Hometown: Oak Park, Illinois
This week is our sixth installment of our series of interviews with the eight winners of the 2011 Young Playwrights Inc. National Playwriting Competition. This past week I caught up with Elise Kilber, the playwright who wrote Tangled, and discussed her play and the many connections to be found between people and things.
Hi, Elise! What am I catching you doing in the middle of the day on a Thursday?
I am actually editing my final film project for class.
So I am finding you at the end of the semester?
Yes, I go to NYU—I go to Tisch. It’s an arts school. I was in acting last year and then I transferred to film.
You are a sophomore this year, then.
That’s right. I actually [found out about the competition] through the school newspaper: The Washington Square News. I saw an article about one of last year’s winners who went to Tisch and I wanted to learn more about it so I checked out the website.
I love it when the outreach works. I think there is actually someone else who is a winner this year who is also at NYU: Josh Brown.
I don’t know him, but isn’t he an actor?
Yes, I think he is currently in the acting program. I already interviewed him so that must be how I know. I don’t really pay attention to any details about the writers while we are looking at scripts in the competition, so there are a lot of surprising connections now that I am getting to know all of you.
Yeah, I noticed in the other interviews just how many connections there already were. There are a couple of them.
It is a small world in playwriting! And it’s great to get a chance to get to know you better for this interview—and make sure that people know who you are, and that you have accomplished a great thing in winning the national competition with your play, Tangled. And I do want to talk to you about your play…
Okay, yeah. This is the hard part.
Yeah, this is the hard part! I don’t know if you have prepared anything now that you are known for winning this highly competitive playwriting competition, but what do you—or would you—say to someone who asks you: “Tell me a little bit about your play?”
For me, Tangled is about the intricacies about human connections—and how they get wrapped up in coincidence and circumstance. Like familial relationships or someone that you met on the street that winds up being connected to someone you already know. Like how we were talking just now, about the connections that you find out that you don’t expect. That is what Tangled is.
How did this play come to be? Tell me the story of the birth of this play.
There was a student at my school, who I did not know very well at all, and he died one day. In a motorcycle accident. And I went to a really big high school and it just completely shocked me. So I went home and I wrote the first couple pages of Tangled, probably like six pages and then I sat on it for a really long time. And then I moved mid-way through junior year to London, and I was feeling very out of sorts and very exposed, so I pulled out those pages and I started working on the play. I guess a combination of circumstance and coincidence, and I think when you are looking for it, it is evidenced in the play. At least [it is] to me now, looking at it again.
That gives me so much insight! Tangled seems to be about loss, and unexpected connections and at the same time failure to connect. One of the details that really stuck with me were the circumstances that surrounded the death of the mother. Could you talk a little bit about those circumstances and how that came to be?
The roof falls down on her head in fulfillment of this prophecy that is planted at the beginning of the play and ends up coming true about the middle of it. It just kind of came out when I was writing it.
I thought here is this crazy woman who worries about something that will never happen, and to have that happen. It puts all of us on shaky ground.
Something I enjoyed is the function of that is that the world in which the characters are living—at least for the audience—becomes instantly more fragile and unsure. Because if something like that—something so absurd—can happen, then who knows what else is at stake?
Can you tell me a story about a defining moment for you as a writer?
There are a lot of them. Most of my life writing has been something I really enjoy doing. I did a lot of acting and I still do. At first those two paths were sort of separate, but the more acting and the more plays I did with student directors, made me think more about writing plays. And then my sophomore year I high school I had a class in film and TV and I had to actually write some short scripts for it. And I found that I really enjoyed it and I had a very encouraging teacher who pushed me to write a screenplay and I completed it and she purchased it from me. Nothing came of it, but it opened my eyes to the process of being a writer and thinking of myself that way, even though I had been writing.
I think that is a very interesting sentence that you just constructed there: “writing” is a verb, but then to own the noun, the label: “writer”, that is something else.
It is a way of interpreting yourself.
Are there any playwrights you admire in particular?
I like Garcia Lorca and, of course, Tennessee Williams. I love David Mamet and I really admire Tracey Letts. I saw Superior Donuts at Steppenwolf in Chicago, and I also saw a play that he was in, also at Steppenwolf, a few years ago. That really thrilled me because he did a phenomenal job and he’s a phenomenal playwright. What I liked about that is that I aspire to be an actress and director and writer. But I feel like all of those paths are connected and that [Letts] had enabled himself to act by using his writing.
So one informs the other for you. It is not: “I could do this or I could do that” for you. Is there something similar in the work of these writers you are drawn to or are you gravitating to them for different reasons?
Thinking about it now, I suppose it’s because they have this wonderful way of marrying beauty and extremes of things that are repulsive almost, in terms of human behavior and how humans do really ugly things but at the same time that is what makes them human so they are beautiful.
I feel like throughout this interview I am building this sense of how much connections mean to you, and so that you would write this play about connections between the characters seems apt. Do you think that in Tangled your characters do really ugly things but they are beautiful in some way?
I think so. My attraction to these things I described has really grown since I wrote Tangled. It was the first play I wrote and I was really feeling myself out, and that the seeds of that are present in the play. For example, one character, Andrea, is hiding a relationship from her best friend. She is cheating with her best friend’s boyfriend. Which is a really awful thing to do, especially since they have known each other from childhood and her friend is just the sweetest. But at the same time Andrea has this acute fear of death and is really damaged in terms of her being, and so for me—and I hope the audience– I sympathize with her and I understand her despite the fact that she is doing these cruel things to someone she loves.
I think that is a great example. I am really looking forward to meeting you and introducing you to the other playwrights and your collaborators.
I am really excited to meet the other winners of the competition and to be around that kind of energy and enjoy the company of people who love to do the things that I love to do!
In other words, you are looking forward to making those connections!
Be on the lookout next week for our interview with Benjamin Sprung-Keyser.
Elise Kibler will be joining seven other playwrights at the 2012 Young Playwrights Conference in New York City, January 4-12. This year we will be inviting members of the Young Playwrights Family (like you!) to the readings of these talented young writers. If you are interested in attending the readings contact us at reservations[at]youngplaywrights.org.
The deadline for writers in the United States 18 and under to submit a play to our 2012 competition is January 2nd.
Until next week!
Elizabeth Bojsza, Literary Manager