Oct 31, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 518: Adam Hahn
Hometown: Burlington, IA
Current Town: Los Angeles
Q: Tell me about Kong.
A: KONG: A Goddamn Thirty-Foot Gorilla started as a project in a class on adaptation in the Hollins Playwright's Lab, taught by Jeff Goode. I told Jeff that I was considering adapting King Kong, but I had convinced myself it was impossible. He pushed me to try it anyway.
My first resistance and attraction to the idea came from the physical impossibility of the staging: I knew Ann and Kong would need to interact with each other. I knew I would want a gorilla fighting a dinosaur--preferably on a small stage, with the audience just a few feet away.
My script evolved through a lot of riffing on the source material: I connected to a couple of characters with monologues several years after Kong's death. I twisted conversations from the original to springboard farcical scenes about gender and power. I got to the racial subtext by talking about Noble Johnson, one of the biggest African American actors of the era.
I ended up with something that is part commentary, part parody, part history lesson, part sincere re-telling of the greatest ape/human love story of all time. It's also a playground for designers and a ride for the audience. It's a show that takes people a lot of places in a very short period of time.
For the premiere production by SkyPilot Theatre in Los Angeles, I was able to get a team (many people, but I want to mention director Jaime Robledo and scenic and prop designer Tifanie McQueen) who could stage the impossible, along with actors who could perform it.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I'm at the early stages on a project I'm calling The Mermaid Wars. I'm conceiving this more as a collection than an individual play: Some monologues and scenes should stand on their own, sections that could be serialized, and other scenes that could be added or removed for different theatres. I want to create an experience that's different in every production, with audiences getting a complete evening of theatre but not every piece of the puzzle.
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 went through elementary school right after D.A.R.E became popular. This is an anti-drug program that most American children in public schools go through, despite decades of research finding no discernible benefit. In fact, there is evidence that students who go through D.A.R.E actually become more likely to use drugs.
In the fifth grade, a police officer came to our school every couple of weeks to teach us the difference between stimulants and depressants, give us a list of ways to say no, or show movies about teenagers getting high and living to regret it.
Our last assignment before the "graduation" ceremony where we would be issued our D.A.R.E t-shirts was an essay on what we had learned from the program. I wrote a page or two stating that the program had been a waste of my time: by the age of ten I had already decided not to do drugs, and I didn't need to have my school day interrupted to have that decision reinforced.
The police officer read my essay and thanked me for being honest.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Fortunately, a lot of people I've been able to know and spend some time working with or being instructed by.
Jeff Goode. I encountered his play The Eight: Reindeer Monologues in high school, and that did a lot to inform my thinking about what a play could be. He's become a friend, a mentor, a guide as I wrote KONG, and my MFA thesis advisor.
As much as any individual, the institution of No Shame Theatre. This was started at the University of Iowa in 1986 by Todd Ristau (now program director of the Hollins Playwright's Lab), Jeff Goode, and other unruly theatre students as an anything-goes late-night venue for short new pieces of theatre. Anything is acceptable, within three basic rules: original works only, every piece must end within five minutes, and no piece can break the theatre/audience/performers/law. Every show is assembled by accepting the first fifteen writers standing in line: no selection committee, no censorship, little technical support, and sometimes very little rehearsal. Not every piece is good. In fact, some pieces are terrible, but five minutes later something completely different has taken their place. Every show I've seen has included some piece that made the evening worth it, and the best shows include a couple of bad pieces, a couple of interesting pieces that don't quite succeed, several good pieces, and a few minutes of transcendent theatre. By the time I started going to No Shame in 1999, there were a handful of active chapters scattered across the country. I've participated in No Shame in at least five states. I can't name all of the people who have won my respect by taking the freedoms of this venue and running with them. My heroes are the people who experimented, expanded their skill sets, or worked their way toward perfection in whatever form they pursuing. There are a few monologues, songs, thirty-second comedy sketches, juggling acts, or creative pieces of staging that will probably inform my writing for the rest of my life.
And some of the improv performers/teachers at iO West (formerly Improv Olympic West) in Los Angeles. Again, there are way too many individuals to mention. You can sit in this theatre any night of the week, and you'll see something amazing, at least for a few minutes. Craig Cackowski and Shulie Cowen are just two of my heroes, for their work on stage and in the classroom.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I'm excited by theatre that isn't afraid of being more than one thing. I like shifting between comedy and drama.
I'm excited by small spaces and the innovations that come with small budgets.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Don't limit your definitions of "play" or "theatre." There's no hard line that separates what we do from sketch comedy, stand-up, ballet, rock concerts, professional wresting, magic shows, theme park design, or kindergarten teaching. Pretending that playwriting is something else will only limit your toolkit and imagination. You can learn as much about theatre watching a church service or children's storytime as you can watching a play.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: SkyPilot Theatre, which is presenting KONG: A Goddamn Thirty-Foot Gorilla through November 25th. This is one of the few companies in Los Angeles that devotes itself completely to new works, developed by a group of resident playwrights.
The Hollins Playwrights Lab in Roanoke, VA. A low-residency MFA program, where students from around the country come together for six weeks of classes every summer. Like the program Facebook page for more information, as well as updates on student and alumni productions.