Sep 30, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 387: Jon Kern
photo by RJ Tolan
Hometown: New York (Manhattan)
Current Town: New York (Brooklyn)
Q: Tell me about We in Silence Hear a Whisper.
A: We in Silence Hear a Whisper tells the story of a young refugee girl trying to survive in Sudan as she’s pursued by the malevolent Man on a Horse. To do the Hollywood thing, the play is No Country for Old Men meets Alice in Wonderland meets a Nicholas Kristoff NYT column on the genocide in Sudan. My first ideas for the play came in 2004, when I was reading those Kristoff columns. I didn’t begin writing the play until 2008 when I had a deadline for an EST/Youngblood reading. I wanted to see if I could write about something as soul crushing as genocide while still having the elements of good entertainment: humor, action, and empathy. An older draft of the play is responsible for my being awarded a Van Lier Fellowship at New Dramatists, which basically stopped me from quitting play writing. It’s very gratifying to see the play finally get produced [thanks to Red Fern and Melanie Williams] after many, many, many rewrites.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I’m presently working on rewrites for my chopsocky multi-ethnic identity play Tapefaces: Legend of a Kung Fu Master – Season 1 DVD with the director Sherri Barber for Ars Nova’s ANT Fest. I’m waiting around as my agent shops my best full-length Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them, which is its own kind of Beckettian work. Currently, I’m helping the playwright Carla Ching hone her play The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness as dramaturg/drinking buddy. Soon, I’m to begin developing a new play with the Civilians R&D Group on internet addiction. I also have an outstanding [as in late] Sloan Commission, which makes it hard for me to look EST’s Graeme Gillis in the eye. And my agent wants me to work on this comedy about a college football so he doesn’t have to try to sell chopsocky multi-ethnic identity plays to a wary off-Broadway community.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: The hardest I ever worked in school – elementary or high school – was on crafting jokes. And I was a nerd. I used to have to double bag my textbooks in two brown Macy’s Cellar bags because my backpack was already packed to the ripping point. The first instance of hard work was in 5th grade, when for parents’ day, I wrote a commercial sketch for Billy Bob’s Bar-b-que Sauce, a parody of the Folger’s crystals commercials where they would surprise customers with the reveal that the coffee they ordered was in fact Folger’s! Replace “Folger’s” with “Billy Bob’s Bar-b-que Sauce,” add a bunch of kids doing over-the-top Southern accents, and you get the idea. It was this moment that I first knew I wanted to be a writer. The second instance of hard work was in senior year of high school when I stayed up all night crafting comedy bits from The New York Times articles for a presentation on The Daily Show. Many years later I found out a friend of mine didn’t believe I wrote the jokes. Accusations of plagiarism: the highest of compliments. From these two experiences I realized the only thing I can conceive worth spending hours and hours of energy and effort to do well is entertaining other people. Everything else, such as making money or being an adult human being, seems unimportant.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: “Theater” is not a monolith. There are many different kinds of and forms of theater going on, each with their own specific issues to address. I’m not sure there is a single panacea for the multi-faced commercial art known as “theater.” If I had to reach, the one thing I can think of that applies somewhat universally is the lack of well-executed sword fights. Sword fights have been exciting entertainment for millennia. Anything that wishes to label itself as “theater” could stand a few more sword fights. I too am guilty of this.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I could give a list of famous names [Chekhov, Pinter, Churchill] or slightly less famous names [Lloyd Suh, New Dramatists], or seem sentimental and say my parents, whose self-dramatizing nature and emotional neglect truly helped to create most of my characters’ voices. [I love you, Mom and Dad!] But instead I choose to interpret this question with the answer, “My favorite theatrical superhero is Nightcrawler: he could teleport, his appearance made him an outsider, and I believe he quoted from Shakespeare a couple of times in the Alan Davis run on Excalibur.”
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I fell out of my front row seat from laughing when I saw Quinn Bauriedel, Geoff Sobelle, and Trey Lyford’s Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines at Here Arts Center. I also loved, and still think upon, the Foundry Theater’s production of Ariana Reines’s Telephone. The connecting thread between these two shows is lost on me, and I’m inside my own head.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Learn to cook. It saves you money, and makes for better parties. Also, don’t be afraid to ask people for assistance, even if you feel they are more successful than you, and don’t get discouraged if they say no. Even when they say no, they wish they could say yes.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: We in Silence Hear a Whisper runs from October 5 - 23 at The Theater at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, produced by Red Fern Theater Company. For tickets and showtimes and other such details, go to here: http://redferntheatre.org/p_we_in_silence_hear_a_whisper.asp
Tapefaces: Legend of a Kung Fu Master – Season 1 DVD will be a part of Ars Nova’s ANT Fest on Nov. 15. You can get tickets, and see a disturbing photo, here: http://www.arsnovanyc.com/index.php/lineup/149-tapefaces-legend-of-a-kung-fu-master-season-1-dvd
Carla Ching’s The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness runs from November 8 - December 4 at The Connelly Theater, 220 E 4th St., produced by the Ma-Yi Theater Company. To found out more about this play [which I am proud to be associated with], go here: http://www.ma-yitheatre.org