By Curt Wagner
7:47 PM CDT, March 21, 2012
When Jackalope Theatre Company stages the world premiere of "The Last Duck" on Thursday and Friday, playwright Lucas Neff probably won't breathe a sigh of relief.
"I'm an expectant parent," Neff said during a recent chat at the Coffee Studio in Andersonville. "I can't wait to be a parent and have this kid, but at the same time I'm terrified of all the unknown things that could happen."
Neff stepped into the unknown when he was cast in the Fox comedy "Raising Hope," in 2010, just two years after graduating from UIC's performing arts program and the School at Steppenwolf. For two seasons now he has played Jimmy Chance, the single father of Hope on the series that co-stars Martha Plimpton, Garrett Dillahunt, Shannon Woodward and Cloris Leachman.
In his down time from the series, the humble 26 year old has been honing another artistic pursuit: writing plays. "The Last Duck," he says, is "maybe the sixth or seventh play that I've written ... and maybe the first decent one."
"The Last Duck" tells the story of an actor, Gerry, who visits the lake house of a playwright, Royall, to inquire about renting it. Through the course of one evening, and the roughly 90-minute play, Gerry and Royall "engage in a battle of whiskey and wits," according to information from Jackalope. The story is set in Chicago, which was important for Neff, who grew up in Andersonville.
"It's a very Chicago play and it's a very me play, I guess, because it's about a Chicago writer and a Chicago actor," he said. He started writing the play as a self-portrait exercise that split his two artistic selves. But it quickly went in unexpected directions.
"It sort of becomes like a morality play," Neff said, adding that it asks questions such as, "If you're put in a very difficult situation what would you do? Would you be guided by your moral principles or those other, less heroic qualities?"
The cast consists of just two actors, Andrew Burden Swanson and Pat Whalen, who will rotate the roles of Gerry and Royall, creating two distinct versions of the play and the need for a two-night “world premiere.” Because the actors had to learn both parts—“I’m so happy to not be up there onstage trying to do this,” Neff joked—director Marti Lyons and the company have been working on the show since January. Neff drove back to Chicago after the current season of “Raising Hope” wrapped in late February to join the production.
As soon as Neff wrapped the current season of "Raising Hope" in late February, he drove back to Chicago with his terriers and a friend to work with the company, whom he said have "been working their tails off around the clock." The process has been painful at times.
"I cut so many of my little darlings," he said, laughing. "Every night I think there is something. I'm trying to get better at being like, 'It just doesn't work, just cut it, don't think about it, just cut it...' I'm trying to embrace that change that happens within the process as opposed to fighting it. I don't know that I'm doing a very good job with it."
Lyons says Neff's been a great collaborator, both answering questions about his work and gaining new insights into the play through others. "It's been very inspiring and energizing to have him in the room, because it's a gamble," said the director, who also serves as literary manager and company dramaturg for Lookingglass Theatre Company. "But we all feel like we've won."
Neff feels like he's won, too, since having his work staged is a "dream come true." But he's under no illusion it will lead to an exciting new career as a playwright.
"Just to see something that was at one point just a little thought in your head become flesh and blood in front of your eyes is kind of scary and cool," he said. "As far as how big it is outside of a personal level I don't know. A lot of that will depend on how much people love it or hate it."
Below are excerpts from my chat with Neff about the process of bringing "The Last Duck" to the stage, his new "entourage" and whether his "Raising Hope" co-stars know what he's up to.
"The Last Duck"
When: 7 p.m. March 22 and 23 (double opening nights) through April 15
Where: Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave.
Tickets: $15; more info at jackalopetheatre.org
The first time we talked before "Raising Hope" debuted you said you were writing. Has this been something you wanted to do forever, have a play that you wrote produced? (Read "Almost famous: 'Raising Hope' star and Chicago native Lucas Neff")
Absolutely. I didn't write in school. I started writing about a year after graduating mainly to impress a girl that I was dating, and it quickly became like a real legitimate passion. This is maybe the sixth or seventh play that I've written since then and maybe the first decent one, so I'm excited to see if it sinks or swims.
Is it a comedy?
I think it's funny. It's dark. It's darkly comic, I would say. The biggest part of the play is the language and what's happening between the two characters. It's not about a lot of props. It's not a spectacle. It's a very simple production of just mainly really the simplest idea of theater, which is what's happening between two people onstage. That's what's interesting, so if you dig that you might dig this.
