Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview:
Sibyl Kempson recently found herself in a gruesome, frenzied fairy tale: pricked in the thumb by the tooth of a dead mouse, she dashes to the emergency room for a series of rabies shots just days before she has to rush off to Singapore. She can still, seven months later, feel the foreign substance of the injections in her body, and though it itches and weirds her out sometimes, she’s comforted knowing she’ll “never get rabies and be condemned to die in horrible insane convulsions chained to a hospital bed to prevent me from biting my gathered loved ones.” It’s exactly the kind of ludicrous but real predicament that might set one of her mind-bending plays in motion.
In Crime or Emergency, Kempson’s recent New York production at PS122, the crisis of the title refers to one of the 11 characters (most played by Kempson, two or three played by performer/pianist Mike Iveson, Jr.) boxing another on the ears. Is this a crime or an emergency? What authorities should be called? What is just punishment for such an action? Her earlier play Potatoes of August, which premiered at Dixon Place in 2008, revolves around a swarm of sentient potatoes antagonizing a pair of middle-aged retired couples (all played by Kempson or other women) until they come apart at the material, spiritual, and psychological seams.
I first experienced Kempson’s work in 2001 at Little Theater at Tonic. Everything of hers I’ve seen since then (and I’ve tried to see it all) has convinced me she’s one of the most radical, transgressive, and hilarious playwright/performers out there. She has a singular theatrical imagination, a searing stage presence, a ferocious intellect, and arguably the busiest schedule of any theater artist in New York City.
In addition to writing, directing, and performing in her own plays, she works regularly with Richard Maxwell and Elevator Repair Service. (It was for GATZ that she traveled to Singapore after the rabies calamity.) In 2009, she went to Vienna with Nature Theater of Oklahoma and worked on Life & Times—Episode 1. After being in production for three years straight, she is taking a break from performing in favor of “incubating” several new projects. She was recently awarded a residency at the MacDowell Colony and a membership at New Dramatists, two places that have provided her with much-needed and well-deserved refuge and sanctuary. We corresponded while she was at MacDowell and met at New Dramatists when she returned. Following are excerpts from our dialogues.
PART ONE: MACDOWELL
incubate |’inkyə,bāt; 'i ng-|
(of a bird) sit on (eggs) in order to keep them warm and bring them to hatching
—(be incubating something) have an infectious disease developing inside one before symptoms appear: the possibility that she was incubating early syphilis
—[intrans.] develop slowly without outward or perceptible signs
—Origin: mid-17th cent.: from Latin incubat- “lain on,” from the verb incubare, from in-“upon” + cubare “to lie”
Kristen Kosmas You are incubating at the moment. Of the definitions here, does one feel closer to what you’re doing? Is it like sitting on eggs in order to bring them to hatching? Or is it more like having an infectious disease developing inside you?
Sibyl Kempson It’s like when they make flu and rabies vaccines inside a chicken egg. They inject the infectious disease into the living chicken egg and allow it to develop as they carefully incubate it. They put it through all kinds of mysterious and difficult processes, and the resulting mixture is injected into human and domesticated animal beings to protect them from diseases. That’s the sense of incubation I am referring to. Although in this vaccine scenario, sadly, no hatching ever occurs that I know of. I do mean for the plays to eventually hatch, so, in that respect, I hope this analogy is inadequate. During the incubation stage, plays require confinement and quiet, unquestioned care and attention. It’s a tender time around which all other events, expectations, and demands must be placed on hold. One must stay with the play every possible moment and keep it warm and always in mind, and be always listening and looking for new things to feed it so it can grow. This includes materials from the subconscious, so a lot of naps are usually necessary. It also includes a lot of reading material. But I have to be very conscious of what I pull into the incubation space because it affects the outcome and growth of the whole thing. My boyfriend likes to watch videos and movies of all kinds. He can digest almost anything and he thrives on it. Sometimes I’m like, Get that shit away from me! because I know I have to be careful, especially with narratives with a strong visual component or oversimplified narratives. Particularly around bedtime.
