By Brynne Frauenhoffer

Interviewing playwright Calamity West is easy. Finding a stopping point—and paring down all that she shares with me—is the hard part. She’s boisterously honest and unapologetically opinionated, as well as a generous conversationalist, often probing me for details about my life despite the fact that she’s the interviewee. She is refreshingly frank about her writing process and her chosen theater community; when lack of gender parity in Chicago theater comes up, she declares, “It’s just misogyny, the end, and it’s really not more complicated than that,” and I resist the urge to clap. Even her technological communications, sprinkled generously with colorful emojis, are engaging and heartfelt.

This candid version of West differs slightly from the professional I witness in workshops for her upcoming commissions HINTER (at Steep Theatre

Company) and IN THE CANYON (at Jackalope Theatre Company). In each rehearsal space, West sits, silent mostly, as actors perform her words, then respond to the script. She cocks her head slightly, nodding vigorously in encouragement, occasionally responding, “Go on!” to anyone hesitating to offer feedback, but otherwise keeps her reactions to herself.

During the performance portion of the reading, as actors read from fresh pages, West’s fingers fly across her keyboard. She follows along with the words on her laptop, highlighting chunks of dialogue in varying colors.

Later, West explains how different hues signify typos, or the need for a cut or rearrangement, or what she refers to as “missed opportunities” for conflict. The way she edits as she listens betrays the constant story and character decisions churning beneath her reserved rehearsal-room demeanor.

“She’s really a very private writer,” says Seth Bockley, the director attached to West’s as-yet-unproduced TONY KUSHNER CONSIDERS WRITING A GAY FANTASIA BASED ON NATIONAL THEMES: A FANTASIA. Bockley has helped develop the show through multiple workshops, beginning with the Goodman Playwrights Unit, and the years-long process has offered him an up-close look at West’s approach. “If I give her ten different thoughts from the draft of a script, she’ll often just sort of go, ‘Okay, okay, mmhmm,’ and not respond…Some of the things I said may make an impact on her, others don’t. She just does what she wants to do, and brings in new pages or new drafts. And I actually love that. I love that she’s so deliberate in that sense.”

She also does not particularly enjoy sitting through the readings themselves.

“A reading like [at] Jackalope where it’s the zygote of a play and it’s so expansive and sprawling while totally incoherent, that’s awful,” she says. “I wanna have a panic attack the whole time. But the play will get better, and then the readings will get easier.”

Brad Akin, the director of HINTER and the former Literary Manager of Steep who brought West in to pitch the concept of the play, observes that (in spite of West’s unspoken anxiety) she goes into each reading with specific goals.

“She’s very clearly about, ‘Right now I just need to hear THIS, I need to hear the rhythm of this scene,’” explains Akin. “So if something else pops up, great, but she doesn’t need anything else…She’s not going to get too worked up if [the actors] don’t believe they’re doing the thing emotionally correct yet. It’s like, “Nah, I don’t need to hear that right now, I just need to hear a tone.’”

This is not to say that West is inflexible—after a certain point in her process, she’s known for her receptiveness to actors’ ideas.

“Because her work is very character driven…if something doesn’t feel right, the actor doesn’t feel like that’s something the character would do, she’s very open to hearing that and changing it,” says actor Breon Arzell, who’s played the same role in every reading of TONY KUSHNER… to date. “It’s very much a conversation about what’s better for the show. If she agrees with it, she’ll change it. If she thinks that that will change something else, then she’ll…create other opportunities to make things clear…It’s really cool to have her in the room because she listens to [feedback] when it comes from the actor, which makes the actor more comfortable with the part, and feel like they have a say in its growth and creation.”

The Gacy Play —photo by Jonthan Green

Akin and Bockley both noticed West as a theatrical voice, particularly through her character creation, when her show THE GACY PLAY premiered at Sideshow Theatre Company in 2012.

“To begin with, you’re writing a play about a terrifying serial killer, so you’re already dealing with someone complicated,” says Akin. “But she made all of the people around him just as complicated, and gave them all sorts of interesting facets—and not in an indulgent way.”

“I just was taken with the writing,” recalls Bockley, “and also the audacity of it in the sense of digging up a horrific story and character and set of circumstances without compromise…I feel that a lot of young writers in American theatre today are locked into a kind of naturalistic mode, and I was happy that she had a mixture of really great naturalistic scenes and then some sense of larger theatricality with the presence of the ghostly figures in that particular play.”

