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Love, honor and betray: Neil LaBute on relationships and local namesake play fest

Neil LaBute
Provided by Mr. LaBute | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1: It’s not Neil LaBute’s fault that men and women (and men and men and women and women) fight to the emotional death as they claw their way through dating, marriage and breakups.

The prolific playwright and screenwriter just writes it as he sees it, calling himself a realist.

Still, LaBute, 50, believes in true love -- of the theater. He’s also a fan of persistence. In the Gateway City, he’s found both, specifically with the St. Louis Actors’ Studio.STLAS founder and producing director William Roth drew LaBute to lend his name, presence and original work to the LaBute New Theater Festival, opening Friday, July 5.

Yet another St. Louis native has recently figured prominently in his life. Jenna Fischer (of “The Office” fame) starred in LaBute’s “Reasons to Be Happy,” which closed at the Off-Broadway MCC Theater June 29.

“Reasons” is a sequel to LaBute’s 2009 Tony Award-nominated “reasons to be pretty.” The lower-case “reasons” was originally written as the final installation in a trilogy about a group of four friends and lovers.

Turns out LaBute has plenty of reasons to explore flailing and failing relationships: They’re frequent, fascinating and make for good theater. In an email conversation with the Beacon, LaBute talked about the people whose lives he examines and the person who lured him to St. Louis.

St. Louis Beacon: How did you happen to connect with St. Louis Actors’ Studio? 

Neil LaBute: William Roth was the driving force behind my connection to the Actors’ Studio and now this festival. He is a man of tenacity and drive and he connected with me first when we assembled a collection of short plays for presentation by the studio.

I appreciate people who work hard and have similar likes, artistically, so I was quite honored to hear the idea of a festival of new works that I could be a part of in name and spirit and also from a practical standpoint.

I love writing short pieces and do so quite often -- to find a home for some of them and to create another place for people to see their work in front of an audience seemed like a genuine and pleasant way for me to be involved with the Actors’ Studio in St. Louis.

What have you heard or experienced about St. Louis theater scene, if anything? 

LaBute: I’m looking forward to being in town and experiencing that world for the first time.

I'm sure it will be unique but also something very familiar as well -- theater people are much the same around the world: driven by a strange passion for a kind of work that is unique and immediate and we mostly do it because we love it (as opposed to because we'll get rich doing it).

You’re debuting your new short play, “The Possible” at the festival. What’s it about?

LaBute: “The Possible” is about love -- I often write about that but filtered through strange little tales of forbidden love or lost love or that type of thing. I like to test the boundaries of love to see how far they stretch, and to examine it on paper is the safest thing I can do.

Specifically it's about a woman who has ruined another person's relationship so that she can hopefully get together with one of the partners from that relationship.

Why do you so often explore men and women and the cruelty in relationships (besides the fact that the topic is global and fascinating -- or maybe that's the answer)?

LaBute: That probably is the answer in the bigger sense but relationships have always fascinated me -- close ties between people that become ruptured. friends, relatives, work colleagues, lovers.

My job as a storyteller is to find the breaking point and to press on it until something happens. If nothing happens then I'm not doing my job.

As for the “cruel” aspect, I guess I’m just a realist -- I have hope and I wish the best for most people in real life; but on the page the more extreme the circumstances, the greater the chance to create something new and different with the work (especially when the ingredients are things that get used so often in literature).

What did you mean in this quote: “If we put the camera on ourselves, our friends and neighbors, we’ll come up with some scary stuff?”

LaBute: We rarely get to see behind closed doors. As long as the lawn is cut and we keep paying our house payment, the people who live around us tend to think that everything is OK. I don't think people are bad or good but we make a lot of choices in life and some are great and some are not very good at all and we keep living with those choices as they pile up.

When we can sneak a camera in there and see the truth -- or some manufactured version that feels like the truth -- it gives us a glimpse of “reality” and a mirror that looks back at ourselves as well.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.