Supporting creative work by women
Kara Lee Corthron is an award-winning playwright (the Princess Grace Award, the Helen Merrill Award, Lincoln Center’s Lecomte du Nouy Prize-three-time recipient, and the Theodore Ward Prize). Her amazing plays include Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night (InterAct Theatre Company, Philadelphia) and AliceGraceAnon (New Georges). She is part of the Women’s Project Theater 2012-2014 Lab. The group of 15 theatermakers (five playwrights, 5 directors and 5 producers) have been commissioned to create a new play for WP’s season. The resulting piece–The Architecture of Becoming–begins performances next week at New York City Center.
Kara spoke with Works by Women about the collaborative process of creating The Architecture of Becoming, what residencies provide a playwright, and how exactly the ’90s film The Craft inspires her.
WORKS BY WOMEN: You are one of five writers on The Architecture of Becoming. Have you ever created a project in this manner before? Tell me about the process.
KARA LEE CORTHON: No, I have never created a piece of theater in this way before. It’s incredibly tricky and delicate. I feel like we had to invent our own process over this last year and we’re still learning. It may sound obvious, but the importance of communication when building a show with 13 people cannot be overstated. During our first intense workshop back in September, the playwrights immediately realized that even the smallest change one of us made could and often did impact other pieces in significant ways. Probably the best lesson I’ve learned is to let go of the idea that everyone can be happy at all times. Once I consciously had that thought (simple as it may seem) and embraced it, I found the process much easier to handle.
WBW: Your part of the play is set in 1977 when New York was a much different place than today. What excites you about that time period and the art that was created in it?
KLC: That era crackles with possibility, danger, and the unexpected. Living in this city today, it’s difficult to imagine a time when so few people wanted to live here and that which we would now consider prime real estate was dirt cheap and largely undesirable (i.e., most of the Village, the Upper West Side, Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, I could keep going). I don’t romanticize the era of shooting galleries and porn palaces in Times Square. But I do think there was a strange magic about the city then. It was understood that if you could survive it, you were a tough mofo with nerves of steel. There was also a weird pride in the air that comes from self-preservation. In 1975, The Daily News printed the now infamous headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Ford didn’t really say this, but his unwillingness to bail out the bankrupt city sent an ugly message. The city was essentially at the end of its fiscal rope, which skyrocketed poverty and crime, sending tourism into a serious decline. But the true-blue New Yorkers knew that this would always be home and that sense of abandonment from outsiders brought many together. Which may explain the sudden artistic boom that the city experienced in the late ’70s. Punk, hip-hop, no wave, street art moving into galleries, graffiti as self-expression. I could talk about this for days. In fact, I’m so obsessed with the era that I’m currently working on a full-length that also looks at early hip-hop and takes place in 1977—which might be my favorite year.
WBW: You’ve got a couple of residencies to look forward to this year (one in a Scottish castle). How important are these to developing your work? What will you work on during the residencies?
KLC: I don’t want to say they’re “vital,” because I can write without a residency and more often than not, I have to. But the opportunity to escape my normal routine is like getting a sudden injection of focus. Having space, time, and quiet—apart from all my other responsibilities as an adult—reminds me that despite the struggles, I love writing. Residencies get me back to the essence of what I do without all the other baggage that comes along with a career in the arts. I also adore meeting other artists, writers in other genres, visual artists, composers, interdisc, etc. Their work feeds me as an artist and as a human being.
In Scotland, I hope to complete a raw draft of the play I mentioned above. I’ll also probably do some rewrites on other projects. I’m planning to go to Djerassi (a residency outside of San Francisco) this summer, but I’m not exactly sure what I’ll be working on there yet.
WBW: What or who first inspired you to become a playwright? And why?
KLC: I resisted becoming a playwright for a long time. My sister, Kia Corthron, is a wonderful playwright who’s contributed many fine dramas to the American canon of dramatic literature. I grew up admiring her, but I honestly felt that playwriting was her career and that I should do something else. I briefly entertained the idea of being a modern dancer until I understood the physical discipline that would require. For a number of years, I pursued acting. But what finally shifted for me was the fact that I kept being called in to audition for terrible plays and terrible films. I was sick of reading sides thinking: “I could do so much better.” I first started writing roles that I wished someone would ask me to play. From there, I tried to write performance texts for myself. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that writing plays just felt most natural to me. In a way, playwriting kind of found me. So Kia and I are one of the few sets of playwriting sisters out there (I know of only one other set).
WBW: You’re also working on a novel. Can you spill a little bit about it or at least how you decided to write in that form?
KLC: I’ve always wanted to write a novel, a young adult novel specifically. When I say “always,” I mean that I read my first Judy Blume book when I was eight and immediately decided that I wanted to do that. My first attempt at this type of writing was back in 2004. At my very first residency, I finished the play I went there to write pretty quickly, and then I started writing a novel on a whim. I eventually sent the book to an editor and received the cruelest rejection letter of my life as thanks. Because I was young, I was crushed and assumed that I wasn’t meant to be a novelist. Nine years later and countless rejections later (though not as cruel, I have to say), I felt like I was ready to try it again. And it’s been a delightful experience! I’m currently somewhere between drafts 2.5 and three, but we’ll see what happens. I’m optimistic…for now.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
KLC: Access is a huge problem. Despite the campaigns of late (such as 50/50 in 2020), it is still remarkably rare to see a theater season with equal representation of male and female voices. I’m not the person to break down the reasons for this beyond the fact that we live in a society where everyday misogyny is the norm. People are afraid. Few in power want to risk giving a main stage slot to a woman—especially a not-so-known woman—and I think there is an unconscious idea that women’s stories (whatever the hell that means because stories are stories) don’t appeal to most audiences (i.e. men). Other than stubborn tenacity on the part of all women theatre artists, I don’t know what the solution is.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
KLC: More than anything else, probably the fact that I know so many women working in the American theater that are brilliant! Just in the WP Lab alone, I’m continually blown away by the range of talent, experience, and ideas that come from this group of women. And that’s only fifteen people. I know tons more. It reminds me of a quote from one of my fave 90s films The Craft: “When you open a flood gate, how can you undo it?” There are just too many of us out here to ignore. Stubborn tenacity!
Women’s Project Theater’s production of The Architecture of Becoming will run February 28 through March 23, 2014 at New York City Center. For more information and tickets, visit Women’s Project Theater’s website.