Summit Spotlight: Eric Pfeffinger on the fertile comedy of a divided America

Video above by DCPA Video Producer David Lenk and Senior Arts Journalist John Moore.

In this daily, five-part series for the DCPA NewsCenter, we will introduce you to the plays and playwrights featured at the Denver Center’s 2017 Colorado New Play Summit. Over the past 12 years, 27 plays introduced to the Summit have gone to be premiered on the DCPA Theatre Company mainstage season. First up: Eric Pfeffinger, writer of the comedy Human Error.

Playwright Eric Pfeffinger on the fertile comedy
of an unfunnily divided America

John Moore: Tell us about your play.

Eric Pfeffinger: In Human Error, a couple goes to what they think is a routine appointment at their fertility clinic and are devastated to discover that their fertilized embryo has been mistakenly implanted into somebody else. So obviously, it’s a comedy. You know: Another one of your standard-issue switched-fertilized-embryo farces.

John Moore: Not another one of those!

Eric Pfeffinger: Exactly.

John Moore: So tell us about this couple.

Eric Pfeffinger: They are a couple of blue-state, latte-sipping, NPR-listening liberals. And they go to meet this other couple and discover that they are NRA-cardholding, pickup-truck-driving, red-state conservatives. So you have two families who, under normal circumstances, would never choose to be in the same room with each other, now having to spend nine months working their way toward building this family – and hopefully not killing each other along the way. It’s a comedy about the state of the nation currently and the political polarization we are all grappling with.

John Moore: So help me understand your style of comedy. Are we talking mean, David Mamet funny? Or punchline kind of funny?

Eric Pfeffinger: It’s BIG funny. When I heard about this actually happening at fertility clinics, my first response was, ‘Oh that sounds like an episode of Three’s Company: ‘Wait, that’s not your embryo – that’s my embryo!’ And … cut to commercial. This is my approach to a lot of my plays: Let’s take this thing that does not seem particularly funny to the people it is happening to and find the humor in it. It’s people being very funny in a very stressful situation.

Human Error. Eric Pfeffinger. Colorado New Play Summit. Photo by John Moore

John Moore: We just went through a brutal two-year election cycle where the divisions in this country were just laid bare, deeply and profoundly. Is that reflected in your play?

Eric Pfeffinger: I started working on the play quite a while ago but this is a phenomenon that has been percolating for a long time, and has only gotten more pronounced in the past year or so. None of the people in my play know anybody else like the other couple. They all live in a world, as most of us do, where geography and social strata and technology have made it possible for them to isolate themselves from anybody who doesn’t already think the same way they do. All their friends on Facebook, in their neighborhood and at their workplace are all pretty much like them. They don’t have to confront the reality of someone who thinks differently until they are thrown together by this clerical mix-up at the fertility clinic. The play is really less about fertility technology – as dramatic as that can be – and more about the silos and the echo chambers that Americans in particular often find themselves in, and the defense mechanisms we adopt when we are forced to step outside our comfort zones and acknowledge that there are other people in the world who are not just like us.

Human Error. John DiAntonio. Colorado New Play Summit. Photo by John MooreJohn Moore: Why is now a really good time in the American theatre for us to laugh?

Eric Pfeffinger: Everything I write is a comedy. That’s how I function. A lot of people embrace comedy as an escapist opportunity; as a way to get away from what is stressful about the world. I happen to believe that comedy is also one of the best ways to confront difficult ideas, and to examine and articulate those ideas. I would much rather explore a difficult idea through comedy than through some other genre. Comedy lowers your defenses by making you laugh. Comedy is a welcoming way to entice you into spending some time with ideas that you might find challenging.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

John Moore: You’re from Ohio, so would you say this is a Midwestern comedy?

Eric Pfeffinger: This is definitely a Midwestern comedy. It takes place in the same northwestern part of Ohio where I live, right on the Michigan-Ohio border. The characters clash over the Michigan-Ohio athletic rivalry, in fact. So it’s definitely about people in flyover country, and how they live their lives.

John Moore: That is also Ground Zero for the American Divide.

