Thursday, November 05, 2009
I Interview Playwrights Part 88: Larry Kunofsky
Hometown: Far Rockaway, NY
Current Town: New York City. All other East Coast Creative Types are in Brooklyn.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My latest play, "Social Work (a nightmare)" is a dark, DARK comedy about a social worker named Brenda who works at Bellevue, and this guy she meets on the Internet, Donovan, a romantic narcissist - they meet, hook up, and turn each other's lives into hell. They both kind of medicate themselves through this relationship (don't try this at home), and this changes how Brenda deals with her co-workers and patients, and it leads Donovan, who was never good at paying his bills on time to begin with, to go into debt, get evicted, go crazy, and enter the terrible system that Brenda knows all too well about from work. The play touches upon issues of race, class, sexuality, how love is a kind of madness, anti-depressant medication, and the health care system. I'm casting this play as we speak/write. I need to get back on the DIY self-producing-playwright horse.
Q: Can you describe the pilot you just wrote?
A: WILL WORK FOR FOOD is a half-hour comedy set at the Big Apple Crunchy Granola Food Collective. You know the big food co-op in Brooklyn? The famous one? The good one? Crunchy Granola is not that food co-op. Crunchy Granola is the F-Troop, or the Island of Lost Toys, of food co-ops. Magda and Dan, former lovers, share co-manager status at Crunchy Granola. She's the smart one, but he's the one who gets promoted to Manager by the trust fund kid who subsidizes the co-op. Comedy, romantic tension, left-wing smugness, junk food fetishes, Brooklyn-envy, and the spillage of quinoa ensue.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your Old Testament cycle? How many plays are in it? How many have you written so far? What prompted you to take on this ambitious project?
A: My ongoing work-in-progress is called THE GENESIS TAPESTRIES, which is a cycle of plays that riffs on the Book of Genesis. And I think "riff" is the operative word here, since I'm not trying to adapt the Bible. These are original plays based on my own (perhaps idiosyncratic) associations with the source material. These aren't religious plays, nor are they anti-religious plays. These are secular plays that deal with the present absence or the absent presence of God in our lives.
I've written three plays in the cycle so far. One was an Adam & Eve story set in the Great Depression. Another was a Cain & Abel play about a director who murders a playwright as they try to put on a play about the creation of the world. The other one was about Abraham's attempted sacrifice of Isaac, the themes of which bring up a lot of emotion for a lot of people. There will be at least ten plays altogether. I try to stagger out this project between every other play I work on, so I have no idea when I'll finish it. I don't mean to sound all August Wilson-y, but this project could be how I spend the rest of my life.
Obviously, I'm a little bit obsessed with the Old Testament. It's so trippy, dark, strange - oozing with Bad Love. The love that's in the Bible is often SUCH bad love. Really crazy love. Overwhelming, addictive, treacherous love. Everyone in Genesis seems to love either the wrong person, or love the right person in the wrong way. And no one feels that they themselves are loved enough or at all well. And it just seems so arbitrary! Here's a book about the creation of the world, and yet so much in the world is chaos. This one is loved because he's hairy, that one's loved because he's smooth. God loves you more than he loves me, so come over here a second while I introduce this rock to your face, and on and on like a Blues song. And the primary example of Bad Love in all of this is... God. Jealous love. Wrathful love. Mixed-message-sending love. Bi-Polar, bitchy, my-way-or-the-highway love. It's a little intense. The themes of the plays in this cycle are still taking root and growing, but this Bad Love business has a lot to do with it.
So, in answer to your question: No.
I guess I can't really talk a little about this project. I had to say a lot. Sorry.
Q: How many plays have you written?
A: Uhmmmm.... I don't want to tell you my Magic Number because it makes me look crazy.
I've only had a few of my plays produced, including, most recently, "A Guy Adrift In The Universe," and "What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends - an anti-social comedy." When people find out how many plays I've written and how few I've had produced, they kind of look at me funny. You know how in Annie Hall, when her fancy family looks at Woody Allen, and he can tell that they're seeing a Hasid with red beard and peyes and everything? It's kind of like that. Except it's not about being a Hasid. Anyway, I've written a lot of plays.
Part of the challenge of writing a new play for me has always been to write something that seems unstageable. Making the impossible possible is what excites me most about theatre. And perhaps that's why my play that requires dozens of live cats onstage, and my play for forty-five actors remain unproduced.
Q: Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: One day in fourth grade, I fell on my head after being tackled to the ground (by accident and without malice), and received a pretty serious concussion. I had to wait in the doctor's examining room in my underwear, which that day happened to be Green Lantern Underoos.
One major effect of the concussion was extreme disorientation. The other major effect was that I thought I was The Green Lantern.
I didn't realize I was in a doctor's office, I just knew that I wasn't at my grandmother's house, and assumed that someone was holding my grandmother hostage. I saw myself in the mirror, wearing my Green Lantern Underoos, and I thought, oh, this is my uniform. For I Am The Green Lantern. And I ran out into the waiting room, screaming "Bring my grandmother unto me! For I am The Green Lantern!" And then women and children screamed and ran away from the weird kid in the green underwear.
The amazing thing about believing that you're The Green Lantern while in the throes of a serious concussion is that you remember what it felt like to be The Green Lantern for the rest of your life. Vividly. As if it had been real. I remember looking in the mirror and seeing The Green Lantern. I can feel what it was like to wield my Power Ring, even though no such Power Ring existed. I WAS The Green Lantern!
Writing for the theatre, or performing in theatre, or even watching theatre when it's especially good, is a lot like being The Green Lantern. It is so not real, and yet the realest, most vivid experience you will ever have.
