Mar 31, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 136: Kathryn Walat
Hometown: A small town in Massachusetts
Current Town: New York
Q: Tell me about this opera of Paul's Case you're adapting.
A: “Paul’s Case” is a short story by Willa Cather, about a high school boy in 1906 Pittsburgh, whose father pulls him out of school when he spends too much time hanging around the opera house, and makes him get a job at a financial office. One day Paul steals all the money, takes the night train to New York, and blows it all on a weekend at the Waldorf Astoria—and then jumps in front of a train. It’s a great story, perfect for opera. I’m co-writing the libretto with composer Gregory Spears, who is also a good friend, so it’s fun that the collaboration grew out of that friendship and it helps that we know each other’s work well. And opera is a very cool medium: more poetic and spare than playwriting, but with similar questions of characters development and dramatic structure.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I’ve recently finished a first draft of a new play entitled GREEDY, set in New York during the heat of last summer, partly about the fall-out of the financial crisis. It deals with greed and desire and loss both in personal ways, for the four characters, but also in terms of our nation. One of the characters looks like Barak Obama; there’s also bits of Strindberg’s MISS JULIE mixed in. And there’s a band—I think—I haven’t exactly figured out how that fits in, but even before working on the opera, I’ve been very interested in music and how it works with non-musical theater. My previous play CREATION also deals with music, but more in terms of structure and rhythm and theme, rather than being written into the script or production.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was young, maybe 5 or 6 (so young I barely remember it), my family and I were visiting a farm, and we were part of a group of people being shown around the dairy barn. The farmer giving the tour asked if anyone wanted to try milking a cow, and everyone was surprised when I immediately raised my hand—no one else in the group did—and I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but I was like: of course I want to try this. I was so small that I wasn’t really being able to do it (you actually have to squeeze and pull pretty vigorously to get the milk to come), but my parents say that it was then that they knew I was going to be an adventurous child. I think as a writer, or with starting a new play, you don’t ever really know what you’re getting yourself into, but in a sort of primal way, you just want to do it.
Q: What is the purpose of theater?
A: I don’t know that it has to have a purpose. It’s art—it’s entertainment. I do like how theater is fantasy and reality at the same time; it can make people feel and think and connect with other people. For playwrights in particular, I think it’s also an intense way of sharing part of your self with an audience.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Right now I’m excited about seeing plays that use theatricality and structure in interesting ways. That’s something that always jazzes me as I write too. And it also sets playwriting apart from, say, writing for television or film, where the medium has more prescribed forms. Something that has been fun about working on the opera is that I don’t really know what I’m doing, so I’m exploring new theatrical possibilities, seeing what you can do once you add music. But at core, I’m most interested in plays that I can connect to on an emotional level—usually through the characters. To me, it’s about people, both theater and making theater.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Write a lot. See and read a lot of plays. And meet a lot of people, because it will feed you artistically, and so that you can collaborate with them. Also, listen to your instincts, in terms of your plays and your career; take the time to know yourself as an artist and person, and that will make the work better and getting there more interesting.