‘Dark comedy is pretty much what I do’: Playwright Steve Yockey on his embrace of Rorschach Theatre’s mission

The Emmy-nominated creative force returns to DC for 'Eldritch Investigations: A Psychogeographies Project' and his new play 'Sleeping Giant.'

Hollywood success has not spoiled Steve Yockey, the Emmy-nominated writer who keeps returning to Washington, DC, to work with the “small but mighty” Rorschach Theatre. The company has produced two of his other works previously. This season, Yockey returns for Eldritch Investigations: A Psychogeographies Project as well as the final production of Rorschach’s 25th season, his play Sleeping Giant.

DC Theatre Arts sat down with Yockey over Zoom to explore his work on these pieces, his connection to Rorschach, and his distinctive writing style.

Steve Yockey. Photo courtesy of Rorschach Theatre.

Steve Yockey is a multi-hyphenate creative: playwright, television and film writer, executive producer, and creator. His credits include Supernatural, Scream: The TV Series, and The Doom Patrol. The 40-something is also a double Emmy nominee for his work on the HBO series The Flight Attendant, which he created.

Sometime in this year, Dead Boy Detectives will stream on Netflix. Based on a DC Comics title, the supernatural show is set in the same universe as the Sandman series. Yockey is the creator, writer, and showrunner for the new show.

Yockey balances his work between television and film with stage plays, his first love.

“I’ve been very lucky to get to do some pretty crazy things [in TV and film], and I like to go back and forth between TV and film, and theater,” he said. “For me, TV and film are for other people; theater I write because if I didn’t I’d go crazy.”

For the stage, he is known for writing dark comedies that embrace theatrical presentation and spectacle, as evidenced in his plays such as Afterlife, Octopus, Very Still & Hard to See, Blackberry Winter, and many others.

“Dark comedy is pretty much what I do,” Yockey stated, “across the board — TV, film, and plays.”

According to the writer, his sensibility grew out of his upbringing and environment: “One part, I think for me, was growing up as an only child, spending a lot of time alone so you develop your imagination, creating worlds to play in. The other half of it was growing up in the South, in Georgia, as a gay kid — you learn humor as a way to offset quiet trauma.

“It’s just inherent to my personality to be dark and sarcastic. And in my writing, I became adept at mixing comedy with the dark things.

“So much of what I write is, weirdly, through a fun-house mirror,” Yockey added. “I want to take people off-guard when they first sit down and make them feel comfortable, let them know they’re in good hands, so when they realize it’s a play about, for example, school shootings, a wall doesn’t come down.”

The mixture of pathos and laughter can be the ticket for audiences into the world of the story, said the playwright; his goal is to guide audience members into the experience: “You have to take people by the hand, lead them into the play, and as long as you don’t betray their trust, you can take them anywhere.”

Rorschach Theatre’s Psychogeographies Project is just such an experience, a theatrical and geographical experience that comes mailed to subscribers in monthly installments. Yockey’s interest piqued, the theater company enticed him to join the fourth iteration of Psychogeographies, which will have thematic links to Yockey’s Sleeping Giant.

As described in DC Theatre Arts previously, Psychogeographies “takes participants to unexpected locations around their city while a season-long fictional narrative plays out over layers of history and magic realism.” Each month, participants receive a curated box of materials, described on the Rorschach website as “story elements such as letters, music, souvenirs, or photos. From October through May, each monthly box reveals a new location and a new chapter in the ongoing story.”

Yockey joins Rorschach’s co-artistic director Jenny McConnell Frederick, along with Kylos Brannon, Luke Hartwood, and Jonelle Walker, to shape the Psychogeographies Project adventures, this time entitled Eldritch Investigations.

“They asked me if I would be interested in participating in the creation of the narrative,” Yockey explained. He was fascinated by the idea of the project and has high praise for the Rorschach-based artists as collaborators on Eldritch Investigations.

“Jenny McConnell Frederick leads some really amazing artists who go and do deep research.” This in-depth work made his work attainable.

