The Wake, presented by Center Theatre Group and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, plays Tues.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 2 and 8 pm; Sun 1 and 6:30 pm; through April 18. Tickets: $20-$45. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Call 213.628.2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org.
Titling a play can be a tricky thing.
Just ask Lisa Kron whose Center Theatre Group commissioned play The Wake recently world premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, nearly four years to the day since her previous show Well, which she both penned and starred in, made its 2006 Broadway debut, earning both her and Jayne Houdyshell Tony nominations for Best Actress and Best Featured Actress respectively.
Is the Obie Award-winning performer of the 2.5 Minute Ride, which juxtaposed an amusement park rollercoaster ride with her Holocaust survivor father against their trip to Auschwitz, now devoted to crafting a series of four-lettered works beginning with the letter “W”?
“We joked it was important the next title be higher up in the alphabet!” laughs Kron. We means she and longtime collaborator director Leigh Silverman who shepherded Well from its Public Theatre to Longacre runs and is helming The Wake. “So we’d be higher up in the listings! We thought of it too late for this but by Berkeley it’s going to be called In the Wake because now it sounds like a Conor McPherson play about a funeral!” She laughs. “Originally it was called Five Questions and I don’t know why that. Titles are not my best thing. Everybody always loved it but there weren’t five questions. As hard as I tried to justify the title, it always felt like a promise that didn’t pay off.”
Though commissioned by CTG, The Wake is a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which will stage a subsequent world premiere in mid May. The Public Theatre recently announced plans to present the play’s New York debut in October as part of its 2010-11 season.
It was partially developed with the assistance of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program. CTG received $35,000 from the NEA to produce the Douglas run, a fact unknown to Kron before this interview, although she has been a past recipient of numerous grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship and NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Program for Playwrights among others. She is currently at work on a musical collaboration with Tony nominated composer Jeanine Tesori (Shrek; Caroline, or Change; Thoroughly Modern Millie) as well as a new play commissioned by the Sloan Foundation and Playwrights Horizons.
Besides the Tony nomination, her accolades include a 2004 Drama League and Outer Critics Circle Best Play nomination for Well. Her solo piece 2.5 Minute Ride, which world premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in 2000, garnered both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations, an Obie Award, GLAAD Media Award plus a Drama-Logue Award. In 1997, CalArts presented her with an Alpert Award in the Arts for theatre. In 1995, she won an Obie for The Secretaries with The Five Lesbian Brothers, a women’s theatre group she helped co-found plus a Drama Desk nomination for her solo show 101 Humiliating Stories.
Often cited as a monologist on par with or heir apparent to the late Spalding Gray, Kron recognizes she has been “extremely fortunate” to have made her living in the theatre. Seated at a table outside Starbucks down the block from the Douglas on a unseasonably balmy March afternoon, clad in a black t-shirt, cuffed jeans and sneakers with her dog Jango laying at her feet, the NYC-based gal-of-all-trades is an intellectually rigorous commentator on both the current political state of the country and contemporary theatre.
“Not an extravagant living, you know, but a comfortable living,” admits Kron. “I also don’t have children. I live a certain kind of life. I’ve done it now for close to two decades. I think there are virtually no playwrights in the US who make their living solely from playwriting. I also act. I occasionally do film and television. I teach. Still I work in the theatre and I make my living doing it. That’s incredible lucky.”
When asked what she teaches her classes at Yale School of Drama about writing plays or working in today’s theatrical economic climate, Kron is both pragmatist and cheerleader. “One of the things I say to my students is that it is enormously helpful and luxurious and good to make your living in the theatre. I don’t think money is bad. I don’t think getting paid for your work is bad. I don’t think you’re selling out if you have commercial success and you’re still doing the work you care about. I think all of that is good. But good theatre and making your living in the theatre is not the same thing.”
According to Kron a vibrant theatre community needs two things: no money and a lot of money, plus a continuum between the two. “You need the thing where people throw up whatever purely out of their theatrical imagination and their desire to see what happens if X, Y & Z occur on stage with no pressure to do it in a certain way. Then you need increasing funds so you see what can happen in a bigger more crafted vision. You need places for people to figure out what to do with those increased resources and then you need the reminder for the people with the resources of what the raw unformed energy looks like. People need to be able to go in both directions and see what happens in both directions.”
She cites Todd Lincoln’s new book Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, which discusses the economics of new play development across the country and the current lives of playwrights, as outlining the core issues facing the theatrical landscape today.
“The theatres with money have a series of imperatives. I think part of what’s happening in American theatre is those imperatives are being questioned. There are a lot of people making a living in the theatre but they’re not the creatives. They’re not the playwrights. They’re not the actors, the designers or the directors. They’re the marketing people and the administrative staff. In some sense, fair enough. But this is the constant struggle. You create the new thing and it’s exciting and it feels necessary. Then you create the structure to support the new thing and the structure becomes focused on itself rather than on the other thing. Then it pushes the other way.”
Crafting The Wake
The Wake is the first play Kron has written in which she does not perform. She has gone from solo performer to dramatic monologist to playwright plus actress to simply playwright, tackling in her mind an increasingly challenging set of problems to solve.
“I’ve never been interested in repeating myself,” she admits. “At every point I think I’ve had some sense of something I don’t know how to do. So I’m going to go in and try to figure out how to do it. Initially I wanted to figure out how to be consistently funny on stage. Then when I figured out how to do that to my satisfaction, I wanted to figure out how not to be funny on stage. How to do that in a way that wasn’t fake, self-serving, self-protected or humiliating. Then I wanted to solve this problem of dramatic action in a solo show. What would that mean? So I think there’s always been sort of the next thing.”
As it turned out, the next thing wanted to be told as a fictionalized play using characters to espouse the political topics swirling around in her mind rather than as a monologue piece.
“It’s not a kitchen sink drama but it does have a much more traditional form than my previous plays,” she notes. “I had these kinds of ideas that I was interested in exploring and enacting having to do with blind spots. American exceptionalism. This question of how far can you fall? What we take for granted. And I think they came up for me because I had moments of coming up against my own blind spots as people do and limits to my own political thinking.”
The seven-character play opens on Thanksgiving 2000 during the contested election between Bush and Gore, then finishes up in early 2007. Savvy freelance journalist Ellen has gathered friends together for the holiday festivities but can’t get the pending political stakes out of her head. She tries to warn others of the impending doom but fails to foresee how her own liberal bias and blind spots will impact those she cares about most. The play stars (in alphabetical order) Emily Donahoe, Carson Elrod, Andrea Frankle, Miriam F. Glover, Deirdre O’Connell, Heidi Schreck and Danielle Skraastad.
For Kron, the fun was figuring out what political argument the lead character could have a personal investment in that would first pull the audience into the story and then make them understand how personal stakes can make people think one political way or another. In other words, how do we form our politics or express them? What propels us in that way?
“I never intended for this to be about the Bush years, even though I wrote the first draft of it when Bush was still President,” states Kron. “The thing Ellen is so adamant about in the beginning is that we’re so obsessed with personalities but in fact what we have allowed is the mechanisms of our democracy to be dismantled. No matter what happens we still can’t seem to get interested in that. Or care about it. It’s not very sexy to us. We’re just obsessed with whether Bush is bad or Obama’s good. But we can’t seem to focus on the nuts and bolts of anything.
“There was an enormous amount of popular discontent across the country during the Bush years,” Kron emphasizes. “It felt like no matter what we did, it could not coalesce into anything. Because what got reported was so at odds with anything that was happening, you felt like you were the only one. You would march with tens of thousands of people and you felt like it went into the ether. Where did it go? What’s happening? None of that has changed. And we see that. We see it. As long as rules on lobbying and campaign finance remain intact, why are we so surprised that Democrats can’t act like Democrats? Their economic imperatives are the antithesis of that. Of course it’s not possible. But we don’t want to focus on that. We just want to be mad at the Democrats. We just want to be mad at those people.”
How did Kron feel a potential Obama win might impact her piece? “During the campaign I did think it was possible, the election of Obama who I do think is extraordinary, was going to be good for the country and bad for the play. My fear was that it was actually going to be fine for the play because in fact what the play argues is this — have we let so much be dismantled that we’ve slipped into oligarchy and is there any coming back?”
