This September, Dr. Jennifer Kokai—a playwright, director and theatre professor at Weber State University—was selected to participate in the Lark Play Development Center’s 21st Annual Playwrights’ Week in New York—one of only seven playwrights selected to do so. SLUG sat down with Jennifer to talk about her experiences during the Lark Playwrights’ Week, her plays and her adventures at Weber State.
SLUG: How did you get started as a playwright?
Dr. Jennifer Kokai: I have always been a playwright. [laughs] I was the person making my sisters do performances in our basement. We would string up a curtain, and I would write the shows and make them [perform]. They became very reluctant actors—they no longer wanted to do that. Then, I went to a performing arts high school and I was “majoring” in acting. I’m not a good actor—I’m a really bad actor, but there was a playwriting and directing class that I took, and I really loved playwriting and was actually good at it. By the time I finished high school, I was like, “I am never going to set foot on the stage again!” But playwriting is kind of where my heart is.
SLUG: Well, it’s clear that you are good at playwriting, because you were welcomed at the 21st Annual Playwrights’ Week put on by the Lark Play Development Center in New York for your play Girl Of Glass. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
Kokai: Sure! It was an amazing opportunity. I applied in October of last year, and then I sort of forgot about it because nothing happened for months and months and months. You send out your stuff to all these people, and for every 40 “no”s you get one “yes,” so you can’t focus on [getting rejections or not hearing anything back]. So, I sent all this stuff out, a long, long time went by and then I got a phone message in June that was like, “This is the Lark Play Development Center. We want to do your work,” and I was like, “That’s amazing! Who?” And I looked it back up, and I was like, “Oh! That’s amazing!” [For the Playwrights’ Week,] I was there in New York for a week with six other playwrights—we called it “playwright camp.” Everybody got a director—a professional director—professional actors and 10 hours of rehearsal. The Lark is a really great space for playwrights—they’re really great people. They have a big writers’ room, and we would work with the cast and the director, and sort of hear things and then do rewrites, and then hear things, and do rewrites, and then during the week we did a reading of everybody’s plays, so I [also got to] go see the other six plays read. It was a lot, because I was in rehearsal, or I was at a reading, or I was frantically typing, so it was kind of overwhelming, but it was a really great experience, and I’m really grateful I had the opportunity to do it. … I think things like the Lark, things like the Plan B lab that Jerry Rapier runs—people who give playwrights an opportunity to develop their work, and who support new work—are really important to the theatre. This is why we did all new plays [at Weber State] last year, because universities can do that; universities can foster new work and can get different people’s voices heard and different people onstage, and all of that is really vital, so it’s really exciting to me. I moved from Austin, Texas, which is a much bigger city with a very large art scene and a LOT of experimentation, and [then I came to Utah and found that] there’s a ton of new play development going on, and it’s because people invest in writers and support writers, and plays. All of the plays that were part of the Lark week were amazing. They chose these seven plays out of 948 submissions—which they kept saying, which was very intimidating, because I was just like, “Is there any way that my play could possibly be better than 941 other plays, and is the audience going to think that?”—but the diversity of writers and ideas and things that can go on the stage are fantastic, so I think it’s important for people to support new work and to go see what ideas people are thinking about now, and what kinds of things are going on to the stage now. I like classic plays just as much as anybody, but I’m really glad that in Utah, we have playwrights and people helping playwrights develop work.
SLUG: Was the play that you submitted one that you’d had performed before?
Kokai: It was, actually! This is one of the reasons that I like Weber [State University]—because my students are actually are really great. The Student Producing Organization had actually done a reading for me, just so I could hear it while I was writing it. Then we did a season of all-new plays last year, and they chose to produce the play, which was a little risky for them because there’s, you know, cursing, and sex and things, and drinking.
SLUG: It is college.
Kokai: Well, yeah, but our students are not always on board with that, but they chose to produce it, so that was really interesting. And then I did some more revisions, before I got to New York.
SLUG: How did you get started up at Weber State?
Kokai: Well… I was looking for a position that would allow me to do both scholarly work and creative work and be kind of a generalist, and Weber State had that position. The faculty great and the students are great. I had never been to Utah before I came for my job interview, but I’m really glad that that’s where I am.
