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Sibyl Kempson: The Push and Pull of Playwrighting

By Julie Caniglia

Experimental theater too often gets a bad rap for being dour—weirdness and seriousness in equal measure. But what about humor? That factor may help explain why the plays of Sibyl Kempson, who can be both seriously weird and seriously funny, have gained such a following. For instance, while she includes French-speaking chairs in her 2011 play, THE SECRET DEATH OF PUPPETS (or) How Do Puppets Die? (or) Puppets Die in Secret, there are also helpful subtitles, provided via an old Kodak carousel slideshow. She describes her show Ich, Kurbisgeist, produced last year by Big Dance Theater, as an “olde-tyme agricultural vengeance play for Hallowe’en”—one whose jokes come enrobed in a strange, fictitious Middle English-ish dialect. Then there’s Crime or Emergency: her “shamanistic cabaret” of 2009, which intended to “threaten our Aristotelian/Stanislavskian conceptions of contemporary American theater and identity as we safely understand it,” while offering the bonus of live piano and early Bruce Springsteen.

If you were to judge Kempson’s plays solely by their titles, the newest—the in-progress Fondly, Colette Richland—might seem less odd, possibly even more straightforward than the others. But that’s doubtful, not just because of her penchant for delving into themes of the primordial and the supernatural, the grotesque and the uncanny. She’s also someone BOMB magazine calls “one of the most radical, transgressive, and hilarious playwright/performers out there.”

Apparently those qualities have also given Kempson “arguably the busiest schedule of any theater artist in New York City.” So she was excited to take advantage of a residency in Minneapolis, hosted by the Walker and the Playwrights’ Center, during last summer’s dog days. She had already written Fondly’s first act in collaboration with the performance ensemble Elevator Repair Service (ERS), best known for its recent trilogy—Gatz, The Sound and the Fury, and The Sun Also Rises (The Select)—based on canonic novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. To get act two off the ground, Kempson holed up in an apartment downtown near the Stone Arch Bridge, a place so big by the standards of a New York experimental playwright, even an acclaimed one, that she only felt comfortable writing in the bedroom.

Two weeks of intense work culminated in a four-hour reading of Fondly at the Playwrights’ Center with Kempson’s co-creators, ERS, and a host of esteemed actors from the Twin Cities theater community. The following day, after a break at the Minnesota State Fair that left her elated, Kempson talked with the Playwright Center’s Jeremy Cohen (producing artistic director) and Hayley Finn (associate artistic director) about her own writing and working with ERS to create a new piece—her first collaboration with a performance ensemble.

Currently, Kempson and ERS are in rehearsal in New York, preparing for preview performances of Fondly, Colette Richland at the Walker this May. Watch for an upcoming feature on the playwright and ERS artistic director John Collins.

Jeremy Cohen

Let’s start by talking about what collaboration means for you. What was the trajectory that moved you toward wanting to work with in particular ERS, but also in a more collaborative way generally, as opposed to working solely as a playwright?

Sibyl Kempson

It’s super personal. I had been doing a lot of meditation. I wanted to build a spiritual practice for myself, and part of that has been about learning to stop fighting all the time. I was always fighting, fighting, fighting, fighting.

Cohen

Fighting yourself? Fighting other things or people?

Kempson

Of course, it’s always fighting yourself, but fighting to get my plays out there or fighting to stay in New York or fighting to survive or fighting a feeling. I thought that this was what I was supposed to do. But it became known to me through a number of sources connected to this [laughs] spiritual quest, I guess, that it was hindering me, because it also meant that I was putting myself at the center of whatever I was doing. I was writing these plays with myself as the lead and in some cases two leads. I would run off and change and come back onstage kind of Charles Ludlum–style. I also cast actors that I love, a large cast, and I would make costumes for them and I would stage manage it myself and sometimes have help building sets but oftentimes not. But I was in control of everything and it was up to me to get the point across, whatever the point was, if there was one. Then a few things happened. I started to get tired. My health started to suffer. It became known to me in a couple different ways that I was only going to get more tired. It was great to be a fighter when I was in my 20s and even early 30s, but I realized I needed to just be one element of a larger thing happening. I also needed to stop performing because it was getting to be too much. As soon as I made that decision, all of these projects really fell in my lap. Where I had been fighting and crawling to get somewhere all these years, as soon as I sort of let go, this other movement started that really feels like it has nothing to do with me. It’s very freeing but it requires a certain mindset—as an only child, it’s hard to not see yourself at the center of your world all the time. So it’s a huge adjustment.