Are you being really impossible at rehearsals?
That depends on who you're talking to, you know what I mean? I suppose I'm afraid of being impossible. I don't want to be that guy in the room who is like telling everybody else what they're doing wrong. They've been rehearsing since January, which is a really long time. Most plays get three to four weeks of rehearsal. They've been going over two months now and I've been making changes to the script the entire time. So every time they come in memorized I've changed it.
Have you done that as a result of seeing something or just because you're still tweaking it?
Both, I'm still thinking about the play. I'm thinking about what works. The director, Marti Lyons, was kind enough to work with me. We sort of established a system where once a week or once every couple weeks in the early part of the process she would tape a read-through and I would listen to it or watch it and think, "Oh, this dialogue doesn't really seem to function" or "Oh, this is too much" or "This doesn't sound truthful." I'd try to adjust it as best I could.
Since I got here basically I've just been cutting. [Laughs.] I've just been like, "OK, that's gone. That's terrible; get rid of that. That's bad; let's not say that in front of people." [Laughs.] That's been most of it.
Is it going to be a 5-minute play then?
Oh man, it sounds so tempting right now to cut it down to that. Hopefully it should run about 90 minutes, which I think is a nice digestible amount of theater for the evening.
The actors will switch roles on alternating nights, so they've had to rehearse both ways.
These two actors basically never leave the stage for 90 minutes and they're just talking like rapid fire the entire time. They're talking over each other basically and they have to do it both ways. .... It's 70-plus pages of dialogue, which is just it's--until you've tried to do it's hard to convey how impressive a feat that is. In terms of just the sheer amount of dialogue we're asking a lot of them. ... I've basically just screwed them. I've just I've set up an impossible situation. It's exciting to see them, though. They're these young guys who are fresh out of school, so at the moment they're really hungry.
Like somebody else a few years ago.
Yeah. [Laughs.] I don't know who you're talking about, but it's exciting to be a part of it. It's invigorating to do it. It's like the coolest thing.
So is it a lot different seeing it with the actors switching roles?
I think so. I think it's sort of inevitably different because just the actors being who they are. I think if you like took any TV show and switched the actors in the roles it's going to transform a little bit. I certainly see the difference. .... One of the guys is very sweet and there is sort of a sweet innocence to him and the other guy has sort of a more tough, sort of aggressive hostility just to everything. So just those minor shades really illuminate the text in different ways. I hope.
How has it been watching the play change, and seeing others interpret it?
That's something I'm negotiating within this process. ... It's a very specific text in a lot of ways, so it's scary to sit back and to a certain extent let the actors find their moments. I certainly have some preconceived notions coming in as a writer of what I imagined things might sound or look like and then these actors are totally different looking and sounding than the ones I had imagined. The set is totally different than the one I had imagined. Now when they say the words, it feels like a different play a little bit.
It sounds like you're doing exactly what you should for the good of the play.
Yeah, I'm making it sound like that; that's definitely the idea. [Laughs.] I'm trying to convince you as much as possible and convince everybody that I know what I'm doing. I think that's a lifelong process, but I'm stumbling into it ass backwards and blindfolded. I really have no clue. I'm just sort of figuring it out as I go.
How did you hook up with Jackalope?
It was the way it seems every job works. You know somebody, you talk to somebody. I'm not really established as a writer and I'm not very good at schmoozing or like going through the appropriate forums. I know a few directors who are friends of mine. I know a few actors who are friends of mine, so whenever I finish something I'll just send it to them and be like, "What do you guys think?" Without me asking a director passed it along to the artistic director of Jackalope Theatre Company and I guess they had done a table reading and really responded to it, so she asked if it would be OK for them to get in contact with me and I was just over the moon. I was like, "Wow."
Then I think I was a little bit too protective of it, too, which happens especially when you're working with people you've never worked with before. We sort of hooked up in a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of way ... They wanted to meet me and we sort of felt each other out and we both though, "Oh you guys are OK, cool."
I thought their hearts are in the right places and they seemed really interesting as artists and man, I love storefront theater. I just love it. There are so many interesting risks you can take in that environment that you can't take as you go up the chain of bigger and bigger and bigger theaters.
The characters talk about that in my play, how money just changes the amount of acceptable risk because you've got a huge institution to support. You have a lot of jobs that you have to pay for. You have subscribers. You have an enormous space to continue paying rent and light and all these other things for. You've got to make sure that your theater has a sustainable financial life and storefront is not that way. Storefront is a bunch of nomads from the desert. They appear and disappear.
