#PLONY PROFILE #6: ADITI BRENNAN KAPIL, MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA

October 30th, 2015 donnahoke
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Aditi Brennan Kapil has a resume full of names equated with playwright excellence: Lark, McKnight, Jerome, Mellon, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, New Dramatists, NNPN, and more. But aside from the voluminous list, what makes Kapil’s achievements all the more remarkable is that when her play, LOVE PERSON, received a 2007/2008 Rolling World Premiere from the National New Play Network, that marked not only her first production, but also her first full length play. That’s right: Kapil—mother of three children aged 13, 9, and 6—has been a playwright for a scant eight years. Though she is also an actor and director, her meteoric playwright career—one that began and continues to burgeon from Minneapolis—is destined for #PLONY legend.
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(What is a/are #PLONY? Find out here, and also read an explanation as to why I’m writing a series of #PLONY Profiles.)
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What is your geographical history?
I am half Bulgarian, half Indian, and was born in Bulgaria, raised in Sweden—my parents emigrated there when I was very small—and came to St. Paul, Minnesota to Macalester College. And being that I wasn’t American, after college, I had a year that I could stay in the country on this visa where you can work in your field of study, so I gave theater a shot.  Somewhere between getting married and discovering it was possible to make a somewhat pathetic living in theater, the Twin Cities ended up being a good home. I’ve stayed since college, which doesn’t mean I don’t spend a crapload of time on planes running around everywhere.
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Did people ever suggest New York, particularly when you were doing more acting?
Yeah, “why don’t you go to a coast?” because as an actor, that’s an obvious thing to do. My career was actor, and then actor/director, and playwriting was last and now I do all three. Playwriting kind of coincided with having kids for me, and that would have been the craziest time to move anywhere. But living here is not in any way a limiting factor–after two years running around earning my stripes, I was able to do theater and acting-related things without having to temp on the side, and I got to be a certain kind of fish in this market; moving would have most likely involved waiting tables and running to auditions a lot, and I got to practice my craft a lot instead. Which is not to say that people in New York don’t get to do that, but it’s a different kind of hustle. Being in the Twin Cities, I could spend most of my hours making art of my choosing, and also have free time to explore other things.
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Like writing plays?
Yes! And when I started writing plays, because we have such a great art funding situation here, there was support in terms of funding and residencies. Mixed Blood Theatre was a home base for me as an actor and director, so when I started writing plays, they were interested. So far, every play I’ve written has premiered at Mixed Blood, so the Twin Cities have really allowed me to stretch and grow into the artist I wanted to be. If I was interested in TV or film, it would be limiting here; the Twin Cities don’t have a lot of that work. For most actors, there is an interest [in leaving], or at least a curiosity, but I wanted to go at theatermaking more globally and this was a really good place to develop that. I have artistic independence and some control over myself and the work I choose to do, and especially since having kids, moving to New York was not in the cards.
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So what prompted you to write that first play?
I don’t tend to engage in any form of artmaking unless I feel an urgency, and for a long time I don’t think I had anything pressing to say that I really felt theater needed to hear. Jack Reuler, the artistic director of Mixed Blood, has always been a little ahead of me in terms of what he thinks I should be doing next, but I don’t do things until I’m good and ready. He knew I wrote fiction and he asked me at various times over several years to consider writing plays, but when I did, it was something I started on my own, and it had to do with having a thought that needed to be expressed in play form rather than some other form, and having extreme clarity as to how that would be a wonderful thing.
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That play was LOVE PERSON; how did that develop?
I was working on a prose project, researching Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language, and was simultaneously performing in a play in which half the cast was deaf and a lot of the play was in ASL, so I was learning about ASL too. It struck me that there is an affinity, a kind of poetic directness, between Sanskrit and ASL. I thought it would be really interesting to write about two people who fall in love based solely on the affinity of their languages. I tried it as a short story, but it didn’t work at all, because you can’t write ASL. So I figured it was a neat thought, but doomed to remain just a thought.
