Neil LaBute said while growing up on a farm and doing hard work, going to the movies or the theater offered an escape to other people’s lives, and he’s since turned that escape into a career.
“It was fun not only to do that but to invent them as well,” he said.
Playwright and filmmaker LaBute, famous for writing and directing films such as “The Shape of Things,” “Death at a Funeral,” and the 2006 remake of “The Wicker Man,” made an appearance before a large crowd at the McLeod Theater Tuesday.
He shared recent short films “Sexting” and “After School Special,” read from his work and took questions from the audience. Wednesday he was also scheduled to conduct a master class with film and theater students.
Theater department chair James Kidd said LaBute was invited to the university as part of his department’s series of playwriting projects, initiated after the retirement of playwriting professor David Rush in spring 2011.
With a hiring freeze in effect at the time, Kidd said the department came up with alternatives to keep the playwriting program strong.
LaBute was a prime choice because of how contemporary he is and the fact that his plays are taught in the department, Kidd said.
His edgy style and focus on younger characters makes him an ideal playwright to teach and one who students can relate to, he said.
Assistant professor of cinema Michelle Torre, who moderated the Q&A with Kidd, said while she doesn’t teach any of LaBute’s films, she sees how the way he pushes issues to the extreme lends them to discussion.
She said his films tend to be provocative and do not encourage passive viewing.
Her first experience with LaBute came when she was a graduate student at the University of Southern California, and she saw an early screening of his film “In the Company of Men,” which, with its misogynistic characters, was hard to watch.
Dan Heise, a freshman from Columbia majoring in theater, attended Tuesday’s presentation and said as an actor it was interesting to get the writer’s perspective on theater.
He also said it was an encouraging experience.
“It really gives you hope and confidence that one day you could be like them and make it as well as they did,” he said.
Eric Sirota, a senior from Glen Ellyn majoring in sociology, said he too was inspired by LaBute, regardless of the fact that he doesn’t do much writing himself and is not a theater major.
Sirota said LaBute’s success showed that while some people look at the arts as just playing around, one can build a lucrative career in it.
Ironically, LaBute himself said doing what he does isn’t even like work.
“This feels like playing,” he said.
Anthony Pickens contributed to this story.