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Mentioning Norris

by Thomas Murray

“He is as unflinching in his life as he is in his plays, so he certainly practices what he preaches although if you told him he was preaching, he would kill you.” Ask ensemble member Amy Morton to describe Bruce Norris, and that pointed approbation would be her answer. In last season’s Backstage, we previewed our acclaimed production of Norris’ The Pain and the Itch with a full length profile of this Jeff Award-winning playwright. This time around, we asked ensemble members Amy Morton and Anna D. Shapiro to sound off on Bruce Norris. Both have worked with Norris in the past; both will work on The Unmentionables. The story of Norris’ association with Steppenwolf began in 1995 when Anna D. Shapiro was founding Steppenwolf’s New Play Lab, a development program for early career playwrights. His first Steppenwolf commission, The Bluebonnet State, was developed through the New Play Lab program and received a reading in 1998. “Then, from there, that was kind of the beginning of the end,” Shapiro says with a laugh, alluding to a working collaboration that has spanned three additional plays (The Unmentionables makes four), which have played in both the United States and Europe. The Pain and the Itch will also have its New York premiere under Shapiro’s direction later this year. “Bruce and I have a very high comfort level working together,” Shapiro explains. “First of all, Bruce is very clear about what he’s writing about, and I don’t get any access to that early in the process. He’ll hint at things or make jokes about things, but I don’t see things very early.” “Whenever Bruce determines he wants to have a conversation, that’s when I get let into the process,” Shapiro says. “Sometimes it’s when he’s feeling good, and sometimes it’s when he’s feeling jammed. Sometimes he’ll ask me to read something with a very specific question in mind, and other times he’ll tell me to read something and won’t ask me anything. That’s typically when I know he is feeling pretty confident about the work and just wants general feedback. So in the course of working together, he really guides that conversation – which is very comfortable for me because I don’t want to start talking until someone needs me to start talking. I think we’ve got that down pretty well at this point.” Amy Morton’s direction of We All Went Down to Amsterdam in the Upstairs Theatre in 2003 provided her first-hand experience with the challenges of working on a Bruce Norris script. “His plays have to be done in a very specific way,” Morton says. “In other words, there’s a rhythm that you can’t fight or ignore, and it’s usually very quick. So while working on Amsterdam, the actors were losing their minds because so much of the initial rehearsal work involved drilling the lines. Because there’s really no time to think! It was just ‘start talking.’ His plays are strict, but they’re a blast.” For Morton, it is Norris’ penetrating look at Americans and his brutal honesty in depicting them that excites her most about his work. “That’s got to be hard to do,” she notes, “but maybe not for him since he walks around in the world being brutally honest. His plays are unflinching, and he doesn’t pull any punches. There’s no sentimentality. He’s not concerned at all about whether the character is likable or not. That’s not where he comes from. So to work on them is really freeing in that way. In Amsterdam, the characters were really creepy but also incredibly human. The way he’s able to capture human foibles and prejudices is quite masterful.” Morton has a long history of performance on the Steppenwolf stage, but the character of Jane in The Unmentionables marks her first role in a Norris play. Asked if there was any excitement in working on the other side of the proscenium, Amy admitted, “I’m very excited, but there’s also some trepidation because it’s Bruce. When you don’t do well for Bruce, you can tell. He’ll say, ‘good’ with a sort of smile, and then he’ll say, ‘Anna, can I talk to you?’ So I want to do really well for him.” And so the story of Norris’ artistic relationship with Steppenwolf continues to be written. Morton, Norris and Shapiro return to the Downstairs Theatre this summer to work on The Unmentionables. Asked whether three productions and nearly ten years of collaboration at Steppenwolf has matured her working relationship with Norris, Shapiro laughingly replied, “Bruce and I can bring out the most infantile behavior in the other.” But after taking moment to consider the timeline of their teamwork, Anna replied, “There is no one with whom I have a deeper artistic life and language and no one who challenges me, incites me and pushes me like Bruce. That’s something that has developed over the years, and it’s something that I cherish.”