Ben Firke ’12 may be best known as the Vice-President of the WSA, but he’s also a dab hand as a playwright. This Friday and Saturday, his new play, “Shovels vs. Schubert,” is opening in the ’92 Theater. The Argus sat down with him to discuss his work, and the process by which “Shovels” came to the stage.
The Argus: First, what’s the play about?
Ben Firke: The play is about a dysfunctional family that lives in the suburbs of Chicago. And they never fight, they never argue, they just never really talk about anything important. They never really communicate. And one day the son starts digging a large pit in the backyard, and they don’t really know what to think about this. It’s just so weird, so left field, and he doesn’t tell them about it. So it’s about how this family, which is so used to order, to everything being in its right place and being predictable, is plunged into chaos by the actions of the son. It’s told through the perspective of Kate, who’s the younger sister—one of the main characters. She’s this really melodramatic teenage poet who writes these off-kilter and overwrought haikus. It’s awesome stuff.
A: What inspired you to write this play?
BF: First of all, it’s sort of based on a true story. My father is a teacher, and at one point one of his students was…he taught these kids. And he got to know the parents and stuff, and eventually he found that apparently, this family’s son […] went out into the backyard, dug a big hole – it took him weeks to do it, and then one day he just sort of filled it in. And they never found out why. So basically, I heard this interesting story, and was like, “Ok, let’s turn this into a thought experiment. What could it have been?” That’s where it started. I worked on the play basically four days a week at my internship and took the whole summer to write it, polished it up last semester, and submitted it to Second Stage.
A: How’s the rehearsal process been?
BF: We have a great cast. Three out of the four cast members worked together in “Charlie Greengould Meets Himself,” and with the stage manager, Kelsey Vela [’12], and the sound designer [Nat Leich ’12]. So they were very tight-knit already. And the other actress and myself and the other designers have gotten to know them very well. It’s been a fun and very collaborative process. My motto as a director is that the actors are better actors than I am, so my job is to get out of the way and let them take on the role, really take the text and turn it into something flesh and blood.
A: Have you had any particular challenges?
BF: There have been a lot of challenges in terms of logistics. We were originally in an alternate space [besides the ’92 Theater], so for a while we were desperately trying to find a space that would be suitable to the mood and tone. Eventually we got kind of lucky and got the ’92 Theater, but we had to share it with the Theater Department, so we have a crazy hectic rehearsal schedule. Then Andrew Hopen [’13], who plays the role of Hal, got sick with mono [Hopen has since recovered and will be appearing in the show]. I think we’ll be fine…We can either moan and cry and curse the Theater Gods for this, or we can move on and make it wonderful. I think the whole cast and crew has been really fantastic.
A: Anything you want to leave people with?
BF: It’s a show with some very light-hearted moments, some very whimsical moments. [But] it deals with issues of what real communication is, and it also deals with the issue of the great complication in life of not being able to know what other people are thinking. So if you like your big heady philosophical questions mixed up in some light-hearted absurdism, then…get a ticket. I also just wanted to say that…I don’t want to sound like a director who kisses the ass of his cast and crew, but I am incredibly lucky to be working with these people. You know that you’ve cast well when you’re sitting at a rehearsal three weeks later and you’re like, “These guys are perfect.”