May 6, 2013
I Interview Playwrights Part 577: Ken Ferrigni
Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri
Current Town: Astoria, Queens
Q: Tell me about Occupation.
A: OCCUPATION takes place a few years from now. A series of economic catastrophes have struck the US and it can no longer borrow money. China, depending on American as a trading partner, offers America 5 trillion dollars in exchange for the state of Florida. A group of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans form an insurgency behind an evangelical Christian leader, protesting what they see as the illegal transfer of Florida to China. The play concerns the final days of that insurgency.
The play started as kind of a thought experiment. I had just seen Sebastian Junger's documentary “Restrepo” and I thought that the Afghan insurgency might be the most interesting story in the world. But I didn't know any Afghani actors, had never been to Afghanistan, etc. So I thought could I create an American analog? So I swapped Afghanistan's Korengal valley for the Everglades, the Afghani Mujahideen for this next generation of American veterans, Islamic fundamentalism for Evangelical Christianity. And of course instead of an American occupying force, it would be America's creditor: the People's Republic of China.
My goal was to see how big a story I could tell. I'd seen a lot of family dramas, plays about 26-year-olds who were having trouble in their dating lives, and what I thought were essentially indie films masquerading as plays. So, the goal here was to personalize some of these extraordinary geo-political and religious conflicts into an American idiom. The result has been really exciting.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I just finished a short film that's going to be shot this May about an assistant in HR department who is tasked by the president of the company to to fire the head of HR, sort of an Apocalypse Now meets Office Space thing. I'm also working on a couple of full length plays as well as continually revising my 19th Century bomb-throwing epic about Felice Orsini. I write nearly every month for “Our Bar,” an hour-long series of vignettes at an upstairs bar in Murray Hill produced by Jessi Blue Gormezano and Project: Theater.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: Having worked a lot regionally as an actor in St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Florida, I guess the thing I'd love most would be if the regional theatre model wasn't just a New York play distribution model. I remember working in St. Louis and watching plays about Manhattan roll in and they really had nothing to do with the people in the audience. I kind of wish that theatrical regional tastes were like culinary regional tastes and we might know the differences between a Arizona-developed play and Nebraska-developed play enough to celebrate them. Of course, it's entirely possible that there are tons of people in the US theatre establishment who already have this awareness and I'm just slow on the uptake.
Also, I wish Broadway theatre tickets didn't cost more than a day's wage for most NYC theatre practioners. If you bought tickets at the box office to all the shows that were nominated for the Tonys this year, you dropped more than 3 grand.
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 started doing theatre in Boy Scouts when I was ten and it wasn't called theatre. They were just called 'skits.' It sounds wholesome but this was in the city of St. Louis in the late 80s. I was a Boy Scout in a troop where kids stole bikes from each other. Fights were pretty regular. Standing up in front of that group felt really dangerous and rarely went well. I think that aesthetic – that the audience is hostile, they want to be entertained and quickly, that the stage is not a nice place but a place of danger- has been a big part of how I developed in the theatre.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: The ones who persevere. I've been at this for a while as an actor and a playwright and I've watched a lot of friends hang it up. So when I see a guy like Alex Roe at Metropolitan Playhouse whose been at this a lot longer than I have and he's producing great shows and he seems not only happy and talented but also sane, it's an inspiration.
I also love actors who dive in on to new plays. Actors who aren't content to give their special spin on established roles but who want to create new people and new characters and give voice to things that nobody's ever seen. It takes guts and smarts and talent.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: OCCUPATION runs June 6 to June 23 at TBG Theatre (312 W. 36th Street). You can find out more at chinabuysflorida.com. And if you want to come have a beer with me and catch some short plays, stop by “Our Bar” on the first Wednesday of the month at Failte Irish Whiskey Bar (531 2nd Avenue) or ourbarnyc.com.
Books by Adam