Ten years after her play Graceland earned enormous popular and critical acclaim, playwright Ellen Fairey—“one of my favorite made-in-Chicago writers,” raved the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones—returns to town with Support Group for Men, following a decade writing and producing for television, including Nurse Jackie, Masters of Sex and The Sinner. Shortly before rehearsals began, dramaturg Isaac Gomez spoke with Fairey about her motivation to write the play, changing gender dynamics and loving Chicago.
Isaac Gomez: What inspired you to write Support Group for Men?
Ellen Fairey: Watching the actor Brian Kerwin, who played Joe in my play Graceland. There’s a scene where he’s alone in his apartment, chopping carrots and drinking white wine. As unremarkable as that sounds, something about it felt like the embodiment of loneliness. I remember thinking: I want to write a play about that guy. Around the same time, I met a writer in Los Angeles who told me about a men’s group he attended on Thursday nights. It was held at the apartment of an aging, out-of-work musician in North Hollywood. The way he described it—the talking stick, the sad apartment in the Valley— struck me as both heartbreaking and inherently comic. I missed Chicago terribly at the time— the voices, the directness, the warmth—so I set the play there.
IG: Why this play right now?
EF: I began writing Support Group for Men almost eight years ago, and in the time since, the national conversation around gender has come to the forefront in a way I never could have imagined. It’s incredibly exciting, meaningful and, at times, challenging. It’s affected how I’ve worked on the play, the changes that I’ve made, and continue to make. I’m no longer just writing about a bunch of middle-aged guys trying to figure their shit out. I’m writing about a group of men who find themselves in a world where everything has changed, and will continue to change, and what it means when “to be a man” finds itself on the sociological chopping block.
IG: How would you talk about the gender dynamics of this play to total strangers?
EF: Utter the words “straight white men” these days, and you’ll likely get groans and eye rolls. Bring up the topic of expanding gender pronouns or identity politics in a different crowd, and you’ll probably get a similar response. There is anger, resentment and confusion on all sides of the conversation—perhaps because there is no “conversation”—lots of venting, not so much listening. This play, at its core, is about a group of guys attempting–not necessarily succeeding—to be open about who they are, what they’re afraid of, and how they might learn to move forward in a world that is moving forward with or without them.
IG: Why write about men?
EF: Because this woman is also a human who is interested in understanding other humans, many of whom happen to be men.
IG: Where do you find yourself in this story and with these men?
EF: I am forever interested in, confused by and pondering what it means to be a man—and what it means to be a woman. Or neither. Or both.
IG: Where did the title come from?
EF: I was going over possible titles with my friend, playwright Rajiv Joseph, and he suggested using his go-to method for titling, which basically boils down to: state the obvious, call it what it is. The straight forwardness of the title Support Group for Men seemed to fit the “Chicago of it all.”
IG: Talk to me about the Chicago of it all.
EF: I had no idea how special Chicago was until I moved away, after living there for 23 years. One of the things that struck me–that I hadn’t realized or appreciated–was that Chicago, to me, is a city that is in conversation. Where Los Angeles can feel isolating and lonely and New York can feel fast-paced and overwhelming, Chicago is down-to-earth and ready to talk. Everybody’s talking. It doesn’t matter whether they know you or not—the bus driver, the cabbie, the lady wheeling her pullcart full of groceries down Clark Street—they’ve all got something to say and they’ll say it to you. You are engaged with, you are alive, you exist.
IG: And the men in Chicago?
EF: We’re all familiar with the cartoonish “Chicago guy” we see in film and TV: a chunky, dumpy, beer-drinking sports fan who says things like da Bears. I’m sure those guys probably exist, but the Chicago men I have known—on all sides of the gender spectrum—are hard workers, easy laughers, funny without trying, the kind of guy who would pull over and help you push your car if you’re stuck in a snow drift, even if he just worked a 12-hour shift. He is warm, unflappable and has a big heart.
IG: What do you hope audiences take away from this piece?
EF: The same thing I hope to feel after writing it: less alone.