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Middle class angst is playwright's focus

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Bill Cook stands outside the Columbus Performing Arts Center. Cook's latest play, The Promised Land, is a comedic look at unemployment and the sense of uncertainty and ongoing insecurity that often follows.
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By ThisWeek Community News  • 

Bill Cook's plays are the stuff of middle-class nightmares.

They aren't populated with characters named Freddy or Jason, but rather focus on things that could become terrifying reality: infidelity, unemployment, imprisonment.

"The things that could happen," the 59-year-old Clintonville resident said last week, prior to the final few performances of his latest work, The Promised Land, at the Van Fleet Theater in the Columbus Performing Arts Center on Franklin Avenue.

"I'm middle class, too, so I'm essentially writing about my own nightmares," he went on. "I think this is a way of addressing people's underlying anxieties and fears, but also sensitizing people to these issues as they occur more broadly."

Cook's own company, A&B Theatricals, produced its first "dream play," as the author calls his current cycle, last May, also at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, called Love in an Age of Clamor. It "explored society's obsession with work and wages as the yardstick for success and the purpose of being," according to a press release. The spring play also dealt with infidelity, Cook said, while the work that ran March 22-30 focuses on man in his 50s who abruptly finds himself out of work.

"This is a work that conveys not just the plight of the unemployed, but also the felt texture of their experience and the generally perilous uncertainty of employment even for those who have it," Cook, an associate professor in the Humanities Department at Columbus State Community College, said in a statement.

"For most middle class people it's one of those back-of-the mind things: 'This could happen to me,' " Cook said in the interview. "I just waded right in and started to write about it."

"My plays are often prompted by the news of the day," the playwright said. "When I was writing The Promised Land, unemployment was about 10 percent, and although the middle class was largely not directly affected, there was the very real fear that it could happen. These fears transpire as a reality and at high speed. I think it is important not only for people to deal with the underlying fear, but also to develop some sympathy for those who have fallen as this seems to be largely missing in our current, rather heartless times."

Cook said he wanted to convey that a person being unable to find jobs is an issue of concern to everyone, not just that individual.

Cook was born in Lancaster. His family moved to Minnesota for a while, but returned to Ohio after his mother remarried. He lived in Circleville and Ashville and then part-time in Columbus while attending classes at Ohio University.

"I was a very prodigious reader," he said, and so originally planned to write novels.

"But my reading was so much advanced over my writing. It was disconcerting. It sort of took the wind out of my sails."

He took a theater course "as a fluke," and acted in a play.

"It was kind of a revelation," Cook recalled. "It was performed on the wing. It was transient. It very strongly appealed to me."

The collaboration involved in taking a play from the page to the stage is also vitally important to him.

After being introduced to acting in plays, he began writing them, and had two of his produced at OU while still an undergraduate. From there, on the recommendations of one of his professors, Cook enrolled at Hunter College in New York City to study under author, director and critic Edwin Wilson. Cook earned his master of arts in playwriting in 1975. In 1992 he received his Ph.D. in interdisciplinary arts from Ohio University.

During his years spent living in Manhattan, Cook had many one-act and full-length plays produced.

Cook created A&B Theatricals because, he said, while the theater scene in Columbus is "certainly lively," very few acting troupes put on original works.

"I understand perfectly the position they're in," he said. "People want to see things that have gotten good notices. Most theaters teeter on the edge of insolvency, so having that extra draw is very important. My theater is not oriented that way. I want to put on original work, my own included, because I think that makes a place a theater center. When people are originating work, it has a broader interest, particularly people who are not from Columbus."

"If you're doing original work, that is work that is unique to wherever it is you are doing it."

The next play from A&B Theatricals will be staged at the Columbus Performing Arts Center in September. State of Control will focus on a middle class character who goes to prison.

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