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But then, kind of on a whim, a friend told me to apply for a Many Voices Fellowship at the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, which at the time was intended to encourage early career writers who aren’t playwrights to explore playwriting; I got it and dedicated that year to see if I could rewrite that failed short story as a play. Over the course of the year, I created a draft that was fine, but didn’t reflect what was in my mind, and I didn’t feel like showing it to anyone. But then I heard that the Lark in NY had an interest in South Asian plays so, again, on a whim, I applied to Playwrights Week, and I got in, which was bizarre. And I thought, “Well now if I’m going, it needs not to suck.” They accepted the sucky version, but I didn’t like it; it was fine, mediocre. I’m not saying nobody would ever produce it, but it wasn’t up to the standards of what I think theater should be in the world. As an actor and director, I try not to do work that I’m not super passionate about, so why put it out there as a playwright?
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 LOVE PERSON at  Marin Theatre, 2008, part of Kapil’s first Rolling World Premiere
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Around the same time, I told Jack about the play, and he said, “How about we commission you to keep working on it?” and, at that time, Liz Engelman had just moved to the Twin Cities, and he gifted me her as a dramaturg, and that was the most amazing thing because Liz spent inordinate amounts of time working with me over the course of several years and is still one of my closest collaborators. I ended up with a second draft that sucked a lot less, and took it to the Lark, and that was really exciting to be in the room as a playwright. The play got even better, and resulted in a Rolling World Premiere, and a lot of other productions. Playwriting embraced me, and it was fun, so, you know, let’s do it again! That’s kind of how and why I ended up writing a play, but all of this also coincided with having kids. It’s a lot harder to make a living as a professional actor when you’re pregnant or nursing for a decade.  I didn’t stop auditioning but my being available mojo was kind of lax because you never know when you’re going to be pregnant again, at least I didn’t. I still try to do a show a year as an actor, but I don’t always have time; playwriting has kind of taken over and involves a lot of travel.
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That was a crazy auspicious beginning involving two huge new play entities. What was that like for a first-timer?
It was weird to get so much attention for my first play, and it made my next play a little nerve-wracking. All of the sudden, I was like “Oh crap, everyone’s watching; don’t fuck it up.” And I didn’t have a long-term backbone of craft to fall back on; I just wrote one play. So with the second one, I again got crazy lucky because it was just at that moment—and this program only lasted two years in this form so I really got dumb lucky—when the NEA partnered with Arena Stage to create the Distinguished New Play Development Project. I had this relationship with Mixed Blood and the Lark, and Interact Theatre through NNPN, and it was the right project at the right time. Lark invited Mixed Blood and Interact to apply with them, they probably all pitched a couple of playwrights, and they asked me if we applied together what would I  want to work on. I’d come up with this idea to write something about immigrants in the US, and, at the time that they called, I was doing a residency in Smolyan, Bulgaria and trying to figure out how I could return to work with them again the following year. So we applied to develop a play in a consortium led by Lark together with Mixed Blood, Interact, the Rhodopi International Theatre Laboratory in Bulgaria, and Playwrights’ Center, and we got awarded as one of the five projects. That was crazy! Suddenly there were a lot of resources to develop my second play, AGNES UNDER THE BIG TOP. At one point there was even a documentary film crew following us around, but the final very awesome documentary ended up only featuring two of the projects—Rajiv Joseph‘s and Tarrell Alvin McRaney‘s
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It was intense to find myself suddenly engaged in the larger national field conversation around new play development, hanging out with playwrights whose work I’d read in college. And it was a little hard because I discovered my second play was nothing like my first play, so it took longer to find the perfect home for it. Mixed Blood still premiered it, and it was also an NNPN Rolling World Premiere, but, at some point during that journey, I met a director—Eric Ting—who really connected with the piece, and that was such an important moment for me in terms of a really strong artistic connection. It was also an important lesson: if you’re going to write plays that are wildly different from each other, you’re going to have to search for the people who will love them every time, which is okay.
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Still, it’s like a Cinderella playwright story.