Eric Pfeffinger: Absolutely. Some people feel like it’s possible these days to move to a city and feel fairly confident that you are going to be comfortable with the political orientation of most of your neighbors. Where I live, everybody is all over the political map. During the election, there was every kind of sign imaginable in my neighborhood, in yards right next to each other. We also have a lot of different religious communities, cultural communities and racial makeups and I think those things express themselves in a very particular way in a Midwestern city like the one I live in, and these characters live in.

Human Error. Caitlin Wise. Colorado New Play Summit. Photo by John MooreJohn Moore: You used to be a newspaper cartoonist.

Eric Pfeffinger: Yes, among other productive roles in society.

John Moore: Has that experience guided you as a playwright in any way?

Eric Pfeffinger: To me, playwriting and cartooning are two very similar media, only you express your ideas with different tools. I used to draw a daily comic strip with recurring characters. So in both cases, you have multiple characters living out stories that you are telling primarily through dialogue. You also had a punchline every four panels. There was a rhythm to it, but it also had some very specific restrictions. You didn’t have the opportunity for stream-of-consciousness or delving into people’s thoughts the way you can if you are writing a novel. It was really like writing a four-panel play every day and moving the characters around on this very small, two-dimensional stage. So to me, cartooning was just a variation on what I am doing now.

John Moore: So would you say your play is more sit-com in style or a series of panels? 

Eric Pfeffinger: Human Error does draw explicit connections to various kinds of classic comedy, particularly the TV sit-com. One of my characters is an academic who studies the theory of humor, and in doing so squeezes all of the enjoyment out of it. The points of reference in Human Error are probably more like TV comedy, which is what I grew up mainlining. But I have definitely appropriated the rhythms of the daily comic strip in some of my plays as well. 

John Moore: This is your first time at the Colorado New Play Summit. What are your initial impressions?

Eric Pfeffinger: It’s been fantastic. This community is just amazing. Being in that room with everyone on that first morning and seeing this huge population of people who all have different specialties but who are all committed to this one common artistic goal is really inspiring. The team that I have – the actors and the director and the dramaturg and stage management – is amazing. We just have a blast every time we close that door and spend a few hours working on the play together. The community here is really supportive and really, really fun.

John Moore: One of the things that makes this festival unique is the second week of rehearsals and public readings. How do you think that will impact what you will take away from the Summit?

Human Error. Eric Pfeffinger. Colorado New Play Summit. Photo by John MooreEric Pfeffinger: That’s going to be huge, especially with a comedy. The response of an audience is invaluable. Even with an early version of a play, where we haven’t figured everything out yet, seeing how that plays in a room with an audience, and feeling the energy is going to be completely integral to what I work on during the second week. I am going to be constantly referring back to what was going on in that space in terms of how specific lines and moments landed. It’s so much more valuable than trying to draw only on the discoveries that we make in the hermetically sealed rehearsal room together.

John Moore: One of my favorite Pfeffinger lines isn’t even from your play. It was from an interview where you described the outcome of an earlier workshop of Human Error. You said the play “no longer displays a first-draft’s need for radical de-suckification.”

Eric Pfeffinger: That’s probably me at my best right there. I can only hope to strive for the pithy expression that is de-suckification. I think we could all use a little radical de-suckification right now. 

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Human Error
Written by Eric Pfeffinger
Directed by Jane Page
Dramaturgy by Amy Jensen
Madelyn: Caitlin Wise
Keenan: Robert Manning Jr.
Jim: John DiAntonio
Heather: Jennifer Le Blanc
Dr. Hoskins: Wesley Mann
Stage Directions: Drew Horwitz      

Selected previous coverage of the 2017 Colorado New Play Summit:
2017 Summit welcomes dozens for opening rehearsal
Summit Spotlight: Robert Schenkkan on the dangers of denial
Summit Spotlight: Lauren Yee lays it all on the free-throw line
Summit Spotlight: Rogelio Martinez on when world leaders collide
Summit Spotlight: Donnetta Lavinia Grays on the aftermath of trauma
Summit Spotlight: Eric Pfeffinger on the fertile comedy of a divided America
Record four student writers to have plays read at Summit
DCPA completes field of five 2017 Summit playwrights

The 12th Annual Colorado New Play Summit
Launch Weekend: Feb. 18-19
Festival Weekend: Feb. 24-26
More details:

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