“The Joy Wheel” at Ruskin Theatre Mines Laughs From Current Culture – Interview With Writer Ian McRae

Rising to the surface of Ian McRae’s colorful and witty characters, there comes the hint of weighty concern. First, it was women finding their voices, being heard, and the Me Too movement

Dann Florek and Maury Sterling

Ian McRae. Photo courtesy RGT

Rising to the surface of Ian McRae’s colorful and witty characters, there comes the hint of weighty concern. Familiar, in the sense that this concern occurs in our own lives, as we recognize the questions McRae puts forth are very similar to those we’ve asked ourselves, but maybe not out loud.

Dann Florek and Gina Hecht. Photo by Ed Krieger

In his latest work, “The Joy Wheel,” at Ruskin Group Theatre, McRae introduces us to the long married couple Frank (Dann Florek) and Stella (Gina Hecht). Life is changing for the couple. On the day of Frank’s retirement party, they find themselves pulled in different directions. The world is not what it was. Stella is shaken, but inspired, by her best friend becoming a liberated, sexualized, independent woman, while Frank decides to emulate his doomsday prepper friend by building an underground bunker that once was the family swimming pool. Their friends Margie (Lee Garlington) and Stew (Maury Sterling) encourage them to learn to try something new, and are there to bolster their confidence.

Lee Garlington, Dann Florek, Gina Hecht. Photo by Ed Krieger

It’s as if all of them are riding that amusement park joy wheel, hanging on to someone else just so they can just stay their ground. As with his previous work, “The Alamo,” truth needs to be told, loyalties are seriously impacted, and the human condition is eventually embraced with all its imperfections.

Ian McRae was willing to give us some insight into where these ideas originate:

Ester: Is your work inspired by current events?

Ian: Often, and in this case there was more than just one thing that I really wanted to explore in our current culture. First, it was women finding their voices, being heard, and the Me Too movement. But, I was also intrigued by this phenomenon of fear and paranoia creeping into our society. The latter inspired the “Stew” character. He thinks that he has to take the law into his own hands. I was curious about the way people are susceptible to conspiracy theories that seem to take over their better judgment. I wanted to look at what it means to be prepared in life, and how easy it is to go overboard.

Dan Florek, Lee Garlington, Maury Sterling. Photo by Ed Krieger

Ester: What does this play say about the times that we live in?

Ian: It shows how women are speaking up, using their voices for generating change, both in and outside the household. I think it also acknowledges that there actually is an underlying fear factor in our society these days.

I’ve done a lot of research on “doomsday preppers,” It’s a multi-billion dollar business now. Obviously, there must be a lot of people who don’t trust elected officials, police and armed forces. People who are setting up bunkers, stocking their garages with guns and supplies, trying to cover all of their bases. They want to be ready for the next financial meltdown, society meltdown, or environmental catastrophe. They want to be able to ride out the next disaster. They’re wondering about a “deep state.”

Ester: Are you a genre writer?

Ian: I guess I should start asking myself that question. I wouldn’t say I have a genre, I never really considered myself to be a genre writer. But, I am inspired to write when I see injustices. I think that some things need to be spotlighted. I try to do my part to bring people’s attention to these issues that we are all dealing with.

Ester: When you have a story to tell, do you begin writing the concept first, or the characters?

Ian: Most of my stuff starts with two people arguing, for one reason or another. I follow that thread and see how it opens up and where it goes. It can give me some clues as to whether or not I can maybe bring somebody else into the mix and then find a play through that. I’m not a “structure” kind of guy in the sense of writing an outline and then trying to fill it in. I write pretty instinctually.

Lee Garlington and Gina Hecht. Photo by Ed Krieger

Ester: What is the easiest part of the writing process for you? What is the most gratifying?

Ian: I think the easiest part is when those voices are sort of cranked up in my head and I’ve got two people who are evenly matched and they are arguing about something that they believe in equally. I can let them try to argue it out with each other. From those arguments, I (or they) can open it up from the personal to the maybe political or social. When those two people have a strong opinion about something that’s important to both of them but they address it evenly.

The most gratifying, I think, is when I go back to what I’ve written after I’ve done other things the next day, and I reread something that I actually like or something that surprises me that I’ve written. It gives me the courage, the encouragement and the confidence to keep going.

Ester: Why do you enjoy the process of working in a smaller theatre, and what do you like best about working at Ruskin Group Theatre?

Ian: I like the intimacy of the process. The people. John Ruskin, Mike Myers, Nicole Millar, Hamilton Matthews…the entire team over there in Santa Monica. I really appreciate the sense of support that they offer, such professionals. Perhaps it’s part of their DNA from the acting school that they’ve run for so long, but it’s special. Well, that and the parking of course!!!

The Joy Wheel opens at 8pm on Friday, February 15th and runs Thursdays – Saturday at 8pm, Sundays 2pm through March 24, 2019. Ruskin Group Theatre is located at 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90405. Tickets are $30 – $35 and can be purchased in advance by calling (310) 397-3244 or online here. Free parking available on site.   

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