By Vanessa Hunt
With credits to his name in the categories of playwright, screenwriter, director, and actor, Neil LaBute has filled his career with artistic experiences across the spectrum. LaBute was born on March 19, 1963 in Detroit, Michigan, to Richard and Marian LaBute, a long-haul truck driver and a hospital receptionist, respectively. He grew up in Spokane, Washington, where he acted in a couple of his high school theatre productions, and then he eventually found his way to Provo, Utah, where he attended Brigham Young University, studying theatre. It was here that he met and formed a friendship with fellow student and now Hollywood actor, Aaron Eckhart. As a student, LaBute continually pushed the envelope with the work he wrote and produced, causing some of his productions to be shut down. The themes of his work dealt with issues that attacked subjects people didn’t necessarily want to talk about, especially at a school known for its conservative nature. Despite the controversy LaBute encountered while focusing on his undergraduate studies, he was ultimately named one of the BYU Theatre Department’s most promising undergraduate playwrights.
Turning to his graduate studies, LaBute attended the University of Kansas and then graduated with a master of fine arts degree in dramatic writing from New York University. He furthered his education at the Royal Court Theatre in London as a recipient of a literary fellowship.
Never one to shy away from themes that cause his audiences to not only rethink the world around them, but also face controversial issues such as homosexuality, abuse, sex, murder, and suicide, LaBute has had the nickname of “Mr. Nasty” bestowed upon him by some audience members (Emma Harwood, “Playwright Neil LaBute in Profile,” www.theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/articles/neil-labute-playwright-in-profile/). He takes the title in stride, saying that it’s part of his makeup to ruin a perfectly good day for people, at least regarding his stories (Pat Jordan, “Neil LaBute Has a Thing about Beauty,” www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/magazine/29LaBute-t.html).
After receiving his graduate degree, LaBute turned to film. His first major cinematic piece was released in 1997 and titled In the Company of Men. He continued his theme of creating art that was controversial as this film followed two businessmen who plotted to romance and emotionally destroy a deaf woman. LaBute’s college friend, Eckhart, starred in the film, playing one of the cruel businessmen. The film won the Sundance Filmmaker’s trophy at the Sundance Film Festival that year, and LaBute also won an award for his screenplay. In addition, the film was awarded The New York Critics’ Circle Award for Best First Feature.
LaBute’s next film was Your Friends & Neighbors, released in 1998. Much like his earlier work, this film was met with conflicting reviews. The next year, LaBute returned to playwriting with a run of his show Bash: Latter-Day Plays, which was a set of three short plays. The show ran off-Broadway at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre. One of the plays in the set, Medea Redux, contributed to LaBute being disfellowshipped from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He later formally left the church (Ryan Gilbey, “Neil LaBute: ‘Better for Me Not To Be a Mormon Than a Bad Mormon,” www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/may/13/neil-labute-mormon-bash-latterday-plays).
Those who have worked closely with LaBute in the theatre describe him as smart, funny, and generous, but his personal life is never a topic of conversation. Those who know him best refer to him as elusive and mysterious. He enjoys talking about his work, but he is not as open to talking about himself.
Combining his work in the theatre and film industries, LaBute wrote and directed the play The Shape of Things. It debuted in London, starring Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz. After its run on the stage, he adapted the play into a film in 2003, keeping the same cast he had used on the stage and staying on as director. Subverting the balance of power in the theatre is something LaBute is constantly looking to do, mainly by adding different types of experimentation into his work to see how the audience will react. One such means came about during the run of The Shape of Things as he would play loud music between scene changes so that audience members could not talk to each other during that time. A technician was brought in to make sure the volume of the music was within health and safety standards but still loud enough to be uncomfortable for the audience. Also during this run, LaBute did away with the curtain call at the end of the show to take the feeling of “everything is really okay” away from the audience (Gilbey).
Between adapting The Shape of Things from the stage to the big screen, LaBute presented a response to the September 11 attacks in the form of a play called The Mercy Seat. The play focused on a man who was working at the Twin Towers when they fell but was not at the office that day. The LaBute spin on this situation was that the man was away from the office because he was with his mistress. The man then contemplates starting a new life with his mistress and allowing his family to believe that he was killed in the attacks. Despite the controversial subject matter, the play was a critical success.
In 2010, the Chicago Shakespeare Festival presented a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. For this production, LaBute came on board to write a new Induction and new scenes for the Shakespearean classic. His additions to the play added an element of meta-theatre, and he even went so far as to add in a lesbian romance subplot.
LaBute’s most recent work, How To Fight Loneliness, was staged in 2016 for a reading as part of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s New American Playwrights Project. At the beginning of their 2016 season, the artistic directors for the Utah Shakespeare Festival announced that How To Fight Loneliness would be presented as a full production world premiere during their 2017 season.
Neil LaBute’s film credits also include Tumble, Possession, Nurse Betty, The Wicker Man, Lakeview Terrace, Death at a Funeral, Stars in Shorts, Some Velvet Morning, and Dirty Weekend. In the realm of theatre, his credits include The Distance from Here, The Mercy Seat, Autobahn, Fat Pig, This is How it Goes, Reasons to be Pretty, Some White Chick, Lovely Head & Other Plays, Money Shot, and The Way We Get By.
LaBute’s film, theatre, and television credits are not limited to those listed, and he continues to create, bringing his thought-provoking, controversial, and intellectual work to audiences around the world. When asked about his subject matter, LaBute says, “I write things on a page I don’t want to have to deal with in life” (Jordan). LaBute has two children and lives in New York City.