I love to jam weird things up against one another . . .
I first became aware of playwright Kato McNickle, when she submitted In Search of a Better Life with Elvis to the Pen is a Mighty Sword international playwriting competition. I was intrigued by her cover letter, her cast description, and I loved the play, which went on to be first runner-up. In a subsequent year, Kato won the competition with A Yankee Trader, which was premiered by the Virtual Theatre Project in Los Angeles in 2006. I am a fan of Kato’s and continue to follow her work.
Kim Terrell: How has life changed for you since I interviewed you for the Virtual Voice back in 2004?
Kato McNickle: Well, I’ve transitioned from early career to mid-career. I was attending a 3-week residency playwrights’ Boot Camp, working with Paula Vogel at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and we went to see psychics in order to inform our writing. Mine shouted, “You must go back to college!” When I told Paula this, she told me about the Return to Undergraduate Education (RUE) program at Brown University and proceeded to help me with recommendations and my application process. The whole enterprise was thanks to her and that psychic.
At Brown, I was impressed by all of the courses’ emphasis on critical thinking and the development of those skills. If there was one thing that unified classes in cognitive science, classics, theater, religion, and ethnomusicology, it was this demand to take responsibility for my education and to really, really think. It was phenomenal.
I began to think a lot about vitality—the difference between something dead and something alive. Romulus Linney says, “when writing a play, the hard thing is making it alive, vital.” Theater that excites me is alive. Watching the players solve what is in front of them has to have a sense of immediacy and vitality. Night after night that vitality takes the same words in different directions—if everyone is engaged in the moment, in the immediacy of what is happening.
Kim Terrell: What excites you when you are writing?
Kato McNickle: How characters are defined gets me excited. Tired ways of explaining characters end up with a tired, “dead” play. How do I assemble a work to keep it exciting? Vital? These questions are my constant companions.
I love to jam weird things up against one another, like cognitive science and theater, neuroscience and viewing art. What happens when we look at art in a frame? What happens when we dream? What happens when we go into a theater and engage in suspension of disbelief? Can we even do it?
I’m excited by the plasticity of theater and the plasticity of the brain creating life and setting it in a world that asks us to transform impossibility into possibility—like dream space, where we “know” things and “accept” things differently from when we are awake.
Kim Terrell: Do you think that theater has a future?
Kato McNickle: We have to re-imagine and redefine theater. In our discussion you quoted Paul Gauguin talking about revolutionaries and plagiarists. His revolution was that the camera came into existence while he was painting. Had the question of the camera not challenged the art world, it might not have redefined itself at that point.
What brings us into the theater? Unlike other art forms, a performance exists in a moment in time that never comes again. A particular show and a particular audience come together for that moment and engage in something together. The energy of the audience influences the performers, and together they create the experience.
Kim Terrell: How do you view your role in your theater community?
Kato McNickle: We have a vibrant, vital theater community here in Connecticut, where I live and work. I am very much plugged in to my community, while also thinking and writing about the larger world.
Kim Terrell: How do you think your work will remain relevant in 50 to 100 years?
Kato McNickle: Most of my favorite works still resonate so I write pieces that I hope will resonant for years to come. I used my outrage at Matthew Shepard’s death to write, A Yankee Trader. I look at things that engage me emotionally and I try to frame my work into “A Classic Present”.
Like architects who imagine buildings into being, playwrights take unimagined worlds and imagine them onto a stage. I like to start at an impossible place with possible and impossible characters and develop characters that do what I would not do. I’ve been reading Charles Baxter’s collection of essays, Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, where he talks about narrative and action and how great characters do things that we would not—and that’s why we go along with them.
Connected to this is something that I learned while working on my third full-length play, a dark comedy. After the read-through of the second draft, I realized that the play worked best and was funniest whenever the characters made the most inappropriate choice possible. When I went in to do the next round of revisions, whenever I got to a point where a character made a decision, I would ask myself, “What is the most inappropriate thing they could do right now?” Then I’d have them do that. It juiced up the play, and it went on to a couple of successful productions. It was a valuable lesson. When I mentioned this tactic to one of the actors in the first production (who is also a playwright), he remarked, “That should be true in every play!” So we continue to use this principle in our work.
Kim Terrell: What are you working on at the moment?
Kato McNickle: Right now, I am working on a version of Robin Hood in a modern high school. Robin is a girl, surrounded by adults played by puppets. The play is about working outside the mainstream and asks the question, “Who owns art?” There is a rallying against corporate art as the teenagers try to FREE BATMAN, who has become a symbol of corporate ownership of art.
I like theater that moves toward jagged, unmanicured places. I take the ingredients and stir them into an emotion using spectacle, sound, and light, and hopefully awaken a sense of that emotion within the audience.
Kim Terrell: I remember reading the cover letter that you sent to the Virtual Theatre Project with a play entry. In fact, I am going to share it here, because I saved it all these years. The character descriptions included an Elvis impersonator played by an African-American man in his 40’s.
Excerpt from Kato McNickle’s cover letter to the Virtual Theatre Project: “A girl hears an ancient voice calling “Memphis,” so she goes off to Tennessee—In Search of a Better Life with Elvis. The thing is, the voice meant Egypt. Off-track from the get-go, Jezzy is on a mission to make peace with her father—a deceased Elvis impersonator who forgot he wasn’t really Elvis—even if it means stealing her mother’s car, trading it for a guitar, and ignoring the lady in the moon calling to her.
