Tuesday, August 18, 2015

I Interview Playwrights Part 775: Judy Klass

Judy Klass

Hometown:  I was born in NYC. I grew up in a small town in New Jersey right over the bridge -- both of my parents taught in Manhattan, and that's where we went on weekends to make life more interesting.

Current Town:  I live in Nashville, Tennessee. I had tenure at a community college on Long Island; I taught there while living in Brooklyn and then in Manhattan. But I hated the commute to Long Island, two hours each way, four days a week. I'm a songwriter, as well as a playwright, and I heard about a guy in Nashville who demo’d songs for not much money, full band demos, so finally I could hear my songs the way I heard them in my head. I put out my first CD: called Brooklyn Cowgirl to show I get the joke, I’m an unlikely person to be doing country music. (This year, ten years later, I finally released the sequel, with pictures from the same photo shoot and all, called The Brooklyn Cowgirl Rides Again.) In the years after I first visited Nashville, I noticed that I was spending at least part of every vacation there, that when I wasn’t going to Nashville to pitch songs and so on, I was writing songs and planning which ones to demo and planning my next trip. I got a one-year sabbatical, and I wound up running away from home to Nashville, and not going back. I gave up tenure. This seemed like a dubious move during the Recession, when I was unemployed and underemployed. At the moment, I’m teaching at Vanderbilt full-time and I’m very happy. Nashville is a great town for songwriters – it can be more isolating for playwrights, however.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  As a playwright, I’m very happy that my full-length play After Tartuffe, a play in verse (?!), has been produced at last, in the Fresh Fruit Festival, and I feel good about that production. I of course have one-act and full-length plays and musicals which are unproduced, and I send them out . . . I know what the next full-length play I want to write will be about. When I first came to live in Nashville, I was supposed to spend my sabbatical year writing a screenplay about Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the women’s suffrage movement. But there were different stories from different times in Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s life I wanted to dramatize, and I could not get a handle on how to structure the script. So, the next full-length play I write will be about a writer who grapples with that problem that has had me flummoxed for so long, and she winds up writing a cycle of plays about Cady Stanton, at different moments in her life, and scenes from those plays within the play will be part of it, but the playwright’s life will be the main story, including her relationship with her estranged father, and things going on in her life will loosely parallel the scenes from the past. Her father will be a Hollywood guy, who tries to get closer to her by telling her to turn what she’s written into a screenplay, so there will probably be some satire of what the movie business is looking for also . . . It’s a play that requires a lot of research – I will really need to know all about the women’s movement in the 1800s and read the primary sources.

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 don’t have a story of one day or one moment. I can say that I come from a family of writers. When I was a kid, there were many hours when both my parents disappeared up to their offices in the attic – they had one on each side of it – and you could hear the typewriters clacking away, and that was a good feeling. My mother Sheila Solomon Klass wrote fiction: novels and also YA books. My father Morton Klass was a cultural anthropologist, so the books he wrote were non-fiction. But he had also dabbled in fiction. His brother, my Uncle Phil, was a Golden Age of SF writer, using the pen name William Tenn. My sister writes and my brother writes . . . it was kind of what you were expected to do in my family. I have some vivid early memories of waiting on-line with my family for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park, having a picnic and then sitting in the Delacorte Theater watching King Lear, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew and other plays. There was very little my parents thought I was too young for. They took me to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway when I was seven or eight. Sandy Dennis was in it. I could not follow it at all. I thought it was funny that the bratty kids were called no-necked monsters, and I understood that Big Daddy was dying – other than that I did not have a clue about what was going on. And when I read it now, I do see how it would baffle a kid that age. But I also think a lot of people underestimate kids, that kids understand some things indirectly and sideways, and with many plays and films they can grasp more than adults give them credit for, so I’m glad I was brought along for the ride to many events. That, plus the sense that I might be drummed out of my family if I didn’t write, pushed me in this direction. I wrote a play at around age seven that startled a teacher, and when I was fourteen or so I wrote a play about a bunk full of girls at a summer camp, playing a card game and baiting each other, that impressed my father – those might have been signs that writing for the stage was for me.

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

A:  Oh, more national funding for and concern about theater, as there is in Britain, more theaters open to new plays, more theaters open to women writers, all the usual stuff . . .

