Paul Kahn Interview
Poet and playwright Paul Kahn was interviewed by Wordgathering about his work in the theater.
WG: Paul, you are known for both your poetry and your plays, but in this interview I would like to focus more on your work as a playwright. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to write plays?
PK: My first involvement with the arts was as a visual artist, although I always did some writing, too. As my disability progressed -- I have a congenital neuromuscular disability -- I shifted my emphasis more toward writing. Playwriting seemed to come naturally because of its pictorial element. It also appealed to my interest in psychology and language. Another factor is that playwriting uses very limited means. All you have to work with is dialogue and physical action. You have to show, not tell. I always seem to do better work when I'm challenged by limitations. Making plays is also a collaborative process. When you're lucky enough to have a play produced you get to work with other creative people -- actors, directors and designers -- and that's stimulating and enjoyable. It's not as solitary and lonely as other creative activity. And then you get the immediate gratification of audience response. That can be a real rush.
WG: As someone who began with visual art, it must have been an interesting experience to actually see what happened the first time one of your plays was performed. Can you discuss one of the plays you've had performed and what you think that you, as writer, learned from the experience?
PK: In general, you learn what in your script really works or doesn't work on stage. You try to imagine and anticipate that while you're writing, but you never really know until you see the play up on its feet. Then you can tell if the characters ring true, if there is dramatic conflict, or if -- God forbid -- you're likely to bore an audience. When I first started writing plays I had a bad tendency to overwrite, to want to explain everything. That's not how people really talk. So, when I began getting some productions I had a chance to hear how stilted and unnatural that kind of dialogue sounded. I learned what I could leave out. I learned to trust the actors to convey the subtext, which is the meaning behind the words.
The first play I ever had staged was a black comedy call Abraham's Sacrifice, a retelling of the Bible story that characterized Abraham as a sanctimonious ass who like too many contemporary leaders acted despicably in the name of religion. It was a staged reading that I foolishly undertook to organize myself. The lead actor got sick, and the only person I could find to replace him was my father. It was pretty bad. And I guess I learned that I didn't want to be a producer and that in the theatre one had to be psychologically braced for any disaster.
WG: You have mentioned that drama is a collaborative process and certainly, that, obviously, is the case with the production of the play. I wanted to follow your observation with two not totally related questions about your feelings as the writer of the play. First, have you had the experience as a writer of a director taking over your play that you felt it was really changing the play beyond a point that you could accept?
PK: Regarding your first question, I would say, no. And directors have changed my plays in some quite radical ways. One example that comes to mind is a director of the first production of a play changed the gender of a key character from male to female. That gave a sexual tension to the central conflict that I liked so well I rewrote the play slightly and encouraged subsequent productions to be cast that way.
WG: The second question has to do with playwright Charles Mee's contention that there are no original plays and that a writer who thinks he is saying anything new as an individual is merely deluding himself. What do you think about Mee's position? Do you feel that you, writing as an individual, have anything to contribute or is it all about social construction?
PK: I've interviewed Charles Mee and heard him say that. At the time I thought he was being somewhat disingenuous: after all, he puts his name on his plays and profits from them. And I still feel that way. I think the reality is that we are all influenced by our social environment, but not entirely predetermined by it. I think it comes down to what one means by "new." There are only a limited number of basic themes that writers write about -- love, sex, mortality and the like. But there are an infinite number of ways of expressing those themes. That is where creativity and originality come into play.
WG: Paul, I'd like to quote a passage from your play, The Making of Free Verse.
He's gotten worse -- more passive aggressive. It's evident that you have some very strong opinions, both about the state of care as relates to the what
the government provides, and about people who with a "do-gooder" mentality who patronizingly think that they know all about you.
To what extent do you see your plays as vehicles for social change? When you are writing, do you have a "message" or point of view that you are trying to get across?
In other words, what would you want people to take away from attending a performance of one of your plays?
He's gotten worse -- more passive aggressive.
