Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman – David Hauptschein

An interview series where writers lay it all out for Fifth Wednesday Journal

David Hauptschein Talks Theater

hauptschein-photoDavid Hauptschein is a Chicago-based playwright, screenwriter, impresario, and visual artist. Hauptschein has had four plays produced in London, In Memory of Edgar Lutzen (2010), An Alchemy of Flesh (2008), The Playactor (2007), and Trance (2002). His play The Gurney was produced in Chicago in 2008. In 2004, his play The Ballad of Johnny 5 Star, cowritten with David Vlcek, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Library Theatre in Manchester, England. His other plays include When the Walls Have Ears, The Persecution of Arnold Petch, Breakdown and Out, and The Lucid Dreamers, all of which premiered in Chicago. Trance received a Fringe First Award at the 1996 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and was featured at the 1997 Arts Festival in Brighton, England. Among his other theatrical events are the Heartless Theatre production of selections from his Frank Monologues, featuring Michael Shannon; Pig American Theater’s production of No One Goes Mad: From Writings of the Insane; and The Duplex Planet Project, directed by Charles Pike, based on David Greenberger’s magazine. The film of Hauptschein’s feature-length screenplay, Country of Hotels, is scheduled to be released in 2016. Hauptschein’s plays have been published online by indietheaternow.com:



A long time fixture of the Chicago art scene, David Hauptschein is mostly known for plays and spoken-word events, but he also works as a visual artist, notably in photography and film. His name remains synonymous with the sort of fierce, iconoclastic truth-telling he brings to all his projects. Mr. Hauptschein has lived with his wife, Lois, in the same apartment near Chicago for decades, and on a recent weekday afternoon, surrounded by his paintings and a large collection of the books and records which inspire him, he sat down with Fifth Wednesday Journal to talk about his varied career. A natural raconteur, Mr. Hauptschein tells stories with a manic energy that rarely flags, even as he hops up to make a point by playing a Frank Zappa song, laughing at lyrics he’s heard a thousand times before. His unique voice and uncompromising vision can be as abrasive as it is delightful, but, as he explains, he’s always aiming to find the deepest truth that art can express.


Fifth Wednesday Journal: Do you consider yourself a Chicago artist? You weren’t born here.

David Hauptschein: I’m from Philadelphia, but I’ve been here since 1978, so I’m a Chicago artist, definitely.


FWJ: What brought you here originally?

DH: Graduate school. University of Illinois, Chicago. I came to study photography, but I never took a single photograph, which is typical for me. Luckily the teachers there let me do what I wanted, and I made an experimental animated movie called Fecundation using clay and razor blades. I liked the quality and texture you could get animating with clay. I did it in an unusual way: I zoomed in close and really focused on the texture of the clay and the razor blades, which filled the entire frame. It wasn’t like little Gumbies moving around. My motivation was exploring biomorphic, sexual, fecundity- type themes but in an abstract manner. Obviously there were no human parts in the movie, just organic shapes.


FWJ: But the shapes were suggestive?

DH: Sure. The film was shown all around the world and I got into trouble with certain people at the time, which really shocked me. I was accused of having produced a work of art that showed violence against women. This wasn’t everyone, of course, but there were some people who got upset. I was exploring sexual sensations and the violent nature of sex even when it’s between loving and consenting adults. An orgasm is a violent thing, in a sense. I certainly wasn’t trying to advocate violence. My own personal life has been very conservative — I’ve been with the same woman since I was 20. The film was just an exploration of feelings and wasn’t literal. This was in 1981 and the feminist movement had turned narrower with certain shrill radicals. But the thing that was so absurd about these criticisms is that the film showed both phallic and vaginal forms being hacked apart by razor blades. How is this violence against women? I’m only focusing on this because it’s an ongoing theme that I’ve encountered during my entire career, people putting a literal stamp on an artwork that was meant to be ambiguous and open-ended.

I’m actually making it sound worse than it is, because I’ve since put Fecundation on YouTube and lots of people have seen it and I haven’t received any objections. It was a product of the times. In fact, one old friend saw it again recently and said, “Wow, I remember this being disturbing. It’s actually quite beautiful.”


FWJ: But isn’t that the risk of being abstract? That you’ll run afoul of some knee-jerk current?

