Writer Steven Simoncic and Co-directors Ilesa Duncan and Ann Filmer talk real about Broken Fences.
Steven, what does a white boy from Detroit know about Chicago’s Garfield Park?
STEVEN: First I grew up in Detroit, actually in the city, and was surrounded by characters and storytellers, the kind of folks that held court on front porches and card tables after the streetlights went off.
ANN: I don’t want to dance around this, so I won’t.
ILESA: We did pledge to be straight up here.
ANN: You were a white kid in a black neighborhood right?
STEVEN: Yep. That is true. Especially in my teens. When I was really young it was more of a mix of White, Hispanic and Black. But into my tweens and teens it became a black neighborhood. And the brutal honestly and almost pathological lack of pretention of my home town informed the kind of stories I hoped to tell, and the lens through which I wanted tell them. Second, my wife started a charter school that was in West Garfield Park. She started as a teacher and ultimately became co-executive director. She and her fellow educators did some work in that neighborhood and I had the privilege of being around those kids and those families. So this play felt pretty organic to write.
Ilesa, you worked with Steven before on his Heat Wave at Pegasus. Any similarities?
ILESA: I was so pleased to work on this because of Steven’s writing style. There is a similar poetic flow in the character’s dialogue in both plays. He also tackles issues of community and identity in both plays: Heat Wave dealing with the breakdown of the city’s ability to respond to an emergency and its impact on poor people, primarily in Uptown, but also throughout our city. So, the idea of the impact of gentrification on two different families with different social, economic and racial backgrounds was exciting. And of course, like Ann, I’ve been in love with this play since its earliest readings at Chicago Dramatists.
Ilesa and Ann, What was co-directing like for you?
ANN: The theater has this power structure where the director is at the top, and even though we all say “collaboration” everyone in the room knows the director has the last word. But here we had to confront the fact that we are not one person. Though I was surprised how much we were on the same page —
ILESA: Right? But we have different viewpoints and there are a myriad of ways to choose to go. And I feel it was empowering for the cast to see that there are many paths to take. The goal being to discover together the strongest and most impactful choice.
ANN: Totally. That was so rewarding. Also being able to check in with each other. “I’m feeling this way: how you feeling?”
Of course 16th Street is a playwrights’ theater so at 16th Street the playwright truly has the last word.
(laughter) ANN: Yes, here the playwright is king or queen.
ILESA: But directors don’t often get that chance to be in the room together. So this was an amazing opportunity.
ANN: And it was so important to me that, frankly, the power structure in the room wasn’t one white writer and one white director. So much that before you and I talked, Ilesa, I approached Daniel Bryant (who plays Hoody) to say: “Is it okay for me to do this?” We had a long conversation about it. And then of course I begged him to play Hoody! (laughs)
ILESA: And then you called me to say: “If I don’t direct, I want you to.” And I remember saying: “Why don’t we just do it together?”
ANN: And I can honestly say I was scared to death. How is this done? Who takes the lead when?
ILESA: But it all ended up being very organic.
ANN: And demanded truth. There was nothing to hide behind.
ILESA: We had to face each other every day. Check in: are we being truthful here?
Steven, you have been developing this play for a while. How has it changed for you? Any surprises?
STEVEN: If I have a process — it has something to do with obsessively writing and rewriting over time — and Broken Fences is no exception. It began with a few core themes I wanted to explore — things like identity, a sense of home and place, security versus community — and then the characters began to present themselves.
And you self-produced a very different version of Broken Fences eight years ago with A Reasonable Facsimile Theatre Company?
STEVEN: Yes, we literally changed lines as we went… some night actors had script in hand.. some nights I read a role. That original draft and production was important in that it focused my energy and attention on gentrification. But since then, the characters, script, and plot have significantly changed to become an all-together new piece of theater and a fully realized story. Now that all sounds simple – but in reality, it is really quite messy and unruly. You have to hit lots of dead ends and take lots of swerves off the road to get to a draft that feels fully formed and sturdy. At least I do.
ANN: This play has changed so much over its development life. There are characters that don’t even exist anymore — like Trooper.
ILESA: Right. The couples didn’t even move next door to each other until two thirds of the way into the play–
STEVEN: –the draft where Esto was in jail and Spence and Barb bought Hoody’s house.
ANN: The amount the script has changed – even from the New York showcase production this past summer. It’s been such a thoughtful process.
STEVEN: And it all helps get the piece to where it needs to go. Some days of development are better than others – but ultimately that is the real work — and you have to love that journey.