Jan 14, 2013
I Interview Playwrights Part 546: Kiran Rikhye
Hometown: I'm from New York City.
Current Town: Still here in New York!
Q: Tell me about The Man Who Laughs.
A: The Man Who Laughs is a "live silent film for the stage"--the whole show is designed to look and sound like a silent film of the 1920s, right down to black-and-white makeup, costumes, and sets, title cards projected onto a screen, and live piano accompaniment. There will even be popcorn at the show to complete the movie experience! The play is (loosely) based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, and tells the story of Gwynplaine, an orphan whose face has been surgically carved into a permanent smile. Gwynplaine gains fame and a modest fortune by performing as a clown/freak alongside his adoptive sister, Dea, and adoptive father, Ursus, a surly ventriloquist. They're quite a happy, quirky little family...until a debauched duchess becomes fascinated by Gwynplaine's face and seduces him away from his family, with disastrous results. There's a little melodrama, a little romance, a little slapstick comedy...a little of everything!
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I'm very excited to be working on Stolen Chair's upcoming (currently untitled) show which will debut in the spring at the Cibar martini lounge on Irving Place in Manhattan. It's in the very early stages of development, and I'd be hard-pressed to tell you what the heck it's about or who the characters are...but that's part of what's exciting about it. I've been given the task of writing a play for this unusual performance space, and now I get to concoct a whole plot and cast of characters specifically to fit that space. The constraints are both challenging and freeing, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what the piece ends up being...I'm thinking it'll have something to do with the art of the martini, perhaps.
Q: Tell me about Stolen Chair.
A: I founded Stolen Chair ten years ago with my Co-Artistic Director (and Stolen Chair's resident director), Jon Stancato, and we've been creating and producing original works of theatre ever since. We strive to make work that's playfully intellectual, exuberantly athletic, aesthetically promiscuous, and wickedly irreverent, and that challenges and delights audiences in inventive and constantly evolving ways. I think our company is unusual in that we have both a playwright's and director's vision at our core: sometimes we're playwright-centered, sometimes director-centered, sometimes we're a strange hybrid of both. In addition to that, each new production begins with a collaborative retreat in which actors and designers bring their own creative ideas to the table, so we get quite a potent mix of influences going in to every show. Though I'm sure our process wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, I find it to be incredibly gratifying (and I'd like to think it yields interesting work, too!).
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Hmmm...Well, when I was about five, my parents took me to see a production of The Mikado, and I was thrilled...until Koko the Lord High Executioner came out wielding an enormous axe. I *knew* that it was just a play, and I *knew* that the axe was real, and yet there was a part of me that wondered "What if...? What if it *is* real? What if that character is going to walk through the aisles and decapitate audience members as part of the show?" I think by the middle of the first act I had convinced my father to leave our seats and stand in the back, just in case things turned ugly.
I'd say this explains a lot about me, including that:
1. I had an overactive imagination and a bit of a morbid streak.
2. I probably take theatre a little too seriously
3. I really love the way theatre can still us pull us into that peculiar "it's real but it isn't but it sort of is..."
4. I really, really hate audience participation and try to avoid it in my own work.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I'd love to erase the divide between traditional and "edgy"/experimental. I'd love it if telling a "traditional story" didn't automatically imply that the style was going to be naturalistic, and if using non-naturalistic techniques (mask, dance, what have you), didn't automatically imply that the play was not plot and character driven. There's actually a lot of work that crosses those lines, yet somehow, I think a lot of people still have the idea that good old fashioned stories have to be told through good old fashioned realism. I wish it would stop seeming so groundbreaking to tell good old fashioned stories through experimental means and vice versa.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company are biggies. Though I never saw their work live, seeing videos of the work and reading Ludlam's scripts, I'm inspired by the ways he tried to make his audience laugh and feel at the same time, and by the ways in which his work is earnest and ironic, irreverent and intelligent and silly and highfalutin all at once.
Moliere is another hero--for some of the same reasons. (I'm sure it's no coincidence that both Ludlam and Moliere were playwrights at the center of companies. I've been very inspired by the company model, by playwrights who form long-term artistic relationships with actors and directors and who are accountable to a team of mutually supportive artists.)
Then there are the individual writers whose work never ceases to delight and fascinate me, and those range from Oscar Wilde to Amy Freed to David Henry Hwang.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I've found myself truly inspired by everything ranging from kitchen-sink realism to grand opera, but, if I had to choose a single kind of theatre that excites me, I'd say it's theatre that wears its theatre-ness on its sleeve. I love that theatre actually cannot mimic reality as well as film can. So I love stage illusion that asks the audience to suspend disbelief very actively, to believe in a world that very obviously isn't real. Looking at shows that recently came to New York, I think War Horse is a good example of this. You know that horse is a puppet, but that doesn't make you care about it less. It might even make you care about it more, even though it's "fake"...
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Everyone's path is so different that it's hard to think of one piece of advice that really applies across the board (how’s that for a copout answer?). That said...if I had one piece of advice, I think it would be to get your work up in front of an audience as often as possible, even if it's just a group of friends gathering in someone's living room to hear a reading. For one thing, having to present your work forces you to dot your i's, cross your t's, put a period at the end of the last line, and call the darn play finished. Taking your time and slowly revising are important, but having to consider a script "finished," at least temporarily, is important, too. For another thing, I think putting your work in the hands of actors and, if possible, a director, tells you so much about what you're writing. It's so important to see what happens to your work when other people bring their perspectives to it--after all, at the end of the day, you're only one part of the theatre-making process. What happens when an actor takes an approach to a character that you never could have imagined? Or when a director simply doesn't understand the natural rhythms that you thought were so obviously written in to the piece? Sometimes those encounters make you realize there are things you want to revise, other times they make you see your own work in a new light, and, yes, sometimes they just make you feel that your work is being misinterpreted. But whatever happens, I think it helps you grow. Lastly, practice makes perfect, so the more we write, the better I think we get at it, and creating opportunities for your work to be seen is a good way to keep yourself writing.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: The Man Who Laughs opens on January 31 at Urban Stages in New York! For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.stolenchair.org or call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444.
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