Other productions quickly followed: COMMON HATRED at The Ruckus, followed by a remount at Rhino Fest, and THE PEACOCK at Jackalope in 2013, then IBSEN IS DEAD at Interrobang Theatre Project in 2014. The Kilroys List for 2015 included her play GIVE IT ALL BACK and listed THE PEACOCK as an Honorable Mention. West was selected to be a member of the Goodman Playwrights Unit last year, where she first began developing TONY KUSHNER… Around the same time, GIVE IT ALL BACK debuted at Sideshow and ROLLING premiered at Jackalope. This year, ROLLING was nominated for the Jeff Award for Best New Work and, in addition to her two commissions, West has begun writing an untitled play about Chekhov as a member of the TimeLine Theatre Company’s Playwrights Collective.

ROLLING at Jackalope — photo by Joel Maisonet

Collaborators attribute much of West’s success to her unflinching portrayal of characters’ raw, often brutal qualities.

“She writes complicated, different people that one moment you’re rooting for and the next moment you’re not,” Akin sats. “She lets them be everything they need to be. She doesn’t really soften the edges of people.”

This willingness to confront humanity’s ugliness seems to come from West’s motivation in writing theater as opposed to other literary forms.

“I think it can fill your soul to sit back in a safe space, like a theater, and watch people—horrible people—do horrible things, and learn from their mistakes. And there are no moral repercussions from it,” explains West. “You get to see people do awful things, and you can be like, ‘Oh, I totally identify with that awful thing that person did—I’m awful in the same way. What happens to them when they do that awful thing? Oh that‘s what happens! I shouldn’t do that awful thing!’ without having to experience it yourself. I think that’s a really cool, powerful tool that theatre engages with because it’s literally in front of your face. You get to be a little voyeur to everybody else’s fuckups, like the characters’ fuck-ups, you know? And that’s fun. That’s fun and juicy.”

West also values the chance to share ethics with an audience.

“What I’m always trying to do is teach lessons,” West owns. “I’m always trying to teach parables, like always always always.”

West often posts on Facebook and Instagram, chronicling vacations, nights out with friends, and updates on her upcoming plays. If you follow her on these platforms, you’ve likely also encountered photos of underlined Bible passages or quotes about her faith.

“I’m a Christian. I pray every day. I read the Bible every day,” West states. “Christianity makes me more chill, and when I’m not as focused on God as I want to be, I just get kind of shaken up.”

West is an extremely vocal liberal and feminist, and reconciles this political viewpoint succinctly with her religious one. “The Christian values that I follow encourage acceptance—NOT TOLERANCE! Acceptance! Love, intelligence, kindness, and an openness to hear everyone’s story and point of view…I’m always trying to write plays that inspire people to leave being better, more empathetic people—which is the whole point of Christianity, I believe.”

She definitely achieves this goal in her work, as Arzell notes, “One thing I love about her shows is that they’re really not specific when it comes to race and gender, and I love that it has that kind of fluidity to it, where things can be displayed in different ways…it’s just very open and flexible.”

West’s faith also equips her to keep pursuing her art.

“I’m always thinking of God when I’m writing,” says West. “And I’m always praying for the focus to do what I do, and the patience to do it.” 

Calamity West

Finding focus can be difficult for any theatermaker, especially one who’s also juggling a day job. West honestly addresses the financial burdens of trying to survive in her chosen field, particularly at the beginning of her career, when she worked for years as a full-time box office attendant.

“I was in massive credit card debt, I had massive student loan debt,” West recalls. She still struggles with student loan payments, but a 3Arts Award in 2014 gave her $25,000 with no strings attached. “I was able to pay off my credit card, and never get a credit card again.”

Yet even before that burden was lifted, West wrote consistently (often at her job), completing drafts and forging connections to make productions happen. “I could have a million dollars, I could have no money at all, and that should not affect my ability to write my focus to write or my thirst to write,” she says decisively. “It’s just finding an emotional balance because money will fuck with you. That shit will fuck with your head.”

Despite this resilient work ethic, West jokingly laments her lack of a rigorous writing schedule.

“Ideally I would just wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, be emotionally and psychologically sound and just write,” she says, “but that doesn’t really happen!… Really what happens is, I wake up really early in the morning and kind of do nothing for a couple of hours…listening to podcasts and drinking coffee, and then reading, and then—if I’m in the emotional space to—journal, and then start writing the plays…It’s a slow, slow burn.”

