Fort Worth — Playwright John Kolvenbach, whose comedy Bank Job will have its world premiere at Amphibian Stage Productions this week, spent a lot of hardscrabble years in New York writing play after play, holding staged readings in living rooms and kitchens, and putting money together with friends to rent theater space they could use for a few days.
Then in 2002, what he’s called “a stroke of lightning” hit: his play On an average day was produced in London’s West End, directed by John Crowley and starring Woody Harrelson and Kyle McLachlan. Overnight, it must have seemed, theaters from New York to Rome, Sydney to San Francisco wanted to talk with him. On an average day was produced locally by Kitchen Dog Theater; and his other plays include Gizmo Love, Love Song, Fabuloso and Goldfish. Love Song, which is his most-produced play to date, was nominated for an Olivier Award as best new comedy.
Bank Job is directed by Jessica Bauman and features Leicester Landon, Alexandra Lawrence, Michael Muller, William Earl Ray and Marshall York. We chatted with Kolvenbach—who will be in attendance on opening night—about the play and his work.
TheaterJones: You were a hard-working Brooklyn playwright—and then, boom. How has that transition gone for you? Was it a glorious thing, or a life change that came with some bumps?
John Kolvenbach: It was shocking. The first big audience show I had was in London. I had written a two-character play, and it was explicitly written after experiencing the frustration of writing a larger play that was then too tough and expensive to put up onstage. So I said, ‘I’m going to write this play so that if I have to do it in my kitchen for an audience of five people, I can do it.’ That’s why On an average day was for only two characters in real time: you could literally do it anywhere, in a closet even. So of course what ended up happening was that it was done in a 700-seat theater in the West End—the exact opposite of my intention.
So I was shocked, and it was terrifying. I hope I was reasonably useful during that [production] process, but I kind of doubt it. The first time, you’re just trying to manage your nervousness and excitement.
You’ve calmed down since then, yes?
Uh, somewhat…well, not really. [Laughs] Maybe I’ve gotten a little better at camouflaging.
Kitchen Dog Theater produced that same play On an average day a few years ago, so Bank Job will be your second production in Texas. What drew you to Amphibian?
I work sometimes on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and have a friend, Jonathan Fielding [Amphibian Artistic Associate/Actor and co-founder], who’s been very involved with Amphibian, as I understand it. He was a student of Kathleen [Culebro, Amphibian Artistic Director], and he showed her this play. She expressed a desire to do it—so here we are.
Do a little self-marketing for this production—tell us a bit about Bank Job.
A doctor and his brother rob a bank, but their plan is almost immediately foiled—and mayhem ensues. It’s sort of a backstage comedy, and a family story, that’s set at a bank robbery, if you can imagine that combination. It’s a bit of a stew, and it all takes place in the executive washroom of a branch bank somewhere in New York, maybe in Queens.
We’d better stop there and not give too much away. A lot of your plays either are out-and-out comedies or lean pretty strongly in that direction. Is that your natural inclination as a playwright, do you think?
I think it is, and that’s a nice way to put it. I don’t always set out to write a comedy explicitly. In fact, this play is actually more of a farce, maybe the closest I’ve ever come to one. It has farce timing, entrances, exits, doors. We were talking about it at rehearsal yesterday, and it’s almost like the characters are trapped inside a farce. These people aren’t farce people, but the circumstance is farcical.
They’d really rather the whole plan was going well instead of turning into a farce, in other words.
Exactly right. So, to return to your question, I don’t set out to write comedies, and I try not to write jokes with punch lines or anything too pandering in the way comedies can be. But the plays always end up funny, so I don’t know.
Your reputation is that you do endless rounds of rewriting before you let people see what you’re working on.
That’s true. I must have rewritten Bank Job hundreds of times—who knows how many? This is the premiere, so it’s the first time it’s ever been staged. But I started writing it during the summer of 2012. Since then, we’ve done readings in New York, Aspen, and a couple in other places—and those are all opportunities for further rewrites. When you get a chance to look at it in front of an audience, especially when it’s a comedy, you learn a ton about it. Once you hear it done, even for an audience of five or six people, then you begin to know if the thing that was in your head is actually on the page.
Now that you’ve “gone global” as a playwright, are you finding that comedy plays differently with audiences in different parts of the world?
That’s a funny question, because I just saw a play of mine, Fabuloso, done in Spanish in San Juan. They delightfully took everything to a kind of manic extreme. I don’t know if that’s a cultural thing, or was the vision of the director. But anything that was a five on the scale of 1-to-10, they took to a 10.
I do think some stuff is universal, but some is really not. You have to rely on the talent of a good translator, who will know the difference. You need to give them some latitude, so if they want to change something they can. Otherwise, the script ends up being clunky, being full of Americanisms that don’t work. A lot of comedy is in the sound and rhythm, and again, if you find the right translator, things will work out.
Your plays seem to stay fairly compact. Would you ever want to write a play with a Shakespearean-sized cast—or do you like the smaller scale?
I can’t imagine writing for that many people, partly because for me the process of developing character is pretty arduous. If I had to write for 15 characters, it might take me a couple of years to get the people’s voices down. But there are a lot of modern plays with large casts that I admire: August: Osage County has a big cast, and August Wilson wrote a number of great large-cast plays too.
There are two very different aspects to your life. You write alone, and then go into this extremely communal, it-takes-a-village process of putting a play onstage. What do you like most about that second part of your life, the collaboration?
What I like is…other people. The thing about writing is that it’s really insular. When you have a play that’s alive in your mind, and you’re essentially hearing the voices of these characters in your head, it’s really a kind of willed insanity. You’re very invested in these imaginary people, listening to them interact with each other, and your emotions are tied to people that you yourself have made up. By any definition, that’s pretty close to being crazy—though that’s what you’re after, that’s what you want, of course.
But then when you introduce actual living, breathing people, and when their interpretation of your work goes along with what you thought you were creating, it’s very affirming. It lets you connect the little terrarium that was in your head to the wider world, and that’s exciting. We’ve been in rehearsals here with a really strong group of actors, and to hear them start to find the music that’s in the play is truly satisfying. I imagine it’s the same as if you wrote a song and then heard it played for the first time by someone else, not only in your imagination.