John Steppling (playwright)

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John Steppling
Born June 18, 1951
Burbank, California, U.S.
Alma mater California State University, Long Beach
Occupation Playwright, screenwriter, teacher
Notable credit(s) Fellow, Rockefeller Foundation
National Endowment for the Arts
Spouse(s) Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling
Website
http://www.john-steppling.com/

John Steppling (born June 18, 1951, Burbank, California), is an American playwright, screenwriter and teacher. Steppling's plays have been produced in the United States and Europe. He is the recipient of many honors, including fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, a residency at the McDowell Colony and has received PEN-West, LA Weekly and Dramalogue awards for his theatrical work. Steppling's influence is acknowledged by a generation of Los Angeles playwrights starting out in the 1980s, including Jon Robin Baitz, Marlene Mayer, Kelly Stuart, and Michael Sargent.

Early life[edit]

Born in Burbank, Steppling was raised in Hollywood and attended Hollywood High. His mother was a former beauty queen turned bookmaker who suffered from alcoholism. His father, Carl Steppling was a part-time actor and wardrobe assistant. His grandfather, John Steppling, was a silent-film actor who appeared in many Essanay films. Steppling has noted that his upbringing moving from neighborhood to neighborhood in L.A with a family at the fringe of the film industry influenced his work, in particular, The Dream Coast. Steppling spent much of his late teens and early 20s incarcerated for various offenses. His experiences as a petty criminal and convict influenced the characters in his plays, which often concern the marginalized of American society.

1970s: New York, Los Angeles, "Padua Hills"[edit]

Steppling's introduction to theater came from New York's Off-Off-Broadway stage in the 1970s, where he saw his cousin, Jim Storm, perform in the 1971 premiere of Sam Shepard's The Mad Dog Blues. During his time in New York, Steppling moved in the circles associated with the writers and performing artists of the group "Theater Genesis", including Murray Mednick and Robert Glaudini.[1]

Returning to Los Angeles, Steppling became a founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop and Festival in 1978 along with Murray Mednick and Sam Shepard. Steppling remained involved in Padua for most of its 17-year existence, among other notable playwrights associated with the festival such as Maria Irene Fornes, Jon Robin Baitz, Martin Epstein, Kelly Stuart, and John O'Keefe.

1980s: Los Angeles, The Taper, Too, The Dream Coast, The Shaper, Elmore Leonard's 52 Pick-UP, "Heliogabalus"[edit]

In the 1980s Steppling wrote the plays Neck, Eddie Cottrel at the Piano, Close, The Shaper, and The Dream Coast. The Mark Taper Forum took an interest in his work and many of his plays were developed in Taper sponsored workshops.

The Shaper, (1984) was chosen for the Humana Festival of New American Plays, in Louisville, Kentucky and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. At this time Steppling also worked as a writer for hire for Hollywood, notably adapting Elmore Leonard's novel 52 Pick-Up, directed by John Frankenheimer.

In 1986, on the day of the theatrical release of 52 Pick-Up, The Dream Coast, inspired by Steppling’s father and his cronies working on the fringe of the film industry, opened at the Taper, Too. The play was published in West Coast Plays[2] the following year.

Robert Egan, former producing artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, took a special interest in Steppling during this period. While Steppling’s work, which is both emotionally and politically downbeat and aesthetically challenging in the modernist tradition, was considered unsuitable for the Taper’s main stage, many of the playwright’s works were developed by the Taper’s new works program, the Taper, Too.

In this era, the word "Stepplingesque" entered the parlance of Los Angeles theatre world.[3] At the end of the 1980s, Los Angeles Times critic Robert Koehler could write of Steppling’s growing reputation as potentially “the purest, finest poet of the stage that Los Angeles has produced in this generation.”[4]

In the late 1980s, Steppling formed Heliogabalus with Theater Genesis alum Robert Glaudini. Steppling's Teenage Wedding, winner of the PEN Center Literary Award for Drama in 1987, originated as a Heliogabalus production.

