Sonia Fernandez: How did you get started writing?
John Kolvenbach: I wrote things when I was a kid, but I didn’t write plays. I didn’t know about plays. I didn’t grow up going to plays. For instance, when I was in second grade I wrote a long comic book series about a scientist with 200-something installments. When I went to college, I took an acting class. We worked on Hurly Burly, a David Rabe play, which I thought was amazing and still think is amazing. It was the first time I had read a play and heard a voice in it. I was taken by it, but I still didn’t start writing. I went to graduate school to be an actor. I was there for three years. After graduation, we were looking to do the scenes that you show to agents. We couldn’t find anything, and so I wrote something. I wrote it under a pen name: Steve Item. I didn’t admit to anyone that I had written it, but the response to the scene was very positive. People were like “Who is this Steve Item, what else has he written?” The response to my acting was not terribly positive. Then I wrote a play very quickly right after that. I wrote it in three weeks, and that was the beginning of the thing of writing plays.
SF: Did you produce it?
JK: Yeah. We did it in New York. Some friends of mine got together, and we read it in my living room. And then a guy’s great aunt died, and she left him 1,500 bucks. We rented a little theatre for a week. He did shows at 7 and we did our show at 9. It was super young person work, but people liked it and we made a little bit of money. It was a miracle.
SF: You made back your 1,500? That is a miracle!
JK: Yeah. So now we had like 2,300.
JK: Nobody got paid, so did we really make money? Then a couple months later, we put it on again. We did it for like a year… We were an accidental company. That was what got me going. I wrote another play after that.
The first one that was produced in a way that meant something was on an average day. It was already too expensive to self-produce in New York. So I was thinking I would write something that I could literally do in my own kitchen and bring an audience of six. So I wrote this really small, real-time kitchen play. Then, in a bit of dramatic irony, it ended up being done in a 750-seat theatre in the West End. The opposite of my intention but it was a good result, I think.
SF: How did you start writing Reel to Reel?
JK: We did Sister Play at the Magic in 2015. I was coming home and was thinking about parts of it that I liked. Where I had done some writing that was unlike what I had done before —specifically the scene between Lilly and William Casy in the first act. And I wanted to write about marriage and relationships, intimacy. I wanted to try to write a play that was both about intimacy and that was itself an intimacy. The watching of which would be an intimate experience. Somebody has an affair, or there’s a miscarriage or a child runs away from home. Those things are real and those things happen in people’s lives but I wanted to try to write a play that had none of those events in it. To take that writerly crutch away. I wanted to look at an actual relationship where all we saw were the smaller moments, of what it is to be with somebody. I started to think about the most intimate things in a relationship and to think about sound. And if you could make a play that was comprised of sound. Could you render a relationship in a way that was accurate and intimate? It occured to me that one of the characters would be a sound professional. The play opened up for me when I figured out that Maggie made these sound collages. In the play all the sound is made live —foley and music, made by the actors. The idea is that everything is from these two people, four actors playing two people and everything we experience is made by them.
SF: There’s something about Maggie’s art that teaches us to listen. We are asked to listen in a different way.
JK: I hope so. I try not to write topically but I do think that there is something about the current moment. No one is listening to anyone! And it’s either the technology where people are buried in their phones, or its the current political moment. It’s not an empathetic or listening moment. It’s a yelling and screaming, us and them moment, and so I try to write to make something that is the opposite of what I hate.
And what I hate is this time right now. It’s a difficult time to be not anxious, to not be full of bile and conflict. One choice would be to write about that thing itself. Another choice would be to make something which is the opposite. Try to make an antidote.
SF: Yesterday [in first rehearsal of Reel to Reel] you were talking about an artist, a writer, as innately a listener an eavesdropper…
JK: Writers are spies! Eavesdroppers. Not only do I eavesdrop on the subway. I will change seats in a subway car to try to get close to a good conversation. [Laughter] Sometimes you become an eavesdropper on your own life. There’s a part of a writer that is always taking notes, a part of you is always working. There is a little bit of distance in most writers I know. They’re both participating and observing — sometimes they’re only observing. That makes writers difficult to live with. One of the things.