Yeah, “to lie upon.” That’s a nice way to put it. When in doubt, return to the etymology! You’re taking the naps, you’re keeping it warm, you’re letting it become. I’m only responsible for what I’m writing to the degree that I put in the time and set up the situation for it to happen. I know it’s wrong for me to take credit for the plays I write because it is something that mostly happens outside of me. I really can’t take credit for making it. It’s not that assertive of a process. Incubation is different from production. Production is what asserts. Incubation is never assertive. It’s too helpless.
KK What are you incubating?
SK The last time I incubated it was all about science and religion. Now it’s about political science and the development of civilizations, the fall of empires, and the crazy craziness of revolutions. Specifically, I’m looking at a number of books. One pair is The Fall of the Russian Empire (1928) and The New American Garden Book (1954). They look alike, which is why I chose them. I often choose books for incubation material based on appearances, and I’m almost never wrong in doing so. It seems random, but I’m certain there’s something at work that attracts me to the books I need. Both of these books are about two inches thick, with hard red covers. They could be twins. At a certain point I picked up the garden book, mistaking it for the Russian revolution book, as will happen with a set of twins, and I found a little drawing of a garden plot. I thought, This is the most amazing book on the planet. I thought it had something to do with Rasputin or with some terrible crime scene of aristocratic decimation. I realized my mistake very quickly but it was a thrilling experience nonetheless. I knew I should read them together; it would be too cruel to separate them, and, sure enough, as I read one and then the other, and lay responses to them into the preliminary writing I’m doing, they begin to inform each other and it works out great.
Another pair I am looking at is a memoir of an American diplomat who worked in Moscow from 1929 to 1969, and some Air Force diaries and Pentagon memos from 1943 to 1945. These two relate in a more obvious way in terms of subject matter. They’re “men’s books,” they both have jackets the same color blue with white lettering, and black-and-white photographs of weighty wartime councils. One is Witness to History and the other is A Time of War. I had been making my way through The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I got sidetracked by the Russian empire and gardening.
adjective ( -pider, -pidest)
lacking intelligence or common sense: I was stupid enough to think she was perfect
—dazed and unable to think clearly: apprehension was numbing her brain and making her stupid
—informal used to express exasperation or boredom: she told him to stop messing with his stupid painting
—Origin: mid-16th cent.: from French stupide or Latin stupidus, from stupere “be amazed or stunned”
KK You’re a member of Joyce Cho (along with Karinne Keithley, Amber Reed, Scott Adkins, Kelly Copper, and Rob Erickson), an affinity of playwrights dedicated to the staging of problem plays. In the Joyce Cho Plays (a compilation of the group’s plays published by 53rd State Press), the last line of your bio reads: “Let’s keep it rull stupid, people.” What do you mean by that? What kind of stupidity are you encouraging, and, if it isn’t too stupid to ask, why?
SK Well, take my way of selecting research material, for example. Choosing books by the way they look and by some overly generalized sense of what they might contain is a pretty stupid way of selecting research material if you want to write an important or intelligent play. The assumptions I’m making—that books about war are “men’s books” or that two books that look alike should be read together—are stupid if you think about it. But I’m trying not to think about it, but rather absorb what’s going on with these books and respond in a way that is separate from intelligence.
I’m looking at the way the language sounds in the Air Force diaries and trying to mimic it, without regard to whether accurate information is being conveyed. Or I’m letting myself sort of miss out on what was actually happening at the Yalta conference with Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt discussing how a postwar Europe would be organized. There were political maneuvers of high impact; a lot was going on at that conference that has shaped our world today. So to be studying it with the intent to respond in the form of a theater play, and to concentrate too much on details—mannerisms (gathered, perceived, or imagined), atmospheres, attitudes, and what was on the menu—instead of the facts that mattered is stupid and probably stultifying.
I remember perceiving the world in this same way as a child. Sitting in math class, becoming completely fixated on the way the teacher held her fingers when explaining a certain kind of calculation, or with the way she said certain words, the way her lips would curl over her teeth, or how she would always skip the same consonant. It would gradually drive me so insane that I had to contend with it. I’d teach myself to imitate her with great accuracy, and, in so doing, I’d have a window into her inner life. I didn’t know that was what I was doing, or why, and I missed out on the point of most lessons altogether. It’s very bad. It’s a stupid way to go about learning because you don’t learn what you’re supposed to learn.
