Currently an Artistic Producer at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Aaron Carter is a trusted veteran of the Chicago theater scene. In addition to a stint as Literary Manager at Victory Garden Theater, Carter is an accomplished playwright whose work focuses on race, faith, and obscure performance skills. His plays, including Gospel of Franklin and Start Fair, have been well received by audiences and garnered critical acclaim.
Carter’s latest project is an adaptation of Walter Dean Myers’ award-winning novel, Monster. The New York Times bestselling novel and National Book Award nominee tells the story of Steve Harmon, a 16-year-old aspiring filmmaker in juvenile detention. His life has been turned upside down by his alleged participation in a robbery gone awry and now he might spend the rest of his life behind bars. As the prosecution makes its case, Steve writes his story as a screenplay, trying to understand if he’s really the ‘monster’ they say he is.
N’Digo spoke with Carter about the gripping new play brought forth by the nationally recognized Steppenwolf for Young Adults (SYA)
Talk a bit about your childhood. Did you always know you’d be a writer?
I grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio and had a pretty typical small town childhood: academic nerd, swim team, theater. My first love has always been reading. I devoured an inordinate amount of science fiction and fantasy novels. Thanks to all that reading, I had some notion that I might be a writer someday. Most of my early writing was poetry… really angst-ridden, self-indulgent poetry. Luckily it is all in notebooks and has no chance of being discovered on the internet.
How did you get your start in the world of theater?
My very first acting role was a mischievous raccoon in a six grade play about a picnic. I can’t recall what possessed me to audition, but I was really thrilled that I got the role because I got to wear this huge costume that made me look like I was a runaway sports mascot. I still have a really visceral memory of the show in which I stole a jar of pickles from the picnic basket, and the jar slipped out of my paws and shattered on the stage: that wasn’t supposed to happen. Despite such trauma, I was apparently hooked. I volunteered on stage crew at the local university and joined the drama club in high school. Did I mention I was a nerd?
When did you decide this is what you were meant to do?
I don’t know if I’ve figured out what I’m meant to do, but I made the switch to playwriting in my early 20s. I had gotten involved in the Slam poetry scene when I first moved to Chicago, and after a few years I started to feel that the time limit on a Slam poem was limiting my ability to explore the ideas I was interested in. My first full-length play attempt was a retelling of Othello that featured a contemporary, mixed-race Iago. I managed to get a couple of readings together with some help from Chicago Dramatists. I felt encouraged enough to keep trying, and I wrote a play called Panther Burn about a group of activists trying to ignite a new civil rights movement. An early version of that play was read by Prop Theatre, and was eventually produced by MPAACT theater. I started to feel that I had reached the limits of what I could discover on my own, and went back to school to study playwriting at Ohio University.
Who are three of your favorite playwrights?
Suzan-Lori Parks: her use of language is deeply inspiring. Topdog/Underdog remains one of my favorite plays.
Anne Washburn: Mr. Burns, a post-electric play is a work of genius about the birth of an art form.
Caryl Churchill: I still remember seeing the opening scene of Top Girls for the first time. My reaction: “I didn’t know you could do that in plays!”
Do you have a special process or ritual when you write?
I tend to read a lot of material related the subject of the play, not research so much as immersion. And I create a playlist for each project that I listen to while writing.
What are some of your duties as an Artistic Producer at Steppenwolf?
Each artistic producer is assigned to specific shows in the Steppenwolf season. For a show we are producing, we become the point person for both the theater staff and artists on the production, helping ensure that everyone involved has the information and resources to realize their vision of the play. I come at my work from the viewpoint of a playwright and dramaturg, trying to understand in what specific ways the text of the play is generating meaning and guiding the audience experience.
Tell us what it was about the book, Monster, that spoke to you and made you want to adapt it?
I was drawn to Steve Harmon’s attempt to understand his situation by using the art form of filmmaking. The fact that the work is from his point of view means that at the center of the play is a young person wrestling with profound ethical dilemmas. Steppenwolf for Young Adults has a history of respecting the experience and maturity of its young adult audience, and this complex challenging story felt like a perfect piece to engage that audience. Monster also wrestles with the perception of young black men, and I feel that is an incredibly important conversation to be a part of.
In your opinion, how do we solve the problem of how young black men are perceived? Is it our problem to solve?
Obviously, there aren’t any easy solutions. So instead of focusing on an elusive endgame, I try to exercise what influence I can from my position as a theater administrator. Part of that is advocacy and vigilance: searching out and supporting young writers of color, and being rigorous about what images we choose to produce on our stages. I also think it is important to make sure that we have the legal tools to fight the results of racist perceptions. I figure there will always be racist individuals. As a society, we need to continue to make sure that we have limited the ability of those folks to enact their perceptions into oppressive systems. For me it’s less about “why can’t we all just get along,” and more about “what are is my legal recourse when we can’t get along?”
Any thoughts on the Trump administration’s plan to re-focus on privatized prisons?
The possibility horrifies me. In addition to the difficulties of monitoring private prisons, and the inevitably corrupting influence of the profit motive, I’m most horrified at our apparent comfort with abdicating our responsibility to collectively decide how our society approaches justice and rehabilitation. Justice doesn’t end with a guilty/not guilty verdict. In my opinion, there’s where the hard work begins. It seems as if some headway was being made against the idea we can solve deep economic and social problems through incarceration. To open the system to private companies implies that the largest problem is cost and efficiency, not the nature of the system itself.
What’s your best advice for aspiring playwrights?
Write. Have people read your work out loud. Write some more.
Any favorite affirmations/quotes that you swear by?
My goal as an artist is to create something that is both beautiful and true. I consider this a life-long mission, and I certainly haven’t managed to do it yet.
What’s next for Aaron Carter?
I’m the artistic producer of Linda Vista by Tracy Letts, directed by Dexter Bullard. And I have a mountain of plays to read. Somewhere in there, I’m going to find time to write a play that’s been kicking around my head for a couple of years.
For more information, please visit steppenwolf.org