Friday, April 23, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 153: Karla Jennings



Karla Jennings

Hometown: Benton Harbor, Michigan, and Park Ridge, Illinois (with stops in between).

Current Town: Atlanta.

Previous life:

Newspaper reporter. Exciting, high-pressure, and great training for any writer. Journalists and theater people tend to have similar personalities: outgoing, lively, confident, egotistical, highly engaged with the world, great partiers. Theater people are much better dancers. Journalists just think they are.

Q:  Tell me about the play you're having read in NYC soon.

A:  MONSTROUS BEAUTY received this year's John Gassner New Play Competition award, which floored me. The honor came at a much-needed time. I hadn't written for about eight months and was pretty down.

The play's a riff on that Teutonic drama queen, saint of Nazi kitsch, and cinematic genius Leni Riefenstahl. Marlene Dietrich co-stars as the good twin. Riefenstahl surged from dancer to Third Reich Überfrauline to prisoner to American cultural icon by visualizing the Nazi mythology that's gone viral in America's white power hate groups. How many other artists could inspire people as disparate as Steven Spielberg, Andy Warhol, and Timothy McVeigh?

Q:  What else are you working on?

A:  I'm finishing up a play about a couple demanding to have children like themselves, but he's a Little Person and she's deaf, so the infertility clinic refuses and the fight begins. It looks at how society defines you versus how you define yourself. Also just finished a comedy about four kids who have a mishap in which one dies. She comes back as an extremely pissed-off ghost. Am also novelizing one of my plays, which I always thought would make a good book.

Q:  If I came to Atlanta tomorrow, what shows would you tell me to see or what theaters should I check out?

A:  Frank Higgins' BLACK PEARL SINGS at Horizon Theater, about a Texas inmate agonizing over whether to trade her ancestor's songs for freedom. David Catlin's LOOKINGGLASS ALICE at The Alliance, a co-production with Lookingglass Theatre (I like Lookkingglass productions, they're intensely physical, dynamic, and imaginative). The upcoming Actors Express production of Alison Moore's SLASHER is a hilariously clever send-up of feminism and slasher films.

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

A:  Until I was six, my family lived along an isolated gravel road outside a rural Michigan town with one traffic light (long since removed). I wandered alone a lot in the forest behind our house. One of my best friends was the magic stream. Its tremendous stink meant it was powerful, and if I told it enough good stories, it would gush to life and grant my wish. I later realized the "magic stream" was septic tank overflow; every time someone flushed, the spring sprang. It's become my personal metaphor for how creation can spring from crap (the transformation doesn't always work, sometimes crap remains crap). It began my storytelling apprenticeship. Wandering in the forest, I also developed a love for biology. There's no science more beautiful than the living science.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  Insularity. Sometimes it's like theater people only talk to theater people and only live and breathe theater. That and theater's academization threaten to turn it into a cloistered, arcane art, like American poetry. If we only talk to each other in our little black boxes, we'll implode.

Maybe theater's insularity is too entrenched to be changed. If I could change one thing that's possible to change, it would be to make all script submissions anonymous. Of course, if you want to find out an author's identity, that's easy, and lots of theaters would do it, but if it became respectable, desirable, and even classy to read only anonymous submissions, more great scripts would get produced, and more women and minorities would get launched as playwrights. There's a strong parallel in Malcolm Gladwell's brilliant book Blink about how "blind" music auditions opened the doors for women and minorities in classical orchestras. ADs and LDs might like to think they only consider the script when reading it, but everyone thinks in context. An author's gender influences their decisions, fame influences it, whether or not they're a personal friend influences it, whether or not they have desirable connections or access to funds influences it. If you strip all context from the script, you have a better chance of judging the quality of work on itself alone. Having too much context can blinker your apprehension.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Constance Congdon (CASANOVA is a masterpiece), John Patrick Shanley, Lynn Nottage, Christopher Durang, Tom Stoppard, Charles Mee, Sarah Ruhl, Tony Kushner, and of course that bastard Will, who makes life harder for the rest of us because he writes for free, and because dead playwrights are so much easier to work with. I also like Beckett's ENDGAME. Once tried to write like Beckett. It's impossible.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  The rare production that grabs me by the head, heart, and groin (now that's a disgusting image), and mesmerizes me and keeps blindsiding me with reveals that have me going "Holy shit, I didn't see that coming, but it makes perfect sense!" Theater that embodies the terrible glory ("terrible" in the ancient sense of the word) of humanity in language that overwhelms me without being overtly poetic or precious, because its power radiates from context, relationships, themes, symbolism, action, and plot.

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

A:  The Ugly Truth: Personal relationships matter more than script quality in getting produced. If you spend your writing career in, say, Akron, then all the contacts you make over the years will add up to zero. So, you should move to Chicago, New York, L.A., or San Francisco (London if you can afford it!), where you can cultivate the relationships and contacts that lead to production, and be immersed in a vital theater community where innovation and professionalism thrive.

