Elle: I want to start with a story I’ve heard you tell before, about seeing a play- I think you know the one I’m talking about?
Kristin: Yes. I do. I don’t remember where I was in the process of writing Another Jungle. Somewhere in the early writing phase, I think. I went to see a play that received a lot of acclaim, and in the play a woman gets punched in the face. I saw the play on the first or second preview, and they hadn’t quite landed the fight choreography yet.
Elle: It wasn’t a finished product?
Kristin: Exactly. The fight choreography was meant to be naturalistic but I could see very clearly that it was fake. And this moment was towards the end of the play, so ten minutes later the lights came up and the curtain call music went up and the actor who had been punched in the face came out with her huge bruise makeup and smiled and bowed and everyone cheered and cheered.
E: I’ve heard this story before, but it’s such an intense image.
K: It is. And as I was taking it in there were three or four levels of cognitive dissonance happening for me. The most immediate one was about the smiling woman who had a huge black eye being cheered. Another was about the intended naturalism juxtaposed with the lack thereof in what I had actually seen. And then the third piece was about the way this play was being celebrated, and how it felt like the beating of this woman was being celebrated. All of that collided in this moment for me and brought home certain questions I had been living with about the kinds of narratives that we tell about women across all forms of media, in culture and pop culture.
E: What do you think that’s about? I mean, we see acts of violence against women in lots of plays, plays that are meant to be read as examples of real life, and presumably in the play you saw, the violence was only meant to get more real as it continued to be rehearsed. So is it about our taste in theater? Is it cultural? Why are we trying to make violence as real as possible?
K: I think it’s the notion of realism in theater secondarily and the notion of the stories we tell about women primarily. We see violence against women in all types of storytelling, not just theater. I have been deeply influenced by hardboiled detective fiction. Even though it’s a genre that is extraordinarily bad to women I find myself returning to it over and over again because of the ways in which it is interrogating and subverting some of the most sacred tenets of mainstream American culture. I find it really compelling, and yet the gender and racial politics of these stories are almost universally abhorrent.
At some point I realized—and maybe it was a gradual awakening—that these stories I had been consuming my whole life actually upheld so many of the things I live and make work in opposition to.
E: I identify with that, definitely, and specifically in theater because I grew up thinking that the goal I was supposed to have for myself as a serious actor was to be in the modern classics on Broadway, you know Miller or O’Neill or Tennessee Williams—that tradition of American realism. And then eventually I came to the realization that all of these plays, and even most of the plays we might consider the contemporary American canon, were steeped in toxic masculinity. I was taught to love them, to aspire to them even, and that’s a strange feeling.
K: I don’t imagine you like Blanche DuBois.
E: But that’s who I thought I was supposed to be!
K: I wanted to be Humphrey Bogart, in every Humphrey Bogart movie.
E: Oh I can totally see that.
K: I want to go back to what you were saying about realism because I think that stories with a graphic and fetishistic portrayal of violence against women (and I would extend that to say people of color, but I’m going to focus primarily on women for the purposes of this conversation) these stories need “realism” and the “realism” needs these stories. This privileging of grittiness or realness—I was going to say it’s American, but it may actually just be patriarchal. Because I think about it as a lover of dark detective fiction—the Scandinavians are famous for it, and Japanese detective literature is also replete with stories about violence against women. Any culture that is steeped in male dominance and female subjugation needs stories to continue to feed that beast.
E: So what do we do about that?
K: For one thing we can offer ourselves freedom from well-made Aristotelian structures, because when we do that, we open ourselves up to so many more possibilities in storytelling.
E: It feels like that’s what the meta-theatrical aspect of Another Jungle is doing. The play is a witness to itself. It exposes these difficult issues, like how we create and absorb violence against women, it reveals them, heightens them, but then also disrupts them, it provides us with a way to interrupt the subjugation you’re talking about.
K: I hope so. That’s certainly that tightrope act that you’re describing. Because if it’s not really carefully balanced (to extend that metaphor) it becomes self-indulgent. Self-indulgence isn’t interesting to me.
E: I feel you. So then, what is interesting to you as a writer?
K: What is interesting to me is engaging with real things, that are really fucked up in our world, like the systems of oppression that exist within our current society. The way I’m digging into those systems in Another Jungle isn’t the only way. I’ve written plays that are less overtly socially engaged but try to offer a different kind of narrative by, say, only putting women onstage to tell their own stories.
E: So you’re coming at this question with a lot of different form and content combinations?
K: Yes! The more tools we have, the more stories we can put into the world that either challenge the status quo or offer an alternative status quo. I think that’s equally important. If we’re going to dismantle something we need something else to put in its place. And no single writer or no single artist or group of artists should be responsible for this. We get to now have a multiplicity of stories that have been absent from our stages and from our pages for centuries.
E: So what do you think Another Jungle gives us? After it dismantles, what does it offer?
K: I hope it offers resilience. For me, this play is about the way the characters define themselves in opposition to the way the outside world tries to define or pigeonhole them. They find ways to keep going regardless. And the audience gets to go on that journey with these characters.