But as soon as West gets going, she finds momentum.

“If I’m on a deadline, I’ll write like 16 hours a day.” She laughs at my surprised reaction. “Right? Consecutively. I don’t know how sustainable that is, but that tends to be when I write my best, is under the deadline. When I know I have five, six days to do this, and then I can just crank it out…It’s also just more exciting that way, knowing that you have to do it by a certain time, that other people are going to see it—it’s just more fun.”

Her goals for deadlines have also shifted in the last several years, as she’s worked on more and more full-length productions, often with overlapping timelines.

“It’s really hard for me to write a first draft…It’s like pulling teeth for me,” she admits. “When I was first starting off…we’d literally be in rehearsals and the play still wouldn’t have been finished. Like, we still wouldn’t have a complete first draft.”

The pressure of finishing drafts for ROLLING, GIVE IT ALL BACK, and TONY KUSHNER… within weeks of each other forced West into a breakthrough. “It was just like, this play has to end!” she exclaims. “I’ve learned that while writing the first draft IS really hard, it’s way easier than NOT having written a first draft and trying to get everything perfect…Going into a rehearsal room with a really shitty or messy first draft is easier than coming in with an absolutely awesome play that has a great first act and half of a second act.”

West’s work often springs from a historical event or person. TONY KUSHNER…, for example, presents a fictional, stylized version of the famed playwright’s process, ROLLING (produced by Jackalope Theatre Company in 2016) echoes the real-life scandal surrounding the journalist behind a retracted Rolling Stone piece, and the character known simply as The Artist in GIVE IT ALL BACK (produced by Sideshow Theatre Company in 2016) evokes Bob Dylan.

West’s Notebook

When I bring up this quality in her work, West’s upbeat manner fails to conceal her frustration with the subject.

“I don’t know, I would love to talk this out with you,” she begins hesitantly, “because I kind of struggle—like, I hear what you’re saying….I’m inspired by real life and real-life events, but I also feel like every playwright is.”

Some of her agitation stems from the reception of GIVE IT ALL BACK, which, by all outward appearances, was a critical and financial success, but didn’t match West’s intentions.

“I feel like all of the heartbreak that I used to reserve for young men in my life, for the past three years, found its way to transfer into my professional life, and no reaction to one of my plays has ever broken my heart more than GIVE IT ALL BACK,” she says. “That is the best play I’ve ever written, hands-down the best one, with craft, language, style, character arcs, everything—it was just the best. So I just thought people would enjoy it or appreciate it or see that craft more than they did. I really just think people could not let go of this Bob Dylan projection of myself on this stage. They could not get past it. And so, everything was lost.”

The other pitfall when discussing female writers is to attribute all of their inspiration to personal experience, but West asserts, “[GIVE IT ALL BACK] is the play that is the most autobiographical—unlike any of my other plays, which have an emotional layer of me in them but in no way reflect my real life or real experiences.”

The published version of GIVE IT ALL BACK

West ascribes some of the gaps in understanding to gender issues.

“Because I’m a woman, people are like, ‘Oh, I see where she got that idea from because she surely couldn’t have an idea all by herself,’” says West. “‘She had to get it somewhere else, and then she tried to do this cute thing and twist it.’ I mean, that’s every play ever! That’s literally every play ever. But people—or men—are just obsessed with finding out what inspired me.”

However, West also acknowledges, “People like to pigeonhole writers, and I don’t necessarily think that has anything to do with gender, race or class. I think that’s just the plight of the writer, right? Or the artist. You’ve created this thing, so surely that’s what you’re going to create from here on out for always and forever.”

West herself doesn’t recognize any consistent style in her work, and feels comfortable with that ambiguity.

“I’m cool with not finding that out,” she says. “I’m okay with never finding that out. I used to feel like I needed to find [out my style] and maybe it would make me a more marketable writer, but that also sounds kind of boring.”

West’s collaborators, particularly her directors, recognize her real-life influences but express admiration of her ability to make them her own, and to make each work distinct.

“She has such a sense of what she wants to talk about and how she wants to talk about it,” says Akin. “Most of her plays begin with some kind of moment in history, or some person or personality…but she goes into it with such confidence in knowing what of that she’s interested in, what of that she’s not interested in, and just takes what she needs, to say what she wants to say.”

