Oct 16, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 393: Kelley Girod
Hometown: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Current Town: Manhattan
Q: What are you working on now?
A: As a producer, I'm going into my 3rd year of producing a play festival that I founded called "The Fire This Time." It's a festival for playwrights of African and African American descent whose stories don't often get told. This festival came about due to my own frustration as a writer. I felt that there was a standard perception of what a "black play" is and I was not writing that play. Other playwrights started to voice the same concern as well. Anything that is written by a black playwright is a black play no matter the content or style. So three years ago myself, Germono Toussaint, Pia Wilson and Radha Blank gathered in a room to discuss this problem and now we are going into our 3rd year of programming from Jan 17th - 25th. This includes our ten minute plays for our new playwrights, readings of full lengths for our 2nd year playwrights and this year we will start producing full productions of our playwrights starting with Pia Wilson's "The Flower Thief" in August 2012! I am very proud of this festival and that we can commit to giving platforms to emerging playwrights.
As a playwright I am working on a new play with Keith Beauchamp who is an emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker. He produced and directed the documentary "The Untold Story of Emmet Louis Til" and is currently the only African American man with his own series on tv, The Injustice Files, on Investigation Discovery, which reopens cold cases from the civil rights era. I am also finally writing a screenplay with my brother John who is a producer down in Louisiana. Both projects are in the early stages so I'll just save you from a very vague, overly conceptualized explanation of what I'm trying to work out:)
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Ok, so I have to give a brief explanation before I tell the story. And now I'm afraid the lead-up is just going to make readers say "Uh, that's it?...." But anyway, the first thing to know is that I am one of TEN children. I am number five. Growing up in a Cajun/Creole family in Louisiana, a big family like ours is actually not uncommon. My mother was one of fourteen herself. Ok, second thing to know, Cajuns and Creoles are very, very unique people. Cajuns are the descendents of the Acadians exiled from Nova Scotia in the Grande Derangement, a historical event made famous by Longfellow's poem "Evangeline." My ancestors were the founders of the first Acadian or Cajun settlement in Louisiana. Creoles are French - speaking people of mixed descent. Both of my parents were raised speaking French and yes, I know a lot of curse words in Cajun and Creole French. So mix big families, with lots of storytelling in broken English, stories that had both the dark and light sides of spirituality and the supernatural, place them all in a city where there isn't much to do and the following story is what you get:
So my siblings and I came up at a time when there wasn't much in the way of playstations, internet etc. Saturdays were spent outside building clubhouses and tents. To be authentic, if we built a clubhouse or tent we had to use the bathroom outside because if we went inside to use the bathroom the whole thing wasn't "real." The girls used a bucket, I'm sure my mom still doesn't know about this. If it was raining we were inside playing our favorite games - church or gangsters depending on how we felt. Our game of gangsters once led me to make a small packet of fake cocaine by putting baking soda in a little ziplock. Suffice it to say my mother was beyond startled when she later found it on the floor. We also enjoyed playing a good game of "house" every now and then. In my favorite episode of that game I played the teenage daughter who was returning home after a stint in drug rehab. When I entered the room my brother, who was playing the father, sniffed the air and said "I smell LSD."
But it was the game of "Army" that I think really explains me as a writer. In this particular game, in order to be "real," we dragged a garden hose into the house up to the second floor and dropped it from my brother's bedroom window. One of my brothers then climbed down the house into the garden. We were supposed to do the same. This was an army training drill. Another brother was too small to climb down the hose so we were instructed by our "Drill Sergeant" to throw him out of the window, which we did without thinking twice(a soldier never questions his/her leader!) and my brother caught him. I was supposed to be next to climb down the hose when I heard my mother coming up the stairs. I ran like hell and hid in the closet. She walked in, saw the hose out the window and just walked back out. I am sure at that point she had really just had enough.
What I learned from these childhood adventures that still sticks in my writing - play, have fun, take risks and go all the way with them. In childhood we don't think twice about going as far as we need to go no matter where it leads us. When I am writing my plays, that is my adult playground, that is where I am with my siblings again and I am someone else, in a whole new world.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Before suggesting any changes I would want the honest answers to some of theses questions:
Do literary managers actually read the plays that are submitted? And if so, how do they know who is a man or a woman, black or white, and why should any of those things factors into a play being put up? That same question goes to producers, but from them, I'd like to know why a playwright's gender and ethnicity factor into the marketing of a play? Also, when you have a man flying over an audience in a spiderman suit, how do you explain theatre's main aspect - suspension of disbelief through story and staging- to future theatre-makers?
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Tennessee Williams because if you spent as much time in the South around Southern women as I have, you'd understand just why this man was a genius. No one really captures the beauty and complexities of the South and the Southern woman like Williams. Just thinking about the last line of "The Glass Menagerie" gives me chills and makes me want to cry at the same time.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: New plays!
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: 1) Take care of yourself! I can't stress this enough. Exercise, get sleep, eat well. If you don't have health insurance there are always low-income options. When you do finally get your big break, you don't want your reviews being read to you by your nurse at Bellevue.
2) Keep it in perspective. If you ever find yourself complaining to a cancer survivor about how you didn't get into the EWG it may be time to reassess some things. The same goes for if you ever find yourself scouring the internet for bad reviews of a colleague's play. Just not cool.
3)Always surround yourself with people who will be honest with you and learn how to take criticism for what it is.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: Come to The Fire This Time, January 16-25th 2012. Look out for our upcoming website www.firethistimefestival.com!