In The Wake’s opening monologue, Ellen poses the play’s central questions. “What’s happening? Are we actually OK?” says Kron. “We’re not fine but we can see fine down the road. And we’re going to be OK. Things have their ups and downs. Or are we in a car that’s crashed into the wall? We’re mortally wounded and are we just sitting in the car saying wow, what’s going to happen if we crash into that wall? Like are we so out of it we don’t know it? Is that it? We don’t have any idea what’s happening. We have no idea how bad it is. That’s the question the play’s asking.”
Kron says she had an epiphany during a workshop with the acclaimed Cuban director and playwright Irene Fornes that became a cornerstone of the play’s ideology. Fornes stated that Americans have no idea how to do nothing. That even sitting and watching people walk by is still a mental preparation for something else.
“I was so dumbstruck by this,” Kron admits. “I thought, wow. That is so true about me, which means I am operating on this Yankee work ethic and I never would have thought of myself as that person. I’m so deeply American in ways I had no idea and that was really interesting to me. We as Americans have this feeling that’s part of our culture to believe everything has to be productive and things will right themselves. We can go through bad times but they will get better. The purpose of bad times is to get us back to the good times. It’s also very New Agey. It’s true on the right. It’s true on the left. We really believe good things happen to good people. And any bad things that happen, happen for a reason. They will teach us a lesson and we’ll be better people and our lives will be better. People feel enormously threatened if that’s questioned and I think it’s bullshit.”
Kron was also interested in putting on a play that challenged the liberal theatre-going audience in front of that audience in a way that invited them in. By doing so implicates itself as well as the audience. “It doesn’t point fingers but it doesn’t allow any of us in that room to get off the hook. It doesn’t allow any of us to go ‘oh that’s so true’ about liberals. Meaning, ‘but not about me.'”
All Women & One Tony
The Wake is Kron’s second collaboration with Leigh Silverman who became only the fifth and reportedly the youngest woman to direct a Broadway play when she helmed Well in 2006 at age 31. In Los Angeles, she directed both David Hwang’s Yellow Face at the Taper and Tanya Barfield’s Of Equal Measure at the Kirk Douglas. Silverman has been part of The Wake’s development since its inception and when asked whether the two have evolved their own shorthand style of communication by now, Kron smiles.
“Totally. It’s a very deep, productive and mutually satisfying collaboration that’s rare, I think. We ask a lot of each other and we understand each other. We watch a scene and I’ll say, ‘I think that’ and she’s like, ‘yeah, absolutely.’ That’s the conversation. In terms of the re-writing, she’s an astonishing dramaturge. I sometimes say I went to the graduate school of Leigh Silverman working on Well. I trust her so deeply in that way too. We don’t have anything to prove with each other. I’m able to sit in rehearsal and actually say I think the dynamic of the scene or what I intended was this, and she’s able to say about the writing, I’m not quite clear what this is and maybe there’s more here. We agree or we disagree but we’re always looking for the same thing. There’s definitely a shared sense of what fruition looks like. We’re both rigorous. We can’t settle if it’s not fully manifested.”
Kron is curious to see whether people notice the play features six women and one man rather than the usual other way around. The actresses playing the roles and those coming in for auditions certainly did. “In the rehearsal room, in the audition room, actresses walked in and went oh my god, all women. Over and over again. It was so shocking. Person after person was taken aback by it. I thought does anyone walk into a rehearsal or audition room these days and say oh my god, all men? Now that’s shocking!”
Getting a Tony Award nomination made Kron realize how ironic her life path had turned out. “I have to say it made me laugh so hard to be nominated as best actress. I had this little bubble of a laugh right here for such a long time and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then I realized it’s because the single motivating factor that has propelled me through my life, probably from junior high school on, is the absolute certainty I was never going to be nominated or be in contention for a Tony nomination as best actress! I mean if I had one bedrock thing I knew, it was that was not going to be for me.
“In college I was told essentially you don’t convey any sexuality on stage. I realized later that was kind of a code word for lesbian. You’re a character actress. I was told directly many times there is no place for me in the theatre. So I made my own alternative path, you know? Which ultimately has worked out great for me.”
Feature image of Heidi Schreck and Emily Donahoe and story images by Craig Schwartz