It's evident that you have some very strong opinions, both about the state of care as relates to the what the government provides, and about people who with a "do-gooder" mentality who patronizingly think that they know all about you. To what extent do you see your plays as vehicles for social change? When you are writing, do you have a "message" or point of view that you are trying to get across? In other words, what would you want people to take away from attending a performance of one of your plays?
PK: I don't think of myself as having a message, and I don't think that artists generally have a responsibility to be edifying or politically correct. Their primary responsibility is to be honest. When you're concerned with sending a message, all you're doing is creating propaganda. I may have opinions about certain issues, but if I just make my characters mouthpieces for my opinions, they'll sound phony.
An author's moral sentiments have nothing to do with the quality of his writing. I once heard someone describe the play How I Learned to Drive as immoral, because it made the character of a child molester understandable and somewhat sympathetic. I thought that was absurd. A work of art can't be immoral; only people can be immoral. In fact, I thought the play was wonderful for that very reason -- it made you pay attention to and identify with someone you might otherwise be inclined to dismiss as inhuman. That's what real art does -- it relates us to the world without discrimination. In contrast, propaganda wants us to see only one side of an issue.
The best work comes when you don't have a predetermined outlook, but rather when your writing is an exploration, when something fascinates you, and you can't get it out of your head, and you don't know why. As an example, I wrote a play about a Holocaust survivor. It came out of my distrust with the idea of "overcoming" adversity and my preoccupation with the question: when someone has been through intense trauma what part of their humanity really survives and what parts are hopelessly damaged or destroyed? Only in the process of writing did I get a better understanding of the answer and also of the question's relevance to the lifelong trauma of having a disability.
WG: I'd like to follow up your statement that your preoccupying question "when someone has been through intense trauma what part of their humanity really survives and what parts are hopelessly damaged or destroyed?" Can you elaborate on how you have explored this question in your own work, specifically with respect to disability? I think our readers might also be interested to know of other playwrights you feel address the question...not necessarily with respect to disability. What other writers have influenced you?
PK: I try not to gloss over the pain that can attend living with a disability -- the sense of differentness and alienation, the dependence on people and technologies, the confrontation with mortality. Like others have said, we are human, only more so. And the stress of being human can damage us, but it also has the potential for giving us a greater wisdom. I'm interested in exploring that phenomenon. I'm interested in the old, old alchemy of art -- its capacity to transform the dross of suffering into the gold of beauty.
In my plays I don't idealize my disabled characters; they can be irascible, selfish and distrustful. My poetry is imbued with a sense of impermanence and loss. And in my essays I tend to focus on the real experience of living with a disability and what it has to teach. For example, after 9/11 I wrote an essay for New Mobility about how were more prepared to deal with the sense of vulnerability that swept over the entire country, because we live with it everyday.
As for other playwrights who explore the theme of survival, I think of Doug Wright, whose play Quills about the Marquis de Sade is a nightmarish fantasy about survival and obsession. I'm drawn to excess! On the other hand, I also very much admire restraint. In that vein Caryl Churchill comes to mind. In her play Mad Forest about the survival of families during the social upheaval in Romania she has an amazing ability to write just enough. In terms of formal influences on my playwriting, I would also include Tony Kushner and Paula Vogel; they gave me permission go beyond reality and include dreams and fantasy in my work. David Hare showed me I could break up chronology in telling a story.
WG: Paul, thanks for giving us the chance to ask you some questions about your work. Before we finish up, is there anything else that you would like to add about your playwriting or about work in the theater? Are there current projects you want to mention or venues where Wordgathering readers might be able to see your work performed?
PK: My play The Making of Free Verse will be presented as a staged reading this fall at Independence Starts Here!: A Festival of Disability Arts and Culture in Philadelphia. For ticket information go to www.independencestartshere.org.
I would just like to add the thought that all the arts have the capacity to break down the attitudinal barriers that isolate us. They accomplish this by showing that the content of our hearts and minds is no different from anyone else's. Theatre, because it is a public art, does this in a particularly powerful way. And that's another reason why it excites me.