Thursday, April 21, 2011

I Interview Playwrights Part 341: Karen Malpede




Karen Malpede

Hometown: Evanston, Il.

Current Town: Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, New York. I say it this way because Clinton Hill is the best, best, best of all neighborhoods I’ve ever lived in.

Q: Tell me about the book Acts of War and your play Prophecy.

A: Prophecy is a play I wrote in response to America’s never-ending wars. It’s a family drama and a political drama. It’s a play that straddles realism and something older, more classical. My plays sit on a nexus between the now and then, looking forward, hopefully, into the what might be. They are hopeful in the same sense that knowledge is hopeful, that feeling is hopeful, that tragedy is hopeful. Now that the play is published in Acts of War: Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays, people can read it for themselves.

I edited Acts of War because all the good plays about the wars were being damned by critics, or being found “too risky” (artistic directors said that to me) to produce. The plays that really look at the cost of these wars on the soldiers that fight them, the Iraqis and Afghans who die in them, the democracy that has yet to pay for them and is being driven so deeply into debt because of them. The book, like my play Prophecy, is an effort to guard against the deadening effect of not knowing and the moral torpor, the intellectual emptiness, the artistic vacuity of not knowing, not thinking, not wanting to experience the truth of what it means to be at war. The book contains seven smart, strong, ethical, exciting, and moving plays. Risky plays. Plays that are beautifully written and carefully constructed. Plays that matter. At least to me.

I wrote the introduction to the book because I wanted to talk about the strategies these playwrights have used when they set about to bring beauty out of the ugliness of our current wars. I wanted to discuss for others the aesthetics of plays that dare to tell the truth about war and its effects on combatants and noncombatants, alike. I link the plays in the book back to Greek tragedy because it happens that theater was created as a way for the Greeks to deal with combat trauma. Theater, war and democracy are intimately connected. The Greek democracy destroyed itself through imperial adventures. This is a cautionary tale. These modern plays address our modern traumas which are as ancient as war.

Q: What else are you working on?

A: My new play Another Life is not nice. It’s a surreal look at our complicity in the torture program, the economic collapse, the generally growing meanness of the last ten years since the attacks on the twin towers. It begins on the September 11, 2001. I was in New York and I worked with victims and survivors and I’ve written about that work. It’s a fact that most people in New York did not want to go to war. We were convinced that war was not the answer. We protested against bombing Afghanistan and invading Iraq.

Another Life has heroes. It was terrifying to write. It’s based on lots of research, interviews with lawyers who are defending detainees and torture victims and transcripts of interviews with torture victims themselves. I wrote it because I feel we need to know. We need to confront our own complicity, and also honor the best in us: those whistle blowers, like Bradley Manning, those lawyers, those doctors who take a stand against torture, who treat and respect the victims of the rather obscenely named “war on terror.”

Like all my plays, implicit in Another Life is the sense that there is another way. We didn’t need to plunge into violence and greed just because we were attacked. We might have answered with justice. We might have held trials. We might have believed in democracy. We didn’t need to “go shopping” as our then President Bush advised while he was intent upon launching an illegal invasion of a country, Iraq, that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. We didn’t need to spend ourselves into recession

So Another Life is a wacky, wild look at how our fear and our sorrow got hi-jacked and turned into revenge, greed, and small-mindedness, from which the nation is suffering now.

Another Life will premiere in Kosovo this June as part of an exchange program between my theater, Theater Three Collaborative, and the National Theater of Kosovo, funded by Theater Communications Group and the Mellon Foundation, as part of their On the Road initiative to encourage international exchange.

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

A: If there was one thing I would change about the theater it would be money. Theater doesn’t work well in capitalism; neither do health care, or education, for that matter. Theater is not a business; it is a labor intensive luxurious necessity. It is the one place where we can come together in community and breathe together with living actors while they live through in front of us what we are living through in our hopes, dreams, nightmares and desires. Theater means seeing place. And catharsis means clarity of sight.

So, the theater should be subsidized. It should be the right of citizens of a democracy to have a theater funded from tax money. It costs a million dollars to drop one laser-guided missile on the people of Afghanistan or Libya. A million dollars could fund theater for a year in a town or neighborhood. There was once a Federal Theater in this country from 1935-’39. Everyone should know the history of Federal Theater and read Hallie Flanagan’s book Arena.

Commercialism erodes the theater and erodes the audience. We are being made more stupid. We are being made more afraid. We are becoming less.

Q: What kind of theater excites you?

A: If I don’t feel more alive at the end of a play than I felt at its beginning, it’s a failure. There is nothing quite as thrilling as a beautiful play with wonderfully committed actors. I want to be given life blood in the theater; I want to be startled awake—I mean spiritually awake. I want to feel more than I felt before.

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

A: When I was a child I walked into a pasture full of horses and colts who were grazing and playing in the late afternoon. I totally disrupted their harmony; they became angry, afraid, disconnected. But I knew one of the horses and I climbed onto his back. I sat completely silent and I watched as the trusting community reformed around me. I was no longer an alien. I was one of them. The late afternoon light was golden. The sound of the pasture was pure like a lute. There was nothing to fear. There was nothing do but be. Later, I walked into the farmhouse, and I remember looking at the people gathered for dinner as if they were aliens. They didn’t know about where I’d come from. They didn’t understand. There was a world of wonder, of harmony, simplicity and grace just outside the door. I suppose all children have an experience like this; that’s why so many children’s books are about secret worlds, passageways, doors, rabbit holes, hidden gardens. All children who are lucky enough to be able to find a patch of peace. All children lucky enough to be able to spend time in nature. This is why peace and nature, both so imperiled, so wounded, so undervalued and mistreated, are so important. Our imaginations live there. The theater opens the door into worlds we didn’t know existed. It lets us in. It takes us in. The theater lets us be with the mystery. When we leave we feel blessed, like initiates into a sacred trust.

Q: Plugs Please:

A: Another Life will be part of a four-play “9/11 Play Series” this September 8,9,10 at the Gerald Lynch Theater at John Jay College in Manhattan. It will run for three weeks in March 2012 at the Irondale Ensemble Theater in my neighborhood Clinton Hill/Fort Greene Brooklyn.

We’re raising money for these productions, now. Go to our website www.theaterthreecollaborative.org for information. We are about to launch a funding campaign on United States Artists website.

Join us Monday, April 25, 5:30-7pm at the Drama Book Shop 250 West 40th St., NY, NY as we Celebrate the Publication of Acts of War Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays

edited by Karen Malpede, Michael Messina, Bob Shuman

Foreword by Chris Hedges Introduction by Karen Malpede

Guantanamo by Victoria Brittain & Gillian Slovo
American Tet by Lydia Stryk
The Vertical Hour by David Hare
Prophecy by Karen Malpede
9 Circles by Bill Cain
No Such Cold Thing by Naomi Wallace
A Canopy of Stars by Simon Stephens

A reading from the 7 plays begins promptly at 5:40 With:

George Bartenieff
Kathleen Chalfant
Brendan Donaldson
Najla Said
Loren Sharpe

Wine, snacks & best of all, books

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Thank you for this. Inspiring.