If you can't live in one of these theatrical lands of Oz, than every time you visit one of them you should arrange to meet as many directors and LDs as possible; don't be shy about it, it's important. Try to become an actor or director as well, because that greatly expands the contacts you'll make (the most-produced local Atlanta playwrights at present are actors). Be sure to read Todd London's book Outrageous Fortune: the Life and Times of the New American Play so you know what you're in for, and keep in mind that most playwrights would love to be in the dilemma the book describes of making less than $20,000 a year and having trouble getting second productions! Get into one of the seven playwriting programs he lists because they dominate the national theater network and will make it easier for you to enter that network. Find a mentor who will help you learn the biz and pull strings to get you into desirable workshops and programs like the O'Neill Conference, which, if you don't have the connections, isn't worth applying to.  [Since this 2010 interview, the O’Neill has made a concentrated effort to be approachable to playwrights of all stripes. I’m impressed by how diligently they’ve been working to make the process as open and responsive as possible, and how thoughtfully they respond to playwright queries. Therefore, I consider my statement no longer applicable, if it ever was. – kj]

Theaters: seek theaters that do the kind of work that excites you and fits your sensibilities. Never treat theater staffers casually. If someone graciously meets you for coffee or reads one of your plays, they're doing you a real favor, because theaters are typically understaffed, starved for time and money, and flooded with playwright requests. Even a small theater, if it has any kind of good reputation, will receive hundreds of submissions a year. Hundreds. So, you've got to research a theater's web site before submitting work because otherwise you might be wasting their time sending stuff that doesn't fit their style and mission, and they're likely to write you off in future.

Theater LDs and dramaturges are looking for reasons not to read your script. If you send in a clunky unpolished draft, if it's poorly formatted or has sloppy punctuation or spelling, you're screaming; "I'm a clueless slob who considers myself a genius so you better love me, you pathetic schmucks!" This approach does not work.

Remember, professional theaters keep files of submissions and readers' critiques, so you're establishing a reputation every time you send something out, even if you never hear anything. Dramaturgs, ADs, and LDs talk to each other and quietly circulate scripts, so if you act like a twit instead of a professional, word will get around.

If you establish an ongoing collaboration with a theater, count your lucky stars. It is your home and tribe. Don't take them for granted. Love them as you would the offspring of your loins -- unless, of course, they turn into jerks or there's a staff change and you're out on your ass, in which case you need to find a new tribe. If you establish an ongoing relationship with two or three theaters, you're more protected from the ill winds of Fate.

Writing: Always try to write something different with every play, and experiment with style and form. Read lots of plays, see lots of plays, take lots of playwriting classes, develop good standards of quality and don't apologize for having them. Pay attention to the stories behind how which plays get produced at which theaters, and grow wise thereby. Listen carefully to criticism, do your best to be open-minded and not defensive about it, but remember that many people don't know what they're talking about and aren't really paying attention to your work when they critique it, so don't take them too seriously unless they're unusually thoughtful. Keep in mind that most writers will criticize your work in terms of their own personal preferences as writers. Don't submit an early draft for critique because you don't want to be influenced during the creative process. Don't bother writing as much about what you know as about what excites you. If an idea bursts through your brain like a supernova and your blood races so much it scares you, hell yeah, go for the ride! Ideas that arouse strong emotions in you, be they positive or negative, will stimulate your best writing. If an idea keeps bugging you, than jot down dialogue and notes and let the idea grow on its own.

There are dozens of writing genres. Playwriting can break your heart, so if you must write, think seriously about what other kinds of writing you can do, because other forms of writing might give you more joy.

Last of all, if you put too much of your psyche and self-worth into writing, it can damage you in the long run and make you a bitter, narrow person, so make an effort to have friends and interests outside of theater and writing.

There are thousands of reasons that writers write. With me, writing isn't a career, but a condition. If I don’t write, I get extremely depressed. Writing's like breathing to me; if I don't do it, I turn blue. That's not the best way to live, in fact, it's a poor way, it means playwriting's frustrations and disappointments affect me more than they should. The happiest people know that there are many things in life more important that writing, and they seek out those precious things and enjoy them. Family, friends, altruism, Nature, clog dancing, playing with toads, service to something outside of yourself; such things counter-balance the essentially selfish and inward-focused world of art. Don't squander your whole life crouched over a goddamned computer making things up. Go outside and run through the sprinklers!

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  The 7th Annual John Gassner New Play Competition at Stony Brook University presents a reading of its 2010 winning play Monstrous Beauty by Karla Jennings this Monday, April 26 at 6:00 p.m. in the SUNY Stony Brook Manhattan campus second-floor conference room at 401 Park Avenue South (between 27th and 28th Streets). The reading will be directed by Julia Gibson and features Gordana Rashovich as Leni Riefenstahl. A post-show discussion follows.

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