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Bruce Norris on Downstate

Leading up to the first days of rehearsal for Downstate, playwright and Steppenwolf Ensemble Member Bruce Norris sat down with Steppenwolf’s Artistic and Marketing teams to talk about the play. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

Edited by Patrick Zakem

Patrick Zakem: Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of this play?

Bruce Norris: Well, I know a lot of people (myself included) who, over the course of their lives, have been in sexual situations of questionable wisdom. Some have been the “victims” in these situations and others “perpetrators.” And a few years ago, I started doing a lot of reading about the things paroled sex offenders increasingly face—registries, residency restrictions, neighborhood watches, self-appointed vigilante groups, etc. These are post incarceration punishments, that don’t exist for any other category of criminal. And I also started thinking about how having a common enemy—a universally despised class of criminal (namely the pedophile)—helps the rest of us feel more virtuous about ourselves. And because social media inflames every group response, we can now all anonymously call for their violent deaths, or endorse some gruesome form of retributive justice, often wildly incommensurate to the crime that’s been committed. I think we’re living through an era of “payback.” The entire 2016 election was apparently one massive act of collective psychological revenge by one group against another, elevating a man pathologically obsessed with avenging himself against his perceived enemies. And—I want to be careful how I say this—even positive social movements like #MeToo run the risk of tipping over into vengeance as those of us on the left attempt to purge ourselves of any stain of ideological impurity. And I fear that what gets left out of the current national conversation is any mention of… forgiveness. We’d prefer to luxuriate in our righteous hatred for each other right now, in a way that feels cruel and grotesque and tribal. So, with all of that, the thought occurred to me—how do we tamp down our retaliatory, visceral responses to these people we so easily despise? After all, pedophiles have to go on with their lives somehow, somewhere, right? And, I thought, to simply observe them going about their lives, living with the consequences of what they’ve done…that would require a pretty radical amount of compassion on the part of an audience.

PZ: How do you contextualize this play alongside the rest of your work?

BN: I have a brother who lives in New York and when he sees the plays I write he often asks me, “how come you never write about cool people?” I always say “because it wouldn’t be interesting.” But it did get me thinking about, you know, how I often tend to satirize a particular class of people—the privileged—that I often find despicable. And I thought, “well, who do I extend my sympathy to?” And I thought, “well I extend it to anyone to whom the world would deny sympathy.” I’m not just trying to be contrary or perverse. Because if we’re going to conclude that there’s one group or class people that is wholly disposable, then I think someone ought to be speaking up, a tiny bit, on their behalf. I guess I feel that way because, for some reason, I instinctively dislike consensus. Consensus makes me uncomfortable because it feels like a civilized form of bullying, since it’s never perfect and always manages to marginalize some dissenting voice. In the case of this play, the voices are those of exconvicts who’ve done terrible things about which they have various levels of regret or defiance. And I want to extend compassion to them as well.

PZ: What should audiences expect when they enter the theatre?

BN: I guess they should expect that the play is going to ask who you’re willing to extend yourself to, or—I don’t want to sound too preachy, but like, give compassion to? Or tolerate? Liberalism—I’ve always thought—is supposed to be about tolerance. Are we able to tolerate the existence of these people? Many among us would prefer that pedophiles be killed. That would be the simple answer—to say these people are sick. They’re monsters. Let’s get rid of them. But we can’t do that. So what if we said instead, these people are human beings, and they’re living in a bad situation of their own making. Now what do we do?