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Nov 10, 2020

I Interview Playwrights Part 1096: Kevin Kautzman

Kevin Kautzman

Hometown:  Mandan, North Dakota

Current Town:  Minneapolis, Minnesota

Q:  Tell me about Moderation.

A:  MODERATION is a new play recently adapted into a podcast you can hear at moderationplay.com and wherever you get podcasts. It’s about social media content moderators struggling to stay sane at work, as they’re forced to face the very worst “content” that makes its way to the Company’s ubiquitous platform. I conceived of the play a few years ago and finally sat down to draft it last summer, 2019, after reading online that many content moderators had begun to believe the conspiracy theories they had been tasked to flag for removal. “There’s the play,” I remember thinking. I’ve long observed online conspiracy culture and have watched with some surprise as it has gone “mainstream,” in more or less direct correspondence with the fracturing of consensus reality caused by widespread Internet access and the growth of social media. This goes beyond politics and gets at the heart of our culture and humanity, which is the stuff of true theatre. These conspiracy stories are the campfire tales of our time, shared around flickering digital light.

So I knew I had a play there and was able to settle on a two-hander in which a struggling manager works with a trainee on her first day. It’s a “workplace drama” by way of Beckett and Pinter, which actors have noted. I realized as I was writing it the play is a kind of DUMB WAITER in which the moderators’ computers deliver the obscene goods.

One big technical discovery in the writing of MODERATION was to simply have the characters narrate what they’re seeing as they do their job. This opened up a world of theatrical potential, which is so often the case when you use language in an “unrealistic,” poetic or heightened way onstage. For what it’s worth, I’m a firm believer that “realism” doesn’t exist, neither onstage nor in life, and my work reflects that.

MODERATION has elements of the dreaded “issue” play without, I think, falling into polemic. It’s also funny, in a bleak way. Anyone who has worked a horrible office job with colleagues who try to find a middle ground in gallows humor will relate to these characters, who not only have to deal with horrific micromanagement but real-world horror in the material they’re tasked to review. I’ve presented MODERATION as a “dark comedy” while others have called it “a psychological thriller.” So maybe it’s a psychologically thrilling dark comedy. In any case, the play was developed in 2019 through table readings in New York and London with the support of friends and a producer associate and pal Frazer Brown. Frazer and I had plans to take the play to London in 2020, which obviously didn’t come to fruition. We’re waiting to see how things play out. MODERATION might not see a stage life until 2022 at this rate.

In terms of further development and the move to make the MODERATION podcast: we did a workshop at the experimental writers’ group I co-founded in Manhattan called Cut Edge Collective (cutedgecollective.com), and then Spooky Action Theatre in DC picked it up for their Zoom (e.g. pandemic) reading series. Shortly after this, through Twitter (where I’m very active: @kevinkautzman) I met producer Jeff Giesea of Crying Hill Media who reached out about wanting to support art projects. I sent the Spooky Action MODERATION reading, and he jumped on the chance to do something with it. Jeff is the kind of person who gets things done, and I hope every playwright can find a smart and ambitious champion of their work who brings the same energy.

Jeff and I both come from a tech background, so we agreed a “hacker” approach would be interesting - how do we get this timely play to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible? We decided to adapt the Spooky Action Theatre reading into a pure podcast, with sound effects and all, which I consider to be a kind of “digital world premiere” for the play. We worked with a company called Resonate Recordings and launched the podcast in October, 2020.

Earlier this year, Facebook paid content moderators $52 million dollars as compensation for mental health issues as a result of their job. I suspect this is only the beginning of a new frontier in the workplace around mental health, censorship online, and issues of power and control in the digital arena.

Q:  What else are you working on now?

A:  I’m in talks with UP Theatre Company in “upstate Manhattan” (where I wrote MODERATION incidentally) about a Zoom reading in February. Information about that will be posted at moderationplay.com and kevinkautzman.com. Of course the goal is to finally see MODERATION staged, but as long as theatre has taken to digital, I’ll be working on the play through those channels.

Beyond MODERATION, I have a notion for a new play about tech censorship and a person who suddenly finds their bank accounts closed and “polite” society shuttered to them but they don’t know why. This is mixed into my concern for the growing tent cities here in the Twin Cities and nationally, and how little attention that seems to be receiving. This is only a nascent idea but my next play will likely revolve around one or both of those ideas. “Kafkaesque” is unfortunately a good word for our time.

