May 2, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 347: Katie May
Hometown(s): Casper, Wyoming and Boise, Idaho
Current Town: San Francisco, California
Q: Tell me about your commission from SF Playground.
A: This is tough to answer right now. For six months of every season Playground releases a topic to its writers pool of 36 playwrights, everyone has four and a half days to write and submit a ten minute play based on the topic, and once a month Playground gives staged readings to the six “best” plays from that month. At the end of the season there is a Best of Playground Festival featuring productions of six of the strongest plays that were read in the previous six months, as well as staged readings of full length commissions awarded at the end of the previous season. This year they are commissioning three full length plays (to be read in next year’s festival) and each commissioned playwright has proposed three plays that he/she would like to write. Because the commissions are read together as part of a festival, the commissioning process is a little like building a season. So, currently Playground is in the process of figuring out which plays will fit together thematically with out too much overlap. I’m in a holding pattern right now, waiting to see which one they want, which has been an interesting experience unto itself. My plays tend to have long gestation periods. I usually have two or three ideas on the back burner and eventually one will bubble to the surface demanding to be written. Right now I’m keeping all three of them boiling. It’s making me feel a little schizophrenic with all these characters’ voices so consciously on my mind, but I like it. I’ve never had so many plays so ready to go at the same time before. I’m hoping it will make for a productive year.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I have a ten minute play, Rapunzel’s Etymology of Zero, in the Best of Playground Festival this year. I’m in rehearsals for that right now. It’s a math based fairy tale about how Rapunzel is in fact a genius mathematician locked away in her tower. She originates the concept of zero as an actual number—that nothingness is something. It is overtly, unapologetically feminist, but funny too. What’s funnier than math and feminism?
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 grew up in a small town in the middle of Wyoming. It’s the least populated state in the country. I am strangely proud of that. I spent my childhood hunting horned toads, and going hiking on Sundays because my parents (who both came from different, but fiercely religious backgrounds) shunned church in favor of being outdoors. I still have to explain to people that we didn’t ride horses to school (though I can ride a horse), and how hunting funds more conservation efforts than just about anything else (yes I’ve been hunting). Even though I am a giant liberal, which I in turn defend to my family and to everyone else where I grew up. The weird dichotomy of going into the liberal arts after growing up in the two most conservative states in the country, vs. my pride in having grown up there, vs. the interesting mythology projected upon those places, informs a lot of what I do. I guess that’s more of a setting than a story.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Big west coast regional theater companies would invest in, develop, and champion west coast writers and the western aesthetic. I feel a lot of pressure to go East to get produced in order to be taken seriously out here.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Tony Kushner, because I have a background in fiction and he does everything with language that my playwriting professors tried to get me to stop doing. Sarah Ruhl, for her use of stage space, the way her plays move in time, and for giving us a great example what theater can do that film can’t. Lee Blessing for being a structural genius and by all accounts a great teacher. Bill Irwin, Suzan Lori Parks, John Patrick Shanley, Marsha Norman, Caryl Churchill. I’m also a big fan of other types of performance outside of theater. I’m hugely inspired by stand-up comedians Bill Hicks and Demetri Martin. Also, the late Tom Proehl who co-founded Signature Theatre Company, among many other giant contributions to theater, but mostly because he was a fantastic human being.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: There’s a scene in Jurassic Park (the book) where the dinosaur with the poison spit, spits in a guy’s face and then slices him across the belly. He runs away into the jungle with his hand pressed against his stomach trying to keep his organs from falling out. I like plays that eviscerate me like that. The last scene of David Mamet’s Oleanna does it, so does Topdog Underdog by Suzan Lori Parks. Those are two plays where you get up, and you stumble out of the theater holding your guts in your hands.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I’m pretty much the definition of just starting out, so really I have no idea. Find a theater community, put down roots, talk to everyone. I’m more qualified to give advice from the bottom up, which is this: Treat students and the interns like the professionals they will someday become, learn their names, listen to their input. We’re talented, we know how to use social media, and we are incredibly loyal to anyone who made us feel valued on the way up.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Best of Playground Festival runs May 5th to 29th at Thick House in San Francisco. www.playground-sf.org. It’s really a fantastic company that is doing more than just about anyone to commission and develop new work, as well as to invest in their playwriting community.