For some weird ass reason, the playwriting world just embraced me. It could just as easily have not. I could have written my first play and put it in my drawer, and meh. The second one was a little scary to have that many people interested in what I was doing next, after having written the first one in total privacy, I wrote the second one so publicly, and heard it out loud every two months, and it might have gone very badly; for a little while, it was just too much, but then it sort of came around, and I had enough people in my corner who cared about the art, so I’m very proud of that one as well. Between the two plays, I learned a lot about how to be a playwright in this world. I will say, I didn’t call myself a playwright yet, not until after I premiered the DISPLACED HINDU GODS Trilogy (BRAHMAN/I: A ONE-HIJRA STAND-UP COMEDY SHOW, THE CHRONICLES OF KALKI, SHIV)  in 2013 later did I start saying I was a playwright. I didn’t feel like two plays earned me the title, but now I have five; that does.
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It seems having an artistic home in Mixed Blood was instrumental.
Absolutely. Having that home base to work and argue and learn how to be an artist. They premiered LOVE PERSON, AGNES, and my trilogy in rep—and there are at least a couple of those five plays that if it had not been for our deep relationship, I don’t know that they would have made their way onto the Mixed Blood stage; they’re just not necessarily their style. Having that home is huge. Plus there’s that weird trajectory of making my living in theater in various ways over the years, and then waiting until I felt a real need to write a play. Having an artistic home in the Twin Cities allows me to be part of the artistic conversation with a real clarity around who I am as an artist and what I’m trying to make; I don’t generally enter a room without a sense of self, and I developed that sense of self here in my little incubator. I’m not totally sure how that would have happened in New York. If I had to hustle more intensely, I don’t know that I would have been getting drunk and having deep thoughts. Because I’m lazy.
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 AGNES UNDER THE BIG TOP at Mixed Blood, 2011
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Have you had productions in New York?
I’ve actually not been produced in New York as of yet, only in regional theaters.
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And yet that hasn’t hurt your career trajectory at all.
Everybody wonders what it’s going to take to get some attention and I know it looks like I skipped ahead in the line a little, but I feel like theatermaking is theatermaking, and I’ve been doing that for years, and all of that acting, directing, etc., amounted to apprenticing to start writing plays. Playwrights who knew that they wanted to write plays right out of college hustled as playwrights; I hustled as an actor instead. And then I got some attention with my first play, which was very, very lucky, but if I’d started writing plays right out of college, it suspect there would have been no skipping ahead in the line. That said, I am profoundly aware that I entered the playwriting phase in my career with a lot of support and embracing from all around.
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Aditi, Jamie Elvey, and Seth Tucker in LEARN TO BE LATINA, Mixed Blood (2012)
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I’ve seen enough people create a piece of work that for whatever reason speaks to a moment and rises, gets recognized, and I’ve seen that happen with regional writers as well as with New York writers. I don’t feel buried in the Twin Cities. We have amazing playwrights here and I actually wish the Twin Cities as a community had more pride about their playwrights and the amazing Fellows we have passing through the Playwrights Center. And plenty of artistic directors here have friends across the country, and they talk, and things don’t get totally buried because they’re not from New York. It might be easier to get buried in New York because there are so many voices.
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Do you make your living from theater?
Well, right now, I’m one of the Mellon playwrights in residence embedded in theaters across the country, so, as of about two years ago, I’ve been a salaried playwright in residence at Mixed Blood. At this precise moment, I’m making a fine living as a salaried playwright, and also doing a lot of the other things I do. I have commissions with a few other theaters: La Jolla Playhouse, SouthCoast Rep, Yale Rep. What I love most about these commissions is that, like my collaborations with Mixed Blood, they are very non-prescriptive. One of my biggest fears is that, at some point,we’ll remove from our artists the mandate that they are the thinkers of a society, and not only the implementers of entertainment. So I love theaters that want me to be a thinker, and want me to write whatever I want to write, whatever is next, whatever feels most important. Between that and being a salaried playwright, it takes a lot of the hustle out of my daily life. I no longer do the commercial work as an actor that used to make ends meet. I get to spend my time writing, supporting a theater that I love, doing projects that I’m excited about. Prior to salaried residency, I would say I was making an erratic but acceptable living doing a combination of things–acting, directing, and teaching in addition to writing. I still do that, just less. 

