Eric Pfeffinger, photographed at the Toledo Rep’s Tenth Street Stage, says he has stumbled into playwriting time and again since he was a child.
In May, Toledo playwright Eric Pfeffinger received an Ohio Arts Council Award for Individual Excellence. His submission was his play Human Error, a comedy set in Sylvania. Today, as part of an occasional series on theater people in the Toledo area, he comments on his life as a writer.
Pfeffinger won first prize in the Midwestern Playwrights Festival for his play Of How Maurice Ravel Fell Sick and How He Died, which was produced at the Toledo Repertoire Theatre in 1998. His plays also have been presented by Glacity Theatre Collective and the Village Players.
A member of the Dramatists Guild, Pfeffinger’s work has been produced by Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y., the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, the Source Festival in Washington, Childsplay in Tempe, Ariz., Vital Theatre Company in New York, City Theatre of Miami, Vox Humana in Los Angeles, and others. His play Some Other Kind of Person was commissioned and produced by the InterAct in Philadelphia. He also has been commissioned for new plays by the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., and Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Md.
Q: When did you write your first play, and what was it about?
A: I’ve stumbled repeatedly into playwriting, often inadvertently, throughout my life. It seems to be something I can’t quite avoid. There was the series of plays I was encouraged to write and perform with friends in my third-grade classroom, each more derivative (of TV shows I’d watched) than the last.
And then there was that time in college, right after I’d completed a summer internship in a regional theater literary department, when I wrote a play about an intern in a regional theater literary department. (Seemed so much simpler than trying to make something up.) That was the play that really got me started, because after I graduated it improbably got produced — even more improbably, twice! — despite the fact that it was a large-cast, prop-heavy comedy with Brechtian banners, brief nudity, a full bathtub, and occasional musical interludes. Seeing that bit of overambitious self-indulgence on stage was terrific fun and very encouraging and, perhaps regrettably, there was no turning back from that.
Q: What other types of writing have you done, and did you start writing at an early age?
A: Yeah, I’ve been writing pretty much all my life. And when that’s something you can do, you keep finding reasons to do it. Sometimes those reasons are expressive and sometimes they’re mercenary, but the activity becomes an almost reflexive part of the rhythm of your life. I’ve written movie reviews and magazine articles; I wrote and drew a daily newspaper comic strip for a few years; I co-authored a novel that was published some years back; I co-wrote a couple of web series; I’ve written or co-written some unproduced screenplays. For some of these I got paid; some of these were just terrible. But they’re all reflective of how hard it is to shake a stubborn writing habit. When everything clicks, though, playwriting is the most fun.
Q: Why does writing plays appeal to you?
A: I love the live-ness of plays — the way they exist ephemerally and unpredictably in time. And the way it shares a physical space with its audience, as opposed to the cool remoteness of film and video. Also, unlike some people, I love the limited control that a playwright has over the final product. The way it finally plays in front of an audience depends on the creative contributions of so many other people, many of whom have much better ideas than I do. When it works, it’s fantastic. And when it doesn’t, well, that’s why they invented festering resentment.
Q: When it comes to plays, what comes first, an idea for a character or an idea for a story to tell?
A: For me it’s usually the premise. “Four friends are staying together when the rapture happens.” “A woman meets a terrorist at her class reunion.” “A baby is abandoned in a big-box store and raised by sales associates.” The premise always involves specific characters, of course, but those characters’ choices and behaviors are intimately linked to the circumstances of the story. I don’t generally have the story all mapped out — usually I begin writing and have no idea how it’s going to end, but I usually know how it’s going to begin. That’s what makes me want to start writing it.
Q: Do you prefer writing comedies or drama?
A: I kind of don’t know how to write anything but comedy. I grew up kind of obsessed with humor in all its forms: comic strips, animated cartoons, stand-up, movies, TV, vaudeville, Mad magazine, sketch comedy. I co-founded a comedy troupe in college. When I was a little kid, I was preoccupied with the fact that my last name would put me in the second half of the opening credits on Saturday Night Live (something, in retrospect, that perhaps I didn’t need to worry too much about). Comedy isn’t just my preferred medium, it’s pretty much the way I understand the world. And I think it’s a powerful tool for exploring difficult subject matter — arguably more powerful than drama or tragedy. Comedy lowers your defenses and smuggles big ideas into surprising packages.
Q: Of all your plays, which do you think has been the most successful?
A: There are so many ways to measure that. There was a play of mine in Chicago for which I was paid the single biggest royalty I ever got, but the play closed early and lost the company money, and the script itself wasn’t really very good. Another play of mine, Accidental Rapture — which has had a reading locally with Glacity — has gotten some of the most ecstatic reviews from critics and audiences. Lost and Foundling, a play for young audiences, has probably been produced the most. So the answer kind of depends on your metric.
Q: Of all your plays, which has been your favorite?
A: The standard answer is that the plays are all like your children, so implicitly they’re all your favorites. My answer is that my plays are all like my children, insofar as each of them has gravely disappointed me in some way. They know why.
Reservations continue through Monday for the Great Big Night, the Croswell Opera House’s celebration of its 150th anniversary during its annual benefit gala on June 11. The downtown Adrian theater’s celebration will begin at 6 p.m. with cocktails, dinner, and live entertainment under a tent behind the Croswell and Adrian City Hall, followed by the opening-night performance of Billy Elliot the Musical, then dancing under the stars to live music, and hors d’oeuvres, a cash bar, and dessert. Tickets are $150 per person, by calling 517-264-7469. Tickets for the performance and after-party only are $50.