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Storefront success story Calamity West

The rising playwright goes eclectic with Dylan-inspired ‘Give It All Back’

Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki
Calamity West

Looking at Calamity West’s work, you’d be hard-pressed to pigeonhole her. Just look at her first full-length plays, which premiered simultaneously in Chicago in 2012: Common Hatred, a contemporary riff on an Anton Chekhov drama, was produced by the Ruckus, while Sideshow Theatre Company staged The Gacy Play, a speculative psychological study of Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

In 2013, Jackalope Theatre Company premiered The Peacock, West’s tale of a young woman asserting herself amid the testosterone of a post-WWII writing class. And earlier this year, Jackalope staged her Rolling, a headline-driven plot about the writer of a discredited campus-rape exposé.

She returns to Sideshow this fall with Give It All Back, a new play set in a Paris hotel room in 1964 and inspired by Bob Dylan’s acoustic-to-electric transition. “I have a hard time categorizing myself,” says West with a shrug.

The idea for the new play was sparked when she was “obsessively watching” Martin Scorsese’s Dylan doc, No Direction Home. “But it’s not based on any sort of fact; it’s total fiction,” she says. “He’s never named Bob Dylan; his character is just called ‘The Artist.’ ”

West suggests she’s at a moment of artistic transition herself. A native of suburban St. Louis, she studied playwriting at Webster University, then went for her M.F.A. at California College of the Arts. After moving to Chicago, she began writing short plays for festivals.

“I’m constantly unhelpful for young playwrights who ask me, ‘How do I get productions done?’ ” She adds, “It’s really just been theater companies knowing I’m a writer and approaching me. That’s how every single production of mine has happened. I’ve never had a script ready; I’ve never submitted a play anywhere. It’s weird.”

With Give It All Back—the first play she’s developed through more traditional channels—that dynamic is shifting.

“I’m 33 years old, which, I think in writer years—like dog years—I’m like 12 years old. Some people know right away what they want to do and what they want to write. I’ve never felt that way,” says West. 

“Most of the time, I feel like an emotional chameleon. Up until Give It All Back, I was writing in a way that I was trying to impress people. I think that’s totally normal, and I don’t fault myself for that. But I feel like I’m entering into this new chapter where I’m in a place of ‘Fuck it all, I’m gonna write whatever I want and however I want to do it.’ ”

Give It All Back is at Victory Gardens Theater Nov 20–Dec 18.

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