WesCeleb: Ben Firke ’12
Ben Firke ’12. The name, even without seeing it paired with Feiring as you pry off a bottle cap, tends to ring a bell in most Wes students’ heads. Firke, an English and government major, is famous for his work as a playwright and director, his legendary run for VP, and his lanky swagger. The man himself sat down with the The Argus to discuss politics, theater, and his favorite fruit.
The Argus: Ben Firke, you’re a man of many hats. You’re a politician and a playwright—which did you like better?
Ben Firke: Well, I don’t really wear the politician hat anymore. To be honest, it’s sort of apples and oranges. I actually really did try to keep them separate. I got into student government because I graduated from high school in 2008 with the presidential elections, and I came to Wesleyan with the sense that I really wanted to go out and make a difference and make students’ lives better. So I literally had never won an election in my life before I came to Wesleyan.
When I got elected, I enjoyed just sort of talking to students and finding what their problems were. I stopped doing that because I wanted to focus more on theater, which I had neglected a little bit and was actually one of the reasons that I came to Wesleyan. I also stopped because pretty much all of the things that I cared about got resolved by the end of last year. Making sure that the school hired someone to work on sexual assault full time was something that was really important to me. The Green Fund, Zipcars, getting the MLink bus on campus, more meal points, and making sure financial aid didn’t get cut—all that stuff.
In terms of theater, it’s just something I care a lot about. I’ve been writing plays since I was 12, and I just love being able to collaborate with other actors and crew members and stuff—it’s just so fun.
A: Do you have a wave of nostalgia whenever you see a bottle opener with your name on it around campus?
BF: I don’t really feel any nostalgia for the campaign to be honest. It was generally pretty stressful and uncomfortable. I think I learned that I don’t want to be a politician who is an actual candidate for office. I think that the level of scrutiny that you subject yourself to as well as the day-to-day canvassing takes a toll on a person who is sort of private and likes to be a regular dude.
I do get nostalgic, I admit, when I see the MLink bus drive by, or I see someone driving around in a Zipcar, because those are things that I worked on along with other very capable WSA people. Or when I read in The Argus that they approved the lady that works on sexual assault. I get more nostalgic when I see stuff on campus that I actually was a part of. Campaigning is just something unfortunate that you have to do to get to the point where you can do something to actually make a difference.
A: So why did you get involved in theater?
BF: I was very lucky because, growing up, my father was an employee at a private school. That private school had a summer program, and if you were a faculty kid, they would basically be like, “Oh yeah, you can do the summer program. We’ll comp you for it.” It was a very, very nice perk, and they had a playwriting class that no one ever did except for me. I think I did this three times, and I never had more than two other people in the program. Generally they brought in these really talented playwrights who would write a play for all of the other kids in the summer.
They gave me a lot of assistance and encouragement and pretty harsh criticism. They really broke me of a lot of my bad habits. I’m always learning and improving. And it paid off because I had a play produced by a professional theater company in Los Angeles when I was a junior as part of this young theater festival—that was really exciting and had some very talented actors. So that was pretty much the moment where I thought, “OK you can keep doing this—you’re on to something. This is something you like doing and you don’t suck at it.” I think it’s nice for anyone, while they’re going through high school, to have that one thing that they don’t totally suck at that they can pursue.
When I got to Wesleyan, I got a little distracted by political stuff because I do consider myself to be a political person, but I did the 24-hour Play Festival my freshman year. I wrote a play about a beekeeper who’s unlucky in love, and through that show I got to know a lot of the Second Stage people. And then in the spring I worked with Justin Wayne, who is a phenomenal director, and he directed my play, “How To Be a Man in West Belfast.” Then I was a little distracted by the WSA, so last spring I directed “Shovels v. Schubert” with Kelsey Vela Henrickson [’12], who is a fantastic stage manager, and a wonderful cast, including Michelle [Agresti ’14], the lovely Argus Arts Editor [also interviewer of this Wesceleb].
A: Between politicking and school, when do you find the time to be such a prolific playwright?
BF: Can I be lame and do a quote? Edward Albee said, in this kind of flippant one liner, when someone asked him how long it took him to write a play, “All my life.” I find the time to be able to write stuff while I’m doing my other academic work and extracurriculars. I get a line in my head, or I get a character or a situation—or a lot of the time I might overhear something. Or my friends are having a conversation, and they say something funny. And I kind of think about that over and over while I’m walking around between classes, or when I’m brushing my teeth—really just little minutes during the day when I don’t really have much to do. Basically I just kind of accumulate a big stockpile of little moments and interesting things, and for some reason, inspiration hits like BAM. And after that, the actually process is fairly short.
A: So what does Wesleyan mean to you?
BF: I should have come up with better answers to all these questions. You only get to be WesCeleb once! And if you sound like a jackass during Wesceleb—that’s literally like the worst thing I could imagine. That’s so embarrassing. You don’t know how many times I’ve read a WesCeleb and seen like, “What kind of fruit would you be? An orange?” Come on, think of something more original than an orange.
A: Well, what kind of fruit would you be?
BF: Um… I have no idea.
A: Not an orange evidently!
BF: I’d be a blueberry. I like blue things…?