Broadway Black’s Creator, Andrew Shade sat down with Ike Holter to discuss his new play Exit Strategy presented by Primary Stages. Ike Holter’s work has been produced at The Steppenwolf Garage, LiveWire Chicago, Theater 7, The Greenhouse Theater, Theater on The Lake and The Inconvenience, where he is a founding member and resident writer. His show Hit The Wall played at Steppenwolf Garage and Off-Broadway at The Barrow Street Theater in New York. Jackalope Theater produced his new play Exit Strategy, which played to sold-out houses and transferred to Michigan. He was recently named Playwright of the Year by the Chicago Reader and Chicagoan of the Year for Theater by The Chicago Tribune. Also, His monologues have been published in The New Yorker and several editions of Applause Books. Exit Strategy is Holter’s second New York show after bringing his hit play Hit the Wall to the city in 2013. Exit Strategy is described as:
A fiery, riveting work from the award-winning writer of Hit the Wall, about the chaotic final days of an urban public high school, Exit Strategy is a taut, edge-of-your-seat drama about the future of public education from a vital new voice in American playwriting.
On the surface, one might think the play is just about another school caught up in the mass public school closings that occurred in Chicago. Well, you’d be wrong. While Exit Strategy tackles this issue, make no mistake, Holter writes plays about people. This work is more about the everyday humanity of people who happen to also be trying to make serious decisions about keeping the doors of the school open. “It’s about people doing people things,” says, Holter. And while he says it’s definitely a Chicago play, one doesn’t have to be deeply involved in the rich history of Chicago to understand the play.
It is this peek into the everyday lives of people that makes his work so powerful and so easy to connect with. There’s no surprise to this approach. Holter himself is the epitome of everyman. He zooms into the interview on rollerblades and casually tells Shade that he typically rollerblades several miles a day…everywhere… eschewing trains and driving. In this case nearly 30 blocks to reach the interview. Not what one would typically expect from a man who was named ‘Chicagoan of the Year’. “That’s how I roll,” he says, with a laugh. “It’s good exercise, it’s cool.”
This sensibility speaks volumes about Holter. For example, although the play tackles the heavy scenario of teachers, an administrator, and students coping with the fact that their urban school is closing and what, if anything they should do about it, it is handled in a way that brings to life each character in all of their witty and sometimes surprisingly raunchy glory. “It’s an R-rated comedy drama with people doing extreme things. But it’s also very human, and I hope very relatable.”
Ike Holter came up with this play as a result of being commissioned by Jackalope Theatre. Holter says, “I had no idea what I was going to write.” The suggestion was thrown out that he should tackle the school system and what was happening there. “That was all I needed.” Holter, who also teaches regularly (among other things) was able to write the play fairly quickly. “I have a lot of friends who are teachers and I have a lot of friends who aren’t teachers and I wanted to write a story about people hanging on and letting go.” Holter’s goal was to approach his characters in a way that strips the deification that often goes along with being a teacher or an administrator. “I’m trying to humanize a lot of these people.” “Let’s see them at their best and at their worst and just make them people.”
There’s a definite sense of admiration conveyed when Holter talks about his appreciation of the storefront theater community in Chicago. “It’s my favorite. You’re not going to find a better place for writers to get their stuff done without a lot of rigamarole…The storefront scene is incredible!” All of his plays began in Chicago’s storefront community, which is a more grassroots, community-based approach to theater. In fact, Jackalope uses a small storefront space [within Broadway Armory Park] converted into a theater, where actors are typically non-union and seasons are generally shorter. It’s an embracing atmosphere that seems to fit nicely with Holter’s creativity. When it comes to diversity Holter says he is seeing more plays that aren’t from just straight white guys and it’s exciting. However, Holter wants to move away from what he calls the tokenization of minority groups. “You could fill just as many seasons on plays with minorities as you could with cisgendered white dudes.” Basically, it’s time to stop highlighting any particular group and saying it’s their season. It’s everyone’s season. We’re all a part of this community and the seasons should reflect that.
Holter circles back to talk about his cast, who have remained intact since their runs in Philadelphia. “They are a great cast. They are really opinionated people and they challenge me about a lot of things in the script which is always good. They aren’t there just to punch in and punch out, they are very passionate people.” And where Holter credits the cast for their passion, he also has major kudos for director Kip Fagan. “He is insanely talented. He is a fast worker, he is one of the fastest directors I have ever worked with. He is incredibly specific and precise.” With such a talented cast and incredible material it sounds like Exit Strategy is a play you don’t want to miss. Check out Exit Strategy during its limited engagement and New York premiere March 30 through May 6th at the Cherry Lane Theatre presented by Primary Stages.