Humor is the unexpected thread that holds together compelling elements of sexual trauma, family memory, addiction and legacy in Steven Strafford’s arresting new ensemble play Small Jokes About Monsters, currently getting an acclaimed and extended storefront-style staging at suburban Chicago’s 16th Street Theater. Under the direction of Kristina Valada-Viars, it plays Jan. 10-Feb. 23, 2019, in Berwyn, IL.
Humor is a major color in the four-actor play by the Chicago-based actor and playwright. Strafford’s earlier lauded autobiographical solo show, Methtacular!, seen in engagements around the country, also explored addiction and recovery (his own) with laughs.
Was he reluctant to go into that territory again?
Strafford told me, “I like to write about dark and difficult things by using humor as a way down into the mess. I think addiction and humor are often going to be part of the stories I tell, even if tangentially. I feel like addiction, writ large or small, shows its face in most everyone’s lives, so including it as part of the story feels important to me. But who knows? My next play only has a passing reference to addiction, so maybe it will play into my stories less and less, the further back active addiction travels into the recesses of my history? I’m as interested as anyone to see.”
Small Jokes About Monsters received the kind of encouraging reviews (including one from the Chicago Tribune) that would make producers prick up their ears and pay attention to what’s on Strafford’s mind. (It previously played Houston, and there’s already an Iowa production planned by Sioux City’s Lamb Theatre, which produced my play Alabama Story a couple years ago.)
Here’s how the play is billed: “Ryan says there are three different kinds of funny people: Godzillas, Mothras and Gameras. He and his two brothers rent a beach house after their estranged father’s funeral to open the envelope their father left them. When their mother shows up, truths are revealed and tempers flare. Small Jokes About Monsters is a comedic family drama about how we choose to deal with trauma, and how we use humor to cover it up.”
The Chicago-area production features Esteban Andres Cruz, Eric Slater, Christopher Wayland Jones and Shariba Rivers. Learn more about the 16th Street Theater engagement here.
Here’s my Q&A with Steven Strafford.
I’m always interested in the first spark of inspiration of a play. What inspired it? What did you “see” first? A character? A conflict? An event?
Steven Strafford: So, the original inspiration for the play was trying to write versions of my brothers and I, and see what it would take for us to stop joking. My brothers and I are all sort of nerdy, funny men. We have a quick shorthand of jokes that has seemingly no end. So, I thought, “Set it at a time where jokes would be in poor taste.” So, I set it at after a father’s funeral. Then, I proceeded to keep raising the stakes and lowering the mood of the room until jokes became ugly. Then, I just let the play write itself. I tried not to get in my own way. If an idea came up, I went with it. There were several times in the writing of this play when I said to myself, “Am I really going to let this happen?” I kept saying yes, and the play became the play.
Addiction and its impact on family is at the heart of your new play, or, rather, it’s one major element. Are you excavating your family history in Small Jokes About Monsters, or is it pure fiction? (Or are we always exploring autobiography, even it’s not overt?)
Steven Strafford: The play is fiction. My father is alive, and I have been clean and sober a long time, as opposed to the character most closely resembling me. I like to think of this play as sort of my “It’s a Wonderful Life” play. What if I hadn’t cleaned myself up? What if relationships in my family had frayed instead of strengthened over time? What if a terrible trauma had occurred in my family? I threw all of these things at the people who I know best, and I made that form real people into heightened characters.
Can you point to a couple of things that you drew from your life to color the play?
Steven Strafford: Yes! So, a lot of the backstory shared between the mom and son is pulled directly from my life. My mom does, on occasion, bring up a performance of mine as Sky Masterson in a middle school production of Guys and Dolls, and how my voice was, perhaps, not yet up to the role. Also, my mom and dad did take me to see A Chorus Line on Broadway for my communion present. So, there were small details like that I used to pepper in a strong sense of history.
I like that humor is a defense, a salve and a weapon in the play. It’s also a hiding place. You talk about three kinds of funny people: Godzillas, Mothras and Gameras.
Steven Strafford: So, the title comes from this theory I have about funny people. I believe there are three kinds of funny people: Godzillas, Mothras, and Gameras. Godzillas are the sort of people who come into a room with jokes a-blazing; you would use the word “funny” in your description of the person. Mothras are the silent-but-deadly types. They are quiet, but they say the funniest thing of the night. Gameras are the sort of people who are not intending to be funny but make a room laugh hysterically just by way of being their odd selves. I came up with this theory in college based on friends of mine and how I saw them using humor in a social setting. The play’s title is derived from that, but then it takes on deeper meaning throughout the play.
Can you break down the nature of the brothers, in a nutshell?
Steven Strafford: I think that John, the oldest, is the most hemmed in, the most conservative. Ryan, the middle, is a big mess. He’s charming and fun, but a mess. And Derek is the peacekeeper, he sees everyone clearly. I think Derek is the most evolved of the three. He has the most capacity to see past himself into what’s happening in the room around him. I found them all equally easy or difficult to write.
Do you have a favorite character?