But now I’m an adult and no one seems able to stop me from continuing to look at things this way. I managed to find a graduate school program—Brooklyn College’s playwriting MFA program run and taught by Mac Wellman and Erin Courtney—where this kind of stupidity is considered useful, is heartily encouraged and rewarded. Now I am an educated person, and yet I am still walking around seeing things this way. I read books and work very hard, but I am expressing this stupid way of looking at the world that comes naturally to me. So, what is the value of allowing that kind of stultifying experience and then reexpressing and reinforcing it in a written response for the stage? I don’t know. Well, that’s not true. I do know. It offers a different way of looking at things.
PART TWO: NEW DRAMATISTS
Sibyl Kempson Let’s start with what we were saying about trying to cut down. As far as production goes, I can’t—I physically can’t—be doing do-it-yourself theater anymore.
Kristen Kosmas Just within the last year alone you went on tour to Australia; Singapore; Vienna; Bonn; Austin, Texas; and Omaha, Nebraska. You moved—
KK —from Brooklyn to Manhattan. You became a member of New Dramatists. You just, the day before yesterday, got home from MacDowell. You have a job. Up until a couple of weeks ago, you had two jobs. You have a horse. You sometimes spend time in Pennsylvania. You have many friends and loved ones you keep relationships with. You go to the YMCA and work out. I was just wondering how you do all of that.
SK By not spending a lot of time socializing. I have a hard time in social situations. I feel like I am wasting time if something constructive isn’t happening. I am trying to do better. My relationship with the passing of time is maybe a little too intense.
At MacDowell I totally collapsed. I’d be sitting there and I’d be like, I’m tired. I’m going to lie down and take a nap. Or I’d be like, I need to go outside. That was new. I didn’t hold myself to a certain amount of work I had to get done. It was hard because I’d start to feel guilty. There was stuff I wanted to take care of, and I didn’t get to everything. I’m learning how to let that happen or not happen. I’m trying to set things up so there’s not a huge train wreck if I don’t get to everything. That’s part of why I’m getting out of production.
KK You were in production for three years straight, right?
SK At all times, yeah. I have to get out of those “Oh you have to be on stage” or “This show has to go up and you’re responsible” modes. It just became too stressful.
KK So you went to MacDowell and just lay down.
SK I just lay down for two weeks. And I worked, and I hiked. Once I was walking through the woods and I . . . They have fireplaces in the studios. It’s nice, but they’re very sparing about the firewood; they don’t give you wood right away. I was going through the woods—I’d waited like a week to get my wood for the fireplace—and was seeing all these trees that had fallen down. I remember thinking, Well, if I just had a saw I’d be all right . . . (laughter) And, then, at a certain point, within a few minutes, I think, I found a saw in the woods in a beautiful leather case that had snapped off someone’s tool belt. There was a weird turd on it; and it was frozen and rusted. But I picked it up and I brought it back and sawed up a whole young twin-birch tree that had fallen across a path. I had an open studio and invited everyone to come. I had a reading with this other guy, Don Colburn, a wonderful poet, and we burned the birch tree.
(Grabs two books bearing an uncanny resemblance.) These are the books I wanted to show you. Remember how I said there were books that looked alike?
KK Oh yes!
SK Isn’t that amazing? (Flips randomly to an illustration in one of the books.) That’s so weird, because that looks like—
KK The birch tree!
SK See, it’s that kind of thing. It just makes you know you’re on the right path.
KK It sounds like what you were doing at MacDowell was listening—following, instead of asserting, your will.
SK Which is how I usually do it.
KK There are many parts to making a play, and one part is receptive, and this other part—production—is this act of will. It sounds like you’re in a receptive mode.
SK I had to. Jeff Jones once said you have to ask yourself, What is the most important thing I could be doing right now? And if I’m not doing it, what am I doing? It’s really helpful because sometimes the most important thing you have to do is make your bed. And other times, the most important thing is that you have to lie down, or—
KK Saw down a birch tree.
SK Or go to the YMCA. It shifts. I hope I’m doing the most important thing. Another issue I’m working on is, What is the most important thing, and what do I want to be doing, and do they line up? I struggle with that. The most important thing often, for me, isn’t what I want to be doing. I always want to write, even though I didn’t the whole time I was at MacDowell.
