Nov 15, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 527: Robert Koon
Hometown: I’m an Air Force brat, so this is a tough question. I was born in Harlingen, Texas, grew up mostly in central California, and there are also odd sprinklings of Virginia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, and Oklahoma.
Current Town: Chicago. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else, so that’s where I say I’m from.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Rewrites of three plays (HOMECOMING 1972, CYCLIST ATTACKED BY MOUNTAIN LION, and THE GREEN COMMAND, plus notes on a new one. I’m also working on a fifth of Jameson’s.
Q: How would you characterize the Chicago theater scene?
A: Everyone uses the word “community,” and it’s the perfect word to use. People are conscious of being in a community, of how the success of the community benefits everyone. Companies work together, individual artists cross the boundaries of company affiliation fairly easily, people always go to see other people’s shows, relationships are tremendously important. I don’t know whether this is a product of the Chicago focus on the ensemble, or whether the focus on the ensemble is a natural product of working in a community, but people work together—fairly successfully for the most part. Which is really how it should be, and it’s always a surprise when I go somewhere else and find that it doesn’t really work that way all the time. Successful communities support each other, and Chicago’s community is pretty successful.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When I was a kid we moved a lot, every year it seemed, and it was difficult to feel a sense of belonging, of rootedness. And my grandmother would come visit and tell me stories of growing up in western Oklahoma in the time when it was still basically the frontier (pre-WW I), and even though that time was far removed from where we were I still felt connected to the time, rooted in the place, and part of those people. I think that’s still what drives me—the need to tell stories to find connection with the times, with a place, and with people.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: That more people could get paid decently for their work, even if it means that fewer get paid exorbitantly. That people who deserve to have their work seen would have their work seen, regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity. That an ethic that says that the work is more important than the building was more widely held. That literary offices were not the first things to go when there are financial challenges. That informed and engaged criticism were the rule rather than the exception. OK, that’s five things, but if I have the power to change things about theater I’m not stopping at one thing.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: I don’t know what it means to have a hero, really, but whenever anyone asks me that question the name Horton Foote always comes to mind. Of course, there is a lot of other work I admire, by a lot of different people—writers, actors, directors—but I don’t know if I would attach the word “hero” to them. Of course, if you think of a hero as someone who has great visions and dares great things in the face of some pretty steep odds, then you can find heroes in any theatre anywhere. And I don’t care if that sounds like pandering—if the people around you don’t inspire you, you really need to start hanging around with new people.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Theatre that embraces a sense of the unpredictable. When a character in a play does something that seems 100% opposite to what you might expect, and yet you see that of course it was the only thing they could do, that’s a Wow moment for me. Then, anything can happen. I like ragged edges, I like knowing that it’s all happening in front of me and feeling like it’s the first time it ever happened and no one knows what’s coming next. People are unpredictable and contrary, and when characters are unpredictable and defy expectation—and it works—then that is tremendously exciting. Live performance lives more in the moments where it’s not perfect than where it is, and while we always try to get it right the gap between our ability to aspire and our ability to achieve is where the humanity comes into our work. Transcendence lives in that gap, and when we are able to make that leap, that’s amazing.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Hmmm…how about “Go slam your hand in a car door, because trying to live by using your fingers is just going to cause you pain and you might as well get used to it.” Maybe that’s not entirely inspiring or informative, though…
See lots of plays. Read. Write lots, even if you don’t think it’s good. Remember that when you stop trying to make everything perfect you have a much better chance of actually being good. Study acting—theatre is an actor’s medium, and the thing that gets an audience from “Lights up” to “End of play” is not our wit, or our poetry, or the great social themes we embrace, but rather the relationship they form with the people on stage. Giving characters things to do is more important than giving them things to say. Every writer hates their work at some point—do the work anyway. Finish your plays--the big difference between writers who get produced and writers who don’t is that writers who get produced finish their plays. Then they send them out—that is important, too. If you wait until it’s perfect, you’ll never get anything done.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: ODIN’S HORSE just closed in Seattle, so the next thing is HOMECOMING 1972, opening this spring at Chicago Dramatists.