Holter, 29, writes plays fast and well. Hit the Wall attracted big attention at Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage Rep, and Exit Strategy was a hit for Jackalope.
Interview by Tony Adler
Photographs by Jeffrey Marini
Minneapolis, Minnesota. Yeah, sure, you betcha. I’m the youngest of six. My mom—who passed away a few years ago—she worked with finance stuff, and my dad is retired. He was in the military. Public school. I didn’t have to suffer any of that usual narrative, like, you know, bullied and all this other stuff. When I came out, nobody cared.
I saw a production of Sweeney Todd at the Guthrie when I was ten, 11 that, like, made me go into theater. I saw it on the night that all the power went out, so they used the work lights—and that’s a tech-heavy show. Sets were changed in front of you. Seeing it bare like that made me fill in all the rest. I prefer to go as low-tech as possible without being dime-store.
Eight full-length plays. Five of them have been produced. Then there’s The Midnight Society, which are four full-length plays as part of a series. I’m always jumping from project to project. I teach, I odd-job, I’ll speak at places. I write monologues on the side for actors, which has been hilarious.
I’ve been here for 11 years. I understand the way people do things in this city and why—whereas in New York, I loved the shows we were seeing, but I didn’t understand the community. But here makes a lot of sense. I love the community aspect. I used to do tickets at A Red Orchid Theatre, and the first show that I did it on was with Mike Shannon. And just seeing him clean the bathrooms and then get into his costume—he just has that kind of leveled-out, cool energy. He’s at the top of his game but he grew up here, and there’s this connective tissue that people feel towards him.
I tried to do shows in Minneapolis, and it was hard to rally support with actors or community people, ’cause they have their established places. Here, Jackalope took a storage center and turned it into a theater. I find that energy very, very inspiring.
I’m quite good at talking about other people’s work. But I talk about my own stuff, I’m like, “Fire bad, tree pretty.”
My only rule for writing is write what you want to see. I like topical things because I like using characters to get around that preachiness. With Exit Strategy, people say, “Oh, this is about the Chicago Public Schools system.” I don’t think it’s about that. It’s about a group of very diverse people learning how to go on when they’re told that they shouldn’t. You can apply that to the public school system, but people who have nothing to do with CPS can see that show and get something bigger out of it. Hit the Wall is the same. People say it’s about the start of the gay revolution, which it totally is. But the reason I wrote it is because I’m fascinated with people who are pushed to their limit, and what do they do when they get there?
I’d wanted to do something about Stonewall since I was a kid. We went to this meeting at Steppenwolf for the Garage Rep, me and the managing director of the Inconvenience, Emily Reusswig. And they said, “This year’s theme is [Dispatches From the Homefront], so you have a month to get your plays together.” We sent it at 11:59 on a midnight deadline. It got picked up.
[The New York production of Hit the Wall] ran for 82 performances. I got to live next to the Stonewall Inn and I got to meet Jean Doumanian, the producer who ran Saturday Night Live that crazy year. And I had Joel Grey in the audience and Larry Kramer at opening.
After Hit the Wall people told me, “Oh, you’re gonna be taking calls.” And I was like, “Where are we? Los Angeles?” I kind of like that the city isn’t so obsessed, like, “Oh, you have this big show! Gotta get Ike Holter!” It’s like, “Oh, cool, you’re working. You seem to be productive.”
I don’t see myself as a black writer. I am black and I am gay, but the minute that I only write work that is about being that—I don’t think that’s interesting. I like getting into the head of a white woman in her 30s. I like getting into the head of an Asian dude in his 20s.
Some Inconvenience people are [from DePaul]. But some didn’t go to school, some went to schools in California, some went to Columbia, some went to Roosevelt. So there’s not a college mentality. I don’t want to be trapped with people just because we went to school together. I want to be trapped with people because we choose to be trapped in this panic room together.
People aren’t obsessed with the idea of, Oh, this company’s going to run 80 years. It’s more of a band mentality. It’s like, OK, we’re gonna put out a few good albums, and then, when we start hating our own sound, we’re just going to do some other stuff. And then we can come together maybe someday and be a supergroup.