by Martin Denton · January 1, 2016
How did you first get interested/involved in the theater? What made you decide to pursue playwriting and directing?
I got into theatre when I was a kid because I loved stories and I loved singing. Everything else kind of followed along, eventually.
What was the inspiration for HOW YOU KISS ME? Is it based on something that actually happened (either to you, or to someone you know)?
Oof. Can I plead the fifth? It’s tough because while the play is about how intimate relationships work, and while I’ve had the good fortune to be in relationships with interesting people, it isn’t based on one true story and it’s not a character study of any specific people I’ve known. But it hit me at a transitional moment in my personal life, so I can understand how this particular dialogue of nostalgia and skepticism and hopefulness appeared on the page the way it did. I stole a few individual moments from real life (happy moments – I try to be an ethical magpie), but neither of these characters is meant to be a portrait of any particular person.
Who taught you how to write plays (this could be a teacher, a playwright, or anyone in the world)?
I just finished my MFA at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, where I studied with Rob Handel. I can already imagine the look of pain and horror that spreads over Rob’s face whenever people compliment him too effusively, so I’ll just say that Rob is an incredible teacher and a virtuosic artist who understands plays the way Stephen Hawking understands black holes. He always expects your best effort, and that’s a tremendous gift. I also learned a lot about how to write from the other playwrights at Carnegie Mellon, who are brilliant and hilarious and who cultivate a wonderful culture of productivity and kindness. Earlier than them, Tom Kane, my high school drama teacher, who took me seriously when there was nothing to take seriously, who taught me that theatre makes us better at being good to each other, and who still puts up with my adolescent bullshit.
Are you someone who hates romantic comedies? If so, why? If not, why not?
I’m not! I actually like romantic comedies just fine, except for Love Actually. Love Actually is the worst – nobody puts Emma Thompson in a corner. But I’m interested in the way that stories about intimacy are also stories about ideology, and love stories are fascinating to me that way because a couple is the smallest possible unit of society, and I think the love stories we canonize have this provocative friction with the actual practice of loving someone. So I’m interested in digging into that.
Who are your heroes? And who are your theatrical heroes (if different)?
My peers and teachers. Artists who make opportunities for other artists. Radical queers, feminists of all stripes, Black Lives Matter protestors – maybe I’m just impressed by lefty activists. Hermione Granger. Tony Kushner. Keats. Beyoncé.
You suggest in your notes for the play that directors should attempt many different diverse approaches to casting the play. Why would that be interesting/important? And in a broad sense—why is diversity (and its possible manifestations such as gender-blind and color-blind casting) important for the theater?
I’ve never really liked the terms “gender-blind” and “color-blind.” They’re well intentioned terms, but I don’t think a more inclusive theatre is one that ignores gender and race. Theatre is really exciting when it addresses gender and race unapologetically, because theatre like that gains rich layers of meaning through the bodies of the people that bring it to life. In this particular play, which allows for a lot of plasticity, the sexes of the characters are an important structural tent pole, but (for instance) their races aren’t. Nor is it structurally important that the sexes of the actors align with those of the characters. The play can change depending on how you cast it while maintaining its structural integrity.
How You Kiss Me… came out of some questions I had about love and ideology, and more specifically, heterosexuality: what it is, what it’s not, and how people are supposed to live inside of it today. I’m not a heterosexual myself, so there are things I just don’t actually know, and I think that not-knowing was an important ingredient in the play. As I imagine the play’s future, it’s exciting to open the text up to different kinds of knowing and not-knowing, especially given that this play’s plasticity and openness is one of the things I like most about it.
The more socially engaged answer is this: the American theatre has long been a white boys’ club, and it’s widely observed that the foundation of that dam is rotten. There’s a broad and dynamic conversation happening right now about how to collectively evolve, and though I am a white boy, I want my work to be a part of that evolution. A few dispatches from that conversation I think are fascinating: