Wednesday, May 20, 2015

I Interview Playwrights Part 742: Kate Cortesi

Kate Cortesi

Hometown: Washington, D.C.

Current Town:  Brooklyn, New York.

Q:  Tell me about your Princess Grace winning play.

A:  It’s called GREAT KILLS, after a little town in Staten Island. And I suppose for the resonance of those words with a viciousness in the story of this high school girl and her parents in the year she’s applying to college.

The premise is a high school achiever writes a college essay that makes it seem like she came from an abusive home, which is false. She’s a very well-supported, nurtured child, a point of pride for her working-class, Italian-American mother and father.

On the other hand, the violent incident she describes in the essay really did happen. So the essay is a little bit of truth and a whole lot of spin. That thing politicians do all the time, you know, like that gubernatorial candidate in Connecticut who said he “served during the Vietnam War” letting everyone fill in the blanks that he’s a war hero, when in fact, okay, he was in the armed services but was never deployed. He was in South Carolina the whole time or something. Remember that? Anyway. So my girl’s essay is a type of propaganda that’s right in line with how American leadership acts all the time, but it feels extra jarring and fucked up (hopefully) when a 17-year-old girl does that to her parents to get into Harvard.

The main action of the play is the girl’s mother making the rounds to stop this essay from getting submitted. The mother tries to enlist the SAT tutor, the guidance counselor, an influential teacher, and through them we get glimpses into a broader world that encourages or condones this kind of marketing of children to colleges. So while this kid is a remarkably calculating individual, the audience comes to see her as a product of our culture, a distillation of us. Or, that’s what I hope they see. I would hate to write a show about a monster, where we’re like, ew gross look at that monster. A peeve of mine is the play that “tackles” “an issue” “in America today” but it’s really an assurance to everyone in the audience that they (and the playwright) are so correct and virtuous; you know, where we’re like, I love this play because I’m nothing like the dickhead it’s about! That doesn’t stretch us, it shrinks us.

But my play isn’t exactly heart-warming either. My high school girl is pretty hard to watch. She’s ruthless and at times downright cruel, but I love her so much. She’s funny. She’s bold as hell. And she’s smart in a way I love: she pays very close attention and considers things fully. In her little world, she derives a lot of power from being more mentally rigorous than everyone else in the room. In so many ways, that mental prowess is an admirable trait, but it can be a kind of poison, too. Intelligence without humanity is terrifying to me, partly because it’s so powerful.

And yet I have a lot of sympathy for her: she’s manufacturing this college applicant persona out of a profound lack of something inside her. A lack faith in herself, a lack of knowledge that there is something real there to assert. And I worry about that lack in young people. In everyone, really.

I think when we emphasize success as much as our culture does, that value breeds an obsession with the appearance of success, those markers of success. So we’re obsessing over getting ahead and putting all this energy into facade upkeep. It’s all very external goal driven and concerned with appearances. Meanwhile, our inner voice that vibrates with truth, our moral compass, our sense of service, the part of us that yearns to create and express ourselves--all these tender things that make up our humanity get stunted or atrophy. And most of us don’t even have words for what’s missing.

So yeah, this play GREAT KILLS is worried about the cost of ambition on America’s soul.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  SEPTEMBER BRIDE, a musical with the composer Roger Ames about a widow who leads a support group for people who lost someone in 9/11. Only it turns out she didn’t lose anyone in 9/11; the fiancé she’s been grieving never existed. One day she told this little lie to get a little affection and attention and it worked so well she couldn’t stop. Another play about another liar.

Also a web series called IS EDWARD SNOWDEN SINGLE? about a hot mess of a millennial who convinces herself she’s Edward Snowden’s girlfriend. It’s funny and pretty ridiculous, though like all my work I take it super seriously. It’s about the birth of integrity in a girl for whom integrity is the only thing she really needs but the last thing it would occur to her to want.

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 love this question, Adam, because it stumps me! Which I find interesting...

Okay real talk is, when I look for a path from my childhood to writing plays, I don’t see one. I was alone a lot and I liked being alone, and I still do, which helps if you’re going to be a writer. But I wasn’t one of those kids who was journaling constantly or putting on plays for their parents’ guests. I was a math/science kid, and, also, a painter. My worst subjects were the humanities. I still feel like I missed school the day everyone learned how to spell.