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  I’ve taught a drama lit course at Vanderbilt a number of times, and I fill it with plays that I love. I made the theme of the course plays about families, usually messed-up families, because the claustrophobia of the stage (as opposed to how stories can open up and move around in movies, which students are more familiar with) adds power to those stories: a bunch of people trapped together in a few rooms. I start with Oedipus and Antigone, ‘cause that’s a pretty dysfunctional family right there, and I get a bang, every time, out of how good they are as plays, and I think the accessibility and craftsmanship and power of Sophocles take students by surprise. We read Hamlet and The Seagull, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, which is obviously just incredible. It’s good for me to re-read these plays again and again – it’s a pleasure I get paid for. I teach Glass Menagerie – there is such spare beauty to it. Among the more recent plays are ‘Night, Mother by Marsha Norman and True West by Sam Shepard – and that one really influenced me when I saw it in the Village decades ago. I think some of the spirit of True West wound up in my play Cell, which was nominated for an Edgar and which is published by Samuel French – it’s a play about brothers. I think I was about as influenced by Shepard as Suzan-Lori Parks was when she wrote Topdog/Underdog, which I also teach. It’s odd that such a manly, “macho” play by a guy like Shepard would influence women writers – but True West is a heck of a play to watch when there are two good actors involved. I teach Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive – that made a big impression on me also. I saw a student production at Nassau Community College, the place on Long Island where I used to teach, which was amazing.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  I’m good with experimental theater up to a point, but I do best when there is a story I can follow and characters I care about. I respect someone like Arthur Miller who listens to Aristotle and writes plays that are unremittingly serious, but I think I respond best to plays that mix drama or even tragedy with comedy – where the funny often comes out of the painful. I love David Auburn’s play Proof for those reasons – that’s another one that made a big impression on me when I saw it on Broadway. It’s a powerful, serious play, but the fact that Auburn has a background in improv comedy is also a strength. I teach that one in my course also. I don’t teach Stoppard’s Arcadia or The Invention of Love, but I think they’re pretty wonderful. That next full-length play I want to write, about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, may be structured a bit like Arcadia, in terms of moving back and forth between the past and present, and things happening in the two worlds resonating with each other. When I came to NYC recently for the production of After Tartuffe, my boyfriend and I saw Fun Home. It absolutely blew us away. In terms of musicals, that’s obviously state of the art.

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

A:  It’s good if you can figure out who your characters are and just hear them talking to each other in your head. If you reach the point where you are just the stenographer trying to keep up with what they say as they flirt and joke and argue with each other – then they have taken on their own lives, and you can get out of the way. If there are issues you are ambivalent about, so you think you can’t write about them – I’d say those are the issues to explore. You can create two characters with opposing viewpoints, and each of them will argue passionately and well because you understand both sides of the argument so well. And you don’t have to choose to have one character “win.” That kind of confrontation is what I was trying for with my most recent unproduced full-length play The Politics of Fabulousness. I have a woman character who is offended by cross-dressing, who says men in drag are putting on a kind of minstrel show, caricaturing women, and I have a gay man who was her best friend in high school long ago who says nonsense, if that were the case then any time we write in the voice of someone at all different from ourselves, or play a role that is different from ourselves, it could be dismissed as a minstrel show. There is room for creativity, imagination, empathy and human universals. And he asks what business she has teaching African-American Studies when she’s white – isn’t that a form of appropriation and minstrelsy? And what business does she have teaching Women and Gender Studies when, he says, she’s basically homophobic and uptight and anti-sex . . . And there are two other characters in the play with different points of view . . . and everybody’s wrong and everybody’s right. That’s kind of a Zen ideal for me. That’s worth trying to do sometimes. Not all of my plays are like that – After Tartuffe is not like that. There is a definite villain in that play, but the villain is fun. Maybe because I’d accuse myself of being an overly earnest, didactic, conscientious person, I enjoy writing uncensored id monsters who send up the earnest, hand-wringing characters. If you write “bad guys” who take on the characters who have qualities you usually admire, devil’s advocates who are genuinely pointed and funny in what they say, then you won’t wind up with cardboard, one-dimensional villains. You can create characters who are very different from yourself but still provide actors with fun roles to sink their teeth into.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  Well, I guess I have been not-so-subtly plugging various things all along here: my albums which are available from CD Baby, and Cell, my play published by Sam French . . . Don Carter who was in The Pillow Man was terrific as that character I was just describing in After Tartuffe, the religious hypocrite, the de-frocked mega-church pastor and aspiring televangelist in an alternate-universe future America that is a Christian Fundamentalist state . . . and Don is interested in moving the production somewhere else, and the director Janet Bentley and I and the rest of the cast are psyched about it. So, we are looking to have a reading or backers audition, and anyone reading this who’d like to come, or would like to give us money or a theater to move to – I’d be glad to hear from you! Two of my short plays, Wooing Olivia and The Poe-ster, will be in a festival at the Secret Theatre in Queens this September. Two of my short plays are published by Brooklyn Publishers as stand-alone scripts. And as I said, I have many scripts which need good homes. People have only to ask me, and I will gladly send synopses or my scripts through the ether.

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