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Interview with Spirits to Enforce Mastermind Mickle Maher

17 January 2011

Mickle Maher was kind enough to set aside some time to answer some questions posed by Cap T’s artistic director Mark Pickell.  Here is their serious and not so serious conversation.

How did the idea of writing a play about 12 superheroes unsuccessfully working a phone bank in a submarine to raise money for a production of the Tempest become a play? What was the spark for this unique story?

I rarely remember the initial idea I have for a piece. I just all of a sudden find myself six months into it, wrestling with a litter of irreconcilable beasties. I know I’d wanted to do a play set in a phone room for awhile. The Tempest has always been a favorite. And a children’s summer theater (Andy’s Playhouse in New Hampshire) asked me to write a play with 18 characters that had something to do with superheroes. The play I wrote for them was much shorter and had a different title, but it was the basis for Spirits.

I saw an article that called SPIRITS TO ENFORCE a sequel to THE TEMPEST. How do you feel about this label? Did you set out to write a sequel?
I didn’t set out to write a sequel — for a long time the relationship between the heroes and The Tempest wasn’t clear. But I think now it’s accurate to call it a sequel, so sure.

Have you ever worked as a telemarketer or fundraiser?
Wait, hasn’t everyone? Yes, I worked as a “tele-fundraiser” for the Chicago Symphony for about 3 or 4 years. And I was really, really good, to be honest. I mean really good. People would put their friends on hold to give me money. It was a horrifying experience.

What is your personal history and relationship with comic books and the mythology of superheroes?
I like Batman better than Superman, and the Flash better than anyone. The Hulk depresses me. I wish the Atom was more popular, but I understand. I never really understood Submariner. Or Silver Surfer.

I don’t think superheroes are mythological. Yet.

Jesus had 12 disciples, there are usually 12 jurors on a jury, Hercules had 12 labors to complete…Is there a significance to the number of superheroes you introduce to us in Spirits to Enforce?

No. Except that 12 is a smaller number than 18, which was the original number of characters in that earlier version I did. And I had to cut things down to make it work.

It seems that the superheroes in your play want the public to value their artistic endeavors as much as their crime fighting contributions to society. While most do not have day jobs as superheroes, artists can definitely identify with this struggle to balance work and art. Have you been able to make a living as an artist?

I teach play writing at the University of Chicago and anywhere else that’ll have me. And I pace around the phone waiting for Julie Taymor to call.

Theater Oobleck, the theatre company that you work with in Chicago, takes pride in the fact that they don’t use a director in their productions, including the original production of SPIRITS TO ENFORCE. It is somewhat ironic that we are using the play developed by a company that doesn’t use directors for our program that seeks to develop directors. Out of sheer curiosity can you give us insight into how the rehearsal process works for a Oobleck production?

Varies with each production, but there are some basic ground rules: 1. An actor has the final say in how his/her line is read. An actor can also rewrite a line or cut it entirely. The playwright is free to lobby them in another direction, but the actor is The Decider.
2. We bring in outside eyes throughout the process to give the actors conflicting notes and confuse them. The more outside eyes the better.

I think that’s about it.

As the superheroes in your play struggle to find funding for their dream production of the Tempest most arts groups across the country are also struggling with budget deficits and public arts funding cuts. Here in Austin, public funding has been frozen and cut for the first time in recent history. Donations are down. The characters in your play face similar obstacles yet there is a sense of optimism and hopefulness that is constant. Are you optimistic about the future or public funding of the arts?

Is there a reason I should be optimistic? I’m very grateful for the funding I’ve received over the years, but I think the argument that artists should be granted a living wage for the work they do in this country was lost long ago. I’m optimistic that great work will continue to be produced regardless of the economics, but there’s not going to be any sweeping reform in our life times.

What is next up for you?
A play about William Blake and having sex in public. And an opera version of my play The Hunchback Variations.

Mickle is a very unique name. How did you parents come by it?
It’s a nickname from birth (off of Michael), given by my then two year old brother. It’s an old English word that means vast, or a large amount, which my brother wasn’t aware of at the time. I liked the accident of that, so I kept it.

If you could have the super(or not so super)powers of any of the Enforcers in your play which would you want?
The Tune, I think. I’ve always had the fantasy of just waking up one day and having an incredible musical ability.

Would you use this power for good or for evil?
I’d probably end up like The Hulk just making everybody depressed.

Mickle Maher is a co-founder of Theater Oobleck and the author of numerous plays, including An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening, and The Hunchback Variations (both
published by Hope and Nonthings). His children’s book, Master Stitchum and the Moon, is published by Bollix Books. In recent years his Spirits to Enforce was mounted by Oobleck, and he contributed the translation for Redmoon Theater’s production ofCyrano. Redmoon also produced his latest play, The Cabinet, (a re-imagining of the filmThe Cabinet of Doctor Caligari)

(all photos courtesy of Kristin Basta)