Apr 19, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 149: Kathleen Warnock
Current Town: NYC
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a new full-length, called “Outlook.” It’s been given a reading by TOSOS, and is a semi-finalist for a couple of developmental programs. I also just wrote a short called “Staying Put” last weekend. I think it’s because so many people from high school have started friending me on Facebook. I am also working on about a million other things, because I’m a Gemini, and I am never happy unless I have about six things in various stages of completion.
Q: Tell me about your series at KGB.
A: Drunken! Careening! Writers! is held the third Thursday of every month; I’ve been doing it since 2004. I used to work at a literary arts center (the Writer’s Voice at the West Side Y) where I curated a lot of readings, and I developed my own set of criteria for what makes a good reading (five poets is too many!). Later, I asked Denis Woychuk, who owns KGB (and whom I knew from Writer’s Voice) if he’d give me a night. He said he would, and I started calling up writers, and mixing and matching genres and styles, and having fun doing it. The basic criteria is: 1) good writers; who 2) read their work well; and 3) something in it makes people laugh (nervous laughter counts). And 15 minutes tops. I also invite a lot of playwrights to read (as you know!) We’ve been called “Least Boring Reading Series” by Murph’s Bar Guide and “Essential New York” by TimeOut New York.
Q: Tell me about en avant. How did it come about?
A: Tina Howe has been a longtime friend and mentor, and she’s a professor at Hunter College, where I studied with her. Tina’s workshop, which is part of the MA curriculum (and as of this fall, part of the MFA Program in Playwriting), attracts a mix of students that often includes working artists (sometimes actors, directors or musicians) who have decided they’d like to learn more about playwriting, or get a masters, or both. At a certain point, several of us decided to form a group dedicated to getting our work produced. I started an online bulletin board, and as we collected the opps, I gave them a basic form (dividing them into categories from very short plays to full-lengths, development opportunities, staged readings, residencies, etc.) In addition, Tina helped us get some funding and space at Hunter to self-produce three nights of one-act plays under the En Avant Playwrights aegis. She even let us produce one of her short plays for the first time in New York City.
We agreed that group members could use the En Avant name for a project, and a couple of us have gone on to produce longer work with it. The group also included Ed Valentine, who’s gone on to NYU, become a Dramatists Guild Fellow, Nickelodeon Fellow, and write for The Fairly Oddparents, as well as producing and having a lot of his theatrical work produced (my last acting credit is in Ed’s “Women Behind the Bush”); and Chance Muehleck, who along with Melanie Armer, founded LIVE Theater and its experimental wing, The Nerve Tank (Bauhaus the Bauhas). The other playwrights are David Marrero, who’s produced some of his work off-off; Tom Dillehay, who’s working and writing in Memphis these days; Dan Shore, who writes operas and is a professor at Xavier University in New Orleans; and Maz Troppe, who came out of the downtown queer theater scene in the ‘80s, left behind a career in banking, and now teaches at a public school for the arts in New York City.
United Stages publishes a collection of the Best of En Avant Playwrights, and I still keep up the bulletin board. I call it my OCD hobby. Since its founding in 2003, it’s had over 230,000 visits and over a million page views. My reasoning toward keeping it up is that if I have to post opps and maintain the board, then I will know what venues are suitable for my work.
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 about 12, my father’s job took us away from Philadelphia, where I’d grown up, and where most of our relatives were. We moved to Montgomery, Alabama then to Columbia, South Carolina, and when my dad announced we had one more move in us, and it would be before or during my senior year in high school, I decided I didn’t want to start all over again, because frankly, I’d had a terrible time with each move, and wasn’t really socialized to be a teenager at all (I’d gone to a small, all-girl Catholic school in Philly, and didn’t really have any survival skills for a large public school). So I told my parents that I’d rather skip a year and finish before we left. This was in South Carolina, where you only needed 18 credits to graduate and they let the students drive the school buses. So it was remarkably easy to skip a year; I’d already been pushed up one after Montessori. My Dad agreed to let me go to summer school, and drove me across town every morning at 7am to the only school that offered the courses I needed. I passed the courses, made it through senior year, and graduated at 15. My parents told me that was too young to go away to college, so I had to pick a school in Baltimore, where Dad’s last move had taken the family. I chose UMBC because they offered Ancient Greek, which I’d always wanted to study. (And I did study it, all four years).
