Thursday, July 21, 2011

Interview with Kate E. Ryan

Kate E. Ryan’s Science is Close [click here] is one of the two plays featured in BASH! (Bay Area SHorts) for this year’s Bay Area Playwrights Festival. Kate is a Bay Area transplant from New York and has worked on numerous plays including an adaptation of Sophocles' Women of Trachis. Science is Close represents the second in a trilogy of plays Kate has written about the character Dot. We at the offices of Playwrights Foundation had a chance to catch up with Kate during the hustle and bustle of the Festival.

Could you briefly explain the genesis of your play Science is Close?
I began Science is Close in the fall of 2009, when I was living in Brooklyn. I was Co-Chair of Soho Rep’s Writer-Director Lab for several years and that job included the opportunity to write a new play in the Lab each year. For the ’09-’10 cycle I realized I wanted to continue the story of this elderly woman named Dot who is the main character in my play Dot – a work I had been developing for several years prior.
I also wanted to try to break out of some habits in my writing that I wasn’t happy with. I wanted to try to limit the amount of characters I could put into a play, and also stretch myself in terms of tone, humor and honesty. In Dot some of the characters are a little bit outsized and I wanted to work with characters that the audience could empathize with in a closer way.
Content-wise, my husband had been reading some material by Ray Kurzweil about “the future” and we had a conversation about life expansion -- the potential of healthcare technology to advance to the point that we could live to be, say, 150. I felt daunted by the idea of having to re-shape a vision of my lifespan. Then I heard an episode of This American Life called “Mistakes Were Made” about the early years of cryonics, and I started reading more about cryonics. I thought it would be interesting to have Dot as an elderly person who has lived a very eventful life grappling with the notion that she could have more life – if she wants it. It’s basically a play about whether she wants it – or not – and whether it’s okay for her to want it – or not.
How has this experience with the festival and Playwrights Foundation been? Honestly.
This experience has been wonderful so far. I’m excited to see all the readings in the next couple of weeks. I’m excited to have a work presented in the Bay Area for the first time. I’m excited to be one of the local writers in the Festival. As much as I miss my community of theatre makers in New York (I just moved to San Francisco last fall), I was really ready to break out of the NYC theatre world and move to a new place. This move has been freeing in terms of imagining what my writing could be and who my audiences could be. The Playwrights Foundation is an amazing organization that has been supportive of me right from the start – and for that I feel extremely lucky.
I’m also loving the Bay Area in general. I think there’s a calmness here, a baseline of contentedness in the population that does not exist in New York (the stereotype of the harried, wheels-churning New Yorker holds some truth). Now that I don’t have that rush of city life I’m able to focus more on the tasks at hand. In my writing life, I don’t feel as distracted.
The great August Wilson said many times before he died that the theatre must belong to the playwright to survive. Do you think this is true? 
It depends on what kind of theatre you’re talking about. I’m a playwright who often incorporates music and movement into my plays. Theatre can be linear narratives about characters who are specific, with whom audiences can empathize, in which we watch a protagonist change in some way… or it can be Elevator Repair Service’s adaptation of a modernist novel, or it can be Young Jean Lee’s bold work (that she directs) that doesn’t tell any kind of traditional story. The kind of theatre that audience members expect to see when they pay $40-$140 per ticket might need to belong to the playwright in order to align with a common sense of what theatre is, but I think the most exciting performances – the ones that express a new way of seeing -- come from visionaries whose work may or may not be focused on an original text that they’ve created. They are often working against something in the theatre that they feel is causing the theatre to die.
 Audiences are smart. They experience fractured narratives daily just by going online and they watch television shows that play daringly with form. In order for theatre to survive it has to be in the hands of theatre artists of any discipline who are keyed into what will rattle audience members’ brains now.
 And lastly, what do you hope to do next in your life in the theatre?
 I want to keep discovering forms for the kinds of stories I want to tell.
 The artists who are actively engaged in the world -- in pop culture, technology, literature, current events – tend to make response-worthy work. So in my next life in the theatre I hope to continue to be engaged in life outside the theatre.
 I look forward to getting to know more about the Bay Area theatre world. I look forward to shedding some of my New Yorkiness (I lived there for 14 years) that is negative and holding on to that which is positive. I look forward to staying close with my NYC theatre community while building a network here. I want to continue to be involved with new play development for other writers.

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