Steve Patterson’s Internet ‘Bombardment’

A production photo of “Bombardment,” 1991/Steve Patterson

Portland playwright Steve Patterson has begun an experiment in “free culture” on his blog, Splattworks. He’s begun to publish his play “Bombardment” on the blog in a series of short, blog post-sized installments. As of this morning, he was up to installment #6 (with another promised this evening).

“Bombardment” was originally produced in 1991 by Stark Raving Theatre, and reading it now – in bits and uprooted from the context of the production and even from previous episodes, if you are coming to the site fresh and haven’t read the previous installments first — is a bit strange at first. What do you make of the following sequence in Episode #5?

CORNO rises and inspects the bodies.

CORNO: My kingdom. My subjects. Do you hear dissent? They dream of peace. Have they not been pacified? (To the audience.) Ah. You look at me, fixing me in the crosshairs of your judgment. Behind the chintz curtain you call conscience. A good king would never bomb his own people. Never turn his troops and machine guns against the hungry and the ill. Naïveté as a yardstick. You only see the smallest piece. Can only compare it to your limited morality, circumscribed by law. My law. Thus, you who counsel mercy for others condemn me with a glance.

Patterson has created a specific sort of world, chopped it up, moved it into a completely different environment, even from the printed page.  The play itself is strange and unsettling enough, and this re-modeling by fragmentation emphasizes those qualities, at least so far.

In his introduction to this experiment, Patterson talks about the consequences of publishing the play on the web.

“As for potential theatre-makers who read it, I know that by publishing the play through a blog, I’m more or less giving it away. But, for what it’s worth, here are my ground rules, which admittedly operate on the honor system (not particularly appropriate for our times, but one can hope).

I own the copyright on this thing, flat out. If some of you actually want to do something with it–put it on as a reading or production–you can do so royalty-free. I do ask that you inform me first of the production, and, if comes to pass, I’d appreciate your sending me reviews, playbills, publicity materials, and the like (electronic documents will be fine). If you put it on, make a few dollars, and want to share some with the playwright, great–that would be kind and gracious. Not because I’m greedy or expect to ever make money off this play, but because artists of all levels deserve to be compensated for their work.”

I interviewed Patterson via email to find out more about his project.

Have you had much response to it so far? What are people saying?
So far, the response has been positive. I’ve had thumbs up on the idea from both readers and theatre colleagues. If they haven’t liked the idea, they’re being kind and not saying anything. The readership has been good and steady—it’ll be interesting to see if continues, wanes, or grows as I keep going. The play kind of blasts off, and then takes some time establishing itself—setting up scenes and characters—before it rises again; so I’ll see whether I not I hold them until the second escalation (which should come this weekend). What’s been really fun for me is that I’m getting readers from across the world. People in Poland and Russia have been reading it regularly. I can’t complain about that. So far, comments have been light but positive.

What was behind the experiment? A way to revive older work? Curiosity about applying a script to this medium? 

I was kind of inspired by Radiohead’s recent experiments selling their records directly to their audience through the Web; they did that for “In Rainbows” and “King of Limbs,” though their record company later put out regular CDs. I bought “King of Limbs” through their site, which was fun—it felt like a direct connection with the artists. A couple of days after the download, they sent out an e-mail saying they’d added two cuts. I downloaded them, and they were great, and I just found that process…charming. So I thought, what if I try something similar with a play—just put it out there and see what happens? It kind of meshed with the DIY spirit that inspired Pavement Productions, my theatre company. We weren’t seeing the kind of theatre that interested us—edgy, risk taking, a little crazy—so we decided to do it ourselves. Of course, I hope someone likes it enough to restage it, but just having people reading it feels satisfying, and getting it ready to serialize kind of gave me that cool, nervy buzz that you get before opening night, which really surprised me.

Why “Bombardment,” specifically?

I chose “Bombardment” for a couple of reasons. One, it’s an offbeat play that hasn’t been produced for some time; so it felt fresh to get in there and rework it with a little more experienced hand. Given that it’s surreal, non-linear, and basically absurdist, it’s not a play likely to appeal to bigger theatres—it’s more at home with 100-seaters, and the play’s intensity and intimacy fits that size of audience anyway. So it felt like a good candidate both to read and for scrappy little theatres that might run across it through the Internet. Two, for all it’s weirdness and heightened language, the play’s really about the struggle between haves and have-nots, and the dangers of attaining success  but losing your soul, and those themes felt appropriate for the times, with the economy so dicey and the bare knuckles in Washington. It was written during Bush Sr.’s years, which felt to me uncertain and nihilistic, and that seemed to connect with where we are these days.

When it’s all said and done, I would be delighted if some 20-somethings in Chicago or D.C. or…Antwerp pulled together and staged the play in an industrial space or loft. I’d be even happier if they raised a ruckus with it, because it’s just that kind of rough-elbowed play. But I’ll be perfectly happy to get a note from someone out there who just enjoyed reading it. It feels like a very pure artistic act, without an agenda. And I like that, given this age where it seems everyone’s trying to hustle and sell us something. Over the last couple years, splattworks has built enough of a readership that I’ve been approached a couple times to accept advertising, but so far I’ve declined because—man—something has to be ad-free somewhere. Serializing “Bombardment” seems to fit that spirit.

The only other thing I might add is that “Bombardment” gets pretty rough in places, regarding language, content, and scenes; so it’s better suited for mature audiences. Whatever the hell that means, but I think you know what I’m saying. It’s an ‘R.’

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