“I have a decision coming up this summer of where to move,” playwright Mat Smart says. “I think it’s going to be either New York or Chicago.”
Chicago’s running a pretty decent campaign: Steppenwolf’s production of Smart’s Samuel J. and K. starts this week as part of the theater’s Young Adults series; in March, LiveWire Chicago Theatre will mount his play The 13th of Paris. They’re the Naperville native’s first major productions in Chicago.
Smart, 31, currently lives in Minneapolis on a fellowship with the Playwrights’ Center, where he first connected with Polly Carl, director of artistic development at Steppenwolf. “Growing up, I went to shows all the time at Steppenwolf,” Smart says over coffee before rehearsal one morning. “I had to take a detour from Naperville to Minneapolis on my way to Steppenwolf.”
Smart got into theater in high school (“There were never enough guys to audition for plays. If you showed up, you got a part”) and headed to the University of Evansville in Indiana to pursue acting. “I never really thought people wrote plays. I thought maybe they were all in existence and you just did the ones that were there. This is my stupid 18-year-old mind,” he says wryly.
It was a tragic event that sparked Smart to write. “Three girls from my high school were killed by a drunk driver when I was a freshman in college,” he says. “It was a huge tragedy in Naperville. I sort of couldn’t make sense of it, and so I found myself, without consciously deciding to, writing a play to figure out how to deal with it.”
After Evansville, Smart attended the M.F.A. program at the University of California, San Diego, after which he moved to New York to join some friends. “I wanted to try to get big, established theaters to do my work,” he says. “When that wasn’t happening, which was much of the time, we wanted to be able to create our own projects,” for which they formed a company called Slant Theatre Project.
Soon, Smart was getting institutional attention. Samuel J. and K., which debuted last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, follows two Naperville brothers graduating from high school; one buys the other, an adoptee from Cameroon, a trip to the land of his birth. The 13th of Paris, commissioned by South Coast Rep, is a whimsical tale about a young man who takes an impulsive journey to the City of Love in search of an idealized grand romance.
“The funniest thing about both plays happening is they both came out of the same trip,” Smart says. Five years ago, he traveled via Paris to Cameroon to visit a favorite professor who was there on a Fulbright. While in Paris, “I had sort of this epiphany and started writing [The 13th of Paris] immediately during the trip.”
Once in Cameroon, “I felt a real connection to it, and after one night I was like, Should I stay?” he says, a hint of self-mockery crossing his face. “I think that’s just sort of a privileged suburban boy going, oh, wouldn’t it be great to live out here.” But that’s also what Samuel J. and K. is about, he says: “Where do you belong? Do you belong somewhere outside of your decisions, or can you decide where you belong?”
Which brings us back to the question of where to go when his Minneapolis fellowship ends in June. “I still feel like Chicago and the suburbs are my home,” he says, noting that his mom lives in Naperville. “I haven’t lived there in a long time, but it’s still kind of what I’m writing about.” And there’s another draw: “I’m a huge, huge Cubs, Bears and Bulls fan. I could spend all my money going to games.”
Samuel J. and K. begins public performances February 26. The 13th of Paris opens March 12 at the Greenhouse Theater Center.