Cohen

Did you find that that has shifted your writing itself? Have the plays that you’re writing shifted stylistically?

Kempson

I’m finding that I’m not as liable in a way, because I don’t have to get up and perform it now. So I have a different relationship to it. And I always said I’m always going to perform in my plays because I don’t feel right asking other people to do it. It’s like a general asking his or her soldiers into battle and not going him- or herself—that’s always what it felt like to me. So I’m trying to withdraw into a more hidden place to find ways of aiding and assisting the creative expression and sense of process for other people.

Cohen

It’s interesting that you tend to use the words either “for people” or “with people,” and they feel like really different things. Could you talk about what that’s like with ERS, specifically? Are you watching them create work and then you draw narrative from it? Or are you creating narrative and they’re responding to it?

Kempson

I almost think it’s both, I hope it’s both. We are doing a sort of call-and-response thing. It’s a lot of work for me to move away from saying, “I’m writing this and you guys are going to do it,” so the process right now is I am by myself, working alone, researching, and pulling stuff from all these different sources. But one of my sources is the people who are making the piece, who are on the stage—feeling their energy and writing to that. I’m coming to ERS with pieces of writing, they’re playing around with them, they’re taking measures to solve the many problems that I am bringing to them. What they end up doing with that is the next thing I respond to. They are writing a text every bit as much as I am: I’m writing a dramatic text and they’re writing a performance text. They are doing these crazy improvisations, and I would steal stuff from the improvisations and use it in ways that were naughty and not right. There was a lot of back and forth that way.

Hayley Finn

At the reading, I think the actors—both from ERS and from the Twin Cities scene—brought some really interesting perspectives to the play. I was hearing a lot of responses to its visual vocabulary and landscape. Was that your impression?

Kempson

Yes. It hadn’t occurred to me that it was a visual piece until I started hearing people say it. So it’s almost like I’m writing something that I don’t know what it is. I never go in and say, “I’m going to have three acts, and this person is the hero, and these are the obstacles, and this is the plot.” I can’t write like that. I took a playwriting class as an undergrad and the teacher was like, “You have to have this arc, and this is the narrative structure. And you must have these elements.” It felt like math class to me, and I just shut down. Then years later, I wrote a play as a joke with a friend. That was my first play, which I didn’t know I was writing. Then Judy Elkan and Kristen Kosmas started Little Theatre in New York and said, “We want you to do something.” I thought I didn’t have anything, but then I said, “Oh, wait. But we wrote that really stupid thing.” Because they seemed so game for whatever, and I knew that it didn’t have to be good, I said to my friend, “Let’s perform it just for the hell of it.” I think I’d been through a breakup or something, so I really was feeling kind of angry and sassy. And as soon as we did it, I realized, “Oh, this is the thing that I can be doing.” I get that feeling a lot of times in the room with ERS: this is the thing that I’m supposed to be doing. The other thing is that ERS is like a family, so you get all of these undercurrents—group dynamics that I am not immune to. Just all these personal push-and-pulls. So it was very good for me to also hear the play with this group of people with whom I have no history, and who were so game and brought a lot of different perspectives to it. It was very freeing in a way.

Cohen

So you are working with a group that’s gained considerable acclaim, and fame, for creating Gatz, The Sound and the Fury, and The Select. For a number of years, they have been touring with these shows, which are different kinds of theatrical responses to existing, pretty straight ahead texts by iconic novelists. How is that different from the way an ensemble forms around text as it’s being created by you—as an experimental playwright—responding back and forth with them?

Finn

Just to add to that question, there’s such a contrast between how narratively driven ERS’s work has been, while yours is very much about consciously pushing against linear narrative. What was that tension like?

Kempson

It’s very tricky. All of the authors that they worked with are dead. [laughs] They’re not dealing with that personality in the room saying, “No, that’s not what I meant.” They’re able to be very naughty. I think in that way we’re similar because of my impulse for messing with narrative and writing narrative that shouldn’t be written. Their process involves creating a frame that one wouldn’t normally think of to put around those canonic works of literature. Both approaches are conspiratorial, in a way. I’ve been trying to subtly find ways to make it so that what everyone wants to do is included and relevant—to put responsibility on everybody in the room so that even in a reading, everybody’s got to pay attention. You can’t fool around until you’ve got your monologue coming up. You can’t check out.