 

Pillsbury House Theatre production of GidionÕs Knot Laura Esping - Heather Aditi Kapil - Corryn Noel Raymond - Director/ Producer Faye M. Price - Producer Elizabeth MacNally - Stage Manager Heidi Batz Rogers - Fight Chorographer Mike Wangen - Lighting Designer Joe Stanley - Set Designer/Builder Kellie Larson - Prop Designer Clare Brauch - Costume Designer C. Andrew Mayer - Sound Designer

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Laura Esping and Kapil in Pillsbury House Theatre’s GIDEON’S KNOT (2014)

 

What is your marketing process when you’ve finished a new play?

I think for me it’s less marketing than conversation. I worry a lot about integrity of vision, so with Mixed Blood I always start writing something new very privately, and then, at some point, I’ll mention to Jack that I’m writing something, and he says “Do you think I’ll like it? Do you want me to commission you?” And I’ll say, “Okay, but you’re under zero obligation to produce it if you don’t like it,” which is my way of saying I’m not taking responsibility for you liking it; it’s going to be what it’s going to be. And then, at some point, when the project feels ready for that conversation, we sit down and discuss whether Mixed Blood wants to produce it. So far, the answer has always been yes. And now I’m in commissions at various stages with Yale Rep, La Jolla, and South Coast Rep, and just signed on with Oregon Shakespeare Festival to do one of their Play On Shakespeare translations, so it turns out I’ve never written a play that wasn’t commissioned, either from the beginning or (with Mixed Blood) from the halfway point, which makes it less of a marketing game, and more of a conversation with a specific theater about the future of the play. And when I have something in production, I try to be proactive on social media, and in framing the work, and support the theater’s efforts in marketing it in any way that I can.

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Jack Reuler, Artistic Director, Mixed Blood
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How did the Oregon Shakespeare gig come about? That’s a big, conspicuous get.
Yes, I’ll be fucking up your MEASURE FOR MEASURE for you. Liz Engelman and I remained close after the LOVE PERSON and AGNES UNDER THE BIG TOP journeys. Our relationship is strong and embedded. Lue Douthit at OSF commissioned us as a team, they needed 36 playwright/dramaturg partnerships, and Liz and I are kind of a thing. And I know they wanted to be sure that it was 51 percent women and 51 percent playwrights of color and, technically, I fall into both categories; I suspect that helped me make the cut. Also, this project is not going to be everyone’s flavor, and Liz and I are legitimately really excited about it.
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I’ve never translated Shakespeare before. I have a mild obsession with Shakespeare—the play I’m writing for Yale is a rabid dog feminist riff on a silent character in the first folio of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and it’s partially in verse—but I’m not a Shakespeare scholar. I’m a actor who loves Shakespeare, and I’m an English major so I have my baseline nerdiness there. But I mean, I’m going to be translating Shakespeare into my third language and nobody’s called me out on that yet.
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My agent, Antje Oegel, is German, and her response to the project was, “It’s about time!” For those of us who grew up in other countries, it’s not all that weird for Shakespeare to be translated, or for [translated] Shakespeare to be a really exciting night of theater. Sure the Swedish or German translator may have gone for a slightly old-timey verse sound, but it’s never incomprehensible, because nobody translates to Shakespeare to incomprehensible Swedish or German. And it’s different when the poetry flies without having to stop for analysis. So I’m really excited to dig into this project.
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How did you get your agent?
This is another thing: I got my agent really early, so I have no useful advice. When the Lark invited me for Playwrights Week, one of the things I did was get some names of agents that people liked, and send my stuff to them. And weirdly, Morgan Jenness and Beth Blickers from Abrams took me to a lovely lunch on the last day of Playwrights Week and said, “What a great play! We don’t have a place for you, but we think you should be with Antje at Bret Adams.” They took me to lunch to tell me to be with some other agent. So I got in touch with Antje, and we started a conversation, but, in the middle of that conversation, she moved back to Germany, and that was actually fine, because I only had the one play, and it was going along its merry way because Jack had sent it all this friends and they had sent it to all their friends, so there wasn’t a pressing need for representation. A year later, I’m wrestling with my second play, AGNES, and terrified of fucking it up, and Antje moved back to Chicago and started her own agency, and we started talking again. She’s the one who introduced me to Eric Ting, who ended up being such an amazing artistic connection for AGNES. After a few months of talking, Antje and I met up in New York for coffee and decided to get hitched.
At Company One, Kapil talks to Ilana Brownstein about her trilogy of plays 
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How do you juggle your playwriting travel and schedule with three young kids?
My husband fortunately works from home, so he’s technically here when they go to school and when they come back. When I’m home, our deal is that I’m primary on the kids because I’m a freelancer; when I’m out of town, he’s primary because he works from home, and it kind of works out. It’s not our favorite that I do a fair amount of travel—it’s kind of sucky—but I usually don’t go anywhere for more than week, and I don’t generally apply for those awesome summer things that everyone applies for because it’s too much damn time and what are we doing to do with the kids?
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There’s a whole world of people hanging out in theater that I’m opting out of all the time. I would totally love to hang out and sleep on top of each other for a month; that would be the best, but I wasn’t writing plays when my life was like that. I don’t know; I feel like it’s a perfectly fine balance; it feeds my soul to spend time with other theatermakers, but there is a limit. At some point, I need to block all that out and just do my work.
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How many full-length plays do you have?
Five. In a few months, I’ll probably be ready to say 6 or 7.
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What’s your writing schedule like?
Depending on how busy I am with Mixed Blood stuff, I dedicate Wednesdays to being more of an administrative brain for them as playwright in residence, often Mondays too. Then there’s the business of being a playwright; I try hard not to let emailing take over my whole day. I would say, on average, I try to write four to six hours, four days out of the week; that’s a fair assessment based on school schedules and how much other crap eats in. Sometimes I fail and sometimes I succeed. I only work during working hours if I can help it, but if I’m on deadline, it’s whenever it has to be. Sometimes, I leave town just to go into a state of lucid dreaming for a week, because I need to do that.
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I was in New York in September for some New Dramatists stuff, but also to do the Writer’s Army, a silent writing together for a week in a rented space thing that Anne Washburn and Madeleine George organize, and I needed to get my head out of my ass on a couple projects, and I sat there for a week and had that crazy seventh hour breakthrough I was after, but you can’t have that if you can’t stare at a blank page for seven hours, which really doesn’t happen when I’m at home. It’s crazy but sometimes that’s actually what it takes. I write on planes a lot. I’m actually pretty efficient at getting in the zone and doing the work. Being a parent did that;, I used to spend two hours getting in the zone, I don’t do that anymore.
The Lindsay & Crouse Playwrights Studio at New Dramatists
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You mentioned you wrote fiction. How far did you get with that?
I didn’t try that hard to be a fiction writer. There are a thousand things I could have done to build a career that I didn’t do.
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Has transitioning to a more solitary writer life ever been difficult?
It’s not like I hung out that much as an actor; I did my job and came home. I do miss that weird finite thing of “Now it’s opening night and that means we stop agonizing and we start performing!” Playwrights don’t have a clear line of demarcation like that. But then auditions I don’t miss; I no longer run around expending energy, putting on make up, running lines, to be perfect for three minutes–that’ll kill your entire day. So those things are different, but in terms of the practical reality, I don’t know that it’s that different. I was always an introvert anyway.
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Do you have any advice to offer #PLONY?

