Gay Playwright Adam Bock on his new PCS show “A Small Fire”

adam bock
By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

This Friday (Feb. 28) marks the opening of gay playwright Adam Bock’s fourth play at Portland Center Stage, “A Small Fire.” “Fire” concerns a strong woman who is stricken by a mysterious illness, which begins to rob her of her senses.

The play has earned rave reviews since opening in New York, and continues Bock’s exploration of the theme of grief. “I’ve lived through people dying,” Bock said, when talking to us about the play. “I tend to work through things in my writing.”

Bock says the experience of watching his dad, a strong figure, suffer a stroke, impacted him. “It changed the dynamic in the family. When I observed my parents, I observed one person get weaker and another get stronger. One person got quieter, and there was room for another person to become louder.”

In “A Small Fire,” it’s Emily Bridges, the owner of a construction firm, who is weakened and quieted by her infirmities, and her husband John, a compassionate, care taking type who grows in her wake. The unusual gender dynamics dramatized in the play have received much comment, but Bock believes that is just a sign of how limited our cultural ideas of men in women are.

“When I started the play, I knew I wanted to write about a woman,” Bock said. “I knew I wanted her to be strong, so I had ideas like, ‘She’ll be the head of an art history department,’ and it occurred to me how sexist it was to limit her options to that. Sexism like that, it just comes to us.”

Those limitations don’t reflect our realities, however, Bock observed. “I’ve had so many women come up to me after seeing the play and say, ‘I’m the head of a construction firm,’ or ‘My friend is the head of a construction firm, and she’s just like Emily,'” Bock said. “There are so many people we don’t show on stage.”

Bock suspects his experience as a gay man in our culture may assist him in broadening the spectrum of characters he depicts.

When asked how his sexuality influenced his work, he said, “I know what it is to be an outsider, or someone for whom the ‘normal’ story doesn’t hold true. It’s made me think about roles, and how they’re supposed to be, critically. I’ve seen it as part of my work to ‘shift the camera,’ or ‘shift the focus.’ I try to move the camera a little, and put something in the center that’s not normally in the center.

“When I did my play ‘The Receptionist,’ everyone said the play should be about the boss, but I didn’t want it to be about the boss. I wanted it to be about the person who it’s not normally about.”

Bock said he’s excited to be living through such a revolutionary time in LGBTQ history. “I think it’s great that we’re becoming more visible and we’re getting ourselves more out there,” he said.

He believes his work has in its own way chronicled the times, referring to the lesbian wedding in his 1999 play “Swimming in the Shallows,” and his play “Drunken City,” which depicts three brides to be in its main plot, while, in his words, “a whole marriage” between two men plays out in the background.

Bock welcomes what he sees as the growing diversity and plurality of voices that are emerging in our culture. “I was always surprised that plays could be all men, or all straight, or all white and purport to show the world,” he said.

That said, he recognizes the limits of his own perspective. When asked about addressing burgeoning transgender visibility in the LGBTQ community, he said, “It’s tricky, because it’s not my story. I have friends who are transgender, but I’m not. I try to stay conscious in my writing that I want to say what’s true, and not just make stuff up about people.”

Bock says it’s director Rose Riordan, whom he met in the Bay Area, that introduced him to Portland Center Stage. He’s had plays at the JAW festival, shows that have been brought from other cities, like “A Small Fire,” and is currently working on his first play commissioned by the theater itself.

Bock said he has nothing but praise for the theater and the Rose City, citing his affection Powell’s, our local restaurants, and even the local clothing shops. “I put off buying clothes in New York so I can buy them there,” he said.

“I love Portland. New York can be so hard. When you show work there, it’s like you’re always auditioning. In Portland, it’s like they’re already on your side.”

“A Small Fire” by Adam Bock at Portland Center Stage through March 23.

Photo courtesy