features + interviews

kia corthron: “all i did was show them close up”

Edith Meiser Oral History series:
Kia Corthron in conversation with Todd London
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center
Bruno Walter Auditorium, 111 Amsterdam Avenue
Monday March 4, 2013 at 6pm

(L-R) Todd London, Kia Corthron. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

(L-R) Todd London, Kia Corthron. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

The Edith Meiser Foundation has supported evenings in the Bruno Walter Auditorium I have attended in recent years honoring a range of women including Elizabath Ashley and Christine Ebersole. Earlier this month, another Meiser Foundation sponsored event in the same venue featured artistic director, critic, and professor Todd London in conversation with playwright Kia Cothron about her work.

In introduction and in conversation, London (who clearly knows Cothron well as a long time supporter and admirer of her work) prompts, cajoles, gentle provokes, and provides quotations from others to set a context for Cothron’s approach to making her way as a woman making her living in the arts. Quoting from the venerable Chicago critic Richard Christiansen (whose 2004 tome A Theatre of Our Own: A History and Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago served as my preparation course for the several subsequent years I spent in that toddling town’s theatre world, and during which I obtained Mr. Christiansen’s inscription in my own copy of said book) London draws a reference to theatrical language as “fervent poetry.” We spend the rest of the session discussing examples of Cothron’s fervor in her titles, in her characters, in her life experiences, and in her own artistic generosity.

London shares with the audience some of Cothron’s provocative and intriguing play titles one by one, and asks her to free associate on meaning, origins, context. (Note to self: this is a fabulous way to engage in a conversation with almost any author it seems, and a tactic I know I’ll use when in a moderator/conversant role in the future.) Some of the reflections are summarized below.

  • A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick. Cothron recalled that this was inspired by a 2007 trip to Nairobi and discussion during that time in Africa on the question of whether water itself were a common shared resource or a commodity.
  • Moot the Messenger. During rehearsals of another play, the events of prisoner abuse by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib had just occurred. The offending soldiers in those events were trained at a military base in Cumberland, Maryland, not far from Cothron’s small home town. Some of the soldiers even came from her town — the events had a shockingly personal dimension to them. London himself, during Cothron’s tenure at New Dramatists, encouraged her to write about this passionate connection.
  • Slide Glide the Slippery Slope. Inspired by the ideal of “cloning” then much in the news (and Dolly the cloned sheep even makes an appearance in the play), she contemplates the question “what are perfect children?”
  • Breath, Boom. At a playwright’s retreat in Key West she contemplated fireworks and the idea of girl gangs. Fireworks provided the reality and the metaphor: “something beautiful that goes boom.” Cothron recalls that this is the first of her plays that covers time — a main character ages from 16 to 30 during the course of this play. Reflecting on the young people in this play she noted, “children are not evil in a vacuum.”
  • Splash Hatch on the E Going Down. Cothron recalled work on this play during her first writing retreat in the Seattle woods. The concept of lead poisoning and its concentration in poor neighborhoods led to considerations of “environmental racism.”  The amount of research Cothron does for her plays inspired a few questions from London about the “depth of thinking” and “strategic intentionality” of her work. Cothron mused that rather than consciously making her young characters hyper intelligent, “All I did was show them close up. I don’t create fantasy characters.”

On having a “radicalization” moment. Cothron recalls that she didn’t perceive her political (and politically active) view of the world as unique until she studied at Columbia and was labeled by the head of the Theatre Department as “the political one.”  This surprised her.

On theatre heroes. Cothron listed women among her theatre heros — Hallie Flanagan for the Federal Theatre Project, Ellen Stewart‘s stewardship of La MaMa; playwright Naomi Wallace; and younger sister Kara Lee Corthron who is deep into her own career as a playwright.

Her final words of advice to young playwrights are a better closing that anything I could dream up so summarize this stimulating conversation. “Write what your heart tells you,” Corthron said, “and your soul.”

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 20, 2013)

This interview is part of the videotaped oral history project funded by the Edith Meiser Foundation, and produced by Betty Corwin. The interviews completed as part of the project are preserved in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Theatre on Film and Tape Archive.

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