An Interview with Stephen Kaliski

Indie Theater Now asked Stephen Kaliski a few questions about his play Memoriam: After Euripides’ Alcestis.

Who were the key figures who made this production happen—could be other artists, people who inspired the story, producers/producing company, etc.

When I was in directing grad school at Brooklyn College, I did a project on the Ted Hughes' adaptation of Euripides' ALCESTIS, and I fell in love with that profoundly heartbreaking version. Because it ends just when things are getting interesting, I decided to finish the story in my own play. Usually I write in total isolation, but for this one, I did a bit of a devising process with some trusted actors first. That really opened up the storytelling potential for me. A lot of the voices in the current script have strong roots in the distinct individuality and points-of-view those artists were willing to share with me. I'm also thankful to Resonance Ensemble for producing a staged reading of MEMORIAM in 2012.

Why is this a play, as opposed to a film or a web series or a novel (or anything else)? And what is it about live theater that attracts you most, that keeps you revved and jazzed to work in this form?

Amongst the various forms of storytelling, theater has a unique capacity for narrative oddity. I'm a huge film buff and often prefer seeing a movie to attending a play, but I also think that movies are bound by stricter formal rules. When I saw THE LOBSTER recently--easily the best movie of the year so far--my immediate thought was, "Man, that was so awesome and so theatrical," and by "theatrical," of course I meant "weird." Theater does weird really, really well. I get frustrated when theater practitioners do bizarre for bizarre's sake (I still think you need a well-told story at the core), but the versatility of the art form, with all its strange spaces and design miracles and unavoidable immediacy, allows the artist to really experiment with the telling.

Who taught you how to be a playwright? This could be specific teachers, or role models whose work you’ve seen or read, or of course any combination.

All of my formal training is in acting and directing, so it's the lessons from those teachers--my faculty at Davidson College and Brooklyn College, Tom Bullard, Mary Robinson, Austin Pendleton, and a whole lot more--that I ultimately channeled into playwriting. I remember sitting down to write my first play, WEST LETHARGY, and the guiding questions to myself were, "What sort of scene would be fun to direct?" and "Is this a playable beat for an actor?" It was the knowledge of the first two crafts that generated the base for the third.

What have you learned about this play as it has evolved from first draft to the present version? And what has surprised you in this current production-what did you discover in the work that you didn’t realize was there?

I learned a lot about mystery vs. confusion. I strive for the former and avoid the latter at all costs. The earliest drafts of MEMORIAM were pleasantly opaque in a vacuum, but I could easily see an audience leaving the theater asking questions I didn't want them to ask. Obvious questions. Tangential questions. That would be confusion. The play now is much more grounded in the necessary details, so I'm hopeful that Fringe patrons can easily follow the logistics of my strange cadences while still leaving with a sense of wonder and mystery.

Without giving away any important surprises—what moment or moments do you most look forward to when you see this play being performed?

MEMORIAM begins in a very stripped-down, experimental form, and it sort of turns into a proper play as we move into the second hour. I can't wait to see that transition. My director, Liz Ostler, should have a blast creating that gradual change with the cast and design team.

posted July 17, 2016