Jul 8, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 208: Kevin R. Free
Kevin R. Free
Greensboro, North Carolina, though I am officially an army brat. My family lived in Texas, Virginia, Kansas, Illinois, Kentucky, and North Carolina all before I turned 6. But I lived most of my life in North Carolina.
New York City
Q: Tell me about the play you're putting up in this year's NY Fringe.
A; A Raisin in the Salad: Black Plays for White People is a sketch show about culture and how it’s created. Or, rather, WHO creates it… I think my goal is to make people laugh about race & identity by using stereotypes, pop culture references, and absurd images. It’s a series of connected sketches that add up to a collage – a decidedly American quilt, if you will – that depicts how I relate to the world (or did at the time the seed for this show was planted).
Q: What else are you up to?
A: At the moment, I am directing 16 incredibly talented kids aged 10 – 15 in a production of Godspell in Westchester, at Broadway Training Center. I’m also directing Tracey Lee in her solo show for FringeNYC, Standing Up: Bathroom Talk & Other Stuff We Learn From Dad …And I’m narrating a great book right now - Any Known Blood, by Lawrence Hill.
Q: You worked with the New York Neo-Futurists. Tell me more about them?
A: I am still an ensemble member of the New York Neo-Futurists, FYI. I am taking a break for a while, but I could go back in 2011.
Everything I know about myself as a writer, I learned first as a Neo. We don’t play characters and we don’t ever pretend onstage. Because we acknowledge the audience as part of the show, the show is visceral and immediate and dangerous, when we get it right. The show to which I am referring is, of course, Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (30 Plays in 60 Minutes). We write and perform all the plays and most of them are under 2 minutes. The plays are so in the moment that many people mistake the show as improv (but it aint). Anyway, I discovered when I started writing as a Neo-Futurist, I discovered that I had a lot to say – about myself – but I never really wanted to say it. A Raisin in the Salad: Black Plays For White People is actually an expanded, extrapolated piece that started as a series of plays in Too Much Light…
Q: You're an acclaimed actor with an amazing voice who acted in gigantic hits like Susan Gets Some Play. How does your acting inform your writing and vice versa?
A: Acclaimed? Moi? Thank you!
My first real taste of being myself in all my crazy glory onstage was in Too Much Light... and that's what I want now, all the time. I wrote great plays for myself, and others wrote great things for me. The more I did and wrote for TML, the more I realized that I can be that free in all my auditions. And my acting informs my playwriting, because I'm always looking to write something in which I can cast myself (because I'm so acclaimed & have such an amazing voice). Speaking of acting, when are you writing a play for me? Call it "Kevin gets some Soul," or something. Maybe?
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I've a few stories, I think:
My first voice teacher, Phyllis Tektonidis, an international diva, taught me my first audition song, which I used from 10th grade until my first year of college. It was “Swanee.” I honestly had no idea that I was singing a minstrel song. It’s Gershwin! I still cringe when I think of what the black people who saw me sing that song were thinking about me.
When I was five, I mocked my cousins for the way they pronounced my name. They were southern, so to my five year-old-raised-on-army-base ears, they called me “Kay-yuh-vee-yin.”
My high school chorus teacher, before opening her front door for me, told me that normally she didn’t “let black people into my house, but I figure you’re not black - you’re just wearing makeup…” (I know that was a racial slur, but was it also a gay slur, as well…maybe?)
I tell those three stories to say that in my adult life, as an artist, It is important to me not to sing minstrel songs, literally and metaphorically; to embrace where I come from, rather than revile it the way I am tempted to; and to make it clear that I identify as black, regardless of the way I talk, the way I sing, or the way I dress. I am also gay. So there. I remind myself of all that in my work, because, even with all my anger and sadness, I’m happy to be who I am.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: It would be that we all recognize our power within the theater machine. Not so much that we are in control of other people, but that we have power over ourselves. We can make choices. Actors can decide what roles they don’t/do want to do; playwrights can tell the stories they want to tell; theatres/companies can find ways to present work that will find an audience. And, likewise, audiences who don’t have a theatre-going lifestyle will recognize the power in attending theater, if for no other reason than to figure out how to change theater.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I’m inspired most by people that I know: the people who create theatre on a shoestring budget; who have no representation, but write and perform and anyway, the people who create and maintain theatre festivals; and most of all -the children with whom I work year-round, who create theatre based on their lives.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Oooooooh I love me a dangerous comedy, honey. I like when plays and performers are just at the edge of crazy. I want to see something immediate and close to the bone. I also love seeing theatrical magic onstage. It’s easy for me to buy it, if I can see the wires showing.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Well, I feel like I am just starting out, so I feel a little foolish giving advice. But I will say this: if you receive great feedback about your work, which opens a door into your psyche about how you work or about your writing quirks – and it rings true to you, LISTEN TO IT. Then listen to all the feedback you receive to discover whether that feedback is informed by the original feedback. For instance, if someone says to you, “Hey, Spike! Your endings are never resolved.” And if you believe that to be true – and you like that about yourself – then perhaps all the rest of the feedback you receive about how you have no point of view plays right into your endgame. Feel me?
Q: Plugs, please:
www.kevinrfree.com - that’s me…
Godspell Broadway Training Center, July 30, 31 at 7:00 PM & August 1 at 3:00 PM Tickets & More info: www.broadwaytraining.com.
Tracey Lee’s Standing Up: Bathroom Talk & Other Stuff We Learn from Dad in FringeNYC at the Players Theater, August 13 – 29. www.tleestandingup.blogspot.com. Check back for our official dates!
A Raisin in the Salad: Black Plays for White People in FringeNYC at the Players Theater, August 13 – 29. www.blackplaysforwhitepeople.com Check back for our official dates!
Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (30 Plays in 60 Minutes), every Friday & Saturday at 10:30, Kraine Theatre - www.nynf.org