Jun 25, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 17: Ken Urban
Hometown: New Jersey, The Garden State
Current Town: Cambridge, MA and New York
Q: Tell me a little about your SPF show that's coming up.
A: THE HAPPY SAD is about a group of seven people in an east coast city with subways and irony, all trying to figure out how to make relationships work in a world of too many options. The play starts with a straight couple breaking up and another couple, a gay couple, negotiating the monogamy question. Since cities are like villages, we see how their lives of these different people end up connecting. And sometimes when things get difficult, they break out into song. It’s my ode to bisexuals. Not really. Actually, the play has a really clear origin. I was on Amtrak heading back to Boston from New York, right before Thanksgiving in 2007, and I ran into a friend. We sat and talked for a long time. She told me how a guy she was dating broke up with her that weekend, but she was also seeing someone else. Then the next day another friend told me how he and his boyfriend were thinking of “opening” things up. And I kept thinking: wow, there are so many options and possibilities now. We aren’t confined in the way our parents were – get married, buy a house, have kids, get old, die. We can try something else. But having lots of options doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness. I wanted to write about that excitement and confusion. I like to give myself rules when I write. Keeps me focused. For this play, I had two: one, to write about the subject matter with utter honestly, even when it cut very close to home; and two, the characters would sing, but that the play was in no way a musical (i.e. the songs did not advance the plot in the way they do in a musicals). I am excited for the SPF workshop. Trip Cullman is directing and we have a great cast, which includes many of my favorite actors. I’m touched they are giving up their July to do the show and to do a pretty revealing play with two weeks of rehearsal. There is a fair amount of nudity in this show and everyone is so brave about it.
Q: Who wrote the songs?
A: My band wrote all the songs in the show. We’re called The Avon Barksdale -- we all love the TV show The Wire. We’ve been playing together for over a year and writing lots of songs. We have a rehearsal space up here where we write and record. For the songs in HAPPY SAD, I wrote the lyrics and melodies, basic chord structures sometimes, and then brought them to the rest of the band. They were really game, so we dove in and made some indie rock. Our recordings of the songs will be used in the production. Right now, they are being mastered and soon will be available on iTunes and Amazon, so people can get their hands on them.
Q: Now, the last time I talked to you, you were trying to figure out what to do next year. Do you know where you're living and what you're doing now? Can you talk about what decisions you had to make, or not?
A: I will be living in Cambridge, MA, still teaching at Harvard, and going back and forth to New York, where I am working on a couple of projects. So everything is the same as it has been the past 3 years. It was a strange year. I thought I wanted certain things and then I got them and realized that I didn't want those things. There was something else I thought I wanted and then didn’t get, then I realized I didn't actually want it all that much either. Is that vague enough? Sorry to be cryptic. It's a weird thing to talk about -- knowing you are beyond certain things, that you are have reached a certain place in your career and that those things are not really what you want anymore, or even what you need. There is no road map for being a playwright so we all sort of pretend we know what we are doing. I do know that there is no grad school in my future. I will never be a master of fine arts, but I’m already a doctor, so that’s OK.
Q: You have your own theater company, do you not? How do you manage to juggle a theater company, your writing and a full time job teaching?
A: Um, I don’t anymore. I am no longer the AD of The Committee, the company in New York I founded. I handed the company over to director Dylan McCullough and he is making plans for the company’s next stage. I am excited to see what he does. I found running a company exciting but draining, especially now that I live in Cambridge. It feels good to spend most of my time writing and teaching, and not waking up at 2am anymore, thinking, “Oh crap, I forgot to revise that mission statement or finish that budget or whatever.” I look back at what we did with The Committee, and still I’m amazed, how the hell did we do that? Still, not much has changed. I’m basically a workaholic. I work all the time.
Q; What kind of theater excites you?
A: I’m pretty old-fashioned actually. I like interesting stories told in unfamiliar ways. I want to be moved viscerally and intellectually. I do not like safety or irony that’s too cool for school. There are so many fantastic writers writing for the theatre right now. It is an exciting time to be an American playwright. We’re all poor as fuck but still, it’s great.
Q: I was thinking about questions to ask you and I realized I don't really know how to describe your work. Are there ways your plays have been described that you liked and would like to share? Or even better, how would you describe it?
A; Yikes. I know I should have a good answer for this one and I don’t. If I had to say what all my plays share, it’s that my characters all have a need to understand the world. In THE HAPPY SAD, the characters want to understand their desires. In SENSE OF AN ENDING, the journalist Charles wants to understand what happened in Rwanda during the genocide. But in both cases, it’s not a facile knowledge, but a knowledge that’s felt on the body. While in terms of subject matter and style, my plays can seem, at first glance, wildly different, what they share is that need. They fail, but they keep trying. Maybe true understanding is an impossibility. An actor once said to me that she could always tell a Ken Urban play because they have a specific sound. That pleased me to no end. I work hard to sound like no one else. In a strange way, I think the trajectory of my writing is akin to the career of some bands I like. Animal Collective’s early records are so difficult and interesting, and while the new one is ostensibly a pop album, those songs have a weirdness to them that carries over from the early stuff. My early plays are so obtuse and weird, and even though now I want to connect more to a larger audience, the new work carries the traces of those earlier experiments.
Q: What sort of advice do you have for playwrights starting out or even other kinds of playwrights?
A: Write a lot. See lots of plays. Meet lots of directors and actors. Develop a really strong bullshit detector. Figure out whose comments to trust and whose not to trust. Get a thick skin because you will need it. Don’t go into debt to get an MFA. Have lots of safe sex. Never forget why you love doing it. Don’t listen to playwrights who give advice.
Q: May I have a link please for those who want to go see your show?
A: http://www.spfnyc.com/festival/show.cfm?id=79 http://www.kenurban.org
Q: Any other upcoming shows?
A: I have a reading of SENSE OF AN ENDING at Williamstown this summer to celebrate the play winning the 2008 L. Arnold Weissberger Prize, then in November, my play NIBBLER is getting a production at Theatre of NOTE in Los Angeles. NIBBLER is my ode to growing up in South Jersey. That production will feature original music from Xiu Xiu and The Avon Barksdale. Mark Seldis is directing that. We’ve worked together before and I am excited to start rehearsals in August.