Thursday, May 06, 2010

I Interview Playwrights Part 165: Katharine Clark Gray

Katharine Clark Gray

Hometown: Syracuse, NY

Current town: Philadelphia, PA

Q:  Tell me please about your play 516 going up in Philly.

A:  It's a 3-handed revenge romance set in academia: a term paper ghostwriter falls in lust with a client as he uses her to advance his thesis work. When she rats him out to a hated professor, the true machinations begin. The upcoming production at Philadelphia Theatre Workshop marks its official World Premiere, but an earlier version was workshopped at the NY Fringe festival (with the wonderful Kristina Valada-Viars), and of course had readings and readings before that. Also: it's pronounced "Five Sixteen", like a college course number, not "Five One Six" like the area code.

Q:  What else are you working on?

A:  My play User 927 won Reverie Productions' '09 Next Generation contest and is set for an NYC workshop production soon; right now it's being adapted into a screenplay. The two major scripts in development are Timber Land, about a Southern fugitive who lands in Bangor's liberal activist community; and The Pestilence is Coming, a crazy, gigantic musical based on a rock album by the Minor Leagues and Camus' The Plague. For a while I was on a kick writing larger and larger-scope plays; Pestilence is kind of the absurd extreme, complete with a chorus of nurses and patients doing choreography with gurneys and, of course, a singing rat. Luckily it was a commissioned work (by Full Circle Theatre Co. in NYC) so it already has production support. Pitching big plays to small companies has never been so tough. My next piece will probably be two dudes in a room.

Q:  You received a Pew Fellowship for Playwriting in 2008. How has that impacted your writing and career?

A:  I haven't had a 'day job' in over a year, which will change anyone! It's reformed my focus: as a former actor, I spent a long time trying to be a Swiss Army knife of a person: all things to all theaters. I think at long last I've learned to respect my field enough to stop constantly looking for backup plans. That said, working at home can really make one hungry for human contact. I've joined a number of literary organizations and have started teaching a workshop on new materials (with my husband Nicholas Gray) that handily remind me that theatre is not a solo sport.

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

A:  The first profession I ever seriously considered was cartoonist. When I was about nine, I drew a strip called "Kids Will Be Kids" that was half autobiography, half rip-off of "Calvin and Hobbes" and "Bloom County". There was a long saga about one of the characters getting a bad perm that was unfortunately ripped from the headlines of my life. But it was good enough to get printed in the Syracuse University campus newspaper, which made me feel like king pimp daddy for like a month.

When I think about it, both those strips (C&H and BC) pretty much encapsulate the tone I try to strike in my work: verbose but brutal, with humor that draws from deep, dark places.

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

A:  There's a lot of safety endemic to the form these days: in particular, palatable politics that pass themselves off as 'edgy' to make self-satisfied patrons feel like rebels. Make me squirm; make me angry; make me cry. Don't congratulate me or yourselves for the bare minimum of cognitive thought. Safe theatre is the Bob Evans thruway stop of art.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  Brecht and Weill, for Threepenny. Chekhov, for writing the world's saddest comedies. Stanislavski, for founding a revolution. Shepard, for his exquisite spareness; Stoppard, for his intelligence. Mamet, period. Kushner, for Angels. Lynn Nottage for Ruined. LaBute, McDonagh and Marber for finding empathy in misanthropy. Eve Ensler, for socially impactful theatre that isn't lame. Stephen Adly Guirgis, for writing the world's dirtiest prophets. For that matter, all the LAByrinth founders and members, for creating a true modern company. Stephen Belber. Those insane bungee-cord folks at De La Guarda. The Donmar Warehouse Theatre. And August Wilson, perhaps the greatest playwright of our time.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  You know it when you see it: something that makes you tingle and sweat, like the show is squeezing a fistful of your heart. That's a bullshit answer, I know, but genre / subject matter / general formula matter far less than the daring things you do with them.

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

A:  Don't spend your career seeking someone else's approval.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:
 kef productions has a new production up: Marisa Wegrzyn's Killing Women, opening May 13 at The Beckett on Theatre Row. Go see it.

Kristin Marting at HERE Arts Center has started a monthly Community Think Tank on different topics. The next one is # 3 – "Freedom", Wed. July 7.

The Production Company is an intriguing group concentrating on creating an alliance between Australian and American theatre artists. They have two projects coming up in '10: join their mailing list and you'll hear all about it.

Keep the following playwrights on your radar: in New York, Mac Rogers. In Philly, P. Seth Bauer, Jacqueline Goldfinger, and Nick Wardigo. All these people should be famous. And it has to be said: Kristoffer Diaz got absolutely robbed at the Pulitzers.