SF: Most writers work on the same kinds of questions over their whole careers. What would you say are your deepest curiosities?
JK: I don’t know if I can name them but they keep coming up over and over. I write about family a lot. Love. I write about what is between people. There are writers who write great plots. Mine are not plot-heavy. That’s not on purpose I wish I could write more plot but that’s not my talent — so I try to dive as deeply as I can into the stuff that obsesses me in my own life, which is How do you live.
SF: With other people.
JK: With other people. The difficult thing of other people and the difficult thing of yourself. In this case, it is about a 55-year marriage and about the rewards that come with sticking it out and the hurdles. It’s also about what it is to lose someone — what it’s like to be intimate. What is the tiny space between the end of your mouth and the beginning of someone’s ear.
SF: What do you think it takes to sustain a relationship? Luck?
JK: I dont know. I do think who you meet is luck. Then it’s up to you. In this play at least what works for them is that they accept each other almost because of their flaws. They see and acknowledge each other’s foibles and flaws and glory in them in a certain way.
SF: Talk to me about directing your work. How did you get started directing? On our wall of playwrights in the lounge, you’re directly under Maria Irene Fornes. She also directed her work.
JK: The first play that I directed was my first play. I directed because we didn’t have anyone else to do it. I did it by default. I’ve had experiences with both directing and not directing, positive experiences both ways. When you have a talented director — when Loretta directed Goldfish here, that was glorious. You’re happy to give up the reigns and let her do her work and try to stay as quiet as possible, though I do not succeed in that.
The act of writing is certainly different than the act of directing but the job is the same, it’s a continuum. You’re looking to bring it into being. The difference now is that there are other contributors, other people that bring ideas, and you can make it better for that collaboration. I think it’s a ridiculous privilege to have them bring their talent to bear on your stuff. That’s the biggest compliment that I can imagine. Writing is a little mysterious even to writers. I’m pretty sure that directing is practical: instinct and problem solving. Your instinct is important but most of the questions that you’re needing to answer are practical questions. There are certainly visionary directors — I don’t know that I’m one of them. I think that directing is a long series of practical questions, which hopefully add up to something artful.
SF: And you think of yourself as a writer first.
JK: Yeah. As long as the director is someone that I trust, that’s not a hugely long list, I’m happy to not direct, but I love doing it. There’s something special about working here in that I get to deliver the whole thing.
SF: Your plays are funny. In the past, you’ve said that your plays reveal the ridiculous. Do you still feel that way?
JK: Yeah. I do feel that way. Occasionally I will write a punchline but I don’t set out to write comedy in that way. If it seems too much like a joke, we’ve stopped telling whatever story we were telling. I find the more invested I am, the funnier the writing comes out. I don’t know why that is. Part of the rewriting process, a small but essential part, is cleaning language up so that it can be funny.
SF: For me the overtly funny moments in Reel to Reel are the most ridiculous. It’s the recognition of the ridiculous in ourselves that makes it hilarious.
JK: Yes. I think that some of my plays are comedies but they don’t necessarily read funny on the page, but then, when you get them up, there is comedy and the other side of it too.
SF: Both of the characters in Reel to Reel are artists, we’ve talked a bit in rehearsal about what it means to be an artist. I wonder if you have any thoughts about how to be an artist in the world — what it takes.
JK: Oh god. What it takes to be an artist in the world? I know what works for me: doing a lot of mundane things that make the other parts of it possible. Literally — this so boring — but if I exercise, I get a decent amount of sleep and I write every single day whether I want to or not. And if you have a place that you can go that is yours — a room of one’s own — you can close the door and no one can get to you and whether you’re writing well or not, if you’re just there for however many hours every day… That’s what works.
But importantly: I don’t know how you would continue to write plays if you never thought that they were going to get made. Working with the Magic over the last ten years and knowing that you are here to take a look at it when I have a readable draft is a large part of what gets plays written. Its inspiring and sometimes despairing, but you learn from seeing your work produced. I think most artists lose belief at some point. Some people never get it back. Most writers lose confidence many times throughout their life. It helps to have friends who I trust and can send plays to.
