Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 109: Kelly Younger

Kelly Younger

Hometown: Los Angeles, CA

Current Town: Los Angeles, CA

Q:  You adapted a novel for the stage.  Can you tell me about the project and what that was like?  What are the special challenges associated with adaptation?   

A:  Irish Repertory Theatre in NY commissioned me to adapt the novel Banished Children of Eve by Peter Quinn.  It's a massive Civil War novel set in the Lower East Side of NY where Irish-American and African-American tensions erupted in the bloody Draft Riots.  Like most historical novels, there are loads of characters (some fictional and some real), multiple locations, and lengthy-backstories.  To be honest, when I was flying out for the meeting and reading it on the plane, I kept thinking, "There's just no way I can adapt this!  It's a great novel but I can’t pinpoint a single dramatic line to connect all the different stories."  So about a half-hour before my meeting I was having a coffee near the theatre and starting to panic about what I was going to tell them.  Then it hit me. There are two characters -- an Irish man and an African-American woman -- who are both actors in a shoddy production of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  He is a minstrel actor and she is a mulatto actress who lightens her skin with stage make-up.  In other words, he plays in black face and she plays in white face.  They are lovers.  That's when I figured out it is essentially a Romeo and Juliet story with two warring families (in this case, newly arrived Irish and newly emancipated African-Americans) all living on top of one another in the Bowery district and violently competing for the bottom rung on the social ladder.  I decided to set the play in the theatre where these actors perform and live.  
And of course while all hell is breaking loose on the streets of NY, they need to decide who they really are once the make-up comes off.  Well, Irish Rep loved the idea and set me to work immediately.  

As far as special challenges go, the one that I found most difficult was balancing what was faithful to the novel and what was necessary for the play.  Audiences who are familiar with the book will recognize a scene here and there, but I had to take characters who never once cross paths in the novel and put them on stage together, and even in complicated relationships with one another.  So there was a certain amount of guilt.  I kept hearing a little voice saying, “But that’s not what happens in the book!”  Luckily, the novelist Peter Quinn has been enormously encouraging and generous.  In fact, he came to the workshop reading last summer, pulled me aside and said, "A novel can be very forgiving.  You can hide your mistakes.  But in a play, you can't hide.  These characters are now yours as well as mine, so do whatever you need to make it a play."  Talk about generous.  It also helped that we had incredibly talented actors like Tracie Thoms, David Wilson Barnes, Fred Applegate and Michelle Hurst, as well as an incredibly smart dramaturg in Kara Manning.  Ciaran O’Reilly, who just directed “Emperor Jones,” will direct the production later this fall.  He’s been an amazing guide since the very beginning of the commission.         

Q:  Can you tell me about Rorschach?  

A:   A little while back there was an article in the LA Times about the Rorschach inkblot test.  What caught my eye was the beautiful color plate of one of the inkblots.  And below it was this photograph of a guy from the 1920s named Hermann Rorschach.  It never occurred to me that there was an actual guy named Rorschach (other than Watchmen comics, ha!).  I asked myself, who is this guy who one day decided to paint some smudges and ask someone what they thought they saw in it?  I started to do a little research.  Turns out Hermann Rorschach was this brilliant Swiss psychologist who worked with schizophrenics.  When he was a kid, he loved playing this old parlor game called klecks where you would look at inkblots and talk about what you saw.  He decided to play it with his patients, and based on his experiences, wrote his entire dissertation on the experiment.  I started to nerd out on this stuff, and found a beat-up old copy of his book on eBay.  Long story short, Rorschach was sure this book would be a major contribution to the field of psychology, but instead, he ended up in the laughing stock.  No one took him or his test seriously, and before he could even defend himself, he died suddenly.  When I learned this fact, I felt totally heartbroken.  Here was a young guy who desperately wanted to be taken seriously as a scientist, but instead, was really an artist.  He just didn’t know it.  So I started writing about a character from the present who is obsessed with Rorschach from the past.  It’s a six-character play with both time-periods on stage at the same time.  It’s been described so far as funny, romantic, and moving, and even a little in the style of a Tom Stoppard play.  We just had a fancy backers reading of Rorschach here in LA with Jason Ritter in the lead.  There’s an amazing director attached (Cameron Watson) and my manager is handling all the details, so hopefully we’ll have an announcement soon. 

Q:  What else are you working on now? 

A:   New Repertory Theatre in Boston is developing my full-length play Tender.  They contacted me last fall to be part of their New Voices series and asked if I had a new play for them.  I said, “Sure.”  Then realized I had to write a new play in about four weeks!  After writing Banished Children of Eve (eight characters) and Rorschach (six) I really wanted to write a drama for a small cast in a single set that took place only in the present.  So, Tender is about a working mom realtor and her stay-at-home husband who are on the verge of foreclosure.  They’ve got to reappraise their assets, including her aging truck driver father and his new motorhome.  He’s spent his life driving what’s called a “yard goat” (a semi that moves trailers back and forth in the same warehouse yard, never leaving or going out on the open road).  Now that he’s too old to work, he blows his savings on a motorhome and wants to drive across country.  But when his daughter and son-in-law have to take away his keys, the shit hits the fan and they’ve got to learn that love is not some kind of loan that can be repaid.  I think it’s a play about the debt we owe our parents, the interest we charge our children, and the price of forgiveness.  I’m really interested in the idea of foreclosure, not just on something like a house or a car, but on a person, especially a family member.  I’m also being “groomed” (which makes me sound like a poodle) for television by CAA and going on meetings for some one-hour tv pilots I’ve written.  Even though I was born and raised in Los Angeles, “the industry” is a whole other world.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.  

