Kristen Kosmas Interview Jan 9, 2014
Interruption, wrongness, collaboration, Seattle in the 90's and Chekhov: an interview with Kristen Kosmas and OtB Patron Relations Director Blair Feehan
BF: Kristen Kosmas, thanks for being here with us today.
KK: Thanks for having me.
BF: We’re really excited to get to chat about There There and OntheBoards.tv and OtB in general. We’re so excited for this show, which opens this weekend. Can we start with There There? Can you tell us a little bit about the piece?
KK: Yes, it started, I started writing it four years ago now. I was in grad school when I started writing it and a lot of people for a couple of years before that had been comparing my writing to Chekhov. Which I found totally absurd. Because he’s so closely associated with naturalism in the US. But I was curious because it kept coming up. So I started reading his plays again and finally arrived with the tremendous complement that it is to be compared to him. And also started to see, ‘Oh right, that makes sense,’ and when I was reading Three Sisters, my first sort of inspiration about the play was the character Captain Vassily Vasilyevich Solyony, There There is basically his monologue – that’s the foundational conceit.
KK: In Three Sisters, everything he says brings every single conversation to a grounding halt. Everything just dies every time he talks, and the whole play has to start over again. As a playwright, I found it hilarious and fascinating that Chekhov would--is he doing that to himself or is he allowing himself to do that? – like use a character as a structural device. I’m sure he didn’t think of it like this at all, but I thought, ‘He’s using a character as a structural device for the purpose of like interruption and like beginning again, like fail start over, fail start over. Interrupt – disaster – start over. Non sequitur, nonsense. Okay, start over. And I thought it was really funny and fascinating structurally, and so I set out to make a play that had that structure. That was just like constant having to begin again.
KK: And I had been for a long time wanting to make a solo piece. Because I made a lot of solo work in the 90s and it had been a long time since I had done that. And every time I set out to make a solo show, the cast kept growing – like yeast– kept expanding. So I really wanted to be disciplined about making a solo piece that would just have to keep beginning again. And of course immediately I was like, ‘Oh, but wouldn’t it be beautiful it if it was in English and in Russian?’ And in the beginning I imagined the Russian text as sort of a very minimized murmuring textural sonic quality. But immediately then there were two actors on the stage in my imagination. But then I decided that was okay because they weren’t really a character.
KK: So I set out to write this solo piece. And it was terrible, it was so bad. The first drafts were so bad. But there was something in it that I kept coming back to it and kept trying to work on it. At the very beginning, I invited Paul, I was like, “I’m writing this thing, I know it’s terrible, but will you let me read it to you see if there was something there, and do you want on to work on it with me?” So he has been on it since the very beginning.
BF: Paul Willis, the director of the piece.
KK: Yes. Somewhere in the middle (then it took me three years to write it), somewhere in the middle I realized from dwelling in the play and in the character I realized that another part of my attraction to it and why I was doing it was that I relate to being that person in the real world. Every time they talk, everyone is just like, “Oh god, what are you talking about and why are you talking and who even invited you here?” And I have a sense of humor about that in myself, since I am so old now and it has been my reality for such a long time that I don’t feel – anyway, it was like, ‘Oh that’s funny, I'm like him.’
Also that character – he was a captain in the army. And he is always perfuming his hands to get the smell of death off his hands. And I am always aware of and interested in all of the wars that are going on and the experience and also the choice of the men and women who choose to fight them or are constricted into them and I feel very humble and reverent about that aspect of that play – that it was important for me to consider it. So those were some of the structural and thematic things that were the early motivating forces of writing it. It’s not really a character study in the end – I don’t know what it is – but that’s why it started.
BF: Nor is it a big social commentary on war in the world today, it’s pretty abstract.
KK: I don’t know what it is – I don’t know. I don’t know whether it seems abstract to people. I can’t say what it is; I only know how it goes (roughly!).
BF: So, if you started with this character seed of someone who stops and starts and makes all these interruptions, that must have been a really freeing thing as a playwright to play with all of that, but also pretty constricting, I would imagine: having somebody who is so out there and things like that. Can you talk a little bit about how that was integrated into the piece, and some other challenges that you might have faced in working on the show?
KK: At first, it didn’t really have anything to do with the character. It was sort of coincidental that it was the character in this play that was doing it. And interruption, also part of the reason that I felt happy and I went towards it rather than away from it, was that interruption has also been part of my making. I used to take a lot of dance and movement classes with great choreographers, and I am trying to remember which teacher it was. But anyway, she had also developed a rehearsal tool inspired by the reality of her life where everything she set out to do got interrupted by a phone call or having to go to the bathroom or someone knocking on her door or remembering that you left the cat outside or whatever. And so she made a choreographic rehearsal tool where every gesture that you were doing you would interrupt it as soon as you became aware of it and where it was going – then you would have to do something else.
I was in my early 20s when I took that class and it makes sense to me on every level and it also is so much a part of our lives. I think part of the reason also that I make the kind of theater that I make is because I get bored frankly when something is completely linear. It also seems very false to me. I not only get bored, but I’m like, “Nothing ever actually goes on for that duration with that kind of precise forward momentum – conversations, feelings, thoughts, nothing for me.” So it was quite natural for me to work like that. And I also use a lot of – I make things – I think more like a collage artist or an arranger of things. I think compositionally. So to take a piece of text and put another one – or insert something else into it before it has ended. That wasn’t hard, the interrupting part. What was really bad about the first draft was that all of the things that I wrote were really stupid. Like none of the text that I wrote to interrupt – most of it was really bad. You know, and that happens, I don’t know, it happens.
BF: That’s why it’s called a first draft right?
KK: Yeah, I mean that happens for me, god bless whoever is like, ‘This is amazing!’ but it was like literally the words were bad. There actually was a section of the play in one of the early drafts where one of the sections was about the fact that the words were really bad. Like the actor makes a phone call in the middle of the play and says, “Why did you – I just want to know why you chose not to give me the money that you said that you had available and that was available to people who were?” – and then finally the person on the other end says, “It was the words. We didn’t like the words you used.” And it was this sort of abstracted--like applying for grant money or something.
BF: I see self-referential in there...
KK: I know – which is terrible – which I hate! That was another thing that was really funny when I was making this play when I was in grad school, I brought in the first draft and I said – it wasn’t only the spoken text but there were all these other things in the play that I thought, ‘I cannot abide this. When I see this happening in the theater, I hate it, so I don’t know why I’m doing this!’
So Mac Wellman, who was my playwriting teacher in grad school said, “I find that everything that I hate in a particular moment, usually five years later I either accept it or love it.” And he was like, “So just stick with it,” and I was like, “Okay.”
And then much later – now as some of the materials for On the Boards have said that it’s about wrongness. So I feel like even though those things I had such an aversion to as I was doing them, my intuition told me that that’s actually really how this play goes. You are going to do everything with words, everything with acting, everything in theater presentation that really either you can’t stand or is totally inappropriate. It wasn’t conscious – I don’t have ideas like that that I realize, I usually am doing something like that and then much, much later I realize why I did it.
BF: Did anything survive from that first draft in what we are going to see?
KK: Yes. Some things. Although I would be a little hard-pressed to name them immediately. But some of it is still there. But most of everything from the first draft is gone in its original expression. There are a lot of themes that were there from the first writing that are still there. But again that are accidentally or coincidentally relate directly to the themes of Three Sisters and a lot of Chekhov’s writing that I wasn’t doing on purpose. He talks about class and he talks about ennui and war but those things – I don’t know, I guess they are on many people’s minds all throughout history. Because they are always a reality, so…
BF: They don’t call them a theme for nothing.
KK: Yeah, that’s how they get to be themes.
BF: So you talked a little bit about Paul coming onto the scene as a director. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to have Peter Ksander, the set designer, come on as well? How did that really focus the editing and transform the show?
KK: It didn’t focus the writing. We didn’t ask Peter to work with us until we knew we had a workable draft – and even at that point we were like, “We don’t really understand how this is going to be performed, but we know that this is the text.” Again sort of just intuitively. So once we had finished that, which took 2 ½ years or something, then we asked Peter, who is my absolute favorite theater designer. And Paul had also tried to work with him before, and we just asked him – he said yes – and then he made a literal performance space. He conceived of a performance space that would allow for all of these wrong staging ideas that were written into the text.