Q: You are a voracious reader and also a bit of a film geek. Who are your favorite filmmakers and novelists? Who are the underrated novelists and filmmakers I don't know but should know?
A: I'm on a Don Carpenter kick now, trying to read all his books now that I just found out who he is. Hard Rain Falling, just reissued, appears on the surface to be a crime novel, but on a deeper level resembles something that Camus would have written, had Camus been American and not been killed in a car crash. It deals with prison life and being marginalized, but the characters' triumph over despair is more energizing and oddly life-affirming for me than a thousand musicals. I found a rare Don Carpenter interview somewhere online in which he talks about decreasing his vocabulary in training for what was then his next novel. His intention was to leave his language unadorned and unmasked so that the reader would get the emotional meat completely raw. Me For That! I so admire writers like Don DeLillo and Lorrie Moore, whose every sentence has jewels in it, but this other sensibility speaks to what I try to do as a playwright - giving it to you naked.
My status as a major Film Geek is on the wane. You'll still find me at Film Forum, particularly for older, black & white films, but I spend a lot more time reading comic books. When I see movies these days, I think about how comics sound better in my head as I read them than movies do as I watch them. The colors suit my eyes in comics more than the colors in most films do. (It makes me want to leave more room in my plays, to allow the audience more opportunity to be the creators.) The Graphic Novel, as a form, is now where Film was in this country back in the Seventies. I think everybody should go back to calling them Comic Books, but that could just be my thing.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: The kind that breaks you into tiny pieces, but also gives you the hope and desire to pick up the pieces and put yourself back together again.
Some examples of this are "Everything Will Be Different" by Mark Schultz and "Now That's What I Call A Storm" by Ann Marie Healy and "Scarcity" by Lucy Thurber.
Also, plays that suck your brain out with a straw and then give you back enough of your brain to realize that your old brain wasn't working anyway, and that you need to fix your brain. The reigning champion and true master of this kind of work is Wallace Shawn. He should be a verb. As in, "OMG, that play just Wally-ed me!"
Oh! - Here's something else from my weird childhood: I used to have this recurring dream that my uncle chained up my house to his truck and drove away while the house kept breaking into bits. I was always in the house in the dream, really scared, but also laughing at the craziness of it. That's kind of what I look for when I see a play now.
Q: Are you doing Critical Mass? Can you explain what that is for those who may not know?
A: I'm planning on riding along this month, even though it'll probably be too cold for rational people. Critical Mass is a monthly ride/rally (not just in New York, but in lots of major cities) in which bike riders take over the city. In NYC, the ride always starts at Union Square and then takes a different route every time, encompassing the whole of Manhattan and ending up in another borough. I've been on the ride as we've commandeered the Westside Highway, the Brooklyn Bridge (seriously: the whole bridge - nothing but people on bikes!), and Central Park. It is SO MUCH FUN, and you see the city and think of its people in new ways. One of my favorite sensations is to look around after the ride has ended and see only its remnants, when there's a kind of twilight between the dwindling of bikes and the reemergence of regular traffic, as if it were all just a dream. And then I go home and take a long, hot bath.
Critical Mass is so connected with how I think of myself as a playwright and general-dude-around-town in New York City. I've been wondering how to write about it for years. I'll get back to you when I figure out how to get all those bikes onstage.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Beckett, when asked why he wrote for the theatre, once said: I Write For The Theatre Because I Hate The Theatre. I thought that was so Bad Ass and Hard Core when I first read it, but seriously: don't be like that. Only do this kind of work for the love of the work itself. Every positive drive that you have for working in the theatre that extends beyond yourself - love, passion, the desire to connect - is the engine. It's also the vehicle. It's also the path. It's also the journey. And it will be the destination.
And another thing, if you don't have a natural inclination towards humility, Fake It 'Til You Make It. Something will genuinely humble you along the way, anyway, so practice humility until you get it right.
Q: Any plugs?
A: I'm co-writing - with fellow playwright and dazzling bon vivant Marie Giorda - another TV pilot called "Dylan & Dylan" (think Freaks & Geeks meets Richard Linklater's Slacker). Marie and I are hoping to go out to LA and sell ourselves together. I want Marie to know that there's no one I'd rather write about Jews and Christians growing up in Austin in 1988 with than her. Also, Blair Singer has inspired me to pursue TV work, so kudos and/or blame goes to him.
The upcoming NY stage production I'm most excited about is of a new play called The All-American Genderf*ck Cabaret by Mariah MacCarthy. Look for this play. Seriously. It's going to matter to a lot of people. If you heard it from me first, thank me later.
The best script I've read recently is The Heart In Your Chest, by Kristen Palmer. This play is like an Edward Hopper painting from the future. Any really cool NY downtown theatre company would be so much cooler if they produced this play. Szymkowicz, my respect for you increased exponentially when you married her.
I have, in my day, co-founded two theatre companies, both of which fell apart. This makes me feel like one of those guys who likes being married, but keeps getting divorced. And so my deep and abiding respect goes out to playwrights who have helped run and maintain independent theatre companies devoted, on the one hand, to their own work, and on the other, to the work of a larger community. The two NY-based people/ companies that come to mind are August Schulenberg/Flux Theatre Ensemble and James Comtois/Nosedive Productions. So if I have any true powers of plug, let my plugs help fuel their fire.
A last, quick plug to anyone who has read this whole interview. I went on and on about stuff, right? I don't get interviewed a lot, so I got hyper-stimulated. To those who read it all: You're Terrific.