Playwright Mickle Maher was spinning his wheels on his play about the 2004 presidential debates. Despite the ample and obvious material at his disposal, to say nothing of an $8,000 grant afforded him by the New York–based Creative Capital Foundation, Maher was stumped. That’s when President Bush gave him a present.
“And then we hear that Bush supposedly read The Stranger at the ranch,” Maher says of Bush’s announcement that he’d taken in Albert Camus’s existential novel. The way he says supposedly isn’t quite laced with the contempt you might expect. To the contrary, it’s basically affable, as if Maher—whose three-man play The Strangerer gets mounted by middle-aged anarchist troupe Theater Oobleck this week—would never expect the President to take on such a task.
In fact, the mellow Evanston–based playwright (who still goes by the childhood nickname he was branded with when his brother couldn’t pronounce Michael) doesn’t seem to have much contempt at all. That’s a little unexpected from one of Chicago fringe’s standout writers. Oobleck, which he helped found in the late 1980s, is identified by its happy martyrdom (it’s part of the storefront pay-what-you-can tradition), its political upheaval (the quadrennial election plays it has produced since 1992 barbecue nigh everyone during election season) and its defiance of proper production practices (it doesn’t use a director).
Maher doesn’t even insist that audiences read The Stranger before taking in The Strangerer (in which he takes on the role of John Kerry, and theater-outskirts regulars Guy Massey and Colm O’Reilly play W. and Jim Lehrer, respectively). “I think people who haven’t read Camus will be able to navigate it just fine,” he says of his play, which uses the novel’s themes and (loose) structure in satirizing the debates. If he’s sympathetic to non-Camus fans (of whom he suspects Bush is one), it’s probably because the 44-year-old esoteric dramatist took an indirect path to scholarship himself.
A student at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s, Maher encountered his Oobleck cohorts while studying in Ann Arbor. Among fellow nonconformists David Isaacson, Jeff Dorchen and others, Maher participated in experimental, director-free theater. Finishing an undergrad degree didn’t interest him though, and the group migrated to Chicago, where (two decades later) Maher still seems amazed that they instantly found audiences and critical interest.
But it wasn’t until he turned 30 that a college diploma made sense to him, so he packed up for Bennington, Vermont, where he finished his studies. “When I was 30 I was able to get to class every day. I was able to read all the books.” He also took a crack at a playwriting M.F.A. in Seattle. But back in Chicago his once-young, upstart peers—pals like Redmoon’s Blair Thomas and director Jessica Thebus—were ascending within the ranks of Chicago theater, and after a year of grad school he came back.
The singular Maher meditates on literature and academic rituals like few playwrights. In Spirits to Enforce, he responded to The Tempest by presenting a telethon fund-raiser for a downtrodden theater company trying to produce the Bard’s late-career romance. In his cockeyed, often-revived The Hunchback Variations, Beethoven and Quasimodo engage in postshow talkbacks about a work of art they’ve co-created, calling into question the suspect practice of publicly rehashing one’s precious creative process.
In both plays, characters are seated at tables for almost the entirety. The Strangerer is no different. “I hate writing stage directions and having characters who are constantly moving around,” modest Maher says in a semiresigned tone. It’s as if he were waiting to be told that’s an antidramatic strategy, as if he hadn’t already secured a reputation with this style.
As a freelance writer (and stay-at-home pop to his four-year-old son), Maher claims he’s still learning the ropes of a grant-based artist’s income. He enthuses about the progressive Creative Capital, which, in addition to ponying up the more-than-decent grant, flew Maher and Isaacson to an upstate New York career retreat that teaches artists how to market themselves.
“Lots of fringe artists reach a certain age,” he says, “and realize they have no idea how to present themselves.”
Oobleck gets Strangerer than ever on Friday 23.