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BWW Interview: Erik Patterson of HANDJOB at Echo Theatre Company


August 23, 2019

By Jonas Schwartz-Owen

Erik Patterson has made a name for himself in the LA Theater community. A mentor to burgeoning playwrights and a stinging satirist who has racked up nominations and awards, such as the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Writing award for 2017's ONE OF THE NICE ONES, Patterson writes confrontational plays about that most rickety of life forms, humanity. Patterson's new play HANDJOB opens at Echo Theatre Company, directed by Chris Fields, and stars Steven Culp from DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and THE WEST WING.

Playwright Erik Patterson
Photo courtesy Echo Theater Company

I know there's a lot of twists and surprises and that even minute details give away some of the fun, but what can you tell us about your latest play?

HANDJOB follows a 40-something, gay, white man who hires a straight African American man to clean his apartment with his shirt off. The play tracks their relationship and it really reveals itself as it goes on. HANDJOB deals with heady subjects like consent, representation. It's really about listening and listening to each other. The title alone, in and of itself, will hopefully be intriguing for people to come. A handjob does come into play in the play, so to speak. It's impossible to talk about this play without running into double entendres.

I love how great my cast is. I am fortunate to be working with these actors. I have always wanted to work with Steven Culp, who plays the protagonist, and Stephen Guarino, who plays another gay man who crosses paths with Culp. They're stars. Really good. The other actors were new to me, they came in to audition, and I'm already a huge fan.

HANDJOB is 90 minutes, no intermission. I think it's popular right now to write plays in that mode. I like to come in and get lost in a play for 90 minutes and then go out and get drinks. I also love a long meaty play. I think there's room for both.

The majority of your plays have been produced in LA. Are there plans to bring any of your work to other cities?

The Lark Play Development Center in Manhattan has developed a few of my plays. I've had a reading at The New Group in NY. TONSEISHA, a play that was produced here in LA at Theatre of Note, toured a few festivals in the UK.

I just finished a first draft of a brand-new play that deals with abuse...and how it affects a family. I've been thinking about that a lot lately because so many people in the world are talking about sexual abuse, something that I have seen discussed amongst friends. I got a commission from a producer in New York. Hopefully we'll be seeing the play soon. It still is in the early stages.

Your plays are very satirical and darkly funny. Do you consider yourself a satirist?

I like to say I write dark comedies about messed up people. I like to find the comedy in the material, to skewer a topic. I feel I can do that best with comedy. I'm not necessarily drawn towards conventional kitchen sink dramas. I want to look at the underbelly. Examine our foibles. When someone is trying to do something the right way and is incapable, or is trying to learn and learns the wrong way, I find that very interesting. I want to discover that part of humanity.

What other playwrights/novelists inspire you?

Joe Orton was one of my early influences. I loved that Orton explored comedy in areas other people were afraid to tackle. In the '60s he wrote queer comedies and didn't shy away from taboo subjects. I responded to his boldness.

I'm obsessed with Annie Baker's play THE FLICK. I love how much she reveals through silence. It's over three hours long and I could have seen it a dozen times. She writes about how we behave when no one's watching, when we're alone with ourselves. And that's something that influenced me while I was writing HANDJOB.

Matthew Lopez's THE INHERITANCE blew me away when I saw it on the West End. It's this epic gay adaptation of HOWARD'S END and I ate up every second of it. I saw this play a few years ago that I won't name, all the promotional materials showed photos of half-naked guys and made a big deal about the fact that they showered on-stage. It sounded titillating, but also like it might be about something. Then I went to see it and it was just about getting these guys naked, that was the entire point of the play, and it left me feeling so empty. When I was writing HANDJOB I wanted to write the kind of play I thought I was getting when I went to the shower play. A piece of theater that's fun and sexy, but that also has some substance to it, that tells a gay story with some meat on it. THE INHERITANCE does that. It's incredible. It's seven hours long and I saw it twice in London. I'm already conspiring a trip to New York so I can see the Broadway version multiple times. God, it's good.

Tracy Letts' AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a great "fight" play. You've got a bunch of people at odds in one room, the stakes are high, and they're all railing into each other. That was definitely an inspiration for HANDJOB.

Steven Culp and Stephen Guarino
Photo by Darrett Sanders

You've been leading a workshop on playwrighting for several years. What are some of the details on that?

I teach a private class. I prefer an intimate group, six to eight students, sitting around a table. I lead them through exercises. People bring in writings, everyone reads and critiques. It's a joy to foster and mentor students. Some of my students are already professional writers, such as screenwriters, looking to break out of the mold. The medium of playwriting is very different.

What have you learned from your students?

I learned bravery from them. I ask them to bring something new or write something on the spot and then read it out loud. It takes guts to not be afraid to not be perfect. Sometimes doing the work is a path to getting stronger as a writer.

How has this tumultuous time in our history inspired you as a satirist?

We can either crawl under a rock and pretend the world is not falling apart or we can look at the world and see how deeply broken we are. Instead of throwing my arms up in despair, I want to put a flashlight onto how we are broken and how we can repair ourselves.

Tickets for HANDJOB can be found on Some of the preview performances are "Pay-What-You-Will." The production runs till October 21st. Note that there is male frontal nudity, therefore for adults only. Echo Theatre Company performs at the Atwater

Village Theatre is located at 3269 Casitas Ave in Los Angeles, CA 90039.

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