DH: Any time you make a work of art and put it out for the public it could be misunderstood or interpreted in a way that is unexpected. I’m OK with that; that’s part of what makes art interesting, and I’m only pointing it out because there’s a lot of literal thinking going on right now, and it’s hampering development of the arts. Generally we’re slipping into more concrete thinking and being less open to other possibilities in most of the arts. There is definitely a backsliding since the innovations of art movements in the twentieth century, such as Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, and pioneers in theater like Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. If Beckett came up with Waiting for Godot today, just out of nowhere, it’s not too likely you’d get any major theater to put it on.


FWJ: I want to ask you how you managed to have the confidence to go from visual artist to play writing, but maybe we should start with where your first artistic leanings came from.

DH: I became an artist in one day. I had an epiphany. I was totally lost — I’m dyslexic and I didn’t do well in school. I managed to get by using my wits and I even had to plagiarize a couple of times. The only thing I can say good about my first two years of college is that I was so miserable I was forced to seek a solution to my problems. I became a hippie for a while, but when my friends started drifting off into narcotic despair I realized that was a dead end. Two incredible things happened to me. When I was nineteen, a friend showed me a book that was half Salvador Dali, half Joan Miro. I’d never seen anything like this before. I came from a background that was supportive, upper middle class, everyone became a doctor or lawyer, but there was no discussion of art. No one was a painter, writer, musician — nobody. I hadn’t ever been to a museum I don’t think. And I saw Dali’s paintings and I just thought, wow. I knew I wanted to be creative, I just didn’t know how. In my school, the people who took arts were looked upon as the dumb kids or at least not college material, but I signed up for an art class, partially to meet girls, but also I thought there could be something there. The night before I couldn’t sleep. I had this weird feeling that something important was going to happen. I arrived at the class after maybe four hours of sleep. It was an all-day class. The teacher gave us a simple design project which required no technical skills, just using your imagination to arrange squares and triangles. After two hours of working on it, this amazing sense of euphoria came over me. I’ve never had a religious experience, but it was, I think, like what someone feels when they think they’ve seen God. It was centered around the thought, “I’m going to be an artist. This is what I’m going to do with my life.” Since then there have only been a couple of times where I went two months, three months, without making art due to illness or family tragedy. I’ve had one or two bad days here and there, but I’ve never doubted my conviction that I wanted to be an artist. And if someone back then had said your career is going to follow the path it followed, I would have said that’s impossible. I mean nothing went the way I expected it to go.

This fits what I was saying about concrete and literal thinking. Some artists lock themselves into a particular way of working and they may work great for ten years, but the rest is rehash or suicide in some cases because they can’t change. That’s what happened to Jackson Pollock. He knew he couldn’t keep doing those drip paintings, but he couldn’t allow himself to relax and seek something else, even if it meant failure. Being adaptable as an artist is part of going into the unknown, which really attracts me. When I wake up in the morning my first question is, “am I doing something that I think is good?” And if the world doesn’t see it my way, I’m OK. I’d rather they did see it my way, but if they don’t, I’m OK. It’s when I think my work isn’t good that I have a problem. Moreover, the world doesn’t need to know what I think of my own work. In fact, my opinion of my own work is only relevant to me. All that matters is I follow my voice as honestly and as truthfully as I can without selling out, without compromising, and just proceed in exploring what interests me.


FWJ: Getting back to the earlier question then, how did the transition from visual artist to playwright come about?

DH: I developed a rare undiagnosed eye problem. I was doing a lot of very eye-straining work for many years, and I started to develop pain and light sensitivity around my left eye. Long story short, it’s probably some sort of nerve disorder. My vision is still very, very good, but I’m unable to do eye-straining work. I can’t read for more than a few seconds. I can’t watch movies for more than five or ten minutes at a stretch. I haven’t been in a movie theater since 1980. I think it was Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I was faced with a major dilemma, which was: How do I continue as an artist? I went through a rough period, but I finally started dictating fiction into a tape recorder. I also found out that you could get books on tape. That was a major revelation because I had trouble reading books anyway due to my dyslexia. But when I could listen to them there was no cognitive problem at all. I could read Dostoyevsky and William Burroughs. I could understand everything fine. So for a couple of years I just listened to talking books endlessly, training myself how to construct a sentence, how to express myself in writing. There was a slow curve before I could write in a way that was any good, and the real breakthrough occurred when I stopped using tape recorders and switched to a human assistant, who happened to be my mother.

