Hometown: Brooklyn, though I grew up in Michigan.
Current Town: Tokyo.
Q: Tell me about the Weasel Festival and your contribution to it.
A: Bring a Weasel and a Pint of Your Own Blood (link: http://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=136324809723487&index=1), now in its fifth summer, is a festival of adaptations by current and former Brooklyn College playwriting MFA students. Karinne Keithley, Kate Ryan, Erin Courtney, and Mac Wellman founded the festival and each year it's produced entirely by the playwrights whose work will be performed the next year.
This year, Corina Copp, Ben Gassman, and Kobun Kaluza--all wonderful, very different writers--have adapted biblical apocrypha. I'm in Japan now, sadly, but made a short video concerning the book of Tobit that will be shown as well.
Q: What else are you up to?
A: I'm writing a new play called "Red Flamingoes, Their Similarities to the Skies" and some fiction, and working on my Japanese language skills. "For the first time we meet. Please be kind to me."
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 played a giant Velveeta in our fourth grade musical about dairy foods. It only occurred to me about three years ago that Velveeta is neither.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: The idea that theater is something to be understood. "Is this art? What does it mean? What sort of person will I appear to be if I like or dislike it?"--when art, at its best, is no more reducible or subject to explanation than life, or the world, or whatever one might call the sum of our awareness and unawareness of everything. It's not a problem exclusive to theater; art museums address this kind of anxiety by covering walls in long paragraphs and draping audio guides around every neck, but too often I think such explications just carry people even farther away from direct experience of the art, and at worst supplant real experience entirely.
While there aren't any audio guides in theater yet, often as not, the play itself will ponderously unveil some terrible, obvious message. And when it doesn't--when it's, say, Gertrude Stein's A Family of Perhaps Three--nine times out of ten, people like my mother (who is very smart, but considers Rent daring) feel shut out, like they just don't get it. But there's nothing to get. I don't "get" the moon, or the look of people's faces on my street in the middle of a weekday, but here I am and there it all is (thank God!). I'd love for my mom and everyone like her to be able to trust the integrity of their own experience again: I was here for this, and possibly thought or felt certain things during it, which may or may not be readily communicable--and that's it. There's nothing more to it.
Or just more joy, more amateurism, and fewer dead children as plot grenades.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Mac Wellman, of course, from the moment he remarked that one of the great fallacies of American theater is that talking is a form of communication. And the other members of a playwriting cabal called Joyce Cho: Scott Adkins, Kelly Copper, Rob Erickson, Karinne Keithley, and Sibyl Kempson. Karinne rounded us all up after graduating from Brooklyn College because it seemed too sad not to see each other anymore. We knock around ideas and egg on each other's radicalism. The Chos are more or less directly responsible for beating insane old dreams of personal dominance and self-expression out of me and replacing them with things much more interesting and difficult. All five have been on a tear with their own work over the past few years--it's been amazing, a real golden age.
From the near past, Arnold Weinstein, too soon forgotten; Gertrude Stein; Jane Bowles. Herman Melville and Virginia Woolf always feel very present to me, even when writing plays.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A; Theater that at least starts by addressing the audience in terms of our perfections rather than our limitations. Also, I love feeling that the people behind it recognize that everything about theater is completely crazy and frivolous even as they're throwing themselves into it with everything they have. Auden said, "To be able to devote one's life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character." Shakespeare never forgot, and neither do groups like National Theater of the United States of America or Nature Theater of Oklahoma.
I also share Auden's admiration for protean artists who try one thing after another, not caring if it fails, over those who devote themselves to the perfection of a single thing or type of thing.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: If you feel comfortable with more professional models of theater-making, that's great, but if not, there are many, many others. Interest yourself as much as possible in things that have nothing to do with plays. Build your own intellectual community if you don't find one ready-made.
More seriously, the first time I met Young Jean Lee, she said I should "make my name more ching-chongy" to get all the Asian grant money. That's good advice for anyone.
I'm out of touch here in Tokyo, but obviously, the Weasel festival! (link: http://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=136324809723487&index=1) Remaining shows are July 29-30, 2010 at 7:30pm, the East 13th St. Theater, $18/$15 students. And please see it next year too, and every year after that.
Karinne Keithley is performing Montgomery Park at Mt. Tremper Arts Center in the Catskills on July 31, 2010. It's more than worth the drive. (link: http://www.mounttremperarts.org/karinne-keithley)