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Word-Master Ike Holter Tackles Chicago’s Issues on Stage

The playwright’s rise has been as speedy as the dialogue he writes.

Ike Holter in the lobby of A Red Orchid Theatre   Photo: Tim Klein

The fact that local dramatist Ike Holter writes about his city—its problems, its sexual and racial differences—may be part of the reason he’s being embraced as Chicago theater’s Next Big Thing. But there’s also the matter of his breathlessly creative riffs on everyday speech, the way his characters grab language by the lapels. Shade Murray, the director of Holter’s latest play, Sender, opening on April 14 at A Red Orchid Theatre, recalls an actor delivering one of Holter’s monologues very, very slowly. “I told him, ‘You’ve been given this Maserati, and you’re driving it like a golf cart.’ ”

In Sender, Holter’s racecar writing focuses on four Chicago hipster friends after one of them, presumed dead for a year, suddenly shows up. “We’re so used to making fun of the stereotype of lazy millennials,” says the 30-year-old playwright. “But millennials have a lot of creative and narrative power. They’ve got something to say.”

Then, in May at Jackalope Theatre, comes Prowess, about a group of Chicagoans who respond to the city’s ills by turning into vigilantes.

Holter’s characters don’t dispense their thoughts in neatly formed sentences. They talk over each other, interrupt each other, and speak haltingly until a flood of language breaks the dam. “He capitalizes on everything modern vernacular has to offer in terms of large poetry,” says Murray, “and he writes it to the moon.” That style, Holter notes, comes from growing up the youngest of six kids in Minneapolis.

Yet for all the verbal flourishes, Holter relishes silence: His scripts often include markings to indicate a character’s nonverbal reaction. “Sometimes when we’re silent, that’s when we’re actually screaming,” he says.

Holter’s own speech has a hiccupy rhythm—which belies a firm resolve. As we chat, he sends an email to a group in Philadelphia regarding a production of Exit Strategy, his 2014 play about Chicago teachers facing the imminent closure of their public school. “One second, sorry,” he says. “I have to send this note so they don’t screw anything up.” He’s laughing—and quite serious.

Sender marks the culmination of a relationship with A Red Orchid that began when Holter, as a student at DePaul, studied with company ensemble member Brett Neveu. Neveu invited the undergrad to have one of his plays read aloud by some of the theater’s actors, including Michael Shannon. “I had no idea who they were,” says Holter. “I was like, I think I saw that guy in a few movies.”

After graduating, Holter worked for A Red Orchid as an usher and a box-office attendant. Now, less than a decade later, he is working on commissions from the Goodman Theatre, Teatro Vista, and Writers Theatre.

Though he set his 2012 breakout triumph, Hit the Wall, in New York City during the Stonewall riots, Holter says Chicago is uniquely suited to his work. “We’re so thirsty for stories about the city,” he says. “As a person of color, I like living in a place where the majority of people are people of color. It reflects the world I want to live in.”

GO Sender runs April 14 to May 29 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St. $15 to $35. aredorchidtheatre.org

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