One good thing was I could still attend live theater. Theater isn’t a strain on my eyes. Actually, I had already been interested in theater — in fact, shortly before moving to Chicago, I had seen a play by Harold Pinter, The Homecoming, and it was like the Dali epiphany. I had no idea theater could be so hip. I started getting involved with the performance art scene in Chicago, curating and hosting spoken word events where the audience was invited to participate. I didn’t call it performance art because I didn’t want it to seem pretentious, and didn’t want the focus to be on me. The Letters, Diary, and True Stories shows were popular with audiences and critics.


FWJ: I first encountered you in Chicago at your Letters shows in the ’90s maybe? Early ’90s? These were really amazing events. Do you want to describe them and talk about how you got the idea?

DH: We put out advertisements that said, Bring a letter. It just has to be a real letter, written, received, or even found. It could be a letter you wrote at three a.m. when you discovered your brother having sex with your girlfriend in your parents’ bed, could be a letter someone sent you from a mental hospital. It just had to be real. Depending on how many people came and signed up we would divide up the time. I would use an old-fashioned egg timer and I’d say, “We have twenty people, so I’m going to set the egg timer for five minutes, and when that timer dings you have to vacate the stage.” As the host I reserved the right on occasion to allow a person to finish or continue so it wasn’t extremely rigid, but it was democratic for the most part. Another reason I didn’t describe it as performance art is I wanted people to be themselves when they came up to read and not try to read like a poet. I would generally present something myself at the top of the show to help loosen things up. I couldn’t act my way out of a dentist’s chair, so people would think, If Hauptschein can do it, well, no reason to be shy.


FWJ: The Diary shows were probably my favorites. You did a couple of those, right?

DH: All of these we did multiple times over a period of many years. We only did about three a year because I wanted to keep it special, and I wasn’t trying to turn it into a career. But they were really good shows, and I’m proud of them, and people began to see them as a place you could come and bring the weirdest shit. I would be accepting of everything: it didn’t have to be politically correct. You could read with a shaky voice, and it didn’t matter. In fact, it made it better. Sometimes I would be listening and think, This uninhibited writing is much more creative than what serious poets and fiction writers are coming up with. I think it’s because when people try to write in an artsy sort of way they’re looking over their shoulder at what other people are going to think, but when you’re insane because you just caught your girlfriend cheating on you, you aren’t going to worry about your literary prowess. And consequently, what comes out is more inventive. The inner censor is a terrible thing.


FWJ: And eventually these shows got so popular you got noticed by Ira Glass and NPR. In fact, an early episode of This American Life was one of the Letters shows, right?

DH: Ira and I did two episodes together, The Letters Show and The Cyberspace Show.


FWJ: Was it fun working with Ira Glass?

DH: Not really. I knew Ira a little from the performance art scene. He was aware of what I was doing, and when he started This American Life he invited me to co-host one of the episodes. This was maybe 1996, late ’90s.


FWJ: Do you want me to look it up?

DH: Sure.


FWJ: 1996. It was called Letters, “Episode 36 Host Ira Glass and playwright David Hauptschein took out advertisements in Chicago inviting people to come to a small theater with letters they received, sent, or found.” That’s from their archive.

DH: Let me start with this right off the bat: I really dislike public radio. I have an aversion to it. Everybody who meets me has to endure my rant about public radio.


FWJ: We don’t have to talk about this at all unless it would amuse you to do so.

DH: It would amuse me to do so. I realize this rubs a lot of the people in my milieu the wrong way, but public radio is not doing its job.


FWJ: Which is what?

DH: First of all, if you listen to public radio you’ll hear only a very narrow set of ideas and stories. And no one there has any passion for the subjects they’re talking about. Most of them speak with vocal fry, which is insufferable. I might be alone in saying this, but I think vocal fry is a way of conveying this phony impression that you’re too cool to be ruffled by anything. You’re never going to pound the table and speak with emphasis. If you go to the locker room in my gym and dangle a microphone over my head when I’m drying myself after a shower, you’ll hear me ranting against Trump in a very dramatic and impolitic manner. You might also hear me ranting about Obama. But I’m passionate. I speak with emphasis. I’m not holding back. But when speakers use fry they’re trying to show how disconnected and above it all they are. Which gets me back to the Ira Glass thing. We did these two shows together, and in my view they didn’t go very well. Take, for example, The Cyberspace Show. [Note to readers: This American Life Episode 66, actually titled “Tales from the Net.”] It was similar to the Letters show but based on stuff people pulled from the Internet. So Ira called me up and said Peter Taub — who was the performance art curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art — contacted him to do a show at the MCA, and Ira wondered if I wanted to collaborate with him again. I believe it was me who suggested we do a show based on the Internet, which was really starting to explode at that time. We agreed to use the Letters format for the show. However, when I met with Peter and Ira at the MCA, they kept talking about how they wanted to foster discourse on how the web is changing the way we communicate. I said, “Listen, guys, that’ll happen naturally. We don’t need to talk about that. You just have to make sure to advertise to the public that it’s an audience participation event. If people don’t bring stuff from cyberspace to read, we don’t have a show.”

