Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fortenberry & Kern: InterBlood INTERVIEW

Dorothy Fortenberry explains to Jon Kern how being the last one to know that stench is coming from poo on her own shoe reflects her life in a larger sense; Jon explains to Dorothy how he treats language like a Stretch Armstrong doll:

Jon Kern: In the plays of yours that I’ve heard, such as an early draft of your Bloodworks play SPECIES NATIVE TO CALIFORNIA, you demonstrate a nuanced and comic view of liberal political culture and attitudes. From where did you get your insight into the personal quirks of this political species, and what is your own relationship to ideas and behavior commonly labeled “liberal”?
Dorothy Fortenberry: Yeah, wow, that's pretty nail-on-the-head. One of my friends, a dramaturg, described my work by saying that my "project was taking the piss out of liberals." And, she's pretty much right. In SPECIES NATIVE TO CALIFORNIA, it's exploring a sort of knee-jerk multiculturalism and nature-appreciation that I don't think is wrong—I mean, I like nature—but it's also very comfy. In GOOD EGG, it's reproduction and women's choices (I actually mean choices here and not just abortion). And even CAITLIN AND THE SWAN opens up questions about tolerance and sexuality—what are we okay with and why?Whence the fascination with liberals? I guess a lot of it is exposure. I grew up in Washington, DC, went to a fancy east coast high school, a fancy east coast college, and a fancy east coast grad school—all the while not thinking of myself as a fancy east coast person. I think I tended to look at the people around me at a distance, and it made some things pop out—and some things really hit home. While I do have some conservative habits and beliefs (get to know me! find out what!), the liberal I am making fun of is almost always myself.

JK: Recently, your play CAITLIN AND THE SWAN tore it up at Under St. Marks, notching a ton of praise-tastic reviews. How do you handle success? What is your favorite and least favorite thing about being awesome?
DF: Yes, I am now internet-famous along with some guy's surprised cat and Tay Zonday! Um, seriously we got some lovely notices - for a great job done by Joshua Conkel and The Management, and I am so happy about the show. Luckily, the population of theater-blog-readers is tactful enough that I don't get mobbed getting my latte each morning. In terms of being awesome, I really try to take it day by day.

JK: You have a wonderful, humor-twinkled, critical eye for your own life experiences. What story from your life most commonly makes you think “Well, that’s me”?
DF: Okay, true story. Once I was doing research at the main DC public library building for a play I was working on. This is a big, urban public library downtown, so, as always, it’s full of all kinds of people. And I'm at this table reading my books, feeling really good about myself for how successfully my trip is going, when I notice that someone around me kind of smells. I look around and there are a couple somewhat shabby gentlemen nearby. No big deal, I think, and keep reading. But the smell gets worse. And my inner monologue becomes "Just read your book, don't look at the smelly men." I even try not too sniff too loudly in case they take it the wrong way. At this point, I totally could have just checked the book out and gone home, but I didn't want to offend them. It's not their fault they smell, right? So I finish the book—finally—and walk out of the library, and I'm waiting at the crosswalk when I realize I can still smell the smell. I look down and there's dog shit on my shoe. It's been there the whole time. And that's my life.

JK: What’s the meanest joke you’ve ever said? If not said, heard?
Roses are red
Violets are blue
At least that's what they tell me
Because I'm blind
(I wrote that on my middle school poetry wall in 7th grade. I got in trouble—for being mean, not for stealing it from Gary Larson's unpublished Far Side cartoons.)

JK: When did theater first insinuate itself into your life? Have you always pursued the path of a playwright?
DF: Theater got in there early. Way before soccer. I probably saw my first live performance in nursery school, and then I acted in class plays and school plays starting in grade school and going through high school. I did drama at summer camp (not swimming; I still can't really swim) and saw my first professional show when I was in 4th grade. It was CATS. And I hated it, of which I am still proud. I first wanted to be a playwright at 13 or 14, when I had maybe 2 pages of dialogue under my belt. I first seriously considered doing it like for real when I was about 23.

JK: Your husband, Colin Wambsgans, is a composer. Are you two able to bond over the connections between music and theatrical language?
DF: So the big unfairness of our relationship is that I think primarily in words and he thinks in sounds, but we have all our conversations in words. It's kind of like being married to someone who speaks French and making them learn English and never getting past "Bonjour" yourself. I often feel like if I wanted to be really fair I would make us have half our conversations in glockenspiel. I think that's why it was so much fun to work on a musical together (we wrote one called BICYCLING FOR LADIES about terrorist suffragettes)—I could speak in words and he could respond in music and we could carry on a dialogue that way.

