Steve Yockey is the Emmy-nominated executive producer/writer of “The Flight Attendant,” the hit HBO Max series. He’s also the playwright of “Sleeping Giant,” which premiered Wednesday at Salt Lake Acting Company.
That juxtaposition seems surprising to some, including some of Yockey’s friends. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, really?’ Like they’re surprised that a theater in Salt Lake City would do what I write,” he said with a laugh.
“Sleeping Giant,” which opened Wednesday and runs through Oct. 16, is the third of his plays to premiere at SLAC, following “Blackberry Winter” in 2015 and “Mercury” in 2017. And Yockey readily admits he didn’t know what to make of the Utah theater company’s interest in his works at first.
“I was shocked the first time that I came to SLAC, because I think people outside of Salt Lake City have an idea of what theater in Salt Lake City is like,” he said.
He recalled when he was in Utah for rehearsals for “Blackberry Winter” and he went to see “Saturday’s Voyeur,” the long-running musical satire of Utah culture. And he said he was “blown away. I was just laughing so hard, and it was so inventive and so creative and so well done. And both of the plays of mine that they produced have been at such a high level and the audience involvement has been so exciting.”
As exciting as being the showrunner of a series that has received a dozen nominations over the past two years? Well … yes, he said.
“I know when I go to SLAC that I’m going to see my play,” he said — not an interpretation of his play he doesn’t recognize. “[SLAC artistic director] Cynthia [Fleming] and the entire team there take new work for the American theater so seriously that you really aren’t concerned. You’re going to get to see your play and you’re going to get to see how audiences that come to new plays react to it.”
Yockey met Fleming in 2013 at the National Play Network Conference in Florida, and she was taken with “Blackberry Winter” — about a daughter taking care of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s. Fleming said her mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s at the time, and he shared the research he had done for the play.
“I followed everything he told me, and I successfully took care of my mother because of that,” Fleming said. “His vision of his play goes beyond the page. He’s a master at talking to designers and actors and in such a respectful, very clear way. … I’m a huge fan of Steve and so is our audience.”
Yockey praised both SLAC and its patrons for giving new works a chance. “It’s very exciting, and it’s hard to develop that kind of audience.”
And, Yockey said, he’s become “a little bit of a SLAC national cheerleader.”
“Traveling around the country to work on my theater stuff, I tell all the playwrights that I run into that they need to be submitting to SLAC,” he said, “because they’re going to have a good experience if their play gets picked.”
“Sleeping Giant” is about fascism
Fleming said she was watching “The Flight Attendant” and wondering if Yockey would ever again write plays. “I’m on the third or fourth episode, I get a text from Steve that says, ‘How about reading one of my plays?’” That was “Sleeping Giant”, Fleming said, “and I knew that I wanted to produce it as soon as I read it.”
Yockey described the play as “a fun, but dark” play about “a small town with a monster in its lake. And for me, it was sort of really and truly writing about how fascism just keeps coming back.”
“It’s very much about right now. You look around and there are things that you don’t understand. There’s a generosity that you want to attribute to other people that they don’t always deserve when they’re doing fundamentally wrong things. And yet every 50 or 75 years we go through this again. And I don’t know how many times we get to go through it before it just becomes how it is.”
Lily Hye Soo Dixon (“Mercury”) plays The Naïf; Tito Livas (“SLACabaret: Down the Rabbit Hole”) plays The Messenger, Robert Scott Smith (“Climbing With Tigers”) plays The Raconteur, and Casssandra Stokes-Wylie (“Death of a Driver”) plays The Convert.
“I think it’s written in a particularly prismatic way, in that it approaches a bunch of different ways that fascism can enter your life overtly and covertly,” Yockey said, “and it does it all within 75 minutes. So if we can pull it together and it works the way that it’s supposed to, I think it’s going to be quite an evening.”
Theater vs. television
Before “The Flight Attendant” — which features Kaley Cuoco as the title character, who wakes up in bed with a dead man in the first episode — Yockey wrote episodes of the TV series “Awkward” and “Scream.” He was a writer/story editor/producer of the long-running “Supernatural” from 2016-19.
Yockey said that “writing for television and writing for theater are surprisingly similar,” although for him “the process is quite different.”
The difference for him is that he writes plays “about things I don’t understand fully” that he wants to “kind of dissect and understand better. … And so because the plays come from a question, they end up presenting the audience with — why are we like this? As opposed to — here’s my answer for you.”
But when he writes for TV, he wants to “explore really rich characters and then entertain people. … I’m focused on telling a story that’s exciting and engaging and emotionally evocative in a way that’s going to hold an audience.”
That’s also true of playwriting, but there is a difference.
“Watching television — it has to hold you,” Yockey said. “In a play, if I let you know in the first 10 minutes that you’re in good hands, then I can do just about anything to you, because it’s going to be over in under, like, 90 minutes. With television, one wrong step and people will turn it off. So I would say television is a more demanding mistress in some ways.”
And he disputes the oft-repeated notion that television serves to stamp out writers’ creativity.
“I haven’t found that to be the case,” Yockey said. “But what I do think is true is that if someone’s giving you $7 million to produce each episode of your show — you have to listen to them. They have a right to participate.”
Coming up next
Yockey said that “playwriting keeps me facile and kind of creative in a very different way” than television writing. “They feed each other. Television work literally feeds me — it pays the bills.”
But he’s not in any way downplaying the work he’s done on TV. “I’m incredibly proud of ‘Flight Attendant.’ The fact that that’s a show that made it to air, that’s mind-boggling to me on a regular basis. And I love how much people have responded to it. And I’m really excited about ‘Dead Boy Detectives.’”
That’s his next series for HBO Max. They’ve already shot the pilot, and production will begin soon on the series.
“It’s going to be a wild and crazy show,” he said, based on material from Neil Gaiman (“The Sandman,” “American Gods”). “It’s about a detective agency that’s two 16-year-old dead British boys and their live, psychic girlfriend. … It just gets stranger and stranger as it goes along.”
“Sleeping Giant,” a play by Steve Yockey, runs through Oct. 16 in the Upstairs Theatre at Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City. Tickets, ranging from $31 to $44, and are available at the box office or online at tickets.saltlakeactingcompany.org.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.