The reason I was so insistent about getting the word out properly to the arts community was because the advertising for the Letters show the previous year was only through public radio, and it was the most boring, worst show I was ever involved in, since the only people who turned up were public radio listeners who didn’t get the concept and were reading things like open letters to President Clinton about health care. At that event I read a real letter I wrote to an entomologist. I had found worms in my toilet and they came and went over a period of ten years, and I was convinced I had a parasite of some sort. I brought this entomologist samples and I wrote him a letter, and at the time I didn’t think I sounded crazy, but when I read the letter later I sounded insane. Now, I had read this letter a couple of times at other shows and I always got a fantastic response and a lot of laughs. Turns out it wasn’t a human parasite but a sewer fly. The entomologist took the larvae I collected to a conference and had it studied. It’s a great story.


FWJ: That would make a great segment for This American Life.

DH: You would think. However, when I read my letter to the entomologist I was greeted with silence. Public radio listeners didn’t get it! I mean they didn’t understand that it was supposed to be funny, that it was a joke. After the show Ira says, “I don’t think we can include your segment in the show.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “There wasn’t any laughter.” I think he just didn’t like the story because it was gross. I’m always surprised when people object to my material, but that’s public radio for you. Public radio listeners are a bunch of 25-year-old grandmothers who live on nuts and seeds and low-fat yogurt, avoid gluten, and live in homes with yoga mats and cat portraits. Am I generalizing? Of course!


FWJ: I’m guessing the cyberspace show didn’t go well either.

DH: My worst fears were realized. The show hadn’t been properly publicized, and the general public did not come with things to read. Fortunately, I had asked a bunch of my friends to bring a piece of writing from the Internet that’s funny and quirky to guarantee we’d have some kind of show. Now I’m going to reveal something I’ve never revealed in public before.


FWJ: An exclusive for Fifth Wednesday Journal?

DH: Just for your readers. I asked an actor friend of mine to come as this guy who wrote this extravagant rant I had found on the Internet. So he shows up looking all twitchy like a real outsider type, and he’s reading this rant, and eventually he crossed his time and Ira asked him to sit down. The guy stormed out of the auditorium, mumbling and grumbling incoherently. After the show people came up to me wanting to know who the weird guy was and if he was for real. I said it was, and they said, “You can’t fake that!”


FWJ: Who was the actor?

DH: Pat Healy, who is now in L.A., a fairly well-known actor. Someone else read a piece of writing from the Internet by a man with a balloon fetish. What this guy would do — and there were no curse words, no overt descriptions — he would get together with a woman and put a balloon between them and hug and squeeze her until the balloon popped. Another guy read a story about a crutch fetish where this man liked to have women approach him on crutches. These pieces weren’t dirty, just odd and disturbing. Then Ira presented a story about two gay men engaging in cyber sex in a chat room. Then one of the men stops logging in and the assumption is that he has died of AIDS. When it came time to edit the show, everything I had contributed was cut. Pat Healy got cut, the balloon guy got cut, and the crutch fetish got cut. But the two men having cyber sex stayed in because AIDS is acceptable conversation on public radio. Worms in your toilet isn’t. Now, this is not a personal thing. I don’t have any beef with Ira, he treated me fine. It was a respectful situation. It’s more about public radio.


FWJ: Let’s talk about your plays — how did you go from these spoken word events to writing plays and having them produced?