“The other creative artists craft the found documents, video footage, sounds, all from the narrative and suggestions that I put in it.

“I did my best to pick locations around Washington, DC, that I found interesting and also have quirky or unique histories that people might not know about,” Yockey said.

“We have a fictional narrative about a missing woman that runs through the whole thing, and you’re retracing her last days, but you also get the weird history of certain locations around Washington, DC.”

Yockey’s work will also be featured at the close of the 2023/24 Rorschach season when his play Sleeping Giant takes centerstage. The playwright could not imagine a more fitting theater company to showcase his work. “As a theater company, Rorschach is so exciting because their mission is to embrace myths or the big stories we tell ourselves,” said the writer. “I really resonate with that mission.

“My favorite thing to do is to write a really intimate character relationship and then brush it up against something huge,” explained Yockey. The fizz of the play, he added, is the interplay with the characters and the mythical thing or unknown thing, or a part of the world we don’t understand.

In other words, the kind of work Rorschach excels at producing: “Rorschach is a theater company that is small but mighty,” Yockey said. “They have such a reputation, I was a fan long before I ever wrote a play they would deem worthy [to produce].”

Not wanting to sound melodramatic, the writer enthused, “I really respect and love what [co-artistic directors] Randy [Baker] and Jenny [McConnell Frederick] have created with Rorschach, and it’s a real pleasure to work with this company.”

Yockey explained he has three plays that are built on a series of cascading vignettes, structured like a series of short plays that reveal themselves to have connected characters and things happening in the same world, creating a cohesive picture by the conclusion.

“The three plays I have with this structure are Very Still & Hard to See, Reykjavik, and Sleeping Giant. Rorschach is the only theater in the country that will have done all three plays — once they’ve produced Sleeping Giant,” Yockey stated.

When asked to reveal a little more about Sleeping Giant, Yockey was elusive, not wanting to provide spoilers this far in advance. “It is set in a town by a lake, and two of our characters wake something up that has been sleeping in the lake for thousands of years (maybe since the lake’s been there). It’s about how the people react to its presence.”

Rather than talk about specific story or character details, Yockey opened up about intent: “You can’t control what an audience will walk away with, but you can have what you intend. I hope that they’ll walk away with a sense of ‘Oh, this still happens.’ And they have to decide what they want to do about that.”

The playwright highlighted another key aspect of his writing: “You have to write a compelling central relationship that is affected by the issue or situation. You have to create people an audience wants to watch onstage and is fascinated by how they interact with each other or how they live.”

Yockey revealed that Sleeping Giant contains such a central relationship, but he chose not to disclose the exact nature of it. “I don’t want to give it away here.”

After some thought, the writer teased the themes explored within the play. “The idea behind the structure of Sleeping Giant, for me, is how authoritarianism is cyclical, and no matter how far we think we’ve come, we end up in this place where it’s on the cusp of taking us over again.”

The playwright also admitted each of the different vignettes, although they’re interrelated and have cross-over characters, explores in a different way the idea that authoritarianism can creep into someone’s life.”

For the answers — or more questions — audiences will have to wait until June and July, when Rorschach Theatre brings Yockey’s Sleeping Giant to life.

Rorschach Theatre’s Eldritch Investigations: A Psychogeographies Project runs from October 2023 through July 2024, with boxes mailed out each month. For more information, click here.

Rorschach Theatre’s production of Sleeping Giant runs June 28 through July 21, 2024, at a venue TBA. For more information about Sleeping Giant, click here.

For Rorschach Theatre season packages, click here.

To see more of Steve Yockey’s TV and film work, including the upcoming series Dead Boy Detectives for Netflix, check out his IMDB page here.

‘Very Still & Hard to See’ at Rorschach Theatre Company (review by John Stoltenberg, April 14, 2015)
‘Reykjavík’ by Rorschach Theatre (review by John Stoltenberg, February 13, 2019)


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