Backstage with Innocence

Dreamwell – In 2009, Dreamwell committed to bringing more original work to stage. They devised a Writers Joust competition, where Iowa writers would submit full length plays that dealt with a subject people fear to talk about. Dreamwell received many plays and chose three for the festival. Two were presented last weekend as staged readings. The winner of the Joust opens this weekend as a full production (November 19 and 20 at 7:30 pm at 10 S. Gilbert in Iowa City. Tickets available here.) Innocence by Tom Deiker explores the choices made by individuals who encountered serial killer Pedro Lopez, and how those choices may have lead to more murders. We had a chance to ask Tom a few questions about his play.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Tom: My background is in clinical psychology, with most of my career spent researching, developing, evaluating, and administrating public mental health programs in hospitals, clinic, prisons, nursing homes, residential care, substance abuse, sex offender programs, forensic hospitals, child care, etc. My two professional interest areas were psychopathology and aggression, which sometimes overlap – the universal standard for civil commitment of the mentally ill, for example, is “danger to self or others” – with a larger interest in aggression as the “human defect” causing the most human misery in the world – as in ethnic violence, sexism, homicide, genocide, slavery, religious extremism.

I am beginning to see why the story of Pedro Lopez was of interest to you.

Tom: My early research in trying to predict aggression, especially homicide, in society, as well as in offenders and the mentally ill, shows convincingly that it’s virtually impossible based on tests, demographics, behaviors. Regrettably, that doesn’t deter “experts” from flying by the seats of their predictive pants in courtrooms and civil commitment proceedings to remove people from society, sometimes for life – such as the tragic recent return of indefinite civil commitment of sex offenders in most states, including Iowa. In my readings on serial killers I stumbled on the case of Pedro Lopez, “Monster of the Andes,” who raped and killed some 350 young girls in Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru. If you have a chance to see or read the play, you will recognize the above themes of poverty, ethnic violence, government apathy.

So how does Innocence tell his story?

Tom: Innocence basically tries to lay out for the audience in dramatic form the range of viewpoints, attitudes, reactions, and “solutions” to a horrific serial murderer – from philosophical to religious to scientific, hopefully to stimulate thought and discussion.

How much of this play is true to the story and how much creative license did you take with it?

Tom: I read everything written about Pedro Lopez. Innocence is a genuine docudrama in that all the biographical and historical references are accurate — e.g., raised by prostitute mom, thrown out onto the the street in the middle of the civil war at age 8, raped by a man all night in an abandoned building almost immediately, etc. Almost all of the actual words of Pedro were used where I could – his grandiose notion he was the most famous man of the century, his description of the kidnapping, rape, and murder process, and the watching in the eyes for the loss of innocence. The fictional overlay was giving the characters in his life a voice from their point of view in conversation with the journalist, there being no record of those likely conversations.

Can you talk a little bit about your writing process – was there lots of rewriting, how did the play change as you went along, what choices did you make which guided your process?

Tom: I violate most of the rules I’ve read on writing, don’t write character bios, don’t make outline or story boards before writing, don’t write straight to the end before rewriting; I spend a lot of time reading about my topic, taking notes, walking around with the story line, characters, try to follow general guidelines for introduction of characters, distinct voices and character personalities, introduction of conflict and it’s resolution. But once I have those in mind I work my way through the scenes one at a time, starting from the beginning and rethinking/rewriting repeatedly to the latest scene until I’m happy with the process, then continue that process until the final draft is finished. One of the reasons I write this way is that I come to know each page of the story and find the characters themselves begin saying the next line or plot point, one of those “immersion processes” other writers have spoken of. I always set the script aside for at lest a couple weeks before returning to it, try to read it as a reader and ask myself what questions/puzzlements/weaknesses the reader would experience; I also read each character through separately to hear their distinct voice and personality quirks. I have in many projects, Innocence included, written a detailed descriptions of the story line with each scene and then looked for missing/redundant/discontinuous story elements. This script also had a translation process from longer, more narrative screenplay, to shorter more condensed and physically limited stage play. This play also had more of a “philosophical” overlay, trying to give different characters different understanding, insights, and beliefs about “why people kill the innocent.”

What has the rehearsal process been like from your perspective – have you been involved at all?

Tom: I have not been involved, will sit in on the dress rehearsal only to thank and support the cast and director.

How does it feel to be the winner of the Joust?

Tom: I’ve had a few staged readings of my full-length screenplays and stage plays, but this will be the first staging of one of my full-length stage plays. So this is my most exciting experience in my 68-year-old-novice-playwriting career.

What’s your next project?

Tom: I just finished my first full-length play written from scratch (all others were written from those screenplays which could be adapted to the stage). Honour addresses Christian and Muslim extremism against the background of tensions following the influx of Muslim Somali refugees in Minneapolis-St. Paul – “whitebread America”. The play’s title and theme revolves around the Muslim practice of “honour killing” females who deviate from strict family control. This play turns honour killing upside down and drops it into the lap of fundamentalist Christian mother, who discovers her daughter has formed a lesbian relationship with a Muslim girl, the mother hires some local redneck thugs to “scare” the Muslim girl, who the thugs rape and kill. The mother tries to convince her family and the victim’s family that the death is a Muslim “honour killing.”

Anything else you’d like to let our readers know?

Tom: Just my gratitude to Dreamwell for the opportunity and for bringing contemporary plays on contemporary themes to the Iowa City region.


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