In the Company of Neil LaBute, His Short Plays, and His Vampires

The writer of ”The Shape of Things” and ”Fat Pig” stretches his muscles into new realms of artistic creation.

How does an already prolific playwright become even more prolific? Add his or her name to a theater festival. But Neil LaBute, the dramatist behind contemporary classics like The Shape of Things and Reasons to Be Pretty, was not thrilled by that prospect when the St. Louis Actors' Studio proposed the LaBute New Theatre Festival. Turned off by the thought that it could be "so self-promotional in some ways," he eventually saw the forest for the trees, realizing the greater value of having his moniker attached: being able to help celebrate young, up-and-coming writers and the importance of short plays.

The LaBute New Theater Festival was inaugurated in 2013 in St. Louis, and this year's slate of plays are making their Big Apple debuts at 59E59 Theaters through February 5. At the same time, LaBute is at work with Marco Calvani and Marta Buchaca on the third edition of AdA: Author Directing Author at La MaMa. Also ending its run on February 5, the yearly production features the trio of playwrights directing one another's work, all of which center on the theme of power.

Making things even busier for LaBute is the fact that his Syfy vampire series Van Helsing was recently picked up for a second season, allowing him to further stretch his muscles in the realm of television storytelling. If he's feeling the pressure, he's not showing it. "It's all part of the path up the mountain."

Neil LaBute is working on the LaBute New Theatre Festival and AdA: Author Directing Author.
Neil LaBute is working on the LaBute New Theatre Festival and AdA: Author Directing Author.
(© David Gordon)

How did the LaBute New Theatre Festival come to exist ?
The LaBute New Theatre Festival is the brainchild of William Roth, the tenacious artistic director of the St. Louis Actors' Studio. It came out of a collaboration that I had with his theater a few years ago. William wanted to do a collection of my short plays at his space and that led to the idea of an annual festival in the Midwest. He approached me about using my name as part of the official moniker for the project, and while I was initially reticent to do it (it seems so self-promotional in some ways), I eventually said yes and felt it was far more important to promote the writing of short dramatic works rather than worry if people thought it was silly to have a festival named after me. It's been growing ever since.

When you're exploring new plays for a festival like this, what do you look for? What do the works in this lineup at 59E59 have to offer the current theatrical landscape?
Like any festival or working theater, you're always looking for a new voice or a new take on an old idea or something fresh in terms of structure, and to be there on site (in St. Louis or New York) and get a chance to meet the high school competitors and spend some time with them. I think the four plays offered up this winter are a nice combination of comedy and drama and utilize some really fine actors as well.

Michael Hogan and Clea Alsip in Neil LaBute's What Happens in Vegas, part of the LaBute New Theatre Festival at 59E59 Theaters.
Michael Hogan and Clea Alsip in Neil LaBute's What Happens in Vegas, part of the LaBute New Theatre Festival at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Carol Rosegg)

You're also working on the third edition of Author Directing Author at La MaMa. Has your own work, both as writer and director, deepened since beginning this series several years ago?
Without question my work has deepened and grown. The chance to continue writing in this form is very important to me, and to know that there are places that want to push boundaries in the same way that I do is really refreshing. With ADA, Marco Calvani, an Italian director whom I created the project with, and I have always tried to use themed evenings and surprising collisions of material and a set of unique actors in an effort to always remain relevant and forward-thinking in our theory and practice.

Your Syfy series Van Helsing has been picked up for a second season. How does the show fit into the LaBute canon?
I adapted Dracula for the stage a few years ago so there is a natural connection there to this Syfy series, but more than anything, working in television is allowing me to keep telling lots of stories. It's a wonderful medium for that, the idea of sharing multiple characters and situations, and I like it very much. I'm not precious about being a "filmmaker" or a "playwright" or any kind of title — I'm a writer and a director. I do that and I'm happy and willing to do it any medium that will have me.

A scene from Neil LaBute's Syfy television series Van Helsing.
A scene from Neil LaBute's Syfy television series Van Helsing.
(© Dan Power/Helsing)

Did it take you a long time to get used to working in a writers' room? What have you learned from that experience, as well as running a television show?
It's a big step and a crazy adventure working with a group of writers, even if you're all like-minded and talented and collaborative. I've never written with other people before, so there's been a massive learning curve for me, and yet I've enjoyed it. It's great to see so many minds working on the same story and all the directions that your peers can go in creating a single story, character, etc. It helps being the show-runner since you get the last say in matters, but I try not to play that card too often; I live by the "may the best idea win" mantra, and I try to stick pretty closely to that. Overall I think so far, so good, in terms of me not running with scissors and playing well with others.

What is a one-line description of your next full length-play?
"A terminally ill wife wants to die and a husband calls in a stranger to assist."

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