"Winesburg: Small Town Life" was completed during Kevin Kuhlke's two-year residency at Perseverance Theatre. Kuhlke, 45, is the chairman of the Drama Department and master teacher of acting and directing at the Experimental Theatre Wing at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "Winesburg: Small Town Life," based on a collection of stories by Sherwood Anderson, is Kuhlke's first play. He answered questions about the play Monday in Juneau.
Q: What interested you about Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio?" Why did you choose to adapt it?
A: I'm from the Midwest and I have directed a lot of plays that take place in the Midwest. That time period (just after World War I) has always interested me in both American history and American literature. I reread "Winesburg" about 10 years ago and I loved the characters and thought it would be a challenge to adapt.
Q: When did you begin the project?
A: It was 1997. I wrote enormous amounts of material - lots of character sketches and story lines that no longer exist in the play. The process was interesting because "Winesburg" (the book) is not a novel, it is a collection of stories. These characters don't have anything to do with each other and the only unifying character in the book is George. I had to invent a story line. ... Playwrights often learn to write by writing several plays. I joke that I learned to write by writing the same play over and over again.
Q: You have written that the play deals with three essential, sometimes conflicting, themes in American history: post-enlightenment thinking, criminality and Puritanism. Unlike the book, the play is seated firmly in a historical moment. Can you talk more about that?
A: Tracing that back to the beginning of the country - where the Europeans came over and you've got a combination of people coming for religious reasons and people being deposited here that were criminals who were shipped off to the new world. And the founding fathers were really influenced by the enlightenment. It has always interested me since I was a teenager - those three different groups of impulses in the country and how they interacted with each other the last 200 years. That was just my interest, and my own invention. There is no mention of bootlegging in the book, for example. The play seemed open to it, and the history helped give it dramatic action. ... You also see (the three ideas) manifested in the characters. Take the fundamentalist guy who was going to be a minister and couldn't do it but views his farming as a kind of religious mission that was ordained by God.
Q: Can you explain what Anderson means by "the grotesque"? What does it mean to you?
A: A young person, like as an adolescent I did, tends to latch on to one or two notions that they think are true and that is a central truth that you end up living your life by. As you go along in life, it is both strengthening and is narrowing to hang on to one single truth. By middle age one runs the risk of being kind of a caricature of that idea. ... I happen to think that latching on to one or two truths is what we do out of insecurity. Life is kind of an insecure proposal. One looks for security in lot of different ways.
Q: "Winesburg" has been compared to "Our Town." What do you think about that comparison?
"Our Town" is a little bit later. ... The feel of the worlds of the plays is different. It is similar in that there are character interactions around the central character of the young man. Although the view of death is not quite as idealistic. ... "Our Town" is great play. The comparison doesn't bother me. I can understand it. I'm going to ask my wife. (Asks wife in the background). She says the characters in "Winesburg" are more tightly drawn as individuals. That was one of the struggles (in writing the play) the side characters seem to dominate it. In Winesburg with the characters you get a sense of their whole lives. They can start to overwhelm the story because they have lived lives and are more developed as people than George. There is also no ladder.
Q: Did you grow up in a small town?
A; Yes. (Lawrence, Kan.).
Q: Why did you leave?
A: What I wanted to do was be a musician. ... It didn't seem like I was going to be able to do that there. ... It was just a series of weird events. It wasn't a plan to end up living in New York. It is still odd to me that I have lived there for 20 years. ... I went back (to Kansas) and formed a theater company. I was there for a year. It was clear to me this is not a place where I am going to be able to do what I want to do. It is different than here (in Juneau). It was isolated but not so isolated. I have worked a lot in Iceland. I have actually been where there is enough isolation, people focus on culture because it makes their lives more livable and bearable and they realize they have to create. That can make for a very stimulating atmosphere.
Q: Why premiere this play in a small town?
A: My sense is that folks could relate to it. I don't know that this could very well be a play for a large urban center. I don't know that folks would find it interesting and relate to it.
Q: I noticed that you dedicated the work of this production to the memory of your mother and to your son. Parenting or mentoring is a strong theme in the play. How has the way you look at your experiences both as a son and a father changed in the process of writing and producing this play?
A: In working on this production, I can see more clearly what is me and what is Anderson. The George (in the play) is kind of different from George in the book. How he relates to his father is very different. It is only now that I start to look at it and go, "Oh, I know where that came from." The relationship with his mother was colored by my relationship with my mother and my stuff around my mother's death.
Looking at my son, (Will, Kuhlke's 3-month-old son gurgles in the background) and he is in the place of being untouched by life, and know well he's going to be touched. When I was younger I would have gone, "Oh God, it is going to be such a difficult road." Now I think, "Sure it is rough, but go be touched." ... Kind of like with George, eventually all of the stuff from his past becomes fertilizer for his writing.