DH: I was going to theater continually at this time and listening to how people talk. I was fascinated with the natural flow of spoken language, which in my opinion is much closer to our subconscious, or what psychiatrists call primary thinking. That refers to all the random thoughts we have that have to be filtered out when we speak so we don’t sound crazy. I also got all the literary magazines I could get my hands on and had people read the stories to me. The shocking and surprising thing is most of the fiction sounded like it was written by the same person, or all the writers had gone to the same college, been in the same MFA program. It was all really, really dull. I thought to myself, how can this be? I’m going to these live shows where people are expressing themselves in a phenomenally vivid manner, and yet when people try to write for serious literary purposes they sound constipated. I became convinced that when we write we have more time to impose the censor, we look over our shoulder and say, “You’re not supposed to write it that way, that’s not how I was taught.”


FWJ: Because when you talk, you’re just communicating and not trying to create art? Which is what you’re interested in.

DH: I’m interested in art that’s alive, that has spontaneity to it. The beat poets tried this: “First thought best thought.” But actually even that’s too deliberate. Everything I do I’m looking for the stuff that isn’t really planned. But I shape it, very carefully. I’m very detail oriented, but I try not to squeeze the life out of it. I never took a writing course, and that’s probably a good thing.


FWJ: So when you start writing a play, then I’m guessing you don’t start with a plot, that for you it’s more voice and figuring out whose voice is speaking?

DH: Usually what happens is I begin with a situation. One play I wrote called When the Walls Have Ears started with a piece of found writing by a woman who believed she had been implanted by aliens. She described it incredibly vividly. It was nuts, but vivid. I thought this could be the genesis of a play, but how could I dramatize it? There is no back-and-forth dialogue, but what if she has somebody tied up and gagged who can’t talk back? She thinks that person’s one of the aliens. So I concocted a situation where she was in a room talking at two people who were bound and gagged. That’s an interesting scenario, but now I have to write a whole play. Where does the play take place? And who are these people she tied up? Are there friends and family who can become characters? Does she kill her captives, and, if so, how? And are actual aliens part of the story? I gradually work backwards from the initial situation until I have an entire play.

Julio Martino, who directed my last seven plays and my screenplay, is always sending me weird stories and interesting anecdotes, things he thinks might trigger my imagination. He called me up one day from England, where he lives, and read me a few pages from August Strindberg’s so-called occult diaries, where Strindberg believed he was having telepathic sex with his estranged third wife. That led to an entire play which was produced in London in 2010, called In Memory of Edgar Lutzen. On another occasion, Julio emailed me this little thing written in broken Chinese-restaurant-menu English that said something like “Have you seen Ling- Ling’s head? Owner of dog found headless. Wants Ling-Ling’s head back.” I thought there might be a play here. I started brainstorming and writing in broken English. I’d dictate a line and my assistant would feed it into Google Translate into any foreign language, then translate it back into English. If a weird word choice or word arrangement came up I would put it in my play. Why Life Exists and Allied Topics was written entirely in this manner. For example, in the play there’s a scene where a guy comes across somebody with a bloody head trying to dig his half-buried car out of the dirt. My character says, “I picked up the shovel and helped him dig the land out of his trunk.” Obviously, no one would say “I got stuck in the land.” I find broken English evocative and poetic. Using this Ling-Ling anecdote as a spark, I invented a whole scenario. Consequently I eliminated the whole Ling-Ling thing from the play, not because it was a hoax as I found out later, but because the play had become something completely different. It was a universe that, without that spark, I couldn’t have imagined even a day earlier.


FWJ: Describe the process of working with an assistant.

DH: What happens is we get together on the phone. I dictate and she reads back to me. It’s a very arduous process.





The complete interview with David Hauptschein is available in the fall 2016 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. Please visit our store to purchase a copy.



Daniel Libman is a Pushcart Prize and Paris Review Discovery Prize winner and the author of the story collection Married But Looking. He regularly writes the “Taking the Fifth” interview and is a founding editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal.



2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Joe smith says:

    A great interview and extremely informative about my long time friend and artist who i have missed seeing so many key events in his life. In turns out, knowing someone is a complicted process, and its easy to miss seeing, overlooking, and displaceing way too much. It turns out, we need art, visual, audio, and written languages to understand reality. The current world events, show we are living far too frequently in dangerous undimential perspectives.

  2. Bruce Thorn says:

    I enjoyed reading this engaging interview. Mr. Hauptschein explains aspects of and motivations for his work in simple language. David offers a straightforward roadmap along with just enough personal information as a portal to his literary approach.

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