Talking HUMAN ERROR with Playwright Eric Pfeffinger
Adi Hanash and Patrick Vassel, collaborators and Playwrights' Week participants, teamed up to interview their fellow playwright, Eric Pfeffinger, about his inciting new script, HUMAN ERROR.
Adi & Patrick: Human Error feels so urgently relevant and timely, yet it could probably take place at anytime in the past ten years. It also feels so ready for a full production! When did you start working on the play and what has the process been like? Have there been changes in response to any events in the news? Finally, what are your goals for Playwrights' Week?
Eric: Thank you for the encouraging words! In high school I was voted Most Relevant & Timely. I initially drafted the play last year, at which point it was pretty baggy and raggedy, as first drafts ought to be. I immediately sent it off to the Lark, because I didn’t want to look at it any more. Then I had the opportunity to work on it at PlayPenn this summer, after which it became considerably less sloppy. So now the script still needs work, but it no longer displays a first draft’s need of radical de-suckification, which is nice.
The play hasn't changed much in response to current events; humanity has been considerate enough to continue regarding people of different mindsets with suspicion and vitriol, so that's very convenient for me. There's a scene that takes on grimmer subtextual edges in a post-Ferguson world, but that's more a broadening of the tonal palette than anything else.
My main goals for Playwrights’ Week are to meet people, have fun, and get away from my kids for a while. If I also manage to fix the play’s problems, that will be awesome too.
P: As a child of the midwest (born and raised in Akron!), this play resonated deeply with me. The "kinds of people" that the characters embody are so clear and so real. Can you talk about writing this play and the setting of Sylvania, Ohio? It's such a specific place, yet it allows for such universal themes and ideas to come to life.
E: I also grew up in the Midwest, and that sense of place usually informs my plays. My last play, which was set entirely in Phnom Penh, wound up being largely about a guy from Chicago. Northwest Ohio is where I am these days, so the culture and texture of Human Error is in my backyard; the references all came naturally. It’s funny how the specificity of this play’s location resonates with readers and audiences; I’ve had a surprising number of people tell me eagerly about their relatives’ basement shrines to Ohio State. But when you’ve got that geographic and cultural specificity as an anchor, I think that’s what permits a play to reach for universality – not everyone has been to an OSU-Michigan game, maybe, but nearly everyone has had some experience with zealous tribalism, with or without face-painting.
A & P: I love that you subtly include race in this play, yet you never have any character address it openly. What went into your thinking and decision making there? It's not a play about race, but it does inform and enrich the story tremendously, yet no one ever mentions it outright.
E: Early on as I was drafting the play, some of the characters emerged as white and one emerged as African-American, and even if race isn’t an overt preoccupation of the play, the characters’ experiences and interactions came to develop around those dynamics; it’s yet one more axis of difference across which the characters find themselves alienated from one another. It’s never explicitly discussed, but once I’d set up those elements, race couldn’t help but express itself in the silences and make itself heard in the subtext. But this would also probably be a good time to reiterate that it's also a comedy and there are loads of laffs.
A & P: Without giving away the ending, the play pushes on our idea of reality and our perceptions of the world being inherently subjective - including modern medicine and yoga. For a play with such a straightforward, dramatic setup, how did those questions and that uncertainty find its way in?
E: My initial impulse with this play was to write about an event that is very upsetting for its characters – an epic screw-up at a fertility clinic – but make it as funny as possible. The first scene of the play is me experimenting with how funny a traumatic appointment with your reproductive endocrinologist can conceivably be – I should have been wearing a bracelet that said “What Would The Marx Brothers Do?”
Then the play came to be about – among other things – how people choose to isolate themselves in homogeneous and demographically comfortable echo chambers (just in time for election season!) – and the mode of comedy itself became a theatricalized representation of all the kinds of psychological filters we use to make our world more comforting. So yeah, it eventually becomes clear that neither the characters nor the audience is necessarily seeing things happen the way they’re actually happening. Through the magic of theater!
A & P: To put it simply, the play forces a liberal, 'blue state' couple into a very close situation with a conservative, 'red state' couple. Do you think these characters learn from one another? Do you think whatever gulf exists between these kinds of couples can be bridged?
E: That’s a really good question. The first draft of the play ended, I think, on a fundamentally pessimistic note: we can try to bridge the chasm between our tribe and other people, but we’re bad at it; we're gonna fail. But as I’ve worked on it, the play has led me to a more nuanced, more humane place: a suggestion that people on opposite sides of an ideological or cultural divide can come to understand one another – probably only through suffering, but it’s possible. The notion is more complicated than that – which is why I wrote a play and not a maxim – but that’s roughly where it’s starting to land.
I actually didn’t think I believed that until the play led me there. I still haven't decided if I believe it, frankly. It’s possible my play has a more capacious view of humanity than I do. This is one reason why writing plays is good for you: the characters drag you out of your comfort zone, confront you with perspectives you didn’t realize you could accommodate. The other reason writing plays is good for you is it keeps you from having too much money, because a bunch of money is just a real hassle to manage. I'm told.