Apr 2, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 333: Kia Corthron
Hometown: Cumberland, Maryland. A working class Appalachian town, walking distance to West Virginia.
Current Town: Harlem, Manhattan, New York City.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A big secret!
Q: Tell me about your upcoming France trip.
A: It's a colony called Dora Maar House, administered by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Dora Maar was an artist and photographer, and one of Picasso's lovers. Apparently he bought this house for her near a small village in the south of France. From the website it looks beautiful, and I know two people, a poet and a visual artist, who have been there and raved. They take two writers and one visual artist at a time. (There is also a piano so they must also sometimes take composers.) Your travel is paid for plus a generous meal stipend.
Colonies aren't for everyone, but I love 'em! Without the distractions of home, you feel like you have forty hours in a day, all for writing!
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: It took me awhile to figure this out - I think because everything from my childhood explains who I am as a writer and a person.
The town I grew up in was at least 95% white. Very working class except all those factories that made it a booming place in the '40s were closing in the '60s and '70s, when I was growing up. My mother's cousin lost his job in the textile place after twenty years or more and was left with nothing - no pension, nada. (As an adult of course I know now all those places went internationally to hire sweatshop workers from among the desperately poor.) My father had a horrible job, but one of the very few remaining steady ones, at the paper mill. So one of his perks was to bring home pens and pencils and reams of plain white paper. And even staplers! (My mother was so delighted with the latter I remember her once stapling all over a piece of paper until she finally stapled her finger.) I made use of all those in my play - making up stories and turning them into little books.
Coming of age in such an atmosphere, there were wonderful things: running the neighborhood till we had to go in at dusk without our parents locking us up in the yard, fearing for our safety. There were also plenty of incidents of racism (and sexism). I'll name just one, though this is when I was a little older - high school. I guess I was in ninth grade. Gym class. There were about fifteen of us girls on the steps in our gym clothes, waiting for the others to get ready. I was the only black girl. One girl was standing. She said she had a joke to tell - but then she realized she couldn't tell it. Another girl begged her to tell it. She whispered it to her, and the second girl cracked up, but agreed, they couldn't tell that joke. The other girls begged for the joke. I didn't. I knew exactly what it was. And if I had any doubt that it was anything but a nigger joke, it was all clarified when the joke that could not be spoken aloud was whispered to every single girl sitting there except me. In a deliberate way, no one looked at me as the joke was passed around.
I'm not even sure why I shared that story, except that it has stuck with me all these years and that would seem significant. I would imagine it (and a thousand other youthful incidents) would speak to issues of race in many of my plays. And living in such an economically depressed area certainly influenced my writing about classism and workers' issues. Also, as someone who spent much of my young life as an outsider to a large degree, I can write about outsiders - frequently do - and am perfectly satisfied being alone. (I've gone to artist colonies where I am the only person there, and loved it! Sans socializing, even more time to write!)
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: One! Okay. I wish there was more respect for the arts here, as in other countries, so that work could be exponentially more subsidized. This could allow for bigger cast plays. Not every play is a three-hander, and I think the pressure to write these small plays, that sort of self-censorship, has cost the American theater harshly in creativity. More subsidies could also provide for cheaper ticket prices, allowing for more diverse audiences and reducing the suicidal stigma of theater as art for the elite.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: This question always stresses me out cuz I know I'm going to forget somebody important! So here are just a few: Aristotle, Amiri Baraka, Augosto Boal, Bertolt Brecht, Hallie Flanagan, Adrienne Kennedy, David Rabe, Peter Sellars, Ellen Stewart, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Luis Valdez, Naomi Wallace.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I like to be surprised. I like challenges to the status quo - which are surprising. I like courage on the part of the writer - which, in production, then requires courage on the part of everybody else.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Never feel the need to take unsolicited advice; there are a lot of people out there who would love to rewrite your play for you. But do ask the opinions of those you trust, and (in the case of a post-show discussion, for example) listen to the thoughts of strangers as well. Be polite, but work hard to stay true to your own intentions. Which may mean discarding 95% of what you hear - but that usable 5% might prove to be invaluable.