JK: When writing, do you envision an idealized image of your characters? How clear a picture of the world on stage do you carry?
DF: Hmm, not very. I think a lot in speech, rhythm, and energy, but not so much in physical type. Similarly, I know a lot about how the worlds feel, but usually very little about how they look. Often, when I think I know something about a character physically, it turns out that I'm using a physical trait for a life experience one. Like, I'll think a character is tall and strong, but what I mean is that she isn't used to being treated as little and delicate. And there could be an actor who is physically small but her energy is equally "I got this."

JK: Like myself, you’re the product of a fancy, expensive education. What’s the most useful lesson you learned while spending thousands of dollars a year to do so? What’s the most useless shit you picked up [useless shit can be fun trivia or grumbles & complaints or both]?
DF: Most useful lesson? It's going to sound like a cliché, but persistence. [At the Yale School of Drama], [w]e had a weekly class where working artists and theater professionals came in and talked to us, and I was always amazed by the stories of the playwrights across the table. And these were folks I would kill to be, and they told their stories of "how did I get here" and it was always really circuitous and strange. I kept thinking somewhere there would be a linear playwright who just rationally advanced up the ladder, but I never met him. Gradually, over three years, I changed the way I thought about success and how it's achieved and when. Which is good, because I think according to my old definition of success I would now be a failure. The most useless? The idea that you can size up quickly who's going to be "important" and make them your friend. Be nice to everyone, sure, but there's no need to size up peers. You can't know who's going to be rich and famous. So stop talking about it.

JK: What is your favorite recipe to eat? What is your favorite recipe to cook?
DF: To eat? Mashed potatoes. To cook? Kale and sausage lasagna.

JK: What five things are most likely to worry you tomorrow?
DF: Why haven't I done better re-writes of SPECIES NATIVE TO CALIFORNIA? How will the rehearsal and reading go? Can we really trust the stress tests, or are the economy and our banking system totally doomed? Why aren't I a more organized person and better employee? Why aren't I a less organized person and better artist?

JK: On winter retreat, Mike Lew gave you the nickname Dofo, which has stuck in Youngblood. In that spirit, what would be your pornstar identity? Rollerderby alias?
DF: Hmm, I know that my porn name would be middle + first street = Ashley Columbia. Which I frankly love. I think she might now be a Real Housewife, actually. Rollerderby alias? Undine Slagg.

On that note, Dorothy turns the tables on Jon...:

Dorothy Fortenberry: In addition to your playwriting career, you are also an improv star with We Are Colossus and the author of the hilarious and informative "True Facts." Do you feel like being a comedy performer influences your playwriting, or are they separately defined spheres for you?
Jon Kern: I was an improviser before I ever finished a play, first with a group named JENNY, and then after grad school, I was on a Magnet Theater house team called the YES ANDERSENS for two years. I use a lot of improv principles when I write, such as callbacks, pacing, and avoiding questions. I also take playwriting concepts into improv, such as demanding everyone stick to my assigned script and giving writer’s notes to the actors. The two big mantras of New York improv are “Don’t Think” and “Truth in Comedy.” Since playwriting is a fucklot of thinking, only one of these applies when I write. My improv experience though taught me how to embody characters physically, how to heighten the energy of a scene, how to punch a joke or add a button, and how to make each line carry meaningful information. And if you want to have a discussion with the pretentious twat that lives inside my head, he will gladly explain his theory that comedy is an ethical philosophy.

DF: Your VICTORY brunch play HATE THE LOSER INSIDE gave people physical pain via laughter, in part because it had an amazing grasp of the low-budget commercial lexicon. Why do you know what terrible commercials sound like so well? For real, where does research fit into your writing process?
JK: I'm one of those guys who will talk back to 2am infomercials. They weirdly combine the aspirational with the sleazy, and I have a deep love for that form of junk culture. So for HATE THE LOSER INSIDE, I had all the research already jammed into my head. My research process usually consists of me trying to write, then freaking out about how I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, and then reading stuff online or even buying a bunch of books to fill in gaps. My brain can scramble fact and fiction so readily, I am always fearful that what I'm saying is complete bullshit. Also, I can project authority and confidence in knowledge that I don't really have. It's an attitude that helped me throughout college, but now I don't know how to break the habit. So most of my research is done to help me become the man I can seem like.