Americans are detached from the larger past, from ancient myth, from our ancestors. We fill this void with pop icons, superstars, and fast food. What if our ancestors are watching? What words would they use? Would we listen? Would we even understand the language? This is what I am trying to get at with this play.
But really… it’s about a girl needing to understand and forgive her father before she can be open to the possibilities of love, acceptance, and honesty… and she doesn’t even know it.”
Kim Terrell: Who are some of the contemporary playwrights that you enjoy?
Kato McNickle: Sarah Ruhl and Sheila Callaghan jump to mind. And a playwright whom I return to a lot is Thornton Wilder. I often reference him in my work and always get something new from returning to his plays, either on the page or in production. He asks big questions and expresses them with profound action and juxtaposition. He goes outside of expectation. We forget how vibrant his work continues to be.
Most recently, I am smitten with Martin McDonagh and Will Eno. And Caridad Svich is not only an influential playwright, but also a theater-scene dynamo. I learn as much from her articles and interviews as I do from her plays. She operates as a champion of the arts in everything she does.
Kim Terrell: What are some of your favorite plays?
Kato McNickle: I love As You Like It—in part because it grabbed me at an early age. I was ten or eleven when I watched it on television. I remember the ad for it on PBS: “Welcome to the Forest of Arden, where girls will be boys,” and it cut to Helen Mirren standing on a tree limb as Rosalind in disguise. Since then, I have returned to many productions of that play. I even acted in it once in an outdoor production in New London, Connecticut.
The production of The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl at Yale Repertory in New Haven was outstanding, and I learned a lot as a writer from that.
I have seen way too many productions of Camelot for my own good. I also performed in a production of that! It’s such a flawed show, way too long, and yet I always miss the parts that get cut in newer productions. Trinity Rep did a fantastic job with their production of it a few years ago. They set it in the London Underground during WWII, with people assembled during a bombing raid trying to keep their minds off the war over their heads. Lancelot entered on a motorcycle and handed out signed head shots of himself during “C’est Moi.” It was a fun reinvention.
Kim Terrell: How did you find your way into theater?
Kato McNickle: I began as a performer, an actor in musicals, and taking theater classes. After a near-fatal car crash, I was unable to move and breathe the same way, and this change led me to directing and working in technical theater. My background in art has always been a great boon to my work in conceiving theatrical space and design. Directing led to a job with a theater troupe, where I had to write, and also to directing works at a scaled-down, local version of the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, called the Local Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford. Unlike the National Playwrights Conference, we were a small 100% volunteer effort. Directing new works got me thinking about writing my own pieces and trying that on.
Playwriting made all of my other accumulated skills come into play at the same time: I write work that interests me as an actor. I imagine worlds that intrigue me as a designer. I set words on a surface that conceals a deeper chasm that I would want to plumb as a director, leading actors and audience with a beam of light as a guide.
One of the things I love about plays is that there is so much beyond the words on the page. The words are the dressing for the action. The action is a collaboration between my initial ideas that fueled the play and the actors and director who are going to fill it in, breathe into it, and make it into something that is like my initial idea, while at the same time something I could not have imagined on my own.
Recently I have called into question whether to continue. But I can’t stop. It’s got a hold of me.
Kim Terrell: Do you write other things besides plays?
Kato McNickle: I blog from time to time, but I have not made the habit stick. I sometimes write for the local newspapers—usually arts and entertainment articles. I enjoy composing silly status updates for social media consumption. And I’m working on a book about how to perform, produce, and survive a staged reading.
Over the years, I have done a lot of these as a director, actor, and playwright. I have also seen some of the best staged readings in the country and gotten to watch the best directors rehearse them. I was fortunate to be at the O’Neill Theater Center for many years during Lloyd Richard’s tenure and to witness the various transitions of several other NTC directors. That along with my decade of producing the Local Playwrights Festival, with volunteers and actors ranging from green-amateur to professional, has given me a particular insight and expertise in the form.
I’ve been using a great writing tip from Elizabeth Gilbert that was posted on Facebook a couple of weeks ago about doing things in focused, 30-minutes-a-day sittings, using a timer. It’s a great discipline tool, and I have been finding it extremely helpful in making sure I sit, write, and focus on this particular project. It’s very different from playwriting. Playwriting is about space and time and leaving things empty enough for others to fill in. This project is about making sure I describe it accurately and not leave anything up to interpretation—although I do try to keep it funny.
Kato McNickle: Hmmmm. I can tell you who I am before I write.
Before I write, I am most likely wearing a button down collar shirt, or a sweater, or a button-down collar shirt under a sweater. I’ve got loads of imagery around me, and at least two dozen magic objects within easy reach—like the 3-inch Shakespeare statue on my desk, or my uncle’s pipe, or a framed four-leaf clover I found about 15 years ago. And there’s probably an object or two that are significant to what I am working on. There are some practice swords nearby in an antique umbrella stand, because now is always a good time to practice a sword fight.
While I am writing, really writing, I am nobody. I can tell you, nobody wants to be interrupted in the middle of composing, because it all dissolves if you get called back into the chair. I do come back, between paragraphs, or between beats (if it’s a play). Thinking seems to happen before and after the writing chunks. Think – write, write, write – think, reread – think – write, write, write – and so on.
I am a very poor typist. I am a lifelong poor speller—which is another reason why I like plays. There are so many less words in the same amount of meaning as in a novel or something that requires real word skill. But mostly, I write plays because they happen in the theater. I love being in the theater—as in breathe it, wear it, am-most-alive-when-I’m-there in love with it.
Kim Terrell: Thanks, Kato. This has been great fun for me. It’s always a pleasure catching up with you.