In 2012 director Harry Burton saw Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Rd. at Pacific Residents Theater in Los Angeles. After the show, he met actor/playwright Keith Stevenson and proposed a London production. Earlier this year, Stevenson finally brought his performance as JD, the mystery man of the West Virginia backwoods, to the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, London, with Burton directing and Joe Hill of Wildcard producing. They chatted (with Joe chipping in occasionally) during rehearsals prior to the re-opening of the show at Trafalgar Studios.
HARRY BURTON: Are you surprised to be back? Did any part of you think the show would transfer to the West End?
KEITH STEVENSON: Well I had high hopes because the production at the White Bear was first class. So it’s no surprise that it turned out well, and that a larger theatre thought it a suitable transfer. But in terms of my trajectory as an artist, it’s shocking and thrilling, and a dream come true.
HB: How did these characters first show up in your imagination?
KS: JD was a character I’d had in my mind ten years prior, in a screenplay. JD and Mitchell turned up at a motel, but then I got stuck. So when the opportunity came to write this play I started from that very point to challenge myself.
HB: Did it roar out of you somewhat?
KS: Actually I was shocked. It was the most pleasurable writing experience I’d ever had, the story just told itself to me.
“I got to go on the journey with the characters, much as the audience does. I didn’t know beforehand how the plot would turn out.”
HB: And the characters’ voices?
KS: A lot of these characters are either sides of myself, or of people I know and love. So finding their voices was not hard. In terms of where the whole thing was going, I didn’t know, which was exciting. I got to go on the journey with the characters, much as the audience does. I didn’t know beforehand how the plot would turn out.
HB: Would you prefer always to write that way? Are you able to choose the mode you write in, or is it different every time?
KS: As much as I would love always to have that type of experience, sometimes it’s more of a slog. The best writing is when it comes easily to you. Any time you’re trying to shoehorn something in, it’s not going to be compelling. Writing the two sequels was a bit harder to do, because certain cats were already out of their bags. Writing sequels gave me the chance to deepen the characters. But surprise is a great quality in comedy, and it’s hard to sustain.
I want to ask you what attracted you to direct this play?
HB: Well, I saw it in LA and loved the unusual presence of a character who starts the play and ends the play purely good. I am fascinated by that, by how to be good. JD is a kind of late-night host for other people’s ordeals. Thinking mythologically, I see the motel room as a kind of convenient Hades, with JD as host. All these people undergoing their dark nights of the soul come crashing through. He has the curious ability to bless them. Like Charon the Ferryman, he helps people across their sea of troubles, and I’d never seen that in a play before. JD is not a character of convenience, but a flesh and blood person whose life purpose is to be of service. I don’t believe in theatre being preachy or telling people what to think. On the other hand there are certain human values which are paramount and have a unifying perennial power, and when you can get that stuff into a show, it’s fantastic.
Have any of the people you’ve based characters on come to see the show and given you feedback?
KS: Absolutely. The character of Marlene, for example, is based on a dear friend I used to be in a relationship with. She was both thrilled and hurt. She also heard me say in a radio interview that at one point in my life I was ‘attracted to vinegar’. She said she was simultaneously laughing and crying as she listened. But that’s part of what makes Marlene so wonderful, she’s a marvelously complex character.
“I love plays that reflect life as it really is – difficult, unresolved, and often very unfair. Sometimes a person only has laughter as their ultimate defence against calamity.”
Aside from the obstacle of having the playwright in the room, what have you found to be some of the challenges in directing the piece?
HB: With comedy the thing is to try keep it both funny and real. So I’ve tried to avoid gag-ism, but – exactly as in life – to discover real human vulnerabilities with comedic results. I’ve directed a few comedies, and a lot of the serious plays I’ve done also have darkly comedic undercurrents. I love plays that reflect life as it really is – difficult, unresolved, and often very unfair. Sometimes a person only has laughter as their ultimate defence against calamity. But if you can laugh, things seem sometimes to get better. I wanted to bring out the whole human paradox contained in the play. There’s some people behaving pretty badly, but there’s always the possibility of redemption.
