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The Light Is On

The rise of playwright Nate Eppler.

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Most everybody's asleep in Grover's Corners. There are a few lights on Shorty Hawkins has just watched the Albany train go by and at the livery stable somebody's setting up late and talking."

On a recent Monday night at the Memphis Pizza Cafe, sitting up late and talking Nate Eppler, actor, playwright, and rising star of Memphis' theater scene. The lights are on -- on Eppler, on the Breezeway Theatre Company, his newly formed independent, and on Shorty Hawkins, the peripheral character "down at the depot" in Thornton Wilder's Our Town and the main character in Eppler's latest creation, The Shorty Hawkins Play, which showed at TheatreWorks last weekend.

Things have been falling into place rapidly for Eppler since his success with Keeping Up With the Joneses, which was produced at the University of Memphis last season. The play, about a family of geniuses, is now being considered for production by several theater companies around the country. The light is on, the pressure too, and expectations are high, but nothing really seems to have changed for Eppler. "I just hope people like what I do," he says.

Keeping up with Eppler is a task. If he puts dialogue onto paper as fast as words come out of his mouth, it surely takes him no time to write a new play.

"I am a perfectionist, and I always feel that a play still needs something else, but it doesn't take me long to write one. It's in me. It's so natural to me," Eppler says.

It may take him no time to write, but it still takes about a year for an Eppler play to come together. In Eppler's terms, it's research, research, research until he gets a real grasp of the topic. Then, he thinks it over until he can't think it over anymore, and then, he writes -- two weeks, three weeks, two days, often without a break. He writes. And he writes good stuff, new stuff, unique stuff. Stuff people want to see in theater.

The idea for The Shorty Hawkins Play sprang out of Eppler's obsession with Shorty Hawkins. In Our Town, Hawkins isn't even a real character. The stage manager introduces him at the beginning of the play as the only person awake and at the end of the play as the only person not asleep. Eppler couldn't help wondering, What in the world was happening to Shorty Hawkins in between? The play he wrote is intense. It leaves the audience uneasy, almost embarrassed at the end.

"Up until I went to college, I thought I'd be an actor," Eppler says. An actor who grew up in Flint, Michigan, moved to Nashville with his family in 1990, went to high school in Franklin, Tennessee, and then, in the summer of 1994, explored his artistic talent at the Tennessee Governor's School for the Arts, which offers a summer program for "the gifted and talented -- for the best students in Tennessee."

Eppler, 25, inconspicuous, skinny, pale, with a gray hair here and there, slurping his Coke. Eppler, talking about theater, his element, flailing, pointing his fingers like Clint Eastwood points guns, leaving barely room for questions. "You know what I mean?" he asks reassuringly between thoughts or when he needs to breathe.

How did he end up in Memphis? "The university had late application deadlines, and it was cheap," Eppler says. He started at the University of Memphis in 1995, registered for Stephen Malin's playwriting class, found his calling, wrote Vote Jesus in his freshman year, and moved to New York City in 1997 to produce the play for New York University's Peregrine theater group. Peregrine bought Eppler a round-trip ticket: Memphis to New York and back.

Back? New York City and back? Why did he come back when he very easily could have transferred to Columbia University, which now wants to recruit him for its graduate program?

"That was the plan. I didn't really want to drop out of school in the first place, but New York was such a great opportunity, and I didn't want to transfer," Eppler says. And then, life in New York is expensive, the group he worked with on Vote Jesus didn't have any other projects lined up, and it was time to finish school.

Starting back in Memphis in 1999, Eppler took a playwriting class -- again and again and again. "I've probably taken this class four times or something like that. I definitely exceeded the allowed limit," Eppler says. He kept coming back to the same class every semester and working on Keeping Up With the Joneses, which went on to win four 2001-02 Ostranders in the college and university category and earned Eppler the Larry Riley Rising Star Award.

Playwriting is it for Eppler, no doubt. He loves dialogue. He loves to put words into other people's mouths. He loves to challenge himself.

"With playwriting, I found a way to express myself. It's different from acting. I found that nothing felt it fit to me as much as playwriting did," Eppler says.

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