I also aspire to screenwriting and have a wonderful partner in London-based director Abbie Lucas (abbielucas.com). We’ve written two feature scripts: GREY DUCK and PICKLEBALL. The former is a coming of age story for a menopausal Texas housewife who leaves for Minnesota in the winter to discover her biological parents, as she’d been given up for adoption. PICKLEBALL is a sports comedy about a fast-talking tech bro who flames out in Silicon Valley and returns home to discover his parents have taken up the fastest growing sport in America (pickleball, of course) and polyamory. It’s a story about Boomers and Millennials speaking two different languages. We also have a TV concept called MONEY SHOT based on my play IF YOU START A FIRE [BE PREPARED TO BURN], about a household of OnlyFans-type performers, written in partnership with actor Lenny Platt.

We also have an idea for a new serial-story feature film about an Italian convertible, called CONVERTIBLE, that will follow the vehicle decade by decade from the 60s to the 2020’s. A major thesis I live by these days is that “nothing has changed since the late 60’s,” per the tune from Ulver. There seems to be some consensus there, and this film would somewhat be about Western culture recycling and turning in on itself, which seems to be undeniable. Tarantino’s great ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is about this.

Finally, I’m active with Cut Edge Collective (cutedgecollective.com) where we run workshops and philosophical “salons” on the topic of experimental theatre twice monthly, currently on Zoom. Our plan when things normalize is to run the group in Manhattan and create a partner group in the Twin Cities, with group and one-on-one dramaturgical exchange between the two. I also have an interview podcast about things people love at getthispodcast.com.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  One of my earliest memories is from the lawn of the state capital in North Dakota. I’ll set this up with some background: there is a single “skyscraper” in that state, a 21-story art deco capital tower in Bismarck. The grounds are beautifully maintained, and the historical society and “Heritage Center” are there. I was very fond of these places as a child, and I have a real love of history and have a degree in it from the University of Minnesota. My step-father is an accomplished genealogist who has traced our maternal (Irish-Catholic) genealogy into the 16th century, and I grew up in a house that was built in 1916 (which is about as old as it gets in western North Dakota).

This memory is of a beautiful summer day on the capital lawn, and there was a storyteller who gathered us into a circle and told us a story. I can’t remember of what. I’d gone through some trauma as my father passed very young from what we later discovered as an opioid overdose. This was in 1986 and there was a nasty drug on the market that stayed there until 2010, called “propoxyphene.” Real trash. Criminal in fact.

In any case, that storyteller on the well-manicured lawn transported us into a different world with words alone, and I remember being calm and happy and just totally lost in time - that “theatre” feeling everyone who loves it knows and we all chase when we work on and in it.

After the storyteller finished, they gave us each a little blank book. Mine was blue and had some wolves on it, I recall. They told us very clearly: “Now you can write your own story.”

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

A:  I’ll speak to American theatre here. I wish we could have a pub theatre situation like they enjoy in the UK. Of course it comes down to economics, licenses, sustainability, all the rest. Whether you drink or not, “theatre without beer is a museum” per Brecht.

In America there’s a kind of “over there” quality to theatre - the idea that a night at the theatre is somehow this huge deal that’s divorced from day to day life. It’s a “fancy” or “upper crust” thing and that’s such a trash idea we have to vehemently fight. Theatre is not editorial and shouldn’t feel like journalism or a university seminar in political science. Theatre should be raucous, populist, dangerous and difficult but not in the sense somebody should need a graduate degree to understand (or have a career in) it.

I really believe our humanity is inextricably tied to the act of theatre-making, that we’re all theatrical creatures in the sense life itself is somehow ironic, and we’re all immersed in our own stories all the time. There should of course be some separation from “real life” and the theatrical, but the line is thinner than we sometimes make it. I suppose I wish theatre felt more organic somehow, and less mediated, cerebral or tied into ideas of class and status here. Some of the greatest theatre I’ve seen has happened in back yards, parks, and online. No excuses. You’re either making it or you’re not.

Lately I think some of the best theatre artists are stand-up comedians. I aspire to that level of “get them and keep them” in my writing. We indulge ourselves a bit too much in theatre. We’re a bit too “serious” at times, and we often rely too much on devices or “important subjects” and forget the basics. I draw so much inspiration from comedians, musicians, dancers - anyone who knows how to grab and hold an audience. Nothing else matters if you can’t get that right.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  The Cut Edge Collective group is really diverse and has some awesome talent. I’ve also been a part of a group Aurin Squire runs at the Dramatists’ Guild in Manhattan, which has been consistently strong and introduced me to dozens of talented writers. Theatre is alive, so I get inspiration from people actively working now in the form. It’s a relief to be among playwrights who write out of a passionate need to share stories - and not only their own.

