A Conversation with Ken Urban

Ken Urban.jpg

Rattlestick Alumni Playwright, Ken Urban, had his play The Correspondent, produced a few years ago at Rattlestick.  He returns back to Rattlestick this month in an Amoralists' Production of Nibbler, a dark coming-of-age comedy about five teenagers in a small town in South Jersey during the summer of 1992.  I asked Ken to answer some questions that were on my mind.

I’m interested in how you have made changes to Nibbler in response to changes in our political climate.

This play has had a long life. I started the play right after 9/11. Like most of us, I was very depressed and that feeling was only to get worse in the following months. I wanted to think about a moment in my life when I felt hope. I remember the months leading up to Bill Clinton’s election as a real time of possibility. Of course, in 2001-2, I was writing with the hindsight about how disappointing Clinton would turn out to be, and how he set the stage for George W. Bush. I decided to write a one-act set in Medford, New Jersey as a kind of Our Town-meets-Mac Wellman’s Sincerity Forever.

The one-act eventually had a small production out in the Los Angeles area in 2003, thanks to the folks at Rude Guerilla (RIP). People kept saying that I should turn it into a full-length. I eventually did around 2008. But oddly, it didn’t feel like the right time for the play. Obama was elected and the 1990s just felt too close and too far. If I’m being honest, an early version of the full-length version of Nibbler had a production out in Los Angeles in 2009, and it was a disaster for me on many levels. Just thinking about it upsets me. That made me put the play in a (metaphorical) drawer for a long time because my confidence was shaken by that experience. But over the past few years, the play felt more and more pertinent. That sense of hope and disillusionment, our changing feelings about the ‘90s, what happens when you are left behind by all the change and progress other people appear to be experiencing…

Stable Cable, a small company here in the city, did a workshop of the play in 2013, and that set the stage for me to dive back into the play and finish it. I did a workshop last spring with the students at Davidson College where I was a writer-in-residence. Seeing actual college students do the roles of the teenagers answered so many questions about the play and got me excited to see the play realized in its final form in New York. Luckily, James and the Amoralists were keen to do it.

For this process, I made changes. I am a pretty chronic rewriter, and did some tweaks here and there. But the core of this play has remained the same since the 2001 first draft. The political stuff certainly wasn’t changed. In fact, I had toyed with cutting some of Matt’s speeches because they felt too extreme. These days, it feels pretty standard. The shock of Trump's victory and how viciously he has pursued his neoliberal agenda no doubt gives the play new resonances but since the story predates all of that, I'm not sure it's had any definite impact on the writing but it has on the reception of the play if that makes sense. I'm not a big fan of plays that try and elaborate a clear political agenda. My job is to tell a strong and compelling story and leave the audience to make sense of the play's messages. One of the reasons I love the Amoralists and Rattlestick is their commitment to provocative work with no moral judgment on the characters. 

Do you write plays for your audience or yourself or some combination of the two?

It is always helpful as a writer to watch the play with an audience, and previews have been incredibly helpful in getting Ben Kamine (the director) and I to the finish line of opening night. That said, I know full well this play will unsettle many people. But I learned something early as a writer that I treasure. After a reading of one of my first plays called I Heart Kant, one audience member (male) dismissed the play as male-hating feminist nonsense, while another audience member (female) told me I was misogynist. You can please no one all of the time. If the same play can be seen as both misogynist and feminist, it is a careful reminder that most people see a play through their own eyes, and you have ZERO CONTROL over that. The only person you need to please is yourself. You have to say will full pride: This is my play. You don’t have to love it. But I need to stand by my work and recognize what’s working and what is not. It is always nice when people come up to me and tell me how much my work has meant to them. But again, my job is to be my own worst critic and keep pushing myself to be as good as my incredibly high standards. 

You have had your work done at big theaters and little theaters…how is working here different than working at bigger theaters like Huntington in Boston?

Well, let’s get real. It’s nice to work at theaters with proper toilets. But then again nice lobbies and toilets come with a price. Making theater is always a struggle. Always. A playwright friend of mine recently had a backstage tour of The Lion King and told me that one of the main puppets was being held together with duck tape. That show makes two million a week or something insane like that? Everything is always hard and it always will be. The nice thing is to have a foot in the door at both levels. But a theater like Rattlestick will always be my home. It’s where I feel most comfortable. It’s where I started. And yes, the bathroom line is insanity-inducing. But would a theater with a nice bathroom paid for by the Koch brothers do Nibbler? Not a chance in hell. 

Daniella Topol