And the thing he did that I love - that I find hilarious was that – we mostly worked in black box spaces or just non-proscenium theaters – empty loft style spaces or completely non-theater spaces. So then the idea that he would build a proscenium into a space like that, I just found so hilarious! It’s so conventional but anti-conventional, especially anti-conventional in this context. And that it’s clearly constructed. There is no attempt to make it seem like it’s the proscenium of the theater that you are in. I don’t know, I just find it really funny. So he’s very simple – he’s a very elegant designer. So he just provided very simple spaces and frames and opportunities for us to more or less kind of choreograph the piece.
Which is another reason I like to work with Paul, is – with me anyway – he doesn’t get super super involved in character, narrative, story. We don’t work like that – I know he works with other actors that way, or depending on the text he can work that way, but he is very visually-minded and also very architecturally-minded and so am I. And so he makes these compositions – these staging compositions – and so Peter made it very easy for us to make beautiful or funny or strange or difficult or wrong compositions on the stage. This has been the best collaboration of my whole career (tied with one other one) but in my whole theater-making career it has been almost utterly without conflict without – between the collaborators. The only conflicts or difficulties have ever been with the thing itself--which is the best--and then everyone aligned on fighting the problem rather than fighting each other. The only one horrible conflict we had was when I freaked out and was like throwing my shoes against the wall. Overwhelmed.
BF: As it goes sometimes, but that’s when you just get to throw your shoes at the wall.
KK: Oh my god, so shameful, it was terrible!
BF: So you go way back with these guys, right? You guys all worked together in the Seattle theater scene in the 90s?
KK: With Paul. Yeah.
BF: Can you talk a little bit about what that scene was like for you? And you sort of had a homecoming this time around, right?
KK: In a way. I did maybe one 12MM and a couple of other things that were hosted at the old OtB. But my real artistic home in Seattle was at the New City Theater which is still functioning – still making work. But I mostly worked with John Kazanjian. And then as an actor I occasionally worked with Printer’s Devil – maybe only once really as an actor in a full production. But I knew all of them.
The thing about Seattle at that time that was so magical that I haven’t found again anywhere else is that people in all different disciplines were friends and were interested in what each other were doing. There was a lot of cross dialogue between the music scene and the visual arts scene and dance, especially for me. And poetry and spoken word and everyone went to everything and was inspired by everything.
KK: And Printer’s Devil was a very special company also, in that they were quite young. And I think that Seattle actually, I don’t know if this was a coincidence of timing, but I attribute it to their personalities. But it wasn’t quite cliquey exactly – you would have an association with a particular theater company and you would work mostly with that company, and so the companies were kind of insular or insulated in certain ways. And then Printer’s Devil, both Paul [Willis] and Kip Fagan, the co-artistic director. They arrived and they would go and see all the shows, and they were like, “That Annex actor is amazing and that New City actor is amazing,” and they just started inviting people. And I think it was a little bit naive. Because it felt kind of like risky – you know? You don’t invite like the cheerleader from that high school to be in the dance routine with that gymnast – you know? That’s what it felt like to me. I was like, “Oh my god you guys, this is amazing!” So they would just assemble these all-star casts of amazing actors, and they had really high production values. So I attribute a certain amount of that generosity of spirit and crossover to certain invitations that that particular company made. That might be totally wrong but that’s how I saw it at the time.
So I was just friends with them – I knew them. And I was in a show that Paul directed, a Printer’s Devil show. And after I moved away to New York, I came back to Seattle and did another solo show that he directed.
But we have worked together a lot now in a lot of different capacities. But also now we have been seeing theater together and seeing the same shows and talking about them. Talking about theater and talking about our own work and our own ideas for 16 or 17 years or more. And he is the person I have had the longest on-going continuous dialogue with about theater in general and the whole practice. So that’s super meaningful to me.
*There There performance photo by Brian Rogers