When I ask about West’s favorite plays, she cites Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Hamlet, Annie Baker’s The Aliens, and Sheila Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone with Salad and Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake). But, she says, “I mostly read non-plays! And watch lots of movies and listen to all the music always. Those are the things that inspire me the most.” Lately, West has been tuning in to a “Poem of the Day” podcast and gotten current on Game of Thrones. “That shit’s candy,” she says. “I don’t think or worry or stress about anything when I’m watching that shit….I feel like it’s perfect for the neurotic brain.”

Another facet to West’s presence in the theatre community is her work as a teacher. She has given workshops at Victory Gardens and teaches courses at University of Chicago.

Engaged professors and mentors had a hand in West’s career trajectory, offering something of a blueprint for the support she provides.

In school, West excelled at getting involved with extracurriculars and became president of her class, but, she admits, “I did not give a shit about school. I gave a shit about my English classes that allowed us to read cool shit, but I didn’t care about anything else.”

West’s academic performance kept her from being accepted to many of her top college choices, so she spent her first year of undergrad earning a transcript that would allow her transfer to a different institution. “I did not fit in at all,” she says of her freshman year. “I still remember the first day being there, and spending the night, and it putting the fear of God in me, and being like, ‘I have to ace every fucking class that I’m taking here so I can get the fuck out of this school.’ And I did!”

During this tenuous period, West found support in two of her literature professors. “One of them also taught creative writing,” says West, “and she really encouraged me to start writing. Which I’d always done, but not necessarily in an academic setting.”

With over a 4.0 for her freshman year, West transferred to Webster University, where the guidance of another committed professor led her to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Playwriting. “[He’s] still my mentor, who I still email every week,” says West. “He was just like, ‘You’re really good at playwriting. You should do this, and you should read this play, and you should go see this, you should check this out at the library.’”

After completing her B.F.A., West immediately began pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She wrote and studied poetry, fiction, and screenwriting in addition to plays. She reflects on how she spent much of her time reading, everything, anything, then “regurgitating” what she read in her own work. “I was also surrounded with people who were way smarter than me,” West recalls, “and encouraged me or influenced me intellectually in a way that I hadn’t been challenged in undergrad.”

A big break in West’s playwriting aspirations came when she happened to meet Kent Nicholson, who would become the Director of Musical Theater at Playwrights Horizons. “He actually gave me my first public reading of one of my plays…It totally changed my life and the way I viewed my writing.”

These days, West is clearly doing the same for her mentees.

“If I could teach a class every semester, anywhere, I would do it, because teaching is the most fun ever. It’s the best,” West raves. “The kids at U. of Chicago are so smart. They’re like stupid smart. So I just like being able to hang out with really smart young people for three hours to talk about plays…Young people just give me hope and inspire me.”

The Peacock at Jackalope — photo by Alex Hand

Akin, who has substituted as a professor for Northwestern, brought in West multiple times to speak with his students. “She’s incredibly thoughtful and candid about everything,” he says. “She doesn’t sugar coat anything, but she’s also not being super negative. She’s honest. She’s not afraid to talk about the realities of being a playwright while also being super supportive of people who might be interested in doing that.”

Her passion for mentoring students seems to go above and beyond the role of professor; while working on this article, she sends me an enthusiastic email invitation to a reading that she personally organized for a play written by one of her students. When I ask about her dedication to mentorship, she discusses the layers of her motivation.

“I don’t really know how else to say this—I’m kind of exhausted by the disparity of female writers, everywhere, but specifically in my community,” explains West. “So the people that I want to invest in and have conversations with are young female writers. Anything that I can do to make the career path trajectory or dreams of a young woman who’s interested in playwriting…the easier I can make that, the easier that it’s going to be for me in the long game. So it’s not at all this selfless thing, there’s also self-involvement in that. But if I could just make their trajectory happen, like, one year faster than mine? Then I would be pumped.”

Following our afternoon-spanning interview, once I’ve switched the recorder off, we chat about St. Louis (our shared hometown), politics, and plays. She asks about my writing. By way of goodbye, she says sincerely, “I hope you get everything you want.” The feeling is mutual. And by the looks of it, West is well on her way.

HINTER will run at Steep Theatre Company January 25-March 3, 2018. IN THE CANYON is still in development at Jackalope Theatre Company.

About author

Brynne Frauenhoffer

Brynne spent most of her childhood performing The Lion King as a one-woman show and writing spec scripts for Pokemon. As an adult, she has decided to basically keep doing things like that forever. After graduating with a BFA in Drama from The University of Oklahoma, she moved to Chicago, where she now pursues playwriting, acting, and comedy.