Q&A: Len Jenkin

The playwright discusses his latest collaboration with Undermain Theatre, the world premiere of Abraham Zobell's Home Movie: Final Reel..., opening this week at City Performance Hall.

published Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Len Jenkin photographed at Undermain Theatre

Dallas — Undermain Theatre and playwright Len Jenkin have a longstanding relationship, with recent seasons offering world premieres of his work, including Port Twilight or The History of Science in 2009 and Time in Kafka in 2012. Next up is another premiere, Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel…, in which Undermain takes a leap by producing the play outside their home space, at Dallas City Performance Hall. Undermain produced its first show there last year, with Penelope, but that production put the audience and the actors all on the stage. This time, the audience will sit in the 750-seat theater, with only the front sections opened up for seating.

The ambitious work includes live music, projections and a large cast, running for three weeks, Jan. 18-Feb. 1. Jenkin sat down with TheaterJones to discuss the play and his work.


TheaterJones: I’ve heard Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel… referred to as a “semi-autobiographical piece.” Is it?

Len Jenkin: It’s not…Yeah. It’s not. It’s as autobiographical as anything else I’ve ever done. It’s a play that’s about an older man, and it’s a memory play, and it has to do with a lot of things. But I don’t think that it’s particularly autobiographical. That would be my response.


Can you tell me how Abraham Zobell came into being?

Often I start work from images, and this was just a very simple image of an older man who wasn’t well, walking to the ocean because he wanted to see it again. And I discovered some other secret motivations under that. It also began for me as a certain kind of American landscape, kind of small town landscape where the stores on main street are boarded up, there’s rusted bicycles in people’s yards and a sort of blue collar, American landscape. It’s a journey play, a journey tale like many other tales. But it is a Pilgrim’s Progress, one of millions. Although that is an exaggeration. But it is a Pilgrim’s Progress.  So it came from a bunch of those things.


When did you start working on Abraham Zobell?

Around three years ago. It came together slowly. I was done with a form that I’d want a theatre to go forward with about a year ago. Undermain is where I wanted to do it from the beginning because I have a longstanding relationship with them. I love Kat Owen’s work on my material. Undermain has one of the greatest design staffs in the country. You wouldn’t know it looking at this little theatre building, but they do. [At Undermain,] I am able to work here with John Arnone, and with the rest of their company. So this is the place I wanted to do it, and they agreed.


Since you’re based in New York and some of the artistic collaborators are in New York and we are clearly in Texas, how does the collaboration work?

We’ve done it all kinds of ways, I’m here for a fair portion of the installment into the City Performance Hall. Kat’s been up to New York a couple of times, most of the design staff are in New York. It’s been an inter-city communication.


Working in Dallas for this part of the rehearsal process, do you anticipate changing the script as a response to rehearsals?

I’m like a sort of an assistant to the director when I’m here. I’m not thinking much about the script. I like the script. I think the script is solid. I’d rather see them try to make the script work than for me to go back, I mean I will certainly make small changes. But I’m not in the business with this play, this time around of making a lot of script changes. I sort of like the text. I’m rather sort of helping to get it on it’s feet. I’m open to doing that (making small changes), I would do it if anyone asked me. But I’m not thinking about that particularly so much in rehearsal, I’m not thinking about the text.


Can you talk about your working relationship with Kat Owens?

I mean the standard way any author works with a director. I give notes. I say things that I think. She uses them or she doesn’t. So, I think we work pretty well together. I mean, I am a director myself so I have to restrain myself from running up on stage. I like the communication to go through her. And she’s done a bunch of my things, so she knows what I’m interested in, so I think it works pretty well.


Would you say that you are a multifaceted artist? You write novels and plays, and if I’m correct, have an exhibit at The Chocolate Factory in New York City?

There is a painting exhibit at the Chocolate Factory right now and there was one recently at a gallery called The Wild Project. Yeah, I do a bunch of things.


Do they inform each other?

They always inform each other. They always do. You know, I have been painting a lot in the last five years. To me that’s based on a lot of set design work that I’ve done. Or making on stage pictures. It seems to me, all of a piece. It doesn’t feel separate to me. And you know, anyone who knows me who looks at my pictures says: “It’s just like your plays.” So there’s not really a difference. I don’t work differently in terms of what I do in these different mediums. I mean, clearly painting is one—it’s a snapshot of a story. And I make story pictures. I’m not an abstract painter. And the writing in different fields is something I’ve always done. I’ve always written novels, and written for film, and television, and for the stage as well. I like all that. 


Discuss some of the other images we may encounter in Abraham Zobell?

There’s a ton of images in it, of all kinds. It will be gorgeous and multifaceted and kind of raw. The company’s great. The part of Zobell is being played by Fred Curchack, who is well-known for his work here in Dallas as a performance artist and creates his own pieces. The whole cast is terrific. 


Can you discuss some of the challenges for a theatre to produce this play in particular? 

What’s easy for a theatre company to produce is a one-man show in a room, you know, go ahead. This is a play with a lot of characters, and a lot of set, and a changing landscape, and a lot of poetic language. This is a kind of play, if you get good advice, theatre people tell you not to write because it’s hard to get it put on. Because it’s got so many damn people in it. It’s a big play, it’s an ambitious play, it’s got a lot of visuals and a lot of language. So for any theatre company I think this would be an adventure


How is this complexity necessary for this  particular work?

You use the word “necessary,” it’s not necessary. It’s what I’m inclined to do. I like it. I like theatre as a show as well as other things. I like for there to be a lot to look at and a lot to listen to. Occasionally, I have made many things that are much leaner and simpler, than say, Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie. But this is just not one of them. I think ambitious work like this takes advantage of the theatre. 


Do you feel optimistic about theatre?

Yeah! I do. I’m not a great person to ask about this. I don’t go that much, but I’m optimistic in that there are a lot of young companies doing very interesting work. And I think there are a lot of terrific new writers. So am I optimistic, yeah. I don’t think theatre’s going away. There’s terrific work being done in Dallas and New York and other places. I teach in a program that’s a dramatic writing program, it’s not a theatre program per se. But, I know that there’s a lot of terrific people coming out who want to do work for the stage.


And what do you tell these emerging dramatic writers?

I don’t think I have any advice for them. I try to help them make what they want to make. I don’t tend to give practical advice. I tend to try to help people make the best thing they can make on a page. 


Is there any point in time where you feel like you get a writer’s block?

Every day. Yes. Sure. Often. And I am very envious of those people that it never seems to happen to and they just roll on and make one thing after the other. That happens to me a lot. I’m very slow at making things.


What do you do when you feel like you aren’t making progress?

Wait. Go back to the material again. I don’t have any trick. The thing just has to stew a little more in my head till I find my way into it. I don’t have any magical way out. There are writing teachers who would suggest all kinds of things. I don’t have anything that I do for myself in particular. I think this happens to any writer or anyone in kind of the creative arts…a bunch of factors are involved. I don’t have an easy answer. 


I don’t think anyone does. Any final thoughts for an audience member coming to Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel…?

I try to come to it without any kind of preconceived notions of what might be there what might not be there. I’d love to particularly encourage young people to come out to the theatre. High school kids, college kids, you know all kinds of people. The play is very open and I hope people like it.


» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a local teaching artist and director. She will direct Echo Theatre's upcoming revue The Echo Room Presents: Her Song, running Jan. 30-Feb. 22 at the Bath House Cultural Center. Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Len Jenkin
The playwright discusses his latest collaboration with Undermain Theatre, the world premiere of Abraham Zobell's Home Movie: Final Reel..., opening this week at City Performance Hall.
by Shelby-Allison Hibbs

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