Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Spotlight: Kimberly Burke; or How I Learned to Love White Snakeskin Cowboy Boots

This seasons final reading is upon us.  The author of our last piece?  One Minnesota-born Massachusetts-based playwright, Kimberly Burke, known for her deeply political plays. We had a chance to get in some interview questions with Ms. Burke about her life, and her play Miss Tibet.

According to your bio on the PF website, your inspiration for Miss Tibet was your time actually seeing the pageant on which the play is based. Can you explain a little bit about how you ended up there?
About 5 years ago, I was taking my final workshop in the UT-Austin MFA Playwriting program, and the instructor (and awesome playwright) Alice Tuan gave me an assignment: write a monologue spoken by an Asian character that takes place in 1960.  I started researching the Tibetan uprising of 1959, and through the magic of Google stumbled across the website for the Miss Tibet Beauty Pageant.  I was instantly drawn to the controversy – an external beauty pageant in a culture that typically prizes internal beauty, a swimsuit competition in a mountain-based culture that typically doesn’t swim, an event denounced by the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in Exile that takes place just down the street from the Dalai Lama’s compound?  I immediately emailed the pageant director, explained that I was a playwright who wanted to write about the pageant, and asked, “If I can get myself to Dharamsala, will you give me unfettered access to the contestants and backstage?”  He said yes, if I brought him a pair of white snakeskin cowboy boots.  With that I was off to India, boots in tow.

Often when I tell that story I’m met with disbelief, like, wait, you just saw this website and emailed this guy and flew to India?  And I’m like, well, yeah, wouldn’t you?

Would you say that most of your plays have political undertones?
Oh boy, I just started about five different responses to that question…but for the sake of expediency I’ll say that only a couple of my plays deal with Politics: Miss Tibet, and Taboo, a play for teenage actors that’s published by Playscripts, Inc. Taboo was my response to the PATRIOT Act, though you’d never know it from reading it. It does deal very openly with power and control wielded by a governing body, but it’s set in a high school so it remains several steps removed from its real-world underpinnings.  Miss Tibet is the first script I’ve written that deals with a current, factual political situation.

I think the challenge of writing about politics is being mindful that there are multiple sides to any conflict, and while it's impossible to give equal shrift to every opinion, there is absolutely no room to be preachy or condescending. My goal with Miss Tibet is to provide an engaging story that has the potential to encourage discussion, not to espouse an agenda. Because when it comes down to it, I feel as an audience member I’m smart enough to draw my own conclusions, so the least I can do is show the audience the same respect I expect when I’m in their seat.

I've always heard that the best way to keep your creative juices is to keep creating.  You're in a popular band (Shearwater), do you feel that it helps your writing or has no effect?
Funny, I see my role in Shearwater as pretty similar to what I do as a playwright. I’m the bassist, so I’m part of the rhythm section; I help drive the songs, and provide a sort of bridge between the drums and the more melodic instruments. As a playwright, my role is to lay down the basic track, the words, and leave room for the director, actors, and designers layer their vision on top of it.  So there’s that; and I do think a lot about the rhythm of the language in my dialogue. As far as stoking creative fires, I will say it’s pretty fun to set down a scene I’m frustrated with and pick up an instrument; same creativity, different outlet.

In terms of the Tibetan plight, how do you feel there can be resolve?
Hey, I thought this was for a blog! What happened to the softballs??
Hey, all's fair in love and... blogging....?
IMTUTATQO*, compromise is often necessary in resolving conflict. It strikes me that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has made concessions to the Chinese government with the “middle way” approach, but those concessions have not been reciprocated. It also strikes me that without accurate media coverage in China, people both inside and outside the country don’t have the facts, so the Chinese government is not held accountable for its actions. And it’s difficult to rally people to pressure the government one way or the other when there’s an information blackout. Given all that, I have no answers, but I do think attempting to disseminate information about the plight of Tibetans through the media and the arts can’t hurt. 

In this case, I was given the unusual opportunity to meet these women, both from Tibet and from the diaspora, who could speak quite eloquently about their situation. So I did what little I could – I wrote this play, and attempted to bring their voices to a slightly larger audience.  It’s not much, but like I said, it can’t hurt.

*In my totally-unqualified-to-answer-this-question opinion

Any final words?
After weeks typing away at rewrites in my living room, I can’t wait to hear the script read by actors, with a director, and an audience!  Writing is such a solitary thing--good thing theater isn’t.

Check out Kim Burke THIS MONTH at both of our staged readings in the Bay Area:  One at Stanford University, and one at the Thick House in San Francisco's lovely Potrero Hill district.  Click here for more info!


Amy said...

fascinating! Thanks for such a great interview. Amy

Unknown said...

I am a former stage actor who started a non-traditional pageant circuit in 2004: The Miss Black Rock City Project. I would love to contact Kimberly Burke about a possible collaboration. You can bet that I have some pretty special experiences to share about the experience!

stacycats at miss black rock city dot com

sam said...

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