Cohen

We’re talking about narrative versus nonlinear approaches to playwriting, but I think also it’s about realism or naturalism meeting the fantastical world. This piece you’re giving them is a delightful, delicious challenge—quite an elastic, athletic challenge, really. It’s a story that is innately a series of Russian nesting dolls, a door that opens to a door that opens to a door. So how do you calibrate that to embrace the energy of people for whom that’s really a left turn?

Kempson

All the people in ERS are really brilliant and I know them all really well. One of them is my boyfriend. I know how funny they are in ways that they often aren’t able to express in these shows that they made a long time ago, and that are now super successful and touring all around the world. I guess one of the things is looking at each individual person and knowing their sense of humor and knowing what their engine is, and writing to that in some way that is confounding to them. So it’s not just, “I finally get to play the kind of part that I want,” but it’s a kind of challenge, too. And then to bring the idea of reality back into it: what is reality, and what are we saying is reality, and what are we putting forth as a version of reality? Are we talking about what’s happening in the room right now, or are we talking about a make pretend world? I like this tension of pretending to be somewhere else, or not. That’s why I wanted to actually see the [McGuire] theater [at the Walker] so badly, because I want to keep in mind what those possibilities are [for that space] as I’m writing. Maybe something happens that’s not supposed to happen, which breaks the story that we’re trying to tell. Because when I go to the theater, a lot of the time I’m sitting there looking at what I’m not supposed to be looking at. It’s like there are ways that we’re supposed to react or respond to what we’re seeing, or there’s a code. Richard [Maxwell, the experimental playwright and director] uses that term—a code: a way we’re supposed to respond, say, when somebody does a monologue and is crying. Are we really feeling that at that moment, or are we like “Wow, she sure is talented”? I took a clown class one time, and they do this thing called Circle of Fire, where everybody stands in a circle, and one person gets in the middle. You’re not allowed out of the middle until you’ve got everybody really, genuinely cracking up. Jane Nichols, the instructor, had us do it on the first day of class. Nobody knows each other, so the person in the middle is just in hell, and the people around are … You start to feel terrible. You start nervously laughing. Like, “OK, I can’t watch this anymore, it’s too painful. I’m going to laugh just to get this over with.” Because it’s almost worse for the observer. And Jane is like, “No, that’s a fake laugh. Sorry.” Because we actually know what’s a fake laugh or a fake cry and what’s not, we don’t have to pretend not to know.

Finn

It’s interesting that the play starts off with this really mundane setting of two people having dinner, and as it moves forward goes so far outside of what you might call “naturalistic.” That’s a really interesting shape for the play, especially when those characters from the first moment reappear in act two. It’s almost like this fantastic dream, where through time their actions and words accrue meaning.

Kempson

I have this chip on my shoulder about plot and plot resolution, in plays or in movies, when you’re like, “Whatever happened to that doctor?” and then we spend the last 20 minutes wrapping everything up. I’m like, “I’ve got to go, I don’t need to know what happened!” Because life doesn’t resolve in that way—we don’t get to find out, in a lot of cases, what happens with the doctor, or what happens is not tied to what we knew before at all. It’s way more chaotic and way more turbulent than that. When I was working on the first act back in New York with ERS, [artistic director] John [Collins] kept saying “What’s going to happen? Where is any of this going to go?” I was like “I don’t know! Why don’t I write the second act, and then we’ll have more of an idea what happens?” [laughter] I like to make a thread that just ends. It goes back under the fabric of the play and maybe it comes up later, maybe it doesn’t. What I’ve been doing in writing this second act is reaching down and seeing what threads come back up, and then weaving all this other stuff in there also. That’s a good analogy, I’m going to use that! I had also been saving up ideas. Anything that came up that seemed like something worthwhile to pursue, I would write it on an index card and put it in this tin. I was like, “This is my ideas tin”—so corny and terrible—but I brought it with me and spread them out. I wanted to see how many of them I could shove in there.

Finn

Tell us a little bit more about what was in that ideas tin—where you were going with this research and these sources?