So part of me wants to use this question to puncture the myth that our favorite thing to do was always there. Sometimes you live a lot of life before your favorite thing finds you. Sometimes you’ve been a lot of people before the best side of yourself shows up.

But man, okay, my mind keeps jumping back to my father. I’m not sure why but here are some things about him:

He never wanted to know about my personal life but we talked all the time about world events, science, history and literature. And math. Ever since I was little, like 7 probably.

The man was so honest, and so precise with his words. When I gave him my favorite book, Matilda, he read it that same night. I eagerly waited for him to tell me he loved it too, but what he said was, “Well, I didn’t like it all that much, but I am genuinely interested that you like it so much.” Another time I asked if he would always love me no matter what and he said, “Well, not if you became one of those people who goes around murdering people for no reason.”

My mom is his second wife and he’s a New Yorker old enough to be an avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan. When he met my brother’s in-laws for the first time he said, “I’ve been married twice and I was in New York when the Dodgers left town and I’ll tell you: it’s easier to change your wife than your baseball team.” About a play of mine that won a big award at Columbia and played in more than one country, he said three words: “Juvenile but promising.” That’s exactly what it was!

Anyway, why do I feel like this answers your question? My dad didn’t make me a writer. I have no idea where that comes from. But he nurtured in me a kind of mental rigor. He may be wrong about things but not because he’s a sucker for the spectacle, not because he didn’t give it serious thought. And that kind of mental rigor needs an accompanying precision with language (and vice versa). Both of these habits are resources I draw from heavily when I work on a play.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:   I’d probably broaden our notion of who a theater audience is. We should be cultivating love for the theater in every middle schooler in America. Veterans. Retirement homes. Prisons. I taught Shakespeare in Riker’s Island for a while, the prison in the Bronx. The teachers who are still there are heroes to me. The soul work that theater does is so important. People need soul work like they need access to healthcare and a good night’s sleep.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  There are cannon giants of course. I’m rereading OTHELLO and WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF on my subway commutes and I’ve read both of those plays about 15 times already, but my contemporaries are the ones inspiring me most right now. Let’s see.

I’m inspired by Annie Baker’s faith in her material and her trust that the audience will join her in obsessing over the minutiae she’s curated for us. And I think she’s right! If you pay attention to those tiny little fragments between her characters, you will witness love getting created before your very eyes. It’s quite miraculous but you really have to lean forward and listen. I love that she demands that of us.

I love Amy Herzog’s discipline with dripping exposition out organically. She’s more disciplined than anyone else at keeping her characters, well, in character. Oh, also from her play 4000 MILES I learned that compassion can be a dramatic force. I’m drawn towards darker dramatic forces so it was actually a shocking discovery.

Halley Feiffer is the queen of, I don’t know how to say it other than like, fucking going there, and going way, way too far. Her work gives me permission to dispense with likeability in a way that I’m still trying to summon the courage to attempt.

I find Will Eno’s work at once very mysterious and totally coherent, so absolutely itself. That man’s mastery over his craft is something to aspire to. I also find his work straddles this insane range of being both my bully and the saddest little broken kid that needs my love.

BLOOD PLAY, The Debate Society’s play a couple years back, has really stayed with me. I was so totally with Hannah Bos’s character when she went on that journey from being desperate to please, desperate to be liked, to seeing the possibility of real friendship and comfort in her neighbor, to being mortified at her neighbor’s casual inhumanity, to totally rejecting her. It was one of the most perfect character arcs I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I felt one little bump in that whole ride! Seeing her arrive at her destination was like realizing you’d seen a rainbow get drawn across the stage.

That play crystalized a goal I have with my own craft: give my audience enough data and summon a character real enough to bring the audience right in with her. I don’t care if you like my characters but I care deeply that you are with them. That way, when the character grows, the audience has a real shot at growth, too. I can’t think of a more generous gift to an audience than that. To help them more fully realize their own capacity as humans.

Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins AN OCTAROON is a tonal masterpiece. I mean, many things are extraordinary in that play, but the tone blew my mind. The use of humor in that story alone could fuel like 58 masters theses.