Steven Strafford: I think my favorite character is either Mom or Derek. I love that Mom operates with a different set of rules. She isn’t trying to be clever or approved of, she just lives in the room with her truth. And I like Derek’s ability to stay positive and supportive.
You have two brothers? What sort of responsibility do you feel to share your work with your family, or alert them about potentially sensitive or personal content? I ask because I worry that my own family will misread my plays as strict autobiography, particularly if I am writing about the time and place where I was raised.
Steven Strafford: This is a very interesting question. I do have two brothers. One has read the play, the other has not. Anyone is welcome to read the things I write, but I also respect anyone in my family choosing to not read. My mom has read the play, and my dad is about to read the play, once I finish a few small edits. I try to remind everyone in my family that the plays I write are meant to be far more dramatic than we could ever be. There have been some touch-and-go moments about my willingness to share so much of myself. Methtacular!, being a completely true story, had more of this than this play has.
You’re also an actor. Did you write any of the three brothers with you in mind to act a role? Ryan is a gay actor recovering from addiction. Is he you?
Steven Strafford: Ryan is definitely an avatar for me. He is the version of me that hasn’t chosen sobriety. As far as being an actor in it, it crossed my mind, but I am grateful that I’ve sat this out. Watching these actors (in both productions and readings) work on this and figure it out has been so amazing for me. Now, listen, if the play is done in New York City for a commercial run, and at the end of the run — for marketing [reasons] — they wanted to put the playwright in it? I’d probably do it for a couple of weeks!
I love the play’s idea that not very good parents — an addict father and a negative mother — raised three men who will be stuck with each other, and possibly support and love each other, for a long time after the parents are gone. That is a hope bubble in your play.
Steven Strafford: See, now, I would argue that the mom in the play is a good mom. She may have an oratory style that isn’t typically warm and fuzzy, but she is consistently giving good advice that the brothers don’t take. She consistently is trying to tell them to lean into each other for support. She was dealt a very difficult hand and still raised these three men who care about each other. I don’t necessarily feel like “hope” is important or not important. I try to just tell whatever story I’m writing in the most honest way I can. If it’s hopeful, awesome. If it’s not, that’s fine too. I’d prefer to write something that leaves that decision up to the audience.
Was there stuff in Methtacular! that was left unaddressed that surfaced in Small Jokes About Monsters?
Steven Strafford: Yes, for sure. Methtacular! was a true story of the three years that I was using crystal meth. Although it goes into some other things, I wanted very much for that piece to be just that story. The only reference to how that addiction affected my family were doc-video interviews of my mom shown throughout the piece. One thing that I got to explore in Small Jokes About Monsters was the nature of a family gathered around someone’s addictions. I also got to explore the gray area of when someone is no longer doing the worst drugs but is still a mess. (I drank for a few years more after I put down meth, so I was a messy drunk for a bit before I got completely clean and sober.)
How are the two pieces alike? How are they different?
Steven Strafford: In both shows, I make sure that jokes (good ones, in my humble opinion) are peppered throughout the hardest moments because I think it allows us, the audience, a feeling of being cared for as we descend further and further into the despair of deep sadness around certain subjects. They also both have a complex queer person at the center of the story.
As far as differences go, Small Jokes About Monsters is a pretty standard American play, whereas Methtacular! is a solo show talking about addiction to meth (also somewhat standard) that has original songs, documentary footage, talk of Angela Lansbury’s diction, frank discussion of gay sex, and an improvised game show (less standard). The thing about Methtacular! is that I love performing it more than I have ever loved performing anything. As an actor who often plays multiple character tracks in shows, I am often spending time masking myself through voice, posture, and broad comedic choices. In Methtacular! (save for a few moments) I am always myself telling a story. I’m not code-switching. I’m just me. I recently performed the show at a college in Maine, and I was reminded how much I love telling this story. We’re actually gearing up to do the show again at the front bar space at Steppenwolf Theatre in May. We’re going to film it, edit it, and package it for pitching to different video platforms. And if no one bites, then we’ll just put it up on YouTube so it exists for anyone who might need to watch a story about the trials and travails of a drug addict who found recovery.
Do you think of “theme” when you are writing, or is that something that emerges later?
Steven Strafford: I don’t get too bogged down in themes as I’m writing. At least not yet, anyhow. I feel like I try and write a story that appeals to me. I tend to leave a lot of that theme stuff to my director. What does she want to raise up as a theme from the story I’ve written? I think if I wrote towards themes, I’d end up writing something rather saccharine. Not saying that for other writers, just for me.
What does director Kristina Valada-Viars bring to the table?
Steven Strafford: Kristina Valada-Viars, not to sound too corny, is an artistic soulmate. She finds such nuance and depth in the things I write. Kristina brings a sense of detail-oriented emotional depth to each moment of a script. She’s always connecting everything back to the biggest truths. She is also a fierce advocate for my words and rhythms. She also brings years and years as an actor to the table, so she knows what she’s asking an actor to do when she directs them. She gets it. That is invaluable in creating an ensemble. We have a deal that she gets first crack at any Chicago production of stuff I write.