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Well, the short answer is that I’d have more theaters do my work; the longer answer is that I wouldn’t so much change the theater as change the climate around it. If you saw Mike Daisey’s “How Theater Failed America,” you might remember how he talks about the ivory tower of academic and institutional theater, and how it ceases being about the work, and becomes more about the buildings and the institutions. I was at a panel recently where Sarah Schulman called MFA programs “workfare for writers” and along with being a fabulous line, there’s an accuracy to it; the danger of an advanced degree program in writing is that it can encourage people to write for an audience of other writers. You definitely need writer’s writers, and people who care intensely about teaching, but you also need open-hearted artists from all backgrounds and people who write about things that are not writing, and not completely about upper middle class straight white people. (Though if that is your niche, than who am I to tell you to write about something else?) I came out of community theater, I don’t have an MFA. I used to be a sportswriter (my first full-length play was about women’s college basketball), and I’d like to see theater be more inclusive and specific to the writer’s passions and interests. Then, I think, you wouldn’t see people thinking of theater so much as a “luxury” but as a part of their lives that makes them more meaningful.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: When I first arrived in New York City (to go to acting school), I was lucky enough to get a gig, first as a volunteer, then as staff, at Mirror Rep, where I got to watch Geraldine Page work up close, and also learn from her in real life. She was very kind to young artists coming up, and never stopped going to class, and never stopped teaching class. (And in my adult life, I have always been in a class or workshop of one kind or another) Sabra Jones was (and is) artistic director of the Mirror, and she’s the first person who gave me a job in the theater, and I got too see, experience and do almost everything from the ground up. One of the directors at Mirror Rep, and one of the most important teachers I had is John Strasberg, whose acting class gave me an artistic vocabulary and a worldview that I still rely on. Mirror Rep’s production of Clifford Odets’s “Paradise Lost,” directed by John, remains one of my touchstone theater experiences.
Tina Howe has been my guardian angel from the moment I met her. She’s helped to shape my vision and craft, and has opened many doors; she’s also one of the artists most committed to emerging artists that I’ve ever met. Doric Wilson found me on the internet, and gave me a reading several years ago of the play then called “The Audience,” that launched the non-self-produced part of my playwriting career. He’s also stood behind me, pushed me through open doors, and is a living, breathing text about the history of New York theater, from the Caffe Cino on. The play he gave a reading to, now titled “Rock the Line,” was produced by Emerging Artists Theatre, won the Robert Chesley Award, and is also published by United Stages. Paul Adams, Artistic Director of EAT, produced “Rock the Line,” and has produced several other plays I wrote, and asked me to be Playwrights Company manager of EAT. Mark Finley is the artistic director of TOSOS (where I now curate the Robert Chesley/Jane Chambers Playwrights Project) and he’s directed my play “Some Are People” since it was a 24-hour 10-minute piece at Wings, through its latest incarnation as “End of Land,” a full-length play.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Big vision, exquisite comedy, fabulous acting, and plays that are confident and fearless. Also, some rock and roll and women making out. Last weekend, I saw “Rescue Me” by Michi Barall, produced by Ma-Yi, and it was thrilling. (And of course I asked a question of the classics professor!) One of my favorite theatrical experiences ever is “Hedwig & the Angry Inch,” which I saw at least a dozen times during its NYC run, and I am overjoyed that it’s set to come back (to Broadway, no less) this year. Though I doubt there will be the super-cheap tickets for late night performances that they offered at Jane Street. I also like theater in really old or interesting spaces. In January, my play, “The Adventures of…” was performed in the basement of an 1835 church in Provincetown; last year, it was performed in the drawing room of a Georgian townhouse in Dublin.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Write…and send it out. No one’s going to produce it if it’s still in your computer. And definitely learn how to produce yourself if you’ve got the temperament for it; it’s one of the most freeing things you can do. I’ve learned as much or more about writing from producing my work, watching it take shape in rehearsal, working with designers and techies, and watching the audience very night as I have in a workshop.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Drunken! Careening! Writers! Third Thursday of every month at the lovely & fragrant KGB Bar in the East Village. See www.kgbbar.com for information on each month’s lineup.
Best! Lesbian! Erotica! (well, there are no exclamation points in the actual title, but there should be). I edit it, starting with the 2010 edition. Please buy it. And if you are a writer, please consider submitting work to it.
En Avant Playwrights: http://enavantplaywrights.yuku.com/directory. Visit often and I hope you get many productions.
International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival: I’m the Ambassador of Love for North America, and have had worked presented there the last two years. Spend the first two weeks of May in Dublin. You won’t regret it. www.gaytheatre.ie.
Please hope that I get another production somewhere soon. I’ve developed a sort of weird superstition that I can only get my hair cut when I’m going to one of my own opening nights, and I could really use one before the summer.