Kansas City playwright Ron Simonian had his first play produced in 1992 in a warehouse in the Crossroads District.
When it moved to an Off-Broadway house in New York, Simonian assumed he had the world on a string. But as the world premiere of a new plays opens this weekend, he reflects on how his career hasn't always progressed in traditional ways.
It's been thirty years since Simonian diverted his attention away from an interest in filmmaking to theater, when he turned a potential screenplay called Thanatos into a stage play.
"We did it in a warehouse behind Manny's Mexican Restaurant in downtown Kansas City," Simonian recalls. "Scott Cordes directed it and it made me fall in love with theater. The script needed a lot of work but it was a real piece of living theater and it kind of got addicting from there.
"We had a late night showing of that play and there were three people in the audience, and one of them was Cynthia Levin. I didn't know who she was. She's the artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre, of course, and after the show she said, 'I'd like to talk to you about your plays.' That's how it started."
Levin was indeed an early fan and Simonian was on a roll for some time. The Unicorn eventually premiered six of Simonian's plays, many featuring violent premises and flagrant profanity that, right or wrong, seemed to define him and his work.
When asked if he was in a dark place in his late twenties and early thirties because of his reputation for writing dark characters with dark pasts and darker intentions, plus lots of violence and blood, he says people did confuse him with his shady characters.
"I had an agent in New York whose name was Susan Schulman and the first time we had actually met, she said, 'You are so different from what we thought you were going to be. You don't fit the profile of the type of man who would write these plays.' I'm sure there are a lot of writers who resemble their work. I never really did and I think that was a misconception that caused a lot of people to be wary of me in life in general.
"There was a play called Desert Holiday - that play more symbolized who I am: sometimes lonely, in love with being in love, you know. And yet the plays people associate with me are two hit men in the woods trying to bury a body. But it's two hit men in the woods trying to bury a body arguing about morality. Those kind of themes really appealed to me at that time." (Editor's note: The play's actual title was Slight Defect: A Desert Holiday.)
Over the years, Simonian has worked other venues, two of which - Bazooka's Showgirls, a gentleman's club downtown, and Science City at Union Station - happened to overlap, making for uncomfortable bedfellows.
"The owner of the club is a very theatrical person and just loves the arts," Simonian says. "And they said they wanted me to come in and do a one-man show at the theater.
"They had me write this show called Cock Talk, based on The Vagina Monologues from a male perspective. They put me on this huge billboard off the highway and I used to be the head writer at Science City, like how to use liquid nitrogen, and I'd turn it into this theatrical piece to make it entertaining for the kids. Well, they were done with me. I was fired instantaneously."
In his latest play, The Soul Collector, Simonian plays a slick television evangelist named Lester Dupree, whose view of the world is captured in this selection from the show.
Dupree says with a southern-fried accent, "It's a well-known fact that all the Jews, Muslims and atheists will all go straight to hell upon Christ's return. For when the rapture starts, there is a certain group of people who will be very shocked at the icy cold reception they will receive when the Lord returns at all. If there was a vent in the floor right there and that vent went straight to the bowels of hell, and smoke was rising out of that straight out of hell,and upon the rapture, that smell would smell an awful lot like the Pope's hat."
Simonian says of his latest character, "I wanted him to be somebody who could actually be slick enough to get your attention, to get your money, because that's where the scariness comes from - when people are actually good at what they do and can still take you in a bad direction
"So this is a play that does not attack religion," he adds. "It doesn't attack anyone's faith. But it attacks those who use that faith for evil and for cash."
Simonian admits that, for all the attention his earlier violent works drew, and how much he likes them, he has softened with age and, as a father, becoming more intrigued with stories about family.
The Soul Collector, December 6-23, Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111. 816-531-7529
The Artists in Their Own Words series is sponsored by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.