Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly playwright Steve Pacek on loss and the healing art of theater

After taking three years to grieve his partner's death, Steve Pacek wrote a play based on his experience. Nine years after its original run, [Untitled Project] #213 will return to Norristown’s Theatre Horizon this weekend.

Steve Pacek, the experimental/physical-theater artist behind "[Untitled Project] 213," a Philly Fringe favorite now at Theatre Horizon Wednesday May 22, 2019. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Steve Pacek, the experimental/physical-theater artist behind "[Untitled Project] 213," a Philly Fringe favorite now at Theatre Horizon Wednesday May 22, 2019. DAVID SWANSON / Staff PhotographerRead moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

On a lazy morning in December 2007, Steve Pacek called out his partner’s name.

But there was no answer. Thirty-year-old Jorge Maldonado had died suddenly of arrhythmia.

Three years of grief later, Pacek, a Philly actor and playwright, worked with close friends and colleagues to craft an experimental play based on his experience, premiering it at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2010. Nine years after its original run, [Untitled Project] #213 comes to Norristown’s Theatre Horizon on Friday through Sunday. It then travels to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, where it runs Aug. 4-17.

Pacek, 40, talked with The Inquirer about his journey to healing and his creative process. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What do you remember about the day your partner died?

I remember going into the shower, and before I went in, he gave me a big bear hug, which didn’t seem out of the ordinary. When I got out of the shower, the entire world had shifted. I could see down the long hall of our apartment, and I saw him lying on the ground. I called again and still no answer. ... I ran out into the hallway of the building just screaming, “Help! Help!” over and over again. I found my phone and called 911. There was a construction worker doing something on our floor, and he came in and did CPR. He talked me through everything until the ambulance got there. When I was in the ambulance, I heard the words code blue. I didn’t know what it meant at the time.

What made you want to bring this experience to the theater?

We — myself; Jen Rose, who is the choreographer; and Dan Kazemi, who is the composer — didn’t necessarily know we were going to end up writing a story about this. We were three very good friends, and we were living together at the time at 213 McKean St., so that’s where the number 213 in the title comes from. We were just a really creative household. We would create stuff as we were sitting on the couch watching TV. We would pick up instruments and write things.

Obviously, during that time I was still processing [the loss]. So when we started to create stuff, it just seemed like the right thing to do. We decided to lean into [the pain] and maybe find some kind of release or catharsis.

Was it difficult to revisit those emotions?

Yeah, definitely. At the time, it wasn’t dredging up; the feelings were ever-present. Once we started doing rehearsals with the cast, I remember having to share Jorge’s story because some of the cast knew Jorge and some didn’t. So the act of getting to tell people about who he was and how it affected me actually became helpful, but hard at the same time. Many, many, many tears were shed.

What were you trying to accomplish with [Untitled Project] #213?

To celebrate somebody who is no longer here. The reason we tell the story through music, through poetry, through dance is because there is not a lot of [dialog]. We found this one Marcel Marceau quote that says, “Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us all without words?" And that struck me.

If there’s not much dialogue, how do you portray grief?

There’s a section after the climactic moment of the piece, where the audience sees the CPR process through dance. We stylized that and choreographed it according to my memory. Then there’s a scene that we call the “Coat Dance.” I bring out a coat rack and put a hanger and hat on it. That’s the moment where I bring Jorge back to life near the end of the show. A part of what my character in the piece does is hold on to things that remind you of [the deceased]. I put on a piece of music and I bring the coat back to life, but I manipulate it so it looks like a separate person. Through listening to the music, my character is transported and able to go back to relive the moments. It’s a way [to dramatize how we] find comfort in somebody that you can’t talk to anymore.

Has the show been workshopped or altered in any way since its premiere?

Bits and pieces. The spaces that we’ve worked in have been different, so the play has to breathe in a new space. This production now at Theatre Horizon and then moving on to Edinburgh in August is also going to feature a new cast member.

What would Jorge say about the play?

Jorge would love that I made a show about him. I feel like he has been a part of the process. We would have these long conversations, and one of the frequent topics was synchronicity. We always felt that those little signals from the universe help us feel like we’re on the right track.

I still feel like that’s how we communicate. Nonverbal, nonphysical, but through little messages that the universe drops along the way.


[Untitled Project] #213

May 31-June 2 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown. Sold out. Information: 610-283-2230,