Maher brings drama to politics, poetry

Mickle Maher, a Chicago play wright and actor, creates theater in untheatrical settings—panel discussions, lectures, and debates.

By Jessen O'Brien

Mickle Maher, co-founder of Chicago’s Oobleck Theater, is a playwright and actor. His works have been performed as far away as Finland, Germany, England, and Slovenia, but tonight the Sergel Writer-in-Residence will stage a reading a little closer to home, in Reynolds Club’s First Floor Theater. Dramatizing everything from a panel on an impossible sound in Anton Checkov’s play The Cherry Orchard to a combination of Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger and the first debate between George Bush and John Kerry in 2004, Maher’s plots tend to be bizarre and leavened with clever dialogue and emotional soliloquies. I caught up with Maher to chat about his unconventional formats, his fondness for mixing past and present, and the playwriting workshop he’s teaching this quarter.

Jessen O’Brien: What are some of the advantages of being both an actor and a playwright? How does one affect the other?

Mickle Maher: Well, I’m the kind of actor/playwright who tries to avoid acting as much as possible, so I’m not sure if it helps me at all. I like to read things out loud. I have a six-year-old, so that comes in handy, and I think that has always been a part of my writing process: writing, walking, talking, using that part of my brain that is speech-out-loud as opposed to the hands.

JO: Some of your plays have an unusual format. For instance, The Hunchback Variations is a discussion panel and An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus On This His Final Evening is essentially a monologue. What draws you to these structures? What do they help you achieve?

MM: In the panel discussion (The Hunchback Variations), people are on stage. They have lines, they have microphones, they have a structure that is outside of daily life. The Strangerer is the presidential debates. Spirits to Enforce took place in a telemarketer room. People were working off of scripts in the same way an actor would. I’m interested in the immediate tension of places that are not theater put into a theater because those forms are always struggling against their inherent unworthiness for the stage. They are not theater in the strictest sense, but they kidnap a lot of its elements so it’s interesting to throw them overboard, so to speak, and throw them onto the stage to see how they work.

The Apology is a monologue play. I was interested in a straightforward play done in a place that is not necessarily a theater. The room is randomly chosen, ordinary, so we’ve done that play in different places but never in a theater, although other companies have.

JO: Your plays also have a habit of mixing past and present, fiction and non-fiction. For instance, in The Strangerer you combined Albert Camus’s The Stranger with the September 2004 debate between George Bush and John Kerry. In The Hunchback Variations, you have real and fictional characters from different times interacting. What do these combinations do for your plays?

MM: Working with great characters from literature helps because if I’m starting there, I know that Quasimodo is an interesting person and I don’t have to argue that point with the audience. You are borrowing things from the past that you feel are very strong and you are redesigning them. It grounds me as a writer not to have to invent everything out of whole cloth.

JO: What are some of your inspirations and/or authors you admire?

MM: I’m pretty much enthused by everyone. I find it hard to be uninterested in anybody trying to do work in the theater. I can have criticism or feel that things fall short like any audience member. I haven’t lost my critical eye. The work is just so hard in many ways; it doesn’t get easier the older you get. People are still doing that in this economy. That in itself makes them interesting. It might make them crazy, but it makes them interesting. Gogol, Kafka, those guys—that’s the refreshing well I go to any time I’m stuck. The ones who make it look easy are always good to read.

JO: What does being the Sergel Writer-In-Residence entail? What impact do you hope to have on students?

MM: The workshop I’m working on right now is the adaptation of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. We’re taking that book of poems and each of the students is going to be given the task of taking one or two of the poems and adapting it into a seven-minute piece for the stage. My hope is that they do that. The students are all really talented. The workshop provides a space for thought and action that can exist for three hours around the creation of a work of art for the theater. If that comes out of the term, I will feel like I have succeeded.

I am not so interested in workshops that are more about the teacher. I can talk a lot and give my pearls of wisdom, but what I think is important for young theater artists is to see if they can withstand what comes with doing the work. There’s enough pressure on them without me being an added weight. Also, to introduce them to Frank O’Hara. He is a great American artist and just to dive into that world is of obvious worth.

JO: What are your plans for the future?

MM: Well, I’m writing a play. It’s a lecture format and that’s all I can say about it right now. I’ve barely begun—I’m nervous, standing at the edge of the cold pool, waiting to dive in stage. I hope to start a press in Chicago. Every year, there are a handful of plays that are critically acclaimed, the public loves them, that don’t get published by Samuel French. I think there is a preservationist need to publish those plays. I want to start a nonprofit press, to continue writing and build up a body of work.