How much of a re-writer are you? Were there changes between Houston and Chicago? How did it grow? Do you look at the Chicago production and take notes and think, “I could revise more, build more, cut away…”?
Steven Strafford: I am not particularly precious. If something needs to change, it goes. I’m always revising Methtacular! here and there. We did Small Jokes About Monsters in Houston in January of 2017, and afterwards, I let it be. Then, we did a few readings in Chicago, and I started making the smallest cuts. Then, during rehearsals for this production, I made a couple of cuts where my language got away from me, meaning sometimes I was putting more words in the mouths of characters than was appropriate. I had Derek, at a very pivotal moment just expounding about life for a couple too many sentences. So, snip, snip, snip. I also made some non-permanent edits due to the physical life of the play. For example, this set doesn’t have stairs, so we don’t “put mom upstairs” we put her “in the back.” Things like that…
Where did you grow up, and was theatergoing a part of your life? Did your folks take you to shows? Was acting a goal from an early age?
Steven Strafford: I was born in Brooklyn, NY — Bensonhurst, to be specific. Then, we ended up in New Jersey, where I grew up. We went to the theater a bit, but not a ton. The biggest thing that made me into a theater person was that my mom and I watched a ton of movie musicals together. Some of my happiest memories of my childhood have my mom and me running around the house singing from Oliver!
Can you share a little bit about your switch from actor to writer, and is that line still fluid?
Steven Strafford: I don’t think of it as so much a switch as another thing I’m doing. I think maybe because the first play I wrote was a solo show I perform. it feels like that line is permanently blurry for me. I will say that being a writer has felt more “me” than being an actor does lately. Whereas acting always feels like knocking on doors, asking to be let in (often to houses with questionable structures and people dwelling within…have I stretched this metaphor too far?) writing feels like I’m already at home and happy to be where I am. Acting feels like a chase. Writing feels like a practice.
Acting is fun, and it mostly pays the bills these days (which is awesome, and I am grateful) but is it artistically fulfilling to pretend to be the same person hundreds have pretended to be before me? For whatever reason, the answer: not as much these days. Writing is starting to feel like harnessing my voice in a way I never thought available to me. It’s giving me a sense of leaving something of myself out there.
Share a little about your acting schooling and your writing background?
Steven Strafford: I went to a liberal arts college, Drew University (Go Ranger Bears! — no lie. We were the Ranger Bears!) where I studied Theatre and Women’s Studies. It was a B.A. program where I got to write, direct, design and act in tons of shows. I feel like I use my women’s studies and literature classes as much as anything I learned in any acting classes.
I have written some things here and there before Methtacular! came along. I wrote a sketch show with my friend, Jason Pizzarello (a terrific playwright) and I often wrote parody lyrics for parties and events, but mostly I kept it away from me, as something other people did, you know, good writers. I think it was only recently that I referred to myself as a writer. It still feels weird to me. I’m getting used to it though.
What’s next for you, writing-wise?
Steven Strafford: I just had a public reading of my new play, Mona Q: Age 38 which is very loosely based on a children’s book character. It tells the story of a woman who, after a break up, finds herself stuck. I wanted to write a hero’s journey for a woman around forty. I grew up with all of these amazing, smart, funny, strong women. And then life cuts them in at the corners at every turn. (Through life choices, patriarchy, relationships, etc.) So, I wrote this play to follow a smart, funny woman on an epic (and small) journey to take her name off of a Holocaust Trivia Distribution List. She learns stuff along the way. It’s a play that breaks its own rules as it goes. It could be great, or it might be terrible. I’m never sure.
Other than that, I’m working on a few different ideas. I have four or five scripts that have ten or more pages written. Who knows which one will get finished first?
My essay, “College Dreams” is featured as one of 26 essays in “The Anatomy of Silence,” an anthology of essays about the silence that surrounds sexual violence. I have an advanced copy, and it’s pretty amazing. I feel so awed and grateful to have been a part of it. You can pre-order now, and it comes out in March!
Steven Strafford is an actor and playwright living in Chicago. His one-man show, Methtacular! has played theaters in NYC, Chicago, Cincinnati, Sacramento, Maine, and New Jersey. It has received nominations and awards, garnered great reviews (named the No. 1 show to see in New York City by TimeOutNY) and has played to sold out houses. It will be featured at the front bar space at Steppenwolf Theatre in May. Small Jokes About Monsters was picked as a winner of The New American Voices contest in Houston and was a semi-finalist in the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. His newest play, Mona Q: Age 38, is in development and recently received a reading as part of The Breaking Ground Festival at Greenhouse Theater Center in Chicago. He has written short plays and sketches which have been produced at various events around the country. His essay, “College Dreams,” is featured in the upcoming anthology, “The Anatomy of Silence,” a book that speaks to the silence around sexual harassment and assault. As an actor, he has performed all over the country and the world performing in musicals, plays, TV, commercials, and the very occasional movie.