A Collision of Modern and Mythical: An Interview with Playwright Steve Yockey

The Greeks invented epic accounts of vengeful Gods to explain natural disasters, tragedies, the cycle of seasons and the movement of the heavens. To this day, children learn life lessons from fairy tales and myths filled with heroes and villainy. People tell these stories as a way of understanding a world that remains mysterious and vast, both the physical universe and the minds and hearts of human beings.

Though we’re living in an age where information lurches toward us in an endless stream, mankind still relies on storytellers for context, a way into the world, a way to understand what’s happening around them. Playwright Steve Yockey is such a storyteller, writing fairy tales for adults and retellings of mythical stories set against the backdrop of today’s morally complicated culture.

Yockey is an Atlanta native who relocated to the West Coast after earning a graduate degree in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His plays are of the modern world, but with an imaginative twist, incorporating larger-than-life scale and fantastic, otherworldly elements to explain contemporary events. In an interview with MTC’s dramaturg Margot Melcon just before Bellwether rehearsals began, Steve explains some of the origins of the play and the relationship between writer and audience, from his point of view.

Margot Melcon: Tell me about your jumping off point. What inspired you to write this play?
Steve Yockey: The way my process works, I usually find an idea or event I’m wrestling with and need to explore or try to contextualize for myself. When I started Bellwether, there were a lot of stories in the news about missing children. I remember thinking how strange it was, this mob mentality, the way an entire community will turn on people based purely on supposition or circumstance. Additionally, in a lot of my work I look at familial relationships, specifically relationships between parents and children, what that bond is at its most stark level. It was that combined with this ongoing exploration of mythic storytelling that I have, which doesn’t necessarily mean myths, but storytelling on a larger scale. Those three things collided to create what eventually became Bellwether.

When did you first start writing Bellwether?
It was 2008, but those same kinds of media stories are still happening now. It’s always the same pattern: a child disappears, it becomes a media frenzy and, after a certain amount of time, if the child isn’t found, suspicion (whether it’s warranted or not) turns on the parents. We also don’t get resolution for many of these stories. Because real life isn’t often dramatically satisfying in the way a play can be.

I like that you took something that, in life, can be dramatically unsatisfying and you gave it a very dramatically satisfying moment. That’s what you can do when you create the world.
Yes! You have all of the control. And that certainly allows you to bend reality into a more satisfying conclusion.

We see these stories of missing children in the news all the time and they do follow a pattern. When I was a kid, I don’t remember this kind of thing happening. Is it a new phenomenon?
When we’re younger we’re not really exposed to that type of thing, the darker stories in the news. As we grow up it becomes more present but that’s only because we’re becoming more aware of the difficult things that happen in the world that we’re shielded from as children. And then also, the news—and I put “news” in quotation marks—generally seems to be getting more and more salacious. When there is a competitive market for news and for audience, the more frightening it can be, the more intense it can be, the more likely you are to have viewership and so, by default, as we move further along our growth as a culture, the news focuses more and more on the negative.

The negative and sensational is what sells.
Fear sells. But we can’t look to the news to tell us how much of any one thing is actually happening because what we see is selected, it’s all chosen for us and presented as “news.” And I’m fascinated by the idea that we don’t see completion to news stories. We see the horrible thing that happened and we know that efforts are being made to rectify the situation, whether it’s an investigation or recovery from a storm that hit, but we rarely see the follow up on it. We only see the awful thing. I’m sure many times the final result is far more fascinating than anything we could have imagined. That’s another fun aspect of Bellwether.

Let’s talk about that. You start with a premise that is familiar and you take it someplace wildly unexpected. What is that impulse?
I’m passionate about stories that are larger than life. I enjoy theater that is theatrical. I enjoy theater that takes advantage of an audience’s willingness to go to different and exciting places. I write for the active audience of theatre, not a passive audience. They’re willing to believe more which gives you freedom as a playwright, or any theater artist actually, to explore worlds that are greater than or apart from our everyday existence. As long as you keep up your end of the bargain, and don’t try to cheat them, it can be very resonant for an audience when something that feels familiar is suddenly thrust out of context and takes an audience off guard.

Where do you think this interest in mythic and large, theatrical storytelling came from?
I was very young the first time I found out what actually happens in the story of Cinderella, with the birds pecking people’s eyes out and the stepsisters cutting their toes off to make the shoe fit. It was so much darker than what we know of as Cinderella. And that’s true of fairy tales in general and the modern, cultural wash that have been put on stories that used to be more graphic or maybe spoke more to their time. Those fairy tales present lessons. Little Red Riding Hood is essentially: “Don’t trust strange men. They just want to have sex with you. Little girls beware.” All these stories initially exist for a purpose. My fascination is in asking: What are the stories for today? What is the mythology to help us explain the way we’re changing in this moment?

And yet you insist that there is no moral to your story, that there is no lesson.
I don’t know that I insist that, per se. My plays aren’t without morals. I think if it’s dramatically satisfying and there is a reversal and your main character learns something, then there probably has to be some kind of moral. Whether that turns out to be something you want to know or not is a whole other thing. That said, I feel like Bellwether, and many of the plays that I’m writing now, are morally complicated. If a very pat version of how things work is presented and you’re given a simple answer at the end of the play, I don’t know how authentic or truthful that will feel. That’s not how our world works.

So there is moral ambiguity. And that allows people to feel what they want and they don’t feel like you’re prescribing anything.
That’s true, or something like that. There is right and wrong but there isn’t just one way to handle anything. Your choices about something might not be the best thing for your neighbor, and what your neighbor chooses might not be the best thing for you. Any story that includes multiple perspectives is going to get tricky. And more engaging.

How would you describe your work to somebody? Do you have a style or a defining characteristic that runs throughout your plays?
Heightened modern American realism with a theatrical twist? That’s a fun thing to say, let’s go with that. Naturalism scares me a bit; just because something fantastic happens in a play doesn’t mean it’s not realism as long as everyone in the play has a realistic reaction to it. I’m also often writing from a place of wanting to better understand something. As you write, the question and the curiosity becomes the jumping off point and feeds the narrative.

Once you pose these questions, you really let your imagination allow you to think beyond the obvious ways of answering the questions.
Hopefully that’s true. The important thing is that you can’t just throw a question on people. Your story can start from a question but ultimately as a playwright the responsibility is to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end that feels dramatically satisfying. And it is told through your lens on the world. You want the audience to be walking out at the end of the play talking about what they just saw, engaging with what they just saw; whether it’s positive or negative, you crave that engagement. You want to have earned their attention.

Did you always want to be a writer?
I wanted to work in business as a non-specific goal because that’s what my parents did and it was expected. And then at a certain point, I had that, whatever they call it now—it’s a horrible term—quarter-life crisis? That thing that happens in your early 20s where you suddenly look around and say, I have no idea what I’m doing.

Can you imagine yourself doing anything else now?
Telling these stories is such an engrained part of who I am. It’s what gets me through the day, what fuels the way I look at the world around me now and, to a large extent, how I interact with people. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to not have that.