But I guess I feel like the real process of writing for me is a lot of showing up and failing, and then suddenly you’re not failing anymore, and you’re onto something. But being patient enough to show up and fail. Show up and fail. Show up and fail. And be frustrated, be bored, procrastinate, go through a three-act play of self-loathing, get through all that stuff, and then start working.
SF: Do you go to the theatre? What do you look for?
JK: I follow individual writers. I see all the Annie Baker stuff. All Martin McDonagh’s stuff. He’s got a new one coming to the Atlantic this year. I see all the Jez Butterworth. Conor McPherson. I go to see Tracy Letts and Bruce Norris — other writers that I know. I’ll always see a Chekhov, whoever’s doing it. What do I look for? Do you see theatre outside of Magic?…What do you look for?
SF: In rehearsal earlier, we were discussing the scene where audience members approach Maggie after her show — you said the only thing an artist actually wants to hear immediately after is that that work changed them….I believe that theatre can do that. That it can change you, and that it should, in some way. That’s what I look for.
JK: Yeah. Easier said than done. But I believe that, for sure. That’s why you keep doing it. You’re chasing that very ineffable thing all the time. And sometimes it’s enough to get it for ten minutes of a play when you’re watching live actors change the air in a room somehow by some miracle of communion with the audience, that’s what I’m looking for. I love to hear plays where there’s language. I like to hear the writer’s voice, to be in the writers possession, to be owned by the writer. I love to feel that feeling.
SF: I recently came across audience preview forms for Goldfish. Most of the comments were about the acting. Your writing calls for deep and nuanced acting. Can you talk about actors and the kind of acting that you write for?
JK: Gosh. I wish I could name it. There’s a couple things — the actors that can do my stuff have a good ear. It needs to be sort of musical without being self conscious. They need to be able to improvise within a very defined form. Actors that — I mean Zoë Winters and Andrew Pastides I have worked with a ton and so it almost becomes instinct. They just know it. They already get it. The first time I worked with Andrew it was on Goldfish here. I have tried ever since then to not only get him in stuff that existed but also write for him. Same with Zoë. I’m certainly working with her voice in mind some of the time.
JK: There are certain kinds of writing that allow the actor to elaborate, my writing doesn’t work that way. You have to stay simple with it and alive and stay on top of it — and then it works. It wants to be as full as possible but within the music of the play and also it wants to be alive, connected to with the other person on stage.
SF: Three out of four of our cast members are actors you’ve worked with before.
JK: That’s the thing about this play. Carla and Will have worked together a million times over the years. They’ve played husbands and wives and lovers. Zoë and Andrew have worked together a million times over the years. We’ve got a lot of history.
SF: It must be good to have your friends in the room with you for this.
JK: It’s really interesting. In a way, the friendship is suspended during rehearsal because it wouldn’t be useful. Then we go home at night — Andrew, Zoë and I are staying in the same apartment — we put the play away for a while and have our friendship. And so it is almost like we’re each working with another person.
SF: Except that you can’t go home and vent…
JK: That’s totally true. We try not to talk too much about the play but it’s impossible not to. We just live it all the time. What I do when I’m going to work on a play — I brought my tennis racket. There is no chance I am ever going to pick it up or play any tennis. People are always like, “You’re in San Francisco it’s going to be so much fun!” I could be in Cleveland or Phoenix or Toronto. The whole world is the work you’re doing. I love San Francisco but it doesn’t matter that I’m here because that’s not what we’re doing here. It’s such a privelege to give yourself completely to something. You have to remind yourself to eat and sleep because even when you’re not working part of you is thinking about it. You want the chance to let the rest of your life be completely irrelevant.
SF: It’s a gift. A luxury.
JK: It’s a huge luxury.
SF: What’s it like to be back at Magic once again?
JK: Magic, it’s like having a whole home and a whole family that you only get to visit every couple of years! And then when you get there, you’re in the warm embrace of Magic Theatre. It’s so good to be here and I’m so moved to be writing these stinkin’ plays and to know that I can send them to Loretta and that there’s a chance we’re going to get to bring them to life.
Magic Theatre’s Reel to Reel ticket and schedule information here.