacy was the incident of the swing.
Gacy was, apparently, hit in the head by a swing when he was a child and doctors speculated this caused a blood clot in his brain – and so they continued treating him as if he had a blood clot all his life. I think this is a big part of who Gacy was. Confined into the perception of a sickly child, much to the disappointment of his uber-masculine father – which again, was a large part ( I believe ) of Gacy’s pathology. So, yes. This idea of innocence and accidents struck a resounding chord with me – and I felt driven to learn everything I could about the serial killer. And the deeper I went, the more transfixed I became. So, I’d learn something, run over to Jonathan and say, “did you know this? And this? And this?” and finally he just said, “why don’t you write a play about it?” And I did. And Jonathan’s been there every step of the way.
IT SHOULD ALSO BE NOTED
That after Gacy had been executed his brain was exhumed and declared perfectly healthy. (Which I find fascinating and appropriate.)
SS: What sorts of research were you doing? Was there a particular source that you found yourself going back to the most?
CW: I’m embarrassed to admit that most of my research came from online sources. I wish I could say that I did my work in Chicago libraries with stacks of books around me, wracking my brain – convincing the janitorial staff to let me hang out until the wee hours – but – yeah, the research was mostly done online. I went to formal sites and informal sites (which sounds exactly the way I mean it). I’d watch interviews of Gacy, I’d watch interviews of the family members of his victims, I watched interviews of lawyers working on the case, documentaries, read news articles (new and old). I also watched just about every movie that’s been made on Gacy in hopes of working in the opposite direction – I used other fictions in hopes of staying true to my own fiction.
I also listened to a lot of Justin Bieber when writing it.
SS: Well, that goes without saying.
CW: (Don’t tell anyone that.)
SS: (That is totally the headline now.)
SS: Going to other fictions about Gacy seems like a very sound strategy: do the movies about him all tend to follow similar tacts, or is there a lot of difference in approach?
CW: Oh no! They’re pretty much the same.
And I understand why.
And appreciate why.
They all lend themselves to horror – they all create a two dimensional Gacy because – that’s what we want. It’s what we expect – American audiences, right? Things are black and white.
This person is all bad.
This person is all good.
(By “person” i mean “character.”)
But, luckily for me I’m in a city that allows me to grow and breathe in The Grey Area.
In every way: socially, politically, culturally.
That’s bound to sink into what I write (even if it’s not that good yet).
SS: Chicago does like its shades of grey, for sure.
CW: The artists of Chicago are walking “grey” and it’s wonderfully inspiring. They demand that you follow suit, and i’m just trying to keep up.
SS: “The Gacy Play” has been in development with Sideshow for a while, now.
Do you tend to spend a particular amount of time living with each of your plays, or is each
CW: The first year was pretty much me sitting around thinking about it. And the second year was Jonathan pushing me to actually do it.
For me – and my timeline – that’s how this “development” went down.
And Sideshow was DEFINITELY there, providing me with readings of the script, as well as individual time with ensemble members to talk about the script.
(The latter usually happened over whiskey, which didn’t hurt the situation.)
SS: (It rarely does.)
After all that ramping up, what’s it like being in the actual rehearsal room with the script?
It’s strange, for me.
Because I was in a dark place personally when writing it.
So, when i’m in the rehearsal space, seeing all of these amazingly focused, talented and vastly superior artists than me turn this into something, I ride a wave.
Some moments, I’ll feel bad for the characters.
Other times I’ll hate them.
Sometimes I’ll love them.
It’s a very confusing thing to experience (for me).
Jonathan steps in, and with each passing rehearsal his vision (which is INCREDIBLE) becomes more and more defined, and I see that perhaps this isn’t a “play,” but a rabbit hole of emotion, and Jonathan takes us there.
It’s a very complicated thing to see get on its feet. For me, at least.
SS: You’ve said before that you felt like you identified with Gacy’s isolation and desperation
(while, obviously, not condoning his actions). Does this final stretch of the process feel like
it strengthens that for you, or is there more distance from the character than when you were writing the piece?
CW: When i was writing it — it felt like — mm…yes, I was willingly engaging with my empathy towards Gacy and not necessarily empathizing with the other characters. At THIS point of the process, I see that each of these characters (whether they have names or not) live in little nooks of my psyche and I identify with them all.
Perhaps not simultaneously, but with all of them.
There has been a point in my life when i was acting/doing pretty much everything they were.
SS: Do you think that comes from having more artists in the room, or just from spending so much time with the script?
That 100% came from having other people in the room, who are way smarter than I am.
These characters have developed in beautiful, beautiful ways and that’s because the folks at Sideshow have just been rolling the road out in front of me, with their time and energy and love.
SS: We do have access to a lot of asphalt.
(For road building.)
CW: You do.
SS: Okay, so. Final question. If you could tell anybody coming to see “The Gacy Play” three things, what would they be? (Assume they don’t know anything, because somehow they
didn’t read any part of the interview but this last question, here.)
CW: You mean they don’t know anything about Gacy the person?
SS: Hmm. Maybe no more than what they might’ve casually read or heard in a song.
CW: a) There’s no violence.
b) It’s less of a play and more of an experience.
c) I love the fact that you’re even thinking about seeing this play and it means the world to me. i hope you find the true heart of it and in turn, see your True Heart. ((call me))