Kempson

There’s a bunch of different threads. Some are anthropological and mythological. In our initial work session [with ERS], we all were looking at source material together—watching films, reading—in addition to working with writing that I was bringing. And we started noticing recurring images in the first act. This is another thing about working collaboratively—you have all of these attentions that can notice things and call things out. Like “Oh, there was a swan in that movie also, and a mountain,” and all of these other basic kinds of images, like the forest. Some threads came out of a number of books that were recommended to me, including Mircea Eliade’s Patterns of Comparative Religion, where he classifies everything. You can look at what the image of a mountain means all across religions, all the way back. You’re actually using this imagery consciously, which I’m not used to doing. I’m used to using it really unconsciously. To me, something that we’re in danger of losing track of is the signal of these images. Then there’s Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, and a lot of feminist texts. Some I’ve been reading in connection to Frankenstein and Mary Shelley. One is “The Laugh of the Medusa” by Hélène Cixous, one of the French feminist theory ladies of the ’70s who also wrote amazing, fantastic plays. And Susan Winnett’s essay “Coming Unstrung.” She’s more or less attacking that Aristotelian narrative structure and saying we’ve been sold this idea, that it is universal, but it’s actually just a template for the male sexual experience. So really it’s only telling half the story, but because the female sexual experience is so complex, it’s harder to pin it down. The male sexual experience is not varied in that way. [laughter]

Cohen

So this takes me back to that early playwriting class you took, where you heard “It’s not Aristotelian enough. It’s not playwriting.”

Kempson

Exactly. And actually, according to these essays, that’s a misogynistic viewpoint. I’m going off on all kinds of tangents and having trouble staying with the central idea—but I’m being vindicated by these essays for thinking that way. It’s perfectly valid as this other half of thinking that is more right-brain and less rational and more associative. So I’m making a lot of irrational associations in my research. I’m intuitively letting sources lead me to other sources in ways that are really stupid, like: “Oh, this book on the Russian revolution looks exactly like this book on American gardening in the 1950s, and if I accidentally open this gardening book thinking that I was opening the Russian revolution book and saw this diagram, what would that mistake lead me to?” I’m allowing for that and accepting it as a valid path for research—there is something to be found in there. I’m also looking at the word “Gothic” a lot, though it might all eventually be gone out of this play: Gothic architecture, the Gothic part of the Romantic movement, the old Gothic language. The geography in Germany of the dark, mysterious forest, where you really feel a history before Christianity. We don’t know much of anything about those people, those barbaric tribes, what exactly they were doing up in those woods. But if we go there, we can feel what they were doing, and that incidentally happens to be the same geographic landscape where Mary Shelley conceived the story of Frankenstein. They were on this trip on the Rhine, in Switzerland but very close to Germany. These are the kinds of connections that are difficult to put your finger on and they’re very difficult to trace, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not there or that they don’t have meaning. I’m trying to find ways of pointing to them, even if I’m not explaining it outright.

“I took a playwriting class as an undergrad and the teacher was like, ‘You have to have this arc, and this is the narrative structure. And you must have these elements.’ It felt like math class to me.”

“[Elevator Repair Service] is able to be very naughty. I think in that way we’re similar because of my impulse for messing with narrative and writing narrative that shouldn’t be written.”

“When I go to the theater, a lot of the time I’m looking at what I’m not supposed to be. It’s like there are ways that we’re supposed to respond, say, when somebody is crying. Are we really feeling that, or are we like, ‘Wow, she sure is talented’?”

“I’m going off on all kinds of tangents and having trouble staying with the central idea—but I’m being vindicated for thinking that way. It’s perfectly valid as this other half of thinking that is more right-brain and less rational and more associative.”

Sibyl Kempson

In-progress reading of Kempson’s Fondly, Colette Richland by members of Elevator Repair Service and Twin Cities actors

Front row (left to right): Tory Vazquez (ERS), Noah Bremer, Patrick Bailey, Wendy Lehr, Carson Kreitzer (ERS), Sara Richardson, Sibyl Kempson, Hayley Finn. Back row (left to right): Kate Scelsa (ERS), Skyler Nowinski, Elise Langer, Sarah Agnew, Ariana Smart Truman (ERS), John Collins (ERS), Julia Brown

Photo by Gene Pittman

Sibyl Kempson and Mike Iveson Jr. in Crime or Emergency at PS122, 2009

Photo: Justin Bernhardt