1) Anybody can and should apply to New Dramatists, The Playwrights’ Center, The Lark, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, some of their programs have geographic limitations, but by no means all, don’t self-select out without checking into it.

2) Find your voice and commit to it with absolute integrity, and find your circle of people who lift you up and raise the bar on your artistry. They might live anywhere.

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Please follow me on Twitter @donnahoke or like me on Facebook at Donna Hoke, Playwright.

Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.

To read more entries in this series, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.

Written by donnahoke

donnahoke

Dramatists Guild Council member and ensemble playwright-in-residence at Road Less Traveled Productions, Kilroys List and award-winning playwright Donna Hoke’s work has been seen in 40 states, and on five continents. Her full-length plays include ELEVATOR GIRL (2017 O’Neill finalist), THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR (Princess Grace semi-finalist, currently in its fourth year in rep in Romania), SEEDS (Artie award winner for Outstanding New Play), SAFE (winner of the Todd McNerney, Naatak, and Great Gay Play and Musical Contests), and BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART (2016 Kilroys List, Winner HRC Showcase, Firehouse Festival of New American Plays); she’s also authored more than two dozen short plays that have had hundreds of productions. Donna is also a New York Times-published crossword puzzle constructor; author of Neko and the Twiggets, a children’s book; and founder/co-curator of BUA Takes 10: GLBT Short Stories. For three consecutive years, she was named Buffalo’s Best Writer by Artvoice, the only woman to ever receive the designation.

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