SLUG: With your playwriting process, do you ever get to a spot where you just know that “this isn’t working right now”? Also, is there something that you do to work around that, or to fix the problem?
Kokai: Oh yeah. I think that you write a thousand pages for every 10 good ones. All of that is not bad writing—it’s just that none of that writing is any good. It’s valuable, but not good. … I think if a play just comes together, then you can continue on with it, but there are a lot of false starts, and like, writing exercises that don’t happen.
SLUG: It’s all the exercising before the marathon.
Kokai: Yeah, exactly.
SLUG: Are there any plays or musicals that you wish you would have written? If so, why would that be?
Kokai: Oh, that’s an interesting question. Well, actually, one of the plays that was at Lark, called INC., that Diana Grisanti wrote. She’s also from [my home state of Kentucky,] and she went to the same grad school as me, but at a different time, so we have a lot of all of these same parallels but had never met, until we got to New York. I loved INC.—I thought it was a really smart, really interesting, really funny play. You know, there are lots of things—Tony Kushner, I wish I could write like Tony Kushner! Suzan-Lori Parks has such a great perspective and unique voice. You know, I’m reading stuff all the time, but at the end of the day, the reason I like those plays is because I’m like, “How did you come up with that?! That’s amazing!” And what I like about them, I think, is the fact that I would never write anything like that. They’re more exciting than the plays I write myself because I don’t see all the work that goes into them—I just see the finished, cool thing.
SLUG: Steps you outside of your box.
SLUG: For those who are studying playwriting, or hoping to emerge as playwrights themselves, do you have any recommendations for whose work they should be studying?
Kokai: That’s a good question. I would say to the young playwrights—I’m not necessarily sure whose work they should be studying, but—never believe that you are the first person to do something. I see that sometimes with young playwrights. I’m teaching playwriting right now where [students at early college levels] haven’t read very widely, and they think, “I’ve come up with this amazing new way to make plays!” but it’s a way that somebody did in, like, 1932 or something that just didn’t take off. So, it’s important to have a background in all of that. And then also, why theatre, right? Because a lot of times, young playwrights write cinematically, with lots of short scenes and lots of things, lots of locations. I always say, “Why are you writing theatre? What does the theatre do best? Why do you want it to be onstage?” I think the theatre has immediacy; it asks for more imagination from the audience; it is more intimate because we’re in a room together, experiencing this thing, and all of that can be amazing—so don’t write a movie that goes onstage. You know? I guess those are my two things. [Ask yourself] why the theatre and not a different genre, and then, read enough stuff so that you know who you care about and who influences you.
SLUG: Is there any conventional wisdom or common assumption about playwriting that you just can’t stand?
Kokai: “Write what you know.” That’s terrible advice. Write what you research, so if you decide to write a play about a neuroscientist and you don’t know anything about neuroscience, you better go do some research and not have what I call the “Enhance, enhance” kind of dialogue—where, in the procedural shows, they’re always taking pictures and yelling, “Enhance, enhance!” and blowing them up and saying, “You can see the license plate number reflected in the window!” No, you can see pixels, right? So any time I see something onstage where that person clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about, I always yell, “Enhance! Enhance!” So, you have to do research, but you don’t have to write what you know. That’s boring. My characters do all kinds of things I don’t do. Characters can do a lot more exciting things… but you do have to write what you research.
SLUG: I believe you’re directing an upcoming play at Weber?
Kokai: Yeah, in the spring, I’m directing Arcadia, which is by Tom Stoppard. It’s really funny—it’s really smart. There’s a lot of language [in terms of vocabulary, not in the terms of swearing]. It’s historians trying to figure out what happened in the past, so you see this big manor house in the past, and there are love affairs and people saying snotty things about poetry, and then in the present time, the historians trying to figure out what happened in the past, and they’ll make decisions about things, and then they’ll be wrong, and so the students are like, “It’s very confusing,” but at the end of the day, it’s just like Downton Abbey—upper-class British people just having affairs and getting into fights, and then historians trying to decide what that was.
SLUG: Give the crowd what they love.
Kokai: Yeah, exactly.
For more information or to purchase tickets to upcoming events at Weber State University—including Wit, a story about cancer and how it impacts each of us, playing Nov. 7–8, 11–15—go to weberstatetickets.com.