DF: I've also noticed a (perhaps complimentary) trend in your writing to invent new turns of phrase ("sexing," "bitch nipples")—what draws you to developing a specific language for your plays? Does it come out of a particular character or an environment?
JK: Didn't Shakespeare invent like 900 new words or phrases? That guy knew how to rock it. I think I tend to make up words because something is broke in my brain. In a recent New Yorker article, I read that synthesia results from an excess of neural connections between sections of the brain. It was hypothesized that creativity works the same way. So probably a bunch of wires in my skull are all screwed around, and now I compulsively remix the words I hear. I enjoy simple substitution games [e.g. “George Washington Carver studied peanuts” becomes “James Madison Mincer invented soy lecithin”] and treating language like it’s a Stretch Armstrong doll. Words are fragments of sound, as much as they are tiny packets of meaning. I find that the content of words is less interesting than the music they create in my head. So often I’ll think of some phrase that sounds funny and reverse engineer a character out of why someone would speak like that.

DF: In addition to Youngblood, you're a member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. What's it like being in two groups? Are the feedback styles different? Do you feel like there's such a thing as a "Ma-Yi play" or a "Youngblood play" or do you workshop the same work in both groups?
JK: There's a long history of crossover between the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, which is a pan-Asian-American theater group, and Youngblood. Mike Lew, Kyoung Park, and I are in both groups, and the Lab features Youngblood alums Lloyd Suh, Qui Nguyen, and Mrinalini Kamath. Ma-Yi meetings are a looser vibe, with people usually bringing snacks for all. Also, the Lab is much politer and better at math as a whole. I bring the same exact work to both groups, but typically a Ma-Yi play is 186% more Asian-y.

DF: We're both newbies and joined in October. What is the biggest surprise about what being in Youngblood is like versus what you thought it would be like?
JK: Since joining Youngblood, I drink more than I used to. I guess I wasn't expecting that. Also, when I joined Youngblood, RJ and Graeme promised me my own human skull goblet from whence I could sup the blood of the innocent. Right now I'm having to sup the blood of the innocent out of plastic Dixie cups, and that doesn't really do it for the peasant villages I lord over with unjust tyranny. Something about a plastic Dixie cup just doesn't say, "Fear me! Or I'll rape your children!" More like "Fear me! And then meet me by the old chestnut tree for the three-legged race!"
Human skull goblet NOW!

DF: Is there a typical first for you, as you begin a new piece (line of dialogue, image, character, idea), or does it vary piece to piece?
JK: It varies.

DF: Do you hate re-writing as much as I do? If not, why not?
JK: Re-writing can be frustrating because the text and characters you already have carry implications that block you from further discover. The joy of writing is that freedom of release as language waterfalls from the tropical paradise of your open mind. That freedom is harder to find as your play accumulates. Yet when you’re in a re-write and that block clears, it’s like the clouds have parted and a choir of angels have built a beer garden in the sky, where they’re pouring nothing but crisp Czech pilsners for free. I think the frustration comes when we mistake the empty page for freedom. Real freedom is finding harmony with what you are doing at any moment, which leads to a connection with your work that blurs the limits between the self and the world around. That oneness is real freedom, and I agree it can be a bitch to find at certain stages in the writing process.

DF: What did you think you'd be doing 10 years ago? 20?
JK: Well, 10 years ago I was 18. I had gone to college thinking I'd become a psychiatrist but decided to concentrate [U of Chicago term for major] in Sociology when I didn't want to do any of that medical stuff. So I really had no idea about 10 years later. 20 years ago I was 8, and I probably imagined I would grow up to do something important that made my parents proud. I've been pretty much devoid of intelligent planning all my life, which is what led me to playwriting.

DF: You're from New York and went to grad school here. What's your relationship as a writer to the city? And what's it like having your parents come to all your work?
JK: Wow, those are big and separate questions. I've never written about New York, but there’s no doubt I’m a product of the city. I was raised to be a behavior watcher out of the boredom of countless subway rides. And if you keep your ears attentive, you can always slip in and out of intriguing conversations. New York (every borough of it, even Staten Island) is a ninja training camp for honing the skills of a playwright. My parents have come to so many of my shows, at this point I think of them like regular audience members, albeit ones who I will see later and who will tell me everything they liked and didn’t like. My mom and dad are enormously kind, generous people. Their dedication has taught me that if you care about others, you ought to express that by investing your time in support of their passions. I know the day after I strangle my parents because they don’t know how to mute a television, I will think back to all the performances they have seen and feel very fortunate to have such memories.

DF: The Internet -- playwriting friend or foe?
JK: More like a lover who does not know when TO SHUT THE FUCK UP. When it's good, it's too good to walk away from, but damn if there aren't times you wanna just . . .

Dorothy's Bloodworks piece will be read this Wednesday (5/13); Jon's will be read Wednesday, 6/3. All Bloodworks readings start at 7Pm @Seaport.

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