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When it comes to being busy this time of year, Santa and his elves have nothing on Gregory Stieber. As production manager of The Fort Wayne Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker, it’s nothing for Stieber to clock 16-hour days.
So when I called him for a scheduled interview at 8:15 on a recent morning I was not surprised to get his voice-mail. He called back a few minutes later.
“Sorry I missed your call,” he said. “We ran a little long.”
Stieber had already been working for an hour.
“We’re right in the middle of The Nutcracker,” he said. “We start around 7 a.m. We have two school shows this morning and one this evening. We put the whole thing together with a lot of planning. We only have the theater for a week to prepare. Once it starts it’s pretty relentless.”
Stieber’s responsibilities as production manager for The Nutcracker include every set change, every music cue, every lighting cue, every snowflake. Stieber is also producing the Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s Holiday Pops concerts.
Despite the crazy long days and the pressure of putting on two of the biggest productions of the year, there’s no place else he would rather be.
“When it’s bare knuckles time, it’s almost easier cause you just have to get it done,” he said. “You push into high gear and the motivation factor goes up.”
One look at Stieber’s work output over the past several years and it’s easy to get the idea that his motivation factor is high all the time. As a director and playwright, Stieber works with several theater companies in Fort Wayne. His efforts include writing and directing original plays for Fort Wayne Youtheater’s Linda Ruffolo Young Heroes of Conscience Series and a collaboration with a former classmate to produce a play about the spouses of veterans.
Stieber was born in Dubuque, Iowa in 1969, but grew up in Fort Wayne where he attended Northrop High School and IPFW. As a boy he enjoyed comic books, which he credits with sparking an interest in stories.
“Looking back, my inspiration probably came from comic books,” he said. “I was a comic book geek when I was a kid. There’s the whole storytelling aspect of that, storyline, plot, things like that that really gravitated me toward wanting to be some sort of a storyteller.”
As a drama major at IPFW, Stieber said he had the dream all drama majors have when they start out.
“Like most theater majors when going into the field, I wanted to be an Oscar-winning actor,” he said. “But I wasn’t all that great.”
It didn’t take long for him to discover what he was great at. During a class on directing Stieber was asked to submit four plays he’d like to direct. One of his choices reflected another of his influences.
“First play I directed was the theater of the absurd, a play called the Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco,” he said. “I submitted four different plays that I wanted to direct to the faculty. I wanted to show them that I had a diversified vision, and that’s the one they chose. I thought it was the last one they’d ever choose.”
Stieber said his attraction to absurdist theater came from his love of Monty Python, specifically The Search for the Holy Grail.
“The whole absurdist thing rang true to me because of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the absurdism of that and realizing there is such an art form to that. People think it’s straight-up slapstick, but it’s really not. There’s such intelligence behind it. The challenge of directing something that’s supposed to be funny and it’s trying not to be funny. Play it straight and let the comedy come from there. Those are lessons I learned early on.”
Smart comedy requires empathy. You need to understand the human condition and relate to it before you can make fun of it intelligently. But that same empathy comes in handy in drama as well. And Stieber, with the plays he has written for the Young Heroes of Conscience Series, showed that he has loads of empathy.
Now in its fifth year, Fort Wayne Youtheater’s Young Heroes series has found Stieber in top form, not only writing the plays but directing as well. Stieber said the challenge of dramatizing the lives of the subjects – Ryan White, Ruby Bridges, Anne Frank and, this year, Harriett Tubman – tested his skills.
“The biggest challenge I find is covering the content, like the Ryan White story and Ruby Bridges,” he said. “Dealing with issues of homophobia with Ryan White and the AIDS virus which was so stigmatized in the gay community and with drug users. If we’re going to be authentic with the language, it would not be standard Youtheater fare.”
He said his first priority when dealing with sensitive issues is to create a safe environment for his young actors.
“So when you have a 10-year-old kid and you’re at the first rehearsal and someone is screaming the word ‘faggot’ at this little actor … I wrote it, but it still took my breath away the first time we did it. You just keep asking yourself how far is too far? What is too much? We’re working with kids. And often times the answer is with the kids themselves, how they handle it, how their parents supported it. It was something that was so overwhelming.”
He found himself asking the same questions with the Ruby Bridges story. Ruby Bridges was the six-year-old girl who, in 1960, became the first African-American student to attend a segregated school in Louisiana.
Stieber said rather than having child actors stray into the weeds of inappropriate language, he writes parts for adults.
“For Ruby Bridges, it would have been downright insulting not to use the N-word because it was so relevant. This little six-year-old girl was called every racial slur in the book when she was just walking to school every day. And yet I could not bring myself to have a kid do it, so that’s when the adults do the heavy lifting for me.”
Another emotionally-wrought subject Stieber has tackled is the I Will Wait: The Veteran’s Spouse Project. Co-written with his IPFW classmate Amy Ball, the Veteran’s Spouse Project looks at the lives of spouses, the women and men who stay behind during wartime deployments. Stieber said Ball had hopes of becoming an actress in New York when 9/11 happened. Her husband was in the military and was sent to fight in the ensuing wars, and their plans changed.
During a visit to Fort Wayne, she and Stieber decided to take her journals and make a play about the struggles of military couples. The show premiered in August of 2015.
“We interviewed over 60 people who were spouses of veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the current conflict,” he said. “We took that content and did a whole production out of it. And we donated all the proceeds from that weekend to Safe Haven, the homeless shelter for veterans here in town. And as it turns out we’re going to be doing it again in Alaska in May.”
Stieber has big plans for the future. In addition to the ever-present catalog of plays he has rolling around in his head, he is soon to be married to his “true-life partner” Jim Hulbert, whom Stieber credits with making everything he does possible. Well, Hulbert and the opportunities granted him in Fort Wayne.
“I would not have been able to do any of these productions had Arts United not opened the Parkview Arts Lab, the Black Box Theater. That’s where I do all these plays. It’s kind of like my white canvas. It’s great to have this access. A lot of playwrights in bigger cities don’t have these opportunities. I’ve been able to do plays with the orchestra, Youtheater, and Arts United. It’s something to be really proud of in this town.”