Did you help choose the director Marti Lyons or is this a person who directs for Jackalope a lot?
She's a guest artist. We just met and had a coffee and I started asking her a bunch of questions. She had read the play and we sort of felt each other out. It was sort of nerve wracking for both of us I think. It's that very blind date sort of quality. Like we're both hoping it's going to be love at first sight ... She is really cool. She is a really smart, smart person and very confident.
Was it interesting for you to hear her take on your play?
Yeah, that's one of the things I really loved about this. To some extent it's self-indulgent. It's like hearing about your child at school. "How did they do in math class? Oh, do go on." I try not to talk too much about my take on things before I get to hear their take because you can inform their opinions very quickly.
Did she surprise you? What have you learned things about your own play?
Yeah, absolutely. I think it's continuing to happen. A lot of it is just sort of the three dimensionality of it. She has sort of staged and choreographed certain moments and there are things that I had no idea and went, "Oh, that's what's happening right there" or "Oh, this is the dynamic of the relationship between the characters and here I thought it was a much different thing and you're so much smarter than me and I'm very glad that I didn't listen to my instinct, that we're trusting you on this one." I think that's continuing to happen and hopefully it will continue. The great thing about theater is it's not a one-and-done sort of thing. Hopefully it will keep changing until the closing day.
Even when you get in front of a live audience things change.
Absolutely, that's the first thing that happens is they start to change. There is always a debate that me and my friends have about whether or not opening night is a good thing or a bad thing because performances change real quickly. You've been rehearsing this thing in private with no response, no feedback and all of the sudden you have an audience.
Nobody is laughing when they're supposed to be laughing.
All of the sudden you have all these eyes right on you and I think actors start, where they were very much just playing a moment, suddenly start to play the audience a little bit. That can be really dangerous to a play, but at the same time that excitement and that energy and that electricity of having an audience can push a play into a transcendent place. I think that's the exciting aspect of theater that TV and film miss. A film or a TV show are not going to change depending on who the audience is. It is what it is and the interpretive aspect only happens on the audience side.
With theater the audience affects what's happening onstage in a really immediate fashion and that can be a train wreck some nights. But I think it's fascinating at the very least. Whenever I walk onstage even in a rehearsal room it feels like there is just electricity in the floorboards. I just get so excited just walking onstage. It's like, "This is it."
Writing and acting are very different pursuits. Writing is very solo and sort of struggling I guess with everything in your own head and acting is so public, in front of people. How do you reconcile those two in you?
There is a part of me that wants to say very glibly that writing is when you want to be miserable off by yourself and acting is when you want to be miserable in front of other people, but I think I write as an actor, do you know what I mean? ... I think about what would be fun to do as an actor with the type of dialogue that I want to say, the type of scene that I want to be in and then I write it. It's sort of a very freeform sort of improvisational thing. I just sort of have a conversation with myself and I picked two different characters to play who hopefully have very different voices and then I just let them talk to each other and then I sort of figure out what's wrong with them. You create a sense of danger, a sense of conflict and then have fun and let go.
In many ways it's sort of for me similar processes. One can leave me looking a lot more insane, I think, with me just sitting by myself somewhere just talking to no one, to the air, to the fairies. The other one is a bit more obviously practical. I think when you're acting it's not too different from other jobs. It's a group of people getting together to accomplish a task and everybody has a role to play. It's just a lot more fun. I think; I don't know. I haven't figured it out.
I love them both dearly. I wish I were a lot better at both all the time, but I think as I keep doing it the joy that I started with just keeps replenishing itself and sort of doubling itself. I get so happy to think about acting and I get so happy to think about writing. I don't know where I'm going with this, but I just can't stop thinking about stories. I never stop wanting to play pretend and so if there are people around, [I say] let's act together and let's create a story together. If nobody is around then I'm just going to do it by myself.
You've wrapped the "Raising Hope" season?
Yeah, we were finished Feb. 17.
Have you been here since?
I drove across country with my dogs and my best buddy from back in high school and so I got here in about four or five days.
So you now have an entourage?
Yeah, right, if you count my terriers I guess I have an entourage. No, not at all. I'm so barely a celebrity, which I appreciate, but it's such a joke to think about that with me. It's so like the opposite.
I'm totally writing that Lucas and his entourage showed up in Chicago.
