When I was in college back in the last century, I read two plays by John Steppling in playwriting class. Like Beckett and Duras, his plays, Standard of the Breed and Sea of Cortez, showed me what a play could be. Built on detail, the plays slowly form their own universes in a truly modern way. It might seem like nothing is happening in Steppling’s plays, but in the end, everything is happening.
As for Steppling the person. he was in Europe for a decade and recently moved back to LA. I met Steppling via a virtual introduction by Alice Tuan this past July. I learned that he had a theatre company called Gunfighter Nation and also facilitated playwriting workshops.
I went to a Gunfighter Nation company meeting at the end of July and was immediately put at ease by a multi-generational company of writers and actors with members ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s. John Steppling is artistic director, and his son, Lex Steppling is associate artistic director.
Gunfighter Nation had produced The Alamo Project, an evening of short plays written and performed by company members at the Odyssey Theatre in May. It had happened over two nights on a set for a different play. It had been well-received, and the company wanted to do a more ambitious evening.
The next evening on their slate was a collectively written play called LA History Project: Pio Pico, Sam Yorty, and the Secret Procession of Los Angeles. With short plays by members of the company, the goal was to look at the history of Los Angeles through the lens of Pio Pico (the last Mexican governor of California) and Sam Yorty (mayor of Los Angeles during the Watts Riots). The evening would not be a chronological history lesson with a quiz afterwards. Instead, it would be a platform on which to ask questions about history, collective memory, and this place called Los Angeles.
LA History Project happened over three weekends in September/beginning of October at the Lost Studio on La Brea. I both wrote for and acted in the play, and I am going to talk more in depth about those experiences on Tuesday and Wednesday (yes, I have a blogging plan).
In addition to collectively written work, the company also seeks to produce plays by its members. Next up is John Steppling’s new play, Phantom Luck, which opens on October 29th at the Lost Studio. If you want to see it, you can call 323-933-6944 for reservations.
Yes, I know this is the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Collective, and he is on the guy side of the gender fence. But it’s okay. Guys can write plays too.
After Phantom Luck, Gunfighter Nation is producing another collectively written show, a Christmas Show which will play for three weekends in December. I am also writing material for the Christmas Show.
But what is Gunfighter Nation? Do we ride wild horses? Do we cause theatrical mayhem wherever we go? Do we fire guns onstage? Well, we didn’t in LA History Project.
Gunfighter Nation aims to create writer driven theatre that is physical and non-traditional and that causes anarchy of the soul. Working from a modern aesthetic and with intellectual rigor, Gunfighter Nation creates plays that ask classical questions in an innovative way. What is it to be alive? What is history? What is it to be human? What is community?
There is an avant garde tradition in playwriting. It’s over a hundred years old. It’s a tradition of not doing what everyone else is doing and not pandering to what an audience might expect. It’s a tradition that evokes the names of Artaud and Witkacy and Peter Brook and Beckett. In America, it continued with Richard Foreman and Maria Irene Fornes and Padua Playwrights up in San Francisco. Gunfighter Nation works in that tradition.
On a personal note, I have never felt so comfortable and welcomed by a group of artists. I met this group at the end of July, and I was acting onstage two months later. How did that happen?
In a side note, I highly recommend Steppling’s writing workshops. It’s not about learning to write. It’s about creating work which is unique and from the writer. They’re ongoing and happening at the Lost Studio.
To learn more about Gunfighter Nation, you can visit the website: http://gfnation.wordpress.com/ or you can find Gunfighter Nation on facebook.