JOE HILL: So Fried Meat Ridge Road is a real place?
KS: It is. It’s a real road outside my hometown of Keyser, West Virginia. It’s a beautiful part of the area, up on an elevation, with vineyards. There are no decrepit motels there.
HB: It must be only part of America where there aren’t any.
KS: Not to say there aren’t country motels around. In terms of the characters I have living there, the story is a work of fiction. But I was always fascinated by the comedy of the name. Fried Meat Ridge Road got its name because during the Civil War a Confederate wagon train was going across that ridge and was shelled by the Union army. They hit the chuck wagon which was full of meat, so the ridge smelled of fried meat for weeks.
“Fried Meat Ridge Road got its name because during the Civil War a Confederate wagon train was going across that ridge and was shelled by the Union army.”
HB: Might the inhabitants of your Fried Meat Ridge Road be quite supportive of the way the US election went?
KS: Well, the thing about these characters is they have layers, and they do surprise you. So I’m not entirely convinced they’d be on the wrong side of the good and righteous.
I must ask, I understand you had a working relationship with Harold Pinter? Who’s better?
HB: Pinter won the Nobel prize, so he was probably richer…
KS: There is some consideration of peace in this play.
HB: My advice is to get a production going in Stockholm and that way you may qualify for consideration.
JH: Do you think comedy is judged to be slighter form? Is optimism unfairly seen as being shallow in theatre?
HB: A critic would be able to answer that better than me. Self-consciously comic plays appeal to me less, because I don’t like being told that something is funny before I’ve seen it. Chekhov tells us plainly that he wrote comedies, but it’s easy to make a bad production without humour where things just feel baffling and nonsensical. Comedy is best when the actors know how to access the deep stuff of being human. I am an optimist, but I think part of theatre’s process is to remind us how wrong things can go.
KS: Rehearsing with you, we spend about twenty per cent of the time asking how can we make this funnier, and the rest asking how we can ground what’s happening in the centre of these humans.
JH: I’m just concerned that we only see cynicism as a sign of intelligence, and that you can’t make profound statements about being human with upbeat, optimistic commentaries.
“I think cynicism is very often the result of people claiming to be thinking when in fact they’re merely re-arranging their prejudices. Theatre – the live experience – has got to surprise, and offer a perspective that the audience had perhaps forgotten about, or needs reminding about.”
HB: I think cynicism is very often the result of people claiming to be thinking when in fact they’re merely re-arranging their prejudices. Theatre – the live experience – has got to surprise, and offer a perspective that the audience had perhaps forgotten about, or needs reminding about. Its job is to reflect the far edges of human behaviour by being theatrical and mythological, by magnifying the wild extremes of the human condition. Then the audience really get it in their chests rather than merely their heads. They may then laugh at themselves, go away refreshed, renewed, possibly open to changing. Our politics doesn’t seem to be terribly effective at encouraging changes for the better. I believe individuals are ultimately responsible for changing themselves, and the first stage is remorseless self-honestly and a willingness to accept the way things really are. Theatre that’s funny is potentially always going to do that better than any other form.
JH: Can a play like this have a positive impact on people’s racism, on their deep prejudices?
KS: I know it can have a positive impact on their souls. I’ve seen repeat customers use this play as medicine for what ails them. They come back because they know at the end of 70 minutes they’re going to go out feeling better than when they came in.
HB: And if one of them leaves less racist, less knee-jerk, that’s a victory.
KS: I gotta say there was one guy who, having seen the play, decided to become an emergency paramedic because he realised he wanted to help people. He actually changed his career. His actions are far more noble than anything I did in creating this play. But if there is any butterfly effect to it, then that is truly humbling and wonderful.
Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Rd. runs at Trafalgar Studios from 2 May to 3 June 2017. My Theatre Mates’ co-founder chairs a post-show Q&A with Harry Burton, Keith Stevenson and the cast on Tuesday 9 May. Click here for more info on the Q&A.