Hometown: Fairbanks, AK
This week’s interview is with Kaiyuh Cornberg, who will be traveling from Alaska to join us at the Young Playwrights Conference in January. The Young Playwrights Conference is the prize for winning our annual Young Playwrights National Competition, and Kaiyuh, along with seven other playwrights, has this distinction for 2012. In her winning play, Bootlace Bridge, two friends meet up to say goodbye before exceptional circumstances transform their lives.
Is this Kaiyuh? …Am I pronouncing your name correctly?
Kai-you. I’m going to put that in the interview so people know if they say your name out loud that they should say Kai-you. You know right away whether people know you or not I guess.
Yeah, I can always tell by where they put the accent.
So where in Alaska are you?
Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s kind of northern interior.
Have you lived there your whole life?
I was born here and I lived here until I was four years old. Then my parents and I moved to Taiwan. Taipei, Taiwan. [I lived there for] about fourteen years of my life.
And then you came back to Alaska then?
What is your major at school?
I’m a freshman…and I’m double majoring in psychology and French. There have been a lot of very interesting French psychologists…so, I think that’ll be an interesting connection down the line. I like reading in French as much as I like reading in English– it’s not as easy, obviously. I’ve grown up in a home where both…French and Psychology were kind of prevalent, I suppose.
Can you tell me the story of how your play, Bootlace Bridge, came to be?
Yes, I can! My best friend from boarding school and I were tired of doing homework one Sunday—we were tired of being indoors—it was fall… so we took a little jaunt in a forest that’s right next to the campus. We ended up on a bridge talking about life and, you know, how teenagers think that they’ve got it all figured out or they’ve almost got it all figured out. And so we…started talking about time travel and efficacy and the ways in which teenagers affect those around them…And then I thought: “Hey, this is kind of like a play, you know, we’re silly, we’re existential, and we’re going nowhere.”…So I went back to my dorm room and I just kind of threw up on the page. And there you go, there’s Bootlace Bridge.
And there was your draft! Your play has a very inventive premise, which I guess you’ve given us some background on, but how would you describe that premise to people? Do you say it’s a play about time travel? Because I can imagine that might mislead people to think your play is a work of science-fiction.
No, it’s not really a play about time travel. I have no interest in time travel. I think this is more a play … about teenagers…and about the things that teenagers get in their heads about their effect on the world around them. The idea that two girls could go back in time and one of them could stop the Vietnam War: that’s illustrating the fact that we are pretty ineffectual. Like, we’re all just kind of small humans… and once in a while, a big thing comes along like the prospect that everything is going to change and for whatever reason, that inflates our entire self-perception in terms of how effective we are and then we get brave and then we start making plans and – ah, it’s all very exciting and sometimes it leads nowhere.
How did you pick that specific time period for the jump back that these characters are talking about and making plans for?
Well, my dad is an older gentleman compared to most of my friends’ fathers. He’s a very interesting guy—he’s lived through a lot, including the sixties [and everything since]. He’s always told me really interesting stories about his part in the student movement and his part in stopping Vietnam. Stories of burning trash cans, and his time on very eruptive campuses, and I’ve always been really fascinated by that because I’m kind of an anti-establishment gal myself under different circumstances. But I thought gosh, if I were Ensel, [one of the main characters], where would I want to go? Where might I want to exercise this, you know, this sense of efficacy? Well, the sixties would probably be pretty cool…Why not use some of this…intrinsic power, be it real or not, to go back and effect something like that.
I certainly connected to that idea of the protest era and that commitment to do your best to make a difference. Have you written any other plays besides this play?
Yes, I have! Uh, none of them worth mentioning. This was sort of the first and the last of the living plays that I have produced. The other ones were kind of half-baked. They’re still in the incubators, they’re not quite breathing on their own yet.
Got it. So do you have plans to continue playwriting? Or do you do any other kind of writing?
I don’t have plans for writing, I just kind of do it as it comes along. I started writing when I was about three or four and I’ve been writing ever since. I mostly write prose and poetry—actually in school playwriting was my least favorite class: it was probably the hardest medium of fiction writing for me…I do mostly prose – short stories, novels, poems. And then Bootlace Bridge came along.
Do you have any writers who have been very influential to you?
…Kay Ryan. She is a poet, she writes what’s called skinny poetry: very short-lined, very pithy poems, just kind of pockets of very dense phonics and very sharp meaning. So Kay Ryan for poetry. And Annie Dillard really changed my way of relating to prose: I think my reading of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek kind of shattered my views on what it means to write…because it’s not really fiction or non-fiction, but I guess both. Kay Ryan and Annie Dillard are examples of authors… who don’t bind themselves to the kind of boring rules of their genres, they’ve created something of their own. Arguably any good writer does that, but I especially like the grace and the artifice of both of those ladies.
Well put! What else should we know about you as a writer?
Well, I really hate revisions. I hate it. I dread it. It’s always been a problem for me because revision is quite a magical occurrence when it works. But I’ve always had a kind of perfectionistic streak and as I’ve matured as a writer the abandonment of that perfectionistic streak has manifested itself in my increased willingness to go back and revise. And just play! You know, I’m a playful person, I like playing, and when I finally realized that revision is just play, I accepted that it was a pretty useful thing to be able to do.
You know, I’ll be studying chemistry or something terribly scientific—I’m taking a lot of science classes this year as it turns out—and I’ll be in the middle of doing, like, oxidation numbers for whatever and I’ll get bored. And I’ll pull up a document of a writing piece, and then…revise, and it’s become a meditative, playful process as opposed to a chore. I think a lot of younger writers view it as a chore, because in the school system when you “learn to write” it’s like, “Okay, we’re going to do three drafts and you’re going to do a first draft and then you’re going to give it to a friend and then you’re going to do a second draft and then you’re going to give it to a teacher and then you’re going to hand in the third draft.” So…that’s just awful. Once I figured out that it didn’t have to be like that and I didn’t have to make it so binary and dull, then it just became a game and now I like revising.
Have you been able to play a lot with this play?
This play went through about twelve drafts—because I did go back and count the drafts last year. I was working on it for a full semester and it went through a battery of drafts. I was working with my playwriting instructor who is just this amazing Irish fellow [and] a good playwright, his name is Ronan Noone. He’s actually part of the reason why I actually succeeded in a play. Just because he wasn’t afraid to go “Kaiyuh, this is awful, this is crap,” and give it back full of red pen and I’m like, “Okay Ronan, thanks!” …By the end of it I had no ego but I had a really good play. Or a better play then the one I started with, it was awful at the beginning. Arguably, but I guess now it’s not awful.
Well, you know how we feel about it!
Have you continued with this process now that you are talking to your dramaturg and director for the conference?
Yeah, I’ve had very good conversations with both my dramaturg and my director. It’s just nice to have not just one other pair of eyes and ears but four other eyes and four other ears… Eight other sensory devices receiving the stimulus of this play! It’s great! Such a gift of this whole process.
I’m glad to get that feedback. Thank you! I’m looking forward to meeting you and introducing you to the rest of the winners.
Kaiyuh Cornberg will be joining seven other playwrights at the 2013 Young Playwrights Conference in New York City, January 9-17. This year we will be inviting members of the Young Playwrights family (like you!) to the readings of these talented young writers.
The deadline for writers in the United States aged 18 and under to submit a play to our 2013 competition is January 2nd.
Until next week!
Elizabeth Bojsza, Literary Manager