KK But what is writing comprised of? It can’t always be putting words on a page.
SK Although it can. Connie Congdon writes that way. That’s her method: to start writing and not stop. She had kids—there were always kids running around—and she would sit at the kitchen table and go, I gotta write this fuckin’ play and I’m going to sit down and I’m just not going to stop. That’s how she does it. And she writes amazing stuff; she has this very spontaneous mind anyway, so it works.
KK But do you have that experience with language and your mind? I feel like language isn’t always moving through my mind like that.
SK No, not always, that’s why I read. I won’t write unless I’m reading, because that gives me the language. I need a jump start from something else, an injection of language.
KK I was wondering about your stage directions. In all of your plays there are totally impossible-to-stage things. A homunculus gestating in a floating glass beaker that eventually explodes, for example. I wonder when I read that how it’s functioning in your mind. Are you hearing those words, or are you seeing the beaker float in a theater?
SK I try not to limit myself to how it’s going to look in a theater. I guess I’m putting them out there as proposals: What are the possibilities? What could this be? How could this be staged? How could this happen? I need to get other people to direct my plays more. I’ve been a control freak about it and have only been doing it myself. I need to let go.
KK So you’re moving toward letting other people direct your stuff?
SK Yeah, handing them the script and saying, Call me with questions. My other idea is to ask people who aren’t directors. I know a lot of wonderful performers and technicians who know exactly how to stage a play but don’t think they do because they aren’t “a director.” That sounds great to me. I would like to work with a director who is as comfortable with not knowing what she or he is doing as I am when writing or performing. Someone who is not “a director” is maybe open to more collaboration in figuring things out. I maybe need a more open definition of what a director’s job is; the roles are too clearly defined. What I have to offer in rehearsal—a lot of suggestions, ideas, input, but also a lot of intake—doesn’t fit within those roles.
KK It reminds me of what you’ve said about not calling ourselves playwrights but play facilitators or play allowers. And actors not calling themselves actors but saying, I’m doing the text in the new Sibyl Kempson show. (laughter) These words have become little traps in a way—even the word theater.
SK Right, because we think of acting school, of Stanislavsky, Aristotle, of commercial-style acting. Or at least I do.
KK So, do all these things need to be renamed so they can be reimagined for what’s happening now?
SK Yeah! Yes. I think they do. Because otherwise it becomes, You want to learn how to do theater? Well, here’s how it works: You’ve got the director and he—he—makes all the decisions. And then, underneath, in a hierarchical pyramid formation, you have everybody else. It’s hard to get out of that because we’ve heard it forever. So what if we started calling it instead a performance installation? It would open the idea up a bit to an event that occupies a space, any space. Not necessarily the familiar black box or the proscenium, but places like the backyard, the bedroom, the stairwell, the DMV. We need to borrow a lot from visual arts, is what I think. At MacDowell, I loved the theater people, and the poets too, but the visual-arts people were the ones who had new and helpful ideas. At a certain point as an undergraduate, I “left the theater.” I didn’t want to be in any more plays. I didn’t want to be in rehearsal anymore. So I took ceramics and painting, and I learned more about process than I did from almost any of my theater experiences.
KK What did you learn?
SK I had this painting teacher—a wonderful painter—Amy Sillman. She said, “Okay, everybody. Next week, bring in the best painting you can do.” (laughter) And we all did and she went around and basically said, Why? What about this is the best? What are you thinking? Then the next day she told us to do the worst painting ever and then people brought in amazing stuff. Her other thing was to get people to look at something and transfer what they were seeing instead of having this idea about making a piece of art while painting. Then there were a couple of ceramics teachers. Stanley Rosen. He didn’t use language the same way as most people. He wrote these comments that were nuts and beautiful, like poetry. Everything he said was visual. And then Annabeth Rosen—no relation—who’d been a ballerina. She was a monster. All the people who majored in ceramics had a hard time with her, but I loved her. She made us pick out, for our first crit, our favorite thing we had made, and we had to smash it.
SK And we would fail if we didn’t smash it against this wall. And then she’d go, I want you to go back in the studio and make a hundred more just like them!
KK Oh my gosh!
SK She wanted us to let go of our perfect little preciousness, the final product.