Robert O’hara’s BOOTYCANDY is a play which I actively want to influence my work and have no idea what that means, practically. But I am so grateful to that play for even putting in my head the notion that I might reach in that direction.

The play with the most astonishing love scene I’ve seen in years--the most tender and heartbreaking and totally believable--was between two men who spend their lives as avatars in a chat room for people who role play as pedophiles and child murderers. That’s Jennifer Haley’s THE NETHER, which I’m so obsessed with I sent her a cold email in which I blubbered like a teen-age girl. I couldn’t help myself. These characters taught me about the need to love, how desperate the reach for connection is, the loneliness that begets these connections. I mean, what the hell kind of magic trick is that!? Unbelievable.

That play issued me some pretty formidable challenges: can I create wounds like that in my characters, creating wounds as a way of kissing them? Can I expose darkness that dark and love it as tenderly as Jen Haley did?

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theater that does all those things I just talked about. Theater that feels like it’s a step ahead of me for most of it. Theater that engages and confuses me at the same time. Theater that cares about the wretchedness of being human. Theater that not only cares deeply about what it is to be alive but gets something about it specifically and viscerally right. Truth is such a big tricky word but I need it to feel true. I need to feel blood pulsing under the surface.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Okay, well first of all, congratulations. You stumbled into the world’s best job. It will feed you in every way except putting food into your mouth.

The thing I want to go back and tell 23-year-old Kate is don’t do this alone. Find a community, build a community, treasure that community. Hang with folks who make theater. Get excited with them. Be a friend to art. Care about what others are making. Cherish people who do that for you. Do this for like 12 different reasons which include writing plays is hard and lonely and you get stuck and you will stress about time and money.

Craft matters. Be respectful approaching the tools of this art. Care about how to build a story. Be patient with the craft. Be patience with yourself. Mastery is supposed to take time and experience. It’d be fucked up if being a beginner didn’t feel overwhelming. Everything worth fighting for feels like it could defeat you.

Watch how you talk about other people’s work because the one really getting that message is you and your work.

Protect your time to read.

Write about being human. Being a person is so wretched and weird. It’s so humiliating. It’s so hilarious. How ugly it can be is the very thing that makes it beautiful -- or rather the ugliness makes the beauty of it matter. Take what you know about being alive and wrestle with it and become fucking obsessed with it. Let everything you read or see on the subway or on stage or over drinks or in bed with someone, let it all count as expertise. Take your data seriously. Take your humiliation seriously. Take what you find funny seriously. That knowledge is your paint. “Write what you know” is sometimes taken to mean, if you’re a computer programer write about computers. Which is fine advice if it gets you writing, but it doesn’t help me. “Write what you know” for me means a faith that your particular, unique injuries and joy have enough in common with everyone else’s hurt and joy that if you write your truth it will serve the truth of your audience. It’s a gorgeous premise, actually.

Be kind to yourself. Tend a respect for what you’re attempting. Have compassion for yourself in the struggle. It’s hard. Don’t confuse how hard it is to get a good play in front of an audience with personal failure. Both the work itself and the career can be brutal.

Finish your drafts. You learn so much by getting to a goddamn end.

Avoid smugness. Avoid simplistic morality tales. Don’t throw rotten tomatoes at your characters, don’t diminish yourself and your audience by doing that. James Baldwin says the only place to write from is love. Given what he was writing about, a society that rejected him so thoroughly, so implicitly -- and duh, so explicitly -- I find that exhortation almost unfathomably generous. If James Baldwin can do it so can we. Write from love.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  I’m a lot more concise on Twitter: @KateCortesi

Tuesday May 26 a short I wrote and directed about an underground record store in Bed-Stuy LAZARUS will screen at the Sunshine Landmark (THE SUNSHINE LANKMARK!!!) at 9:55 pm. Tickets are here:

Monday June 8th GREAT KILLS will be presented in a staged reading at New Dramatists with Kip Fagan directing. Details will be up at but I think they’re not there yet because the time is up in the air.

Friday June 19 through Sunday June 21 GREAT KILLS will be at Premiere Stages. Details are here:

You can generally see what’s happening with me at my website:

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