So much of American life now is about your “hustle.” Your “side hustle,” your “main gig,” etc. Our beings have really been colonized by the zombie economy we’re forced to wrestle, and I love that at a group like Cut Edge we all get together with the understanding this stuff probably isn’t going to pay the rent much less make us rich. Now that’s not to say we’re defeatists. I’ve had plenty of rewards financial and otherwise from my playwriting, including two generous fellowships from the Playwrights’ Center and Michener Center for Writers. But that’s not why I write plays, and of course if anyone sets out writing theatre for the paycheck now in America, well, I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Firstly I like new writing or truly new adaptations of classic stories. I like plays where the structure is married to metaphor and where story isn’t lost. I like plays I leave thinking “what did I just see” and find myself pondering years later. Fresh new writing with soul, I suppose is what I l enjoy. Promenade usually excites me when it makes sense - one of my favorite productions was Alexandra Woods’ THE ELEVENTH CAPITAL at the Royal Court upstairs, during which the audience was forced behind barbed wire. It wasn’t a trick, and the story perfectly justified it. That was electric.

Gimmicks I can do without - I’ve seen plays that do something clever with technology that leave you cold, because fundamentals are forgotten. I love a play that leaves you thinking, questioning, wondering and which you’d see again in another city five years later with a different cast for a totally different experience. I suppose now I would emphasize how much we need to write new things. New new new. New characters. Original ideas. Original concepts. Every other film or television show is a rehash of something that came before. It’s that problem I mentioned before: “nothing has changed since the late 60’s.” So, who’s going to change that if not us?

Since theatre is so relatively low-risk in terms of economics (compared to film or television), we have an opportunity and obligation to take those risks and be original. Of course there’s room for a night of “Netflix and chill.” I subscribe to Netflix. Amazon. Hulu. It’s like the air we breathe, or water. But theatre can be a banquet.

Can you imagine Beckett pitching Godot to Netflix executives, much less Shakespeare pitching Hamlet? We have to re-hijack our brains from big media and remember how powerful and ancient “little old theatre” can be, and how essential.

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

A:  Write three good ten minute plays, and write them each in a single sitting (three sittings, that is). Don’t immediately set out to write a full length play. That’s like a prose writer who sets out to write their novel before a short stories. It’s not typically successful. Once you have your shorts together, get some friends (ideally actors but everyone has a bit of an actor in them) and have them read your work aloud. Revise. Submit to opportunities. See which of the three shorts has the most “oomph” and perhaps consider making it a full length play.

Set deadlines. I live and die by my calendar. Join the Playwrights’ Center and refer to their opportunities list each month. Start a spreadsheet and track your submissions.

Go into the theatre. I started in a little community theatre “adult acting” class in North Minneapolis, then joined the adjacent company and played the lead in a Neil Simon play. You absolutely have to try your hand at acting, if only in a class, in order to understand what it means to write for actors. You can try to compose music without playing it, sure, but that seems unnecessarily difficult. If your scripts can’t inspire actors, you’ll get nowhere, and the fastest way to learn what’s fun (compelling) to act is to do it.

Unless you come from money, do not pay for graduate school. A number of renowned programs will pay you, and if you can’t get into them, keep writing and submitting work and try again next year. Do not go one dollar into student debt if at all possible. Better to spend that money to attend theatre, work in theatre, and take courses and lessons ad hoc. In Minneapolis the Loft and the Playwrights’ Center regularly have courses, and many of these have gone online. These also won’t put you $50k in debt. Those who got caught up in this ten years ago are still struggling and can be forgiven for not knowing - entire generations were sold a bill of goods and it’s one of the biggest crises facing the country. It’s an ugly truth that anyone who takes on that kind of debt now has no excuse. Graduate school is not a golden ticket.

Attend the theatre. See everything you can. Sit through what feels like trash to you. Find the companies and talent you love. This is all subjective, and it’s important to find out what you don’t like as much as what you do. During times like this (pandemic), there’s plenty of digital media to consume that’s theatrical. Films you can find are Glengarry Glen Ross, any number of Hamlets, the great RSC Macbeth they filmed, Amadeus and Equus. Read plays. Get a library card if you don’t have one and check out playscripts.

Once you’re going a bit, join a playwrights’ group or start one. If you’ve done what I’ve said about going to an acting class, you’ll already be among people who might be interested in this. You’ll be amazed how many people are interested in things like this, even via Zoom. A group of five is fine. Start somewhere and keep each other accountable.

Finally, don’t obsess too much about theatre. Do other things, work jobs, have hobbies, and get outside and be a person. Don’t make theatre your entire identity and wear it as a badge. You’ll end up writing plays for “theatre people,” and we don’t need more of those. We need new stories that don’t place theatre “over there,” because it’s not. It’s right here, whenever anybody decides they have a story to tell and acts on it.

Q:  Plugs, please:


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