KK How did it feel to smash your—
SK Terrible. You get so attached. I’d made this cup for my mother! Her other big thing was quit trying to make stuff that’s functional. She was like, Yeah, I see you going around with your crazy hair. I know you’re a crazy girl. How ’bout we have some of this come out in your pots? (laughter) She was great. Nose to the grindstone, all the time. “I want you in there 24 hours a day!” That was exactly what I needed to hear, and her thing about bringing your craziness into what you’re making.
KK I want to run home right now and smash all of my favorite things. That feels so liberating.
SK It didn’t feel that way at the time. People were crying. It’s like in the days when we had only one manuscript. “Burn it. Do it now. Your favorite play. It’s the only copy. Burn it. Now go do a hundred more of them.”
KK So have you carried that—smashing your favorite thing—into your playwriting?
SK I hope so. I do think I’m guilty of feeling precious sometimes. But I try to call myself on it. I usually know when I read it out loud if there’s preciousness. If there’s a reason for it to be there, it can stay. I don’t always know the reason. I’m making decisions based on feelings, and then the details are what I work with. Structural decisions are being made too, but it’s not a rational process.
KK But wait . . . Smashing your favorite thing. What’s exciting is the idea that you can always make more. The creative impulse—the capacity and materials to create—is infinite. I feel that when I read your writing and when I see you on stage. It’s like this rushing river. Part of what cheers me up about your work is this tremendous energy; this feeling that it could go on and on and that there could always be more.
SK Well, I had those two plays, Crime or Emergency and Potatoes of August. My two full-length, finished plays—but because they were in production so much I was focusing only on them. All these experiences were going by—experiences of love, grief, awakening, affliction—and I wasn’t making any more plays. Those plays are now old to me. What am I writing that’s new? I haven’t replaced them with anything. “Oh, I made this little cup in my ceramics class. I made these two cups and they’re perfect.” And then, well, what else have you made?
KK But you’re writing five plays right now, right?
SK Well, yeah. I reacted to the realization that I’m not writing anything new. So I started five new things at the same time, and almost immediately. But there’s so much going on in life.
KK Do you feel like it’s your responsibility to write it all?
SK No, but it does feel like a responsibility to write the plays. Not for humanity or anything. But it’s easy not to do it and to let other stuff take over. So when I do manage to sit down and do it, it feels like I’m doing the right thing.
KK You’ve said you want to leave a lot of plays behind. Do you know why?
SK I don’t think I’m going to have kids, so writing seems like what I’m going to leave behind instead.
KK Do you want people in the future to know what the language was like, or—
SK It doesn’t feel like that. That’s like—
Both —the time capsule thing.
SK It feels more like . . . I’m looking at these forgotten books. Nobody cares about them. There’s no immediate reason why anyone should. But, at the same time, maybe I can bring them into some light they never saw, or don’t see anymore. These forgotten books could attain some kind of relevance. I don’t know to whom. It’s almost less important where I’m putting it than where I’m taking it from.
KK You’re transporting.
SK It sounds totally crazy, but that’s what it feels like.
KK I looked up so many words in the dictionary while I was preparing for this interview.
SK I love the dictionary. They had a big fat one at MacDowell. It was an old international dictionary. I wanted to steal it so bad, but I didn’t.
KK You would have just been transporting it. (laughter) So the words I looked up . . . You want to hear some of them?
KK Lucid, stupid —which actually, in its origin, is related to awe and amazement.
SK Oh wow. Of course!
KK Provocation, apprehension, crucible, psychotopography, and mystic. And the definition for the word mystic is: “a person who seeks contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity or absorption into the deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.”
SK That’s so good.
KK So, are you a mystic?
SK Maybe. I mean, I don’t want to say, Yeah, I’m a mystic. But that is what I’m doing.
—Kristen Kosmas is an American playwright and performer. Her plays have been produced in Seattle, Austin, Boston, Chicago, and in New York, at Prelude festival, PS122, Dixon Place, Little Theater, Barbès, and the Ontological/Hysteric Downstairs Series, among other venues. Her play Hello Failure was recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse, and her multi-voice performance text, This Form Couldland, appears in the latest issue of Play A Journal of Plays