A:   I am a third generation Los Angelino.  In fact, I have a great great aunt who was married to a Sepulveda.  I’m also a distant relative of the outlaw Younger Brothers who rode with their cousins Frank and Jessie James.  This ancestry only means I sometimes feel entitled to run red lights on Sepulveda Boulevard, or on occasion, I have the urge to rob a bank.  Let me assure I have done neither.  I do, however, have a deep interest in Los Angeles history, the myth of California and the American West, etc.  My family has always been blue collar Irish-Catholic.  My dad is a truck driver and, unlike the character in my new play, really a tender guy.  He has a speech impediment.  I never knew this until grade school when I started going to friends’ houses and hearing their dads talk.  I just thought all dads spoke like mine.  Like most Irish homes, language was very important.  Often witty and lyrical, also sarcastic and dangerous, but important nonetheless.  It’s just that in my home, language was also very difficult.  Hard to get out.  My dad literally had to choose certain words over others because some would come out, others would not, especially when they were most needed.  I think growing up in this environment taught me three things.   First, to choose words carefully because they are these physical things that sometimes get stuck in your throat.  It also taught me to listen.  I’d have to wait and hear what word was struggling to get out.  Finally, it taught me empathy.  For me, there’s nothing harder than watching someone trying to say a word, unable to get it out, then seeing them choose a different word that is not actually what they wanted to say.  I guess that’s why I tend to write characters who struggle to say what they mean with the words they want to use.  But I also hope they show enormous courage and perseverance to do so. 

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?  

A:   Well, clearly language based plays.  I lived and studied in Dublin for about three years, so my education is rooted in writers like Synge and O’Casey and Wilde (as well as the local characters I met in pubs).  I can appreciate "physical theatre" and really progressive performance art and mixed media, etc. but really I’m a Friel, Miller, Wilder, Kushner, Guare kind of guy.  I want good story-telling.  I want to be entertained and moved and provoked to think and well as feel.  Wit by Margaret Edson is a beautiful play.  I’d love to have dinner with Lynn Nottage.  I think Rajiv Joseph is about the coolest guy I know, and Mike Vukadinovich is going to be a household name soon.  And I’m probably most jealous of having not written Three Days of Rain by Richard Greenberg.  I have moments when I wish I could write like Martin McDonagh, Sarah Kane, or Matt Pelfrey, but truth be told, if I had a time-machine I’d just go back and get drunk with Eugene O’Neill.     

Q:  What shows or theaters would you suggest I check out if I came to LA tomorrow?   

A:  As a playwright, I would suggest getting to know the LA branch of E.S.T. (I’m in their playwrights unit), the Road Theatre, the Echo Theatre, Theatre Tribe, and the Blank Theatre.  They’re all very supportive of new work.  I personally love seeing plays at the Furious Theatre and the Black Dahlia.  Both small venues, but always thrilling, smart and ambitious.  There’s also high quality work at larger stages like the Geffen, the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, A Noise Within, and the Theatre at Boston Court.  I’m most proud, however, of having started the LA Stage Alliance Ovation Fellows program to get students and recent alumni connected to LA performing arts (www.lastageblog.com/ovation-fellows).  So if you’ve just graduated and are moving to LA, consider applying for a fellowship.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?   

A:  Don’t do talk-backs after a staged reading. The director wants a Q&A after a performance? That’s different because the play has been through rehearsals, rewrites, and is now in production. (Even then, try to avoid. Eric Bogosian says "Q&As are so popular in the regional theatres [because] everyone wants to know what the play is 'about.' It's a great way of avoiding what a play is.") But seriously, a talk-back after a reading? Refuse. Artistic Directors and Literary Managers will try and convince you it is good for the playwright, but really, they are trying to appease their audiences. Nothing can be more damaging to a new play (or an emerging playwright) than a well-meaning stranger offering ways to fix your work. A play is not written by committee. Also, do not let a director talk you into blocking a staged reading. Keep the actors seated. If they get up and move around, they become too self-conscious and the reading becomes about the acting and directing (not the play). It also raises audiences’ expectations in an unnecessary way. So, have the reading, keep the actors on their asses, then pour the wine.

Q:  Plugs please:  

A:  If you’re in Boston on March 1, New Repertory Theatre will produce the first staged reading of Tender.  Irish Repertory Theatre will produce Banished Children of Eve off-Broadway this Fall, but the exact dates are not being announced yet.  And I have some new publications, so visit www.KellyYounger.com.


EM Lewis said...

Excellent interview of a Los Angeles playwright whose work I've really enjoyed. Thank you for another good one, Adam! This is a really nice project you've undertaken, here...


Ian Thal said...

I'm going to have to disagree with not having a talk-back after a reading. I've found them very helpful when I go back to revise. That said, I think that it helps to have enough confidence to just listen, nod and smile at whatever is said, and trust oneself to be able to determine which suggestions are worthy of considering and which are best ignored.

On the otherhand, if one tends to get defensive in the face of criticism or feels the need to please everyone no matter how ridiculous they can be, then a talk-back is best avoided.

It's really about the temperament of the playwright.

Anonymous said...

This is a great interview (as they all are Adam.) Kelly provides some interesting insight into some of his projects.

Re: post reading talk backs

It is a can I no longer want opened. You tend to hear so much conflicting feedback and often from people who you do not know or trust. You are often best left to your own instincts. I've had discussions go well and go awry and now believe it's not worth the risk as I find myself in my head wondering "Will this talkback go well?" When I should be focused on the reading instead.

If a discussion is insisted upon (and I think this is something I remember Kelly once saying) then let it be through organic conversation after a reading and not an organized open forum where people get their own chance to speak out in the crowd. Speak to people one-on-one after a reading and listen to their thoughts if you really want post-reading feedback.

-Brian Polak

Dawn said...

Once again I'm excited to have discovered a new playwright through your blog and one whose work I can see here in L.A.

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