Monday, November 28, 2011
I Interview Playwrights Part 408: Sherry Kramer
Hometown: Springfield, MO. Queen City of the Ozarks. Buckle of the Bible Belt.
Current Town: Dorset, VT and NYC
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A Thing of Beauty and the Fat Faculty Member and Redemption.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Well, I guess the time I was doing in high school doing Dramatic Interpretation is probably a slice of essential DNA about me as a writer and a person. I was on the debate team, and you went on buses to cities in your state and region to compete, it was sort of like Sex 101 for nerds, really, you stayed over night in hotels and learned all kinds of things. I was never a great debater because I tended to make my facts up and I’m not by nature a compelling liar, but you also could compete in Dramatic Interpretation, which was acting scenes and monologues. I actually won first place one year with a selection from Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT, that’s the kind of material that wins those sorts of competitions (I saved that trophy for years, lost it in the floods we had from Irene) but one year I decided to do comedy instead of drama, and I picked the scene from Othello where he strangles Desdemona. When you do interp, you play however many parts there are in a scene, so that meant I had to strangle myself. I thought this was hilarious. I also knew I had to do it absolutely straight, or it wouldn’t be funny. So I did it. As seriously as I could. A little 7 minute scene, and at the end of it I strangled myself. Then I did Othello’s lines, did a little bow, looked up at my judges: three theatre teachers from tiny towns in rural Missouri. You know that moment in The Producers (the film) when they look at the audience’s faces after Springtime for Hitler? And their mouths are all open down to their knees, they’re so horrified? That’s the way those three judges looked.
They say that shame is the most corrosive emotion there is. Most serial killers and psychopaths were brutally shamed when they were children, right? To this day I still feel like I want to go back in time and tell those judges, THIS IS FUNNY GODDAMN IT!! WHY DON’T YOU GET IT? But they didn’t. This
was maybe 1969 and they’d never seen anything like this. We take comedy like this for granted now. I was 15 years old, this was kind of the postmodern highlight of my career and it was not appreciated. I think I didn’t ever actually recover. I still see those three judges faces in my mind way too much in some way.
Q: What can a student in your playwriting class expect?
A: That depends on the student, and what has happened to them before they take one of my classes.
Most playwrights are always actively seeking a better way to understand how to make their plays better, so they’re generally open to whatever you want to teach them when they come to a workshop or class. But if they’ve been taught the conventional ways of understanding structure, they can expect a disorientating experience for a while, a kind of conceptual vertigo, when they study with me. I teach the perception shift, which is a whole systems, audience-centric way of looking at a play, and people who use the old paradigms to organize the way they think about a work of time-based art usually have a little trouble letting go of the old ways of seeing at first. The central idea in my classes is that the play takes place in the audience. When you look at a play through the lens of the audience’s experience of it, rather than applying some arbitrary model to it, it makes it possible to talk about Pinter or Beckett as easily as O’Neill. After we spend some time looking at a handful of plays, to see what we can learn about the way a play creates the unique laws of gravity that create its world, we have a better chance of knowing how to look at our own work.
It’s important to approach each play that my students write on its own terms, regardless of its style or urges. I like certain kinds of theatre, it’s true, more than others, but I am obsessed with the way that meaning is generated in every kind of play. I get an enormous amount of pleasure out of going on the treasure hunt to discover how a play shapes our experience, how it makes things matter. In my workshops, the only thing that I am really militant about is respect—not for me, but for the members of the workshop.
Every playwriting teacher has obsessions, of course, and their students get roped into them one way or another. My obsessions are visual metaphor—it’s how theatre is as purely and completely and essentially theatre as it can be--and the issue of choice and consequence. Nothing makes me more irritated than a big reveal at the end of a play that doesn’t cause a choice. So most of my students can expect to hear a lot about those things.
I teach graduate students at the Michener Center for Writers/MFA Playwriting program at UT Austin and the Iowa Playwrights Workshop on a randomly regular basis, and I teach undergraduates at Bennington College. Playwrights are pretty much my favorite people (other than poets, of course, but poets and playwrights are essentially the same except the playwrights are bigger gluttons for public punishment.) I’ve been exquisitely lucky in the writers I’ve had the honor to teach. I’m writing a book about playwriting (who hasn’t? who isn’t?) and I’ve designed it so my former students can collaborate with me on it. It’s a collaborative art form, after all.
Q; If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I’m so glad you asked. If someone would give me 2 million dollars, I’d develop a two year training program to change the critical conversation in the county. Here’s how I’d do it: I’d take a bunch of those amazing dramaturges our MFA programs are training--smart, articulate people who are passionate about the theatre, who love it and know so much about it—and I’d train them to be our theatre critics by putting them in close relationships with the truly magnificent critics—hey, there are some!—around the country, let them apprentice with them (think apprentice like in Star Wars, not Donald Trump) and see how the critics who love the theatre write about it with passion, intelligence and wisdom. I’d make the conversation about our art form local and national at the same time by putting put these critics, two and three to a city, all over the country. After three months in one city I’d move them to another city, and after two years these dramaturge/critics would have seen work not just in New York and one or two other places, but collectively would have a relationship with theatre everywhere. They would post their writing on a website that would be a place to go to join a conversation about theatre everywhere. Wouldn’t it be great if you could read 2 or 3 pieces of critical writing about a new play in Seattle by critics you have been following, people who are not interested in their “power” or the power of their paper to close a show or make it a hit, or in making/breaking theatres and writers, but in writing about how theatre becomes an essential part of the American experience. About how we can make theatre that matters to people, not just to other artists or to satisfy some insular/insulated assortment of ideas. I have lived in Austin, where the critical voices and the unconditional support for theatre by the press has made a place where amazing theatre happens, where no good work gets blown off, where theatre and theatre going is a part of people’s lives. If we could make that happen all over the country, we would be part of making theatre that would do what theatre is meant to do—to recall people to their higher selves.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Robert LePage, whose productions can stop time. Theatre Complicete, whose productions can stop time. Tennesse Williams, master of the visual metaphor and, not, coincidentally, longing and regret. All the artists who made The Photographer, the production that changed my understanding of scale and sequence. Robert Crowley, for his gift of dramatic beauty and elegance.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Well, theatre is my drug of choice, and like any drug its attraction is that it makes the user feel beautiful and brave and capable of great things. A really great drug makes you think you’re never going to die. Theatre’s like that. It makes me feel capable of understanding other people and being understood. It connects me, makes me less afraid and less alone and gives me the courage and permission to practice compassion.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Find your collaborators. Make theatre that matters to you wherever you are. Don’t make wrong choices for what you think are smart reasons, EVER. Don’t use an actor more than three times in a workshop situation unless you are willing to go to the mat for them when it comes time to cast them. Obey the three-block rule after you see a play. Avoid bitterness. It is the soul killer.