Ike Holter

Playwright Ike Holter set his play "Exit Strategy" in a fictional Chicago high school that's been slated to close at the end of the year.

PHOTO BY ANDREW NAWROCKI

When the lives of thousands of students and teachers were upended by Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s massive school closings almost five years ago, 32-year-old Chicago playwright Ike Holter had a front row seat.

The decision to shut down 49 elementary schools was divisive and heart-wrenching. It displaced 12,000 students, drew sharp criticism from the teachers’ union and inspired Holter’s play “Exit Strategy,” which opens Friday in Overture Center’s Playhouse in a Forward Theater Company production.

“I have friends who are teachers and I teach on and off,” said Holter. “They were incredibly angry about it and it took over their lives. I saw the rage, the love for these places. The energy around it was palpable.”

For his fictional version, Holter moved the drama to a high school teachers’ lounge. He wrote “Exit Strategy” in winter 2013 and the play premiered in May 2014 at Chicago’s Jackalope Theatre Company. It opened off-Broadway at Primary Stages in April 2016.  

Marti Gobel directs “Exit Strategy” for Forward. It’s the Wisconsin premiere of the play and the first time Forward has produced a piece by Holter, a resident writer at Victory Gardens Theatre.

Holter is also a member of the multidisciplinary art company The Inconvenience (founded in 2010) and artistic director of The Roustabouts, a company doing concerts, plays and “weird stuff” with limited runs and an implosion model — Holter said it will self-destruct in five years.

Since “Exit Strategy,” Holter has continued to write about the fictional neighborhood where the play was set. He spoke with the Cap Times from Chicago.

You call this a comedy, yet you’ve given these characters impossible odds and really high stakes. It’s like they’re on a sinking ship. How do you keep the tension rising through the play without peaking too soon?

I think of the play, weirdly enough, as this comedic thriller. It juggles all these intense stakes and situations but at the same time, early in the show, you’re watching out for humor and jokes.

When I see a show that is about “important themes” or “really woke things” I’m waiting to get beat over the head. With this play I tried to make it about it the people. People in high stakes situations are incredibly funny. The most intense things in my life are surrounded by jokes and humor.

If you’re just wallowing in the darkness of the moment, I don’t think you’re going to make it.

Do you think of it like gallows humor?

It’s dark, but at the same time, this is people’s lives. Working at that school does not sound like an easy walk in the park.

“Exit Strategy” is like an issue play that doesn’t want to be an issue play.  

There’s still issues we have with education that go beyond schools closing. There’s issues with how we teach and how we learn. So when I wrote this I didn’t want to make it this big villain play, like “These are good guys and these are bad guys.” The play makes fun of that standpoint, with the jokes about Freedom Riders and “Dangerous Minds” and what the audience expects going in.

The deeper issue the play wants to talk about is how we’re complicit, how some things are impossible to change, and how not everything can be changed with a strike overnight.

Sometimes there are deeper problems, and sometimes the heroes are part of those problems.

One character accuses another character of trying to “Michelle Pfeiffer-ize” the school. Can you talk about how “Exit Strategy” interacts with the narrative we have of the white savior and the troubled inner city school?

This is literally about a white savior who goes into the school and — without spoiling anything — we twist that narrative and push it in a new direction.

You know, I’m a man of color in 2018 and I kind of hate that story. “Exit Strategy” scrambles your expectations for where these stories can go and makes you look at your own politics.

The dark version of this is a lot of great liberal people patting themselves on the back. A lot of people are teachers and care about teachers, who are focusing on these characters and rooting for them outside their own ideological standpoint. That’s a hard thing to do with pieces like this, because it doesn’t ask everyone to feel comfortable.

Writing a contemporary, fictional story like this that looks and sounds like real Chicago has to have led to some interesting feedback from audiences. Do some people take it literally?

As someone who teaches writing, when I talk to people like that I get really excited. My philosophy is that every single person has a story inside of them, whether they write a Facebook update or a grocery list.

Sometimes the system tells us that writers are only these people born with this special gift. I think that is a lie. I tell people, “You didn’t like how this was handled? That is your right, and that’s awesome.” I want you to write something, your version of this world, this anger, this passion you have, and put that out there.

If everything has to follow this list to be correct, we lose the drama. Sometimes drama is learning from something and making the next show better.

Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.