May 21, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 455: Ken Kaissar
Hometown: Indianapolis, IN
Current Town: Yardley, PA (Philly Suburb)
Q: Tell me about A Modest Suggestion.
A: A MODEST SUGESTION is a dark comedy that explores the absurdity of hatred and bigotry towards people of a certain ethnicity. It deals with genocide against Jews in a very flippant manner, which I know is incendiary because the reality of such a horrifying event has not been confined to fiction. I’m not trying to piss people off, though I know that has been the result on a few occasions. I’m sort of making a point that when it comes to genocide, although most people agree that it’s horrible and must be stopped, they are somewhat ambivalent and not all that concerned that it is taking place. It’s happening as we speak, and how many of us are going out of our way to stop it? For all intents and purposes, we’re all somewhat flippant about it. It’s as though our honest to god attitude about it is, “Eh, whatever. What’s for dinner?”
A MODEST SUGGESTION became complicated, however. I realized as I was writing that I was tackling more than just hatred and genocide. I was writing about identity as a whole. I didn’t mean to do this. It just happened organically through an earnest desire to find the comedy of the situation, making it all the more absurd.
As the 4 businessmen in my play decide they are going to kill a Jew to see how it feels, I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if these guys decided that their victim is not Jewish enough?
Jewish identity in America is complicated. There are Jews who observe their religion on so many different levels, and each group is constantly judging the other. The Orthodox judge Reform Jews for not being observant enough. And Reform Jews judge the Orthodox for not living in a more modern, American world grounded in the immediate needs and concerns of today. There is great tension between these groups. So I naturally wanted to poke fun at these disagreements and exploit the tension for comic affect.
The play is about an intensely serious subject and draws from a very dark moment in human history. But there are parts of it that truly make me laugh, and it makes me happy when I can get others to suspend their seriousness for a few moments and laugh with me.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I’m currently writing a comedy that takes place at a nudist colony. Good luck getting that one produced, right? But when we can get over our hang-ups about nudity and divorce the body from the usual sexual context that it’s always trapped in, I think the naked body is downright hilarious!
I hope this play will be another opportunity for people to laugh about something we take so damn serious. In general, I think everyone just needs to lighten up, about almost everything!
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 was a member of an immigrant family that constantly struggled to understand the culture in which it lived. My family was constantly trying to go with the flow as a way of getting a handle on American society. We were lost, and I learned very early on that my parents were not making headway on “getting it”. So I had to take initiative. I started becoming an astute observer and student of American behavior to try to figure out how I could fit in more.
To give you an idea of how lost my parents were, my father received a marketing call once and they told him that if he came into the office to hear a sales pitch, he would receive a free gift. Well, most Americans would hang up on such a call. Not my father. Not only did he go, but the entire family dropped everything we were doing, we all put on our Sunday best (I wore a suit), and we all attended a sales pitch on carving knives.
Another time, our next door neighbor knocked on our door to fundraise for some social cause that she was working for. My mother assumed the beer can she was holding was a receptacle for the collection. As she tried tenaciously to slip a bill into the beer, the woman jerked the can away with the following verbal reflex: “Get out of my beer.” My mother assumed the beer can was a pushke, a traditional Jewish can used for collecting charity. We were all lost.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: What I would change has less to do with theater itself and more to do with how people perceive theater. Everyone is so obsessed with content. What’s the play about? Who cares? It’s a play. It’s an expression of what it means to be alive. It’s about life. It’s about being a human being. Just come, someone has something to say. We are gathering to hear what it is.
I hate that content always makes or breaks whether someone will attend a piece of theatre. I write a lot about Jews and about the Middle East (I was born in Israel). Everyone is always interested in these plays, and I’m glad. I’m not complaining. But I’ve also written beautiful plays that are simple: a man meets a beautiful woman on a park bench. These plays always get ignored. People want the big stuff. The more subtle expressions just don’t get much stage time.
If I could, I would make people more open towards expression in the theatre and get them to stop asking, “What’s the play about?” as a determining factor of whether to attend or not? This question should always be answered as follows: “It’s about you.”
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Oscar Wilde. Anton Chekhov. Bernard Shaw. David Mamet. Charles Mee. Tony Kushner. Gina Gionfriddo. Annie Baker.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Incendiary theatre that tends to get the audience’s goat. Challenging theatre. Bold theatre. Theatre that is the opposite of PC. I also enjoy theatre that breaks all the rules. Work that excites me is work that someone once responded to with, “you can’t do that in theatre.” I like when opinions like that get shut down.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Be kind and open to everybody. This business is all about networking and that doesn’t mean kissing up to famous people at a cocktail party. It means working with your peers and friends, and having them be excited about working with you. So be kind to everyone. Make every member of your community a friend. There is simply no room for bad blood in this field. Have lots of patience and enjoy the ride.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: My play CEASEFIRE is being produced by the Fusion Theatre Company in Albuquerque running June 7 – 11th. My play THE VICTIMS OR WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO ABOUT IT is being produced by the Jewish Theatre Workshop in Baltimore next June.