Toledo playwright Eric Pfeffinger recently received an Ohio Arts Council Award for Individual Excellence for his new play, They Work for Me. This is his second award from the Arts Council; his first came in 2016 for Human Error, a comedy set in Sylvania. Each award was $5,000.
His plays often take place in the Midwest, which, he says, forces directors and dramaturgs to conduct research about the lingo, culture, customs, and accents of a strange and distant region. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Writers Guild of America, East, and just about any other organization willing to have him as a member, he added.
His play Human Error was a special presentation of the Toledo Repertoire Theatre in November, and just had its official world premiere at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. This summer his short play, Melto Man and Lady Mantis, was produced by the City Theatre of Miami, Human Error was produced at the Pegasus PlayLab in Orlando, and he’s written two plays for the One-Minute Play Festival at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati.
He’s co-creator of the webseries Mommy Blogger, #MotherJudger, and Sad Dads, all of which he says he’s pretty sure you can find by using Google. Other plays of his have been produced at Actors Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival, the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, the Geva Theatre of Rochester, N.Y., the InterAct of Philadelphia, Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Md., and elsewhere.
By day, he says, you can find him working at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library. By evening you can find him being ignored by his children.
Q: How would you describe They Work for Me, the play that brought your second Ohio Arts Council Award for Excellence?
A: They Work For Me is about three characters from folklore: Scheherazade from Persia, Untombinde from South Africa, and Savitri from India, who team up to battle evil. It’s ungainly and I’m still working on it. It's kind of a departure for me, a feminist action-adventure comedy with stage combat and self-aware literary criticism and echoes of cheesy 1970s television. It’s ambitious and quirky and possibly completely unstageable, so I’m grateful for the support and the vote of confidence.
Q: How does it compare to Human Error, recognized by the Ohio Arts Council in 2016? Do you see your writing moving in another direction?
My writing’s always moving in another direction. Whether I want it to or not. Sometimes it would be nice if it would just sit still for a while. In my experience — and other playwrights have said the same thing to me — no matter how well your last play went, every time you start writing a new play it feels like a brand new unprecedented thing, and you feel like an amateur who has no idea what you’re doing. Which is part of what makes it fun. But I can't imagine other professions have this same experience. Like, I hope it’s not something that happens with surgeons.
Q: How was the experience of having Human Error presented at the theater in Denver? Are you working on others heading for production now?
A: The process in Denver was fantastic — the creative team and cast were crazy talented; I was just trying to keep up and generate rewrites that were worthy of them. And the show had a great run: It sold out night after night, and the reviews were terrific, which was the kind of added bonus you never count on. That same play just wrapped up a run in Florida, with other productions forthcoming in New Jersey and Maine. And a short play of mine that premiered at the Humana Festival in Louisville last year went up in Florida last month.
Of course, I’ve got other plays in the pipeline, in various stages of disastrousness. You never know which of these is going to catch fire and ... carry you off to unexpected places, and which are going to settle half-finished in the sediment at the bottom of your hard drive. I wrote Human Error largely for my own entertainment, fully expecting that it was too funny for any theater to take seriously and that it would never get produced; now it's on its way to being my most successful play yet. Others that I’ve written thinking they were likely to hit have never been produced. Either it’s a wildly unpredictable business or I’m a terrible judge.
Q: Broadway seems flooded with musicals; is community theater now the place to see plays, serious and otherwise?
That’s a recurrent question — it’s been years and years since Broadway was the main outlet for what was good and interesting about American theater. Nowadays I’d say that Broadway actually presents some really good stuff — playwrights like Young Jean Lee and Paula Vogel and Lucas Hnath and Lynn Nottage, some of the greatest writers in the theater today, are getting backing on Broadway, and some of the musicals on Broadway these days — Hamilton, The Great Comet, The Band's Visit — are as ambitious and worthy as the best straight plays.
That said, Broadway is for the most part no longer the originator of great work (I’m under the impression that it was once, but that was well before my time — did I mention that I’m really surprisingly young?) but rather a destination for it. Great theater gets developed and seen and established in storefront theaters across the country, in local theaters and regional theaters and Off-Broadway theaters and Off-Off-Broadway theaters and play development organizations, and then sometimes some of that great stuff, if it seems like a safe bet, ends up on Broadway.
The national network of small and regional theaters does the hard and risky [research and development] work of the American theater, and then Broadway amplifies its successes. That amplification is valuable, of course, and the fact that something like August: Osage County winds up on Broadway might be the reason why you’ll get to see it. But, of course, it’s cooler to be able to say you saw it in Chicago first, at the theater that did all the work and risk-taking that made it possible in the first place.
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