Apr 10, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 440: Daniel John Kelley
Daniel John Kelley
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My latest play is Wall, Ball, Summer And Fall (A Coney Island Adventure). It's a play about Handball. It follows a young, privileged boy from Brooklyn Heights who runs away to Coney Island when he discovers his dad has lost his job. There, he meets Moses Dirko- the master of handball, who speaks like he lives in ancient times, but actually lives with his grandmother. Moses takes the boy under his wing, and shows him his world and the majestic, mythic ways of handball. Is this man a hero of legend, to be revered and followed? Or is he merely delusional manchild who worships a kid's game? The boy must decide the path he will take before Coney Island crumbles around him, and summer turns into fall…
I'm also starting to work on a new play about opera lovers who work at a small publishing firm, and experience the collapse of their own personal lives, their company and the American economy over the course of five years as they attend a new production of Wagner's Ring Cycle. Are these merely people whose lives have broken apart? Or are they the fallen Gods themselves? That kind of a thing.
Q: Tell me about the program you're in at Hunter.
A: The Hunter MFA in playwriting is run by the inspiring Tina Howe, along with the equally lovely Mark Bly. It's affordable, and manageable with a full time job, which is really ideal, given the economics of playwriting. And Tina is so wonderful to be in class with! She's been in theatre all her life, seen triumphs and not triumphs, but remains completely unjaded, and passionate about the work- excited to see what you bring in, thrilled at your triumphs, encouraging with your not triumphs. She inspires you to be like her in spirit- to stay unjaded, and to write the big-hearted stories that move you.
Q: You're pro opera. Tell me about why people love opera.
A: I think people love to see the human experience made grand. Despite the tragic nature of many of the stories, opera is a hopeful medium- the largeness of the event, the years of training necessary to play in the orchestra or to sing the music, and the sheer size of opera houses, speak to a belief that human experiences mean something huge and powerful and cosmic, and that that is worth exalting and celebrating. I think people love to feel like they and their experiences matter, in some lofty cosmic way, and so they love the opera.
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 loved old, epic things when I was a kid. Greek Mythology, Norse Mythology, Arthurian legend, Robin Hood, if it was old and epic, I loved it. So naturally I had a very strong interest in classical theatre- one that my parents enthusiastically encouraged. I must have seen every production of Hamlet that was in New York in the 90s, along with all sorts of Chekhov, Ibsen, Calderon, Schiller and the Greeks. In a few years in my formative pre-teens days, however, most of my extended family passed away for various natural or unnatural reasons. So in addition to spending evenings in dark rooms watching old plays by dead people then, I also spent a good deal of time in brightly lit rooms full of old people speaking about the recently deceased. I think the combination of my fascination with the glories of old and forgotten worlds, and my experience of seeing so many family members slip away so suddenly made me acutely aware of both the potential for immortality that we have as humans (something we have absolutely no control over) and how temporary life is (which we also have no control over at all). I like to think that my plays reflect this- that we, and our worlds, can potentially live on forever, and isn't that wondrous and horrifying! But also, everything could end tomorrow, and doesn't that have its own kind of glory and terror as well?
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Everyone says it, but really, access- who gets to be the audience and who gets to be the artists. More kinds of people should be able to see more new stories from more varied perspectives.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I’d say…Verdi, Wagner, The Marx Brothers, Paula Vogel, Tina Howe, Caryl Churchill, Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ionesco.
But also my playwriting teachers, who nudged and encouraged and supported me over the years: Scott Martin, Stuart Spencer, and most recently, Tina Howe.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I love theatre by playwrights that dig deep into unique subject matter in order to ask big questions and reveal startling truths about human nature. I don’t really care what a play is about in terms of subject matter, so long as you dig deep enough at the human roots of the thing you’re writing about, and discover what it is that make us love or loathe it. I love it when I see a play that’s about something I have absolutely no connection to, and the playwright shows me how I not only can connect to it, but makes me question a part of my life because of that connection.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I'm just starting out myself, I feel, so I don't think any "career" advice from me is appropriate. But I will steal something I heard recently from Dan LeFranc when he talked recently at the Dramatist Guild: He talked about having his beginning playwriting students approach their first assignments as "cocktails." Not plays, but "cocktails"- Throw in your favorite flavors, both bitter and sweet, stir, and see if you've got anything that you'd like to drink, that maybe you think you might want to offer to someone else sometime. What I took away from that is the need to approach playwriting from a place of joy: take the things you love and dump them into a play, and see what happens. Write the story about the people you want to celebrate, who have never been celebrated on stage before! Try to make people care about those people as much as you do, to see their pain and struggle and triumphs and failures, so that their story will live for all the ages! Why not try for that? Because, honestly, we could all be dead tomorrow.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: You can read more about my many adventures in playwriting (and my plays) at www.danieljohnkelley.com
I’m curating a project for Howlround this summer called “The Here and Now Project”- you can read more about it here: http://www.howlround.com/the-here-now-project-a-call-for-submissions/