William Missouri Downs sat in a conference room at the Unicorn Theatre and spoke of the ultimate futility of the playwright’s art.
He knew he was there to talk about his new play, “How to Steal a Picasso,” which receives its world premiere this week. But somehow the conversation repeatedly returned to the existential angst Downs believes afflicts anyone who writes for the stage. After 150 productions in 20 years, he isn’t sure how much longer he can keep it up.
“I’m just about ready to throw in the towel,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of playwrights really talk about how painful it is to be a playwright. The pay is crap. I’ve got friends who tell me they’ve been working on the same play for five years because they need a job. Most of the time it dies a horrible, painful death. I was at a play of mine at a community college that was so bad I started having chest pains.”
Downs didn’t sound angry. On the contrary, he seemed relaxed and thoughtful. That could be because he’s comfortable at the Unicorn, where three of his plays have found a temporary home. The Unicorn staged the world premiere of “Innocent Thoughts” in the 1995-96 season, as well as “Women Playing Hamlet” in 2015.
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Now it’s producing “How to Steal a Picasso,” which Downs described as an effort to create a new “ism” — a realistic play plotted like a farce. The show, directed by Gary Heisserer, features a cast familiar to local theatergoers: Walter Coppage, Cathy Barnett, Darren Kennedy and Katie Kalahurka. Making his Unicorn debut is Tommy Gorrebeeck, an Equity actor who recently moved to Kansas City from the San Francisco area.
“I just got back from Hawaii trying to work on this new play,” Downs said. “It’s so funny to be back in society with all the noise and the annoying generic music they play in airports. It’s so funny to hear traffic and sirens and presidential debates. It’s shocking to me. It’s like entering another country, like landing on Mars or something. …
“I crave silence. I think silence has become a commodity. And one of the things this play is about is how art has become a commodity. As one of the characters says, ‘Legroom is a commodity. Health care is a commodity.’ ”
The Unicorn is special, Downs said, because not many theaters are willing to take a chance on a sight-unseen work.
“Theater is becoming safe,” he said. “We go to watch ‘Addams Family the Musical’ because we already know how it ends. We go to see ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for the fifth time. We see ‘Death of a Salesman’ and already know it. Audiences want safety. They treat theater the same way they do a Honda: ‘If I’m gonna spend money I want to know what I’m gonna get.’ They don’t like surprises.”
That may be less true in Kansas City, where the number of small theaters continues to grow and even the leading company, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, is committed to developing new work. Even so, Downs said, the Unicorn under artistic director Cynthia Levin is unique.
“Then you have little tiny theaters like this one that take massive chances,” he said. “The only problem is that there is so little forgiveness when you take a chance. There was a recent article about writers in England and playwrights were the most neurotic. They were No. 1.”
But a playwright’s career, the way Downs described it, is an elusive quest for artistic satisfaction. You can envision perfection. But you can never achieve it.
Still, Downs said he can’t imagine writing a novel, spending months or years writing in isolation to produce a manuscript that has little chance of catching the attention of an agent or publisher. He was destined to write plays. But it’s not easy. First comes the actual writing. Then he hands it over to a theater company to produce. All he can do at that point is hope for the best.
“Playwrights are sitting there in the audience, and they can see their creation,” he said. “They know they (messed) up. They know they lost the battle. I just had a production at a little theater in L.A. and it went very well. Another theater in California did the same play, and it got horrible reviews. And it was a bad production. I couldn’t write for a month. I thought: Why am I doing this?”
Downs, who was born in Iowa City but calls no place home, began his career in the theater as an actor. But a bout of viral encephalitis left him with a stammer (although it didn’t surface during the interview).
“It doesn’t happen a lot, but when it does, it can be several minutes,” he said. “That doesn’t work in the middle of a monologue.”
But playwriting took over early on.
“It was a long, long time ago,” he said. “I don’t know why. It was one of those poor choices you make. If there was anything else I could have done, I would have done it. It’s not for the weak of heart.”
And he quickly saw that playwriting was far from the easiest way to make a living.
“I got tired of starving and went out to Hollywood,” he said. He wrote for sitcoms, “My Two Dads” and “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” among them.
“I’m not proud,” he said. “I wrote utter crap and got paid very well for it.”
Downs still receives residual checks for the syndicated sitcoms he wrote for. Those and royalties from theater textbooks he co-wrote give him the financial freedom to write. He lives in Wyoming with his wife of more than 37 years, Lou Anne Wright. Wright is a theater professor at the University of Wyoming. As young, struggling actors they lived two years in a transient hotel in New York. One weekend all they had to eat was potatoes and popcorn.
“We met way too young and everything was stacked against us,” he said. “But damn it. You know somebody loves and believes in you when they’re willing to starve with you. So now I try to treat her right. She makes me look smart.”
His middle name, by the way, has nothing to do with the Show-Me State. It was the name of one of his great-grandmothers.
He’s impressed by the cast of “Picasso,” and he’s looking forward to the opening. But still …
“I think I’m at a turning point where I might just go back out to the jungles of Hawaii and become a Zen Buddhist,” he said. “I mean that as a joke because I’m far too neurotic to do that. I get up between 3 and 4 in the morning. I go into that lonely, lonely office, sitting for five or six hours at a time making a bunch of (stuff) up in my head. You know? Who the hell in their right mind does that? I think I have a problem with reality so I make stuff up.”
How audiences will receive “Picasso,” he said, is anybody’s guess.
“I don’t know if this play is going to succeed or not,” Downs said. “It might be a hit. It might be a big dud. It’s so lean. It’s lights up and lights down. There are no scenes. It’s continuous action. There’s an act break and then it’s right back to the action. There’s some awful cruelty in the play, which I think is pretty funny. It’s people suffering for their art.”
A new play, he said, requires the courage to venture into the unknown for everyone involved.
“These audiences and this theater are doing exactly that,” he said. “And it takes guts. It’s not just me taking a leap of faith here. It’s Cynthia. It’s the actors. It’s the audience.”
“How to Steal a Picasso” runs through Feb. 14 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or go to unicorntheatre.org.