Yeah, please. After I got past Lucas' bodyguards at the Coffee Studio...
Which was cleared of customers...
Yeah, they garbage bagged all the windows and the paparazzi couldn't take photos of us.
They pulled up in black SUV.
Yeah, from my private plane, which was dropped off by helicopter.
So you came back with your dogs and your friend and you've just been working on this.
Yeah, since like right the beginning of March. It was like Feb. 28 I think, the day before leap day, which man that was a funny episode of "30 Rock." What a weird episode of "30 Rock" that was. It's bizarre, but I think there is sort of great mythology with it. Leap Day Williams, check it out. I think it's good.
Oh yeah, Leap Day Williams. I do know about him because Trent at work sort of dressed the part.
See, it's already starting. It's going to become a real thing. That's what they've done. They've created a real like an actual like new Santa Claus. I think it's amazing, but yeah. I have no entourage.
Are you going to stay through the opening night or are you going to stay even after that?
I was planning on staying a little bit after that. I paid through April 1 with the sublet, so you know the cheap poor kid in me wants to like squeeze every red cent out of it. Yeah, I'm going to hang around. I'm eager to see the actors get on their feet and switch parts and I want to continue to be supportive of them and then after it opens it would be nice to be in Chicago without having that hanging over my head.
And just hang out.
Yeah, just hanging out.
Might you still be tweaking the play after opening night?
I really want to be done. [Laughs.] That's a huge part of it and it's also just I don't want to be a dick to the actors who spent forever trying to memorize these roles. I think like the idea is it will be finished for this run. I might still make changes, but they'll just stay with me and then if somebody else wants to pick it up they'll have the changed manuscript, but the play when it opens I think will just be what it is.
What does it mean to you to have something you've written staged?
It's huge. Personally it's a dream come true. Just to see something that was at one point just a little thought in your head become flesh and blood in front of your eyes is kind of scary and cool. This is happening because of some ludicrous series of ideas that I had and it seems impossible. Do you know what I mean? ... As far as how big it is outside of a personal level I don't know. A lot of that will depend on how much people love it or hate it.
Are you glad this is happening here in your hometown?
Yeah, I would have taken it anywhere, but it means a lot. I'm a Chicago kid. I really am. ... I love this city. I think it doesn't get enough credit for the great things that are going on within its boundaries. I have so many memories here and it's just so many future things that I want to experience here as well. I love that for as big a city as it is it does feel like a small town in the sense of community that people seem to have with each other. It feels like everybody knows everybody here and New York is not that. New York is much larger. LA is much faster, but here I walk down the street I run into five people I know, any street. That doesn't make sense. For the longest time I was saying there are only 30 people actually in Chicago and the rest are just CGI because it doesn't make sense that everybody knows everybody at a certain point.
LA you don't even walk down the street.
No, no, I can't even walk to the Starbucks. That is like half a mile from my house because there are no sidewalks. There is like a highway. That's what I have. I have to cross a highway to get to the neighborhood Starbucks. It's easier to get into the wilderness than it is to get coffee in LA, which in some respects is kind of cool, but when I'm going through caffeine withdrawal in the mornings it is absolutely awful.
Your "Raising Hope" co-star, Martha Plimpton, is a theater vet. Did you have her read "The Last Duck"?
She's read other plays of mine, but I'm very self-conscious about asking people to read my work because it is commitment to read someone else's writing. It can be very awkward, especially if it's bad and you have to work with that person regularly. She read another play of mine, which was much longer and much worse and I sort of felt like I used my play quota with her.
Do your co-stars know that this is happening?
They might. I didn't like talk about it too much. The thing that I sort of like about our cast and crew is that it never feels like a pissing contest with what's happening outside of work or anything like that.
Talking about other projects can sometimes with actors devolve into sort of like, "Well I'm doing this and I've got this." We don't often talk about acting at work. We talk about the books we're reading or what's going on in the news or how crazy Rick Santorum is which, believe me, there is plenty of grist for the mill.
So you didn't drop the play on the seat next to you in make-up?
"Just reading out loud as I walk through the halls."
You've seen this play I wrote?
"Are you familiar with the city of Chicago? It's between New York and it's right there in the middle. They do a lot of theater there and anyway, this play I guess, I don't know, I wrote it." As fun as it would be to be that human being, to live inside that human being's head, which I'm sure is all pinwheels and fireworks, that's not me.
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