Apr 21, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 151: Kenneth Lin
Hometown: West Hempstead, NY
Current Town: Kew Gardens, NY
Q: Tell me please about your play going up soon in Houston.
A: My play INTELLIGENCE-SLAVE, is about Curt Hertzstark, a concentration camp prisoner who was kept alive by the Nazis, during World War II because he had invented the world's first hand-held four-function calculator. The play takes place in an abandoned salt mines where the Nazis moved an armaments factory to protect it from aerial bombings. Curt is keeping himself and all the rest of the workers in the mine alive by withholding the solution for the calculator. Though he discovered the solution a long time ago, Curt maintains that he can't get the calculator to do subtraction. In response, the Nazi's have sent a Hitler Youth down into the mine to spy on Curt. When the boy comes up with the solution on his own Curt must decide if the glory of discovery is worth the lives everyone who is down in the mine.
The play was commissioned by Manhattan Theatre Club and written in residence at the Nassau Country Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: Well, I got married on Sunday, so I'm working on coming down from the cloud. Writing-wise, I'm developing some television shows and figuring out how to write a one-man show with the actor George Takei, who played Sulu on Star Trek. I'm also thinking really hard about a new play about the disturbing spate of violence committed by Asian men in America.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: My parents worked the night shift at night, so my sister and I would be on our own and we'd watch all kinds of strange television and I remember our experiences being so intense. We'd watch sitcoms and laugh so hard that our bodies hurt. I don't recall laughing like that in a long time. One episode of Highway to Heaven was so intense we sobbed for an entire night. Those were the days.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I don't know. That's such a big question. Theater really reminds me of an organic food store that just closed in my neighborhood. When I first moved here, I thought, "Wow, there's an organic food store here. This is a great neighborhood." But I never shopped there because everything was so expensive. They are liquidating now and everything is 50% off and I went to buy some things. I went to a counter with all these boxes that were covered in dust and when all was said and done, I still thought that it was too expensive. I think theater is similar. Who wouldn't want a theater to open up in their neighborhood? But, can a community afford to sustain these theaters under the current models? The answer is clearly -- no. Too often, we are in the business of catering to wealthy people, while leaving everyone else sitting in front of the tvs with their microwave dinners. What are we left with? Over-priced, dusty boxes of well-intentioned food. If I could change one thing to change this system, I'd do it, but I don't know what that one thing is. Maybe the best thing is that playwrights are moving to television. Maybe I would change theater by having performances televised live, like Playhouse 90 was.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: David Henry Hwang, Chay Yew, Stephen Sondheim, John Doyle, Henrik Ibsen, Lynn Nottage, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Bryony Lavery, Jackson Gay, the LMDA.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Don't be too critical of EVERYTHING. I think there was a time where I was so scared to be doing this with my life that it made it feel just a little bit less scary to hate everything I saw and pick it apart. But, you got into this because you love theater, right? Focus on the best of what you see and learn from that. Find a way to learn in every theater you are in, because, you'll be seeing a lot of theater and hating everything is just masochistic.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Intelligence-Slave, Alley Theatre, Houston, TX May 23 - June 20. www.alleytheatre.org
Ken's website: www.endofscene.com