Keith Stevenson: ‘London is the epicentre of theatre to American actors’

Keith Stevenson. Photo: Ashly Covington
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On a whim, Stevenson wrote a play about a West Virginia motel full of strange characters. He tells Tim Bano how, five years later, Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road has developed a cult following in the US and has just started an Off-West End run…

How did you get involved in theatre?

I grew up in West Virginia and went to college not really knowing what I wanted to do. I discovered acting classes and I just fell in love with theatre. I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life. So I transferred into the theatre department at university, then I moved to Los Angeles like any other actor trying to find my way.

When did you become a writer?

I became involved with a theatre in LA called Pacific Resident Theatre. I did everything: I produced, I did sound design, stage construction and acting. There’s a writers’ group there and there is a festival where the writers write a play in 12 hours. They asked if I would do the tech for it and I said: “Sure, but would it be okay if I wrote one?” It was a breakthrough experience, because in 12 hours you can’t let inhibitions get in the way. I wrote a very funny play about an elf that walked into a bar the day after Christmas.

Tell me about the genesis of the ‘Fried Meat’ plays.

In 2011, I was at a writers’ group, and they asked who wanted to read a new play. I said: “Sure, I’ll read mine.” The problem was I didn’t have a play at that point. I’d had the idea of the main character and his confidante Mitchell for a long time. Their backstories were mapped out, with the motel room where they were going to be living. But when they walked in that door, I got total writer’s block. So I saw this as a challenge: what if I started at that point where they walk in the door? It was the most wonderful writing experience because it just came pouring out of me.

And it developed a cult following?

The director of the readings put the play on, which led to four years of off-and-on performances. I wrote a Christmas sequel, then the third play in the trilogy, The Unfryable Meatness of Being. We had a fella who saw it 50 times. He was going through some hard stuff and he said it made him feel good. People would typically come five or six times. They said they just liked hanging out with the characters.

Have British audiences enjoyed it?

We held a special evening once and gave the proceeds to a charity run by a friend. He’s a Brit, and basically the entire audience were Brits, and it was one of the most raucous audiences we’ve ever had. It encouraged me when we were coming over here.

How have you found performing the show in London?

London, to American actors, is the epicentre of theatre. The idea of going to the West End was just a dream that seemed too far off. On my days off I would often find myself by Trafalgar Studios, staring up at that marquee. Could I possibly walk out of that theatre, and see Nelson’s Column, the Houses of Parliament? This play that was written in the back of a bar in Los Angeles? I had no idea that five years later I’d still be talking about this, so the fact that it has extended this far is a gift. I keep riding it as far as I can.

CV: Keith Stevenson

Training: West Virginia University, BFA in theatre
First professional role: The Steward of Christendom, Pittsburgh Public Theater (1997)
Agent: Peter Morris at Affirmative Entertainment

Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road is at the Trafalgar Studios, London, until June 3