1990s: The Sea of Cortez, Teenage Wedding, "Circus Minimus", "Empire Red Lip"[edit]

In the first years of the decade, Steppling wrote and directed The Thrill, Standard of the Breed, Theory of Miracles, and The Sea of Cortez.

Developed for the Los Angeles Theater Center, Sea of Cortez, marked a turning point in Steppling’s critical reception. Sylvie Drake, of the Los Angeles Times, wrote that the play was “powerful yet difficult to embrace because it is so terminally despairing and virtually humorless.”[5]

Film director Barbet Schroeder, helped finance the New York production of the award-winning Teenage Wedding, in 1991 of which New York magazine drama critic John Simon declared Steppling "an all-round no-talent".[6]

During this period, Steppling continued leading workshops, instructing new groups of students in Padua-informed techniques and challenging them with a far-reaching reading list that went beyond tradition theatre Arts pedgagogy.

In 1990, the late actor-director Rick Dean revived Steppling's one-act, Neck (1982) which was a critical success. It had an extended run at The Lost Studio, run by Cinda Jackson.

The 1990s also saw Steppling undertaking film and television, including a staff position on Cracker and contribution to Animal Factory, (2000) directed by Steve Buscemi.

In the early nineteen nineties Steppling founded Circus Minimus with Mick Collins and Cinda Jackson. Workshops were conducted at Jackson's The Lost Studio. Steppling told Jan Breslauer, of the Los Angeles Times, "This is about more than theater; it's about ideas, the nature of performing and the creative process"[7]

Circus Minimus folded and was followed by Empire Red Lip, whose core members included former Padua students. Based in Silverlake, Los Angeles Empire Red Lip focused on collaborative projects, each stemming from intensive reading of a text: The Conquest of the New World, for example, stemmed from the writing of Bartolomé de las Casas; Murdered Sleep and White Cold Virgin Snow were oblique commentaries on plays by William Shakespeare.

2000s: Lodz Film School, Dog Mouth, "Gunfighter Nation", Phantom Luck[edit]

At the beginning of the millennium, Steppling relocated to Europe. After sojourns in Paris and London, he relocated to Poland to teach at National Film School in Łódź. During his stay in Łódź, Steppling did an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear featuring Marian Opania, and co-starring Mick Collins. The production was done in three languages: Polish, English, and Norwegian.

Steppling returned to Los Angeles, briefly, to oversee the 2002 production of Dog Mouth, a play that was developed from a Taper workshop and was co-directed by the Taper’s Robert Egan.

Towards the end of the decade, Steppling moved to Norway where, in 2009, he wrote and directed a twenty minute film, Then They Recognized Me, with support of the Mid Nordic Film Commission. The film was shot in Rissa, Norway and starred longtime collaborator, Lee Kissman.

In 2010, Steppling moved back to Southern California and along with his son Lex, organized a new theatrical concern, Gunfighter Nation. The inaugural production, The Alamo Project, ran at The Odyssey Theater in West Los Angeles. The group’s second production The LA History Project, marked Steppling's return to The Lost Studio.

Late in 2010, Steppling premiered Phantom Luck, Steppling cast his cousin, James Storm in the lead role.

In February 2014, filming in Las Vegas completed for Death in the Desert, a full-length movie directed and produced by Evans, for which Steppling wrote the screenplay.[8] It stars Michael Madsen, Shayla Beesley and Paz de la Huerta.[9] The screenplay and film were inspired by the book Death in the Desert by true-crime author Cathy Scott.[10]

Personal life[edit]

Steppling is married to Norwegian filmmaker Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling and lives in Norway where he conducts online writing workshops and serves as artistic director of Gunfighter Nation. He blogs about politics, art, and current affairs on his web site.

Publications[edit]

  • Absolute Disaster: Fiction from Los Angeles (Santa Monica Review Press and Dove Books), 1996;
  • Sea of Cortez and Other Plays (Sun & Moon), 1999;
  • West Coast Plays 21/22 (California Theater Council), 1987;
  • Best of the West (Padua Hills Press), 1991;
  • Los Angeles Under the Influence: 20 LA Writers, Their Influences and their work (Doublewide Press), 2002

References[edit]

External links[edit]