E: I hear that. And- I guess I’m going to answer my own question here but – as a person that gets to act in this play I think I can say that another thing it offers is comedy. It’s really funny! And the device of the meta-theatricality helps give us a container to access the more difficult parts. The comedic moments set up by the play within the play help us engage more deeply. I’m hoping I can set the audience up to laugh, and then give us all another angle through which to look at ourselves.
K: Absolutely. The circumstances of the play within the play are very specific to storefront theater, especially storefront theater in Chicago. Through that specific, I’m trying to engage with the question of how we decide to tell and consume stories on a broader level. My hope is that you can watch Another Jungle and then the next night when you’re at home watching the Bachelor you can enjoy that and also see it a little bit differently.
E: We have both talked about this, from the beginning, how much meaning we find in doing this play right now in the context of Chicago storefront theater. And that’s not to say “Oh look at us we’re making so much meaning!” But we are aware that there’s a moment in the play within the play where a rehearsal gets out of control and that moment… I think it’s recognizable by lots of people working in this industry.
K: I think so too. It’s a wonderful environment, but it’s an environment where there’s not always a lot of oversight—
E: -and so power is a big deal-
K: -and I would say that power is not regulated in the way that it is regulated somewhere like a bank, or-
E: Wait there are other industries besides theater?
K: I know. I know. But try to imagine it. In an environment that has more structure, be it an equity theater or a completely different industry, there are certain types of protections. And obviously we would not be having this national moment, with #MeToo, if those protections were sufficient, but if you think about the fact that they don’t work in more structured environments…well, you’re really on your own when you walk into a theater company that’s rehearsing in somebody’s living room.
E: That’s true. And I would add that we’re not we’re not talking about the quality of the work in any way, so many of us have made theater in living rooms and basements and wherever we could, but maybe what we’re talking about is a vacuum of accountability?
K: Something like that. And there’s also the fact that people who want to spend their life making theater, a lot of us are really smart, really awesome people. You can be really smart and really talented and young and precocious and find yourself in situations where you don’t always understand everything that’s at play. It’s not about lack of intelligence, it’s about a lack of experience. Working as an artist in my early 20s I found myself in situations that my theater training had not prepared me for. Another Jungle for me was in part a way of understanding the rooms I found myself in as an early twentysomething artist.
E: The kind of situations you want to go back to and tell your younger self that it’s okay to leave.
K: Exactly. When I talk to younger women in the industry that’s what I say. The number one piece of power that you have is to leave the situation. Because there’s always another job, there’s always another gig.
E: What you said about so many of us being smart and passionate and trying to commit our lives to this really resonates. Because there can be some fear that there isn’t going to be another job. And whether we’ve created that narrative for ourselves or whether that’s real…we just want so badly to make things happen that we might write off harm that we’ve felt in order to keep being able to do this. I think I’ve definitely done that just to be able to keep working.
K: A great thing that’s happened for me is that I’ve been able to find the collaborators who aren’t going to put me in those situations. That’s the great joy of experience. Not only do you know yourself better, you know your art better. You know the people who share your values. So then you just cultivate those relationships. And you get to start saying things like “Oh I get to work with The Syndicate because they share my worldview exactly, or pretty damn close.”
E: We feel the same way about you! And part of what you’re talking about is learning how to define not just your taste or what ends up on stage but your process.
E: Who you want to collaborate with becomes not only about who can create a beautiful stage picture, but who gives notes in a way that is empowering and respectful?
E: I’m really proud of being included in this process because it’s not just the story that’s doing the work for me it’s the way we’re trying to treat each other in the room.
K: That’s part of the reason that I founded Cloudgate with Shane. It was it was because we wanted to tell certain kinds of stories, yes, but it was every bit as much about wanting to make theater in a certain kind of way. I love the language you use in The Syndicate, you use the word “humanistic.” When I saw that I thought “Yes, that’s the word I’ve been looking for.” We want to center people.
E: I love thinking about these things with you. And what keeps me from looking at the complexities of the issues in a play like Another Jungle and feeling overwhelmed, what keeps me from panicking about the greater state of the world is focusing on the impact we’re having. Not like “Oh theater can save the world” because I don’t think that’s useful, but creating a process where we are good to each other, where everyone feels heard and brave, and cared for, where we can do difficult work and hold each other accountable in a positive way…that may be small but it’s an impact. That’s our contribution.
K: I couldn’t agree more. We’re going to be telling the story to 50 people a night. That may be small scale and theater may be a small scale medium, but that’s still 50 people a night that we have the opportunity to share a story with. A story that that contains within it possibilities for redemption and hope. I think you can have a positive impact on the world even if you’re not radically transforming it. I mean, radical transformation is the eventual goal –
E: -but it starts with being kind to each other.
E: In the rehearsal room.
E: And being kind to the audience.
E: So…come see the show.
K: Exactly. Come see the play.
Another Jungle runs April 10th-29th at The Buena in Chicago, you can find out more information about the show here: https://www.cloudgatetheatre.com/event-calendar