Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

An interview with playwright Kurt McGinnis Brown

Monday, September 03, 2012

Conducted by MCT Board member Linda C. Loving

Linda Loving: There is great anticipation for this fall's world premiere production of BROKEN AND ENTERED! Trace the history of your connection to Milwaukee Chamber Theatre through Wisconsin Wrights and our Montgomery Davis Play Development Series.

Kurt BrownKurt McGinnis Brown: Chamber has been berry berry good to me-and my plays.  B&E was the second of my plays  that MCT selected from among the Wisconsin Wrights finalists for its Montgomery Davis Play Development Series.  The reading in March 2010 had the usual electric Chamber audience and went over very well.  Everyone involved had a great time.

Linda: Who will be directing BROKEN AND ENTERED? What's it like to sit "in the house" and watch your words come to life under someone else's direction?

Kurt: I love that aspect of theatre-that someone else gets to direct.  In writing a play I see so many different ways it could go when staged.  I'm glad I don't have to choose.  Suzan Fete, of Renaissance Theaterworks, directed the reading here in 2010, and I'm excited she's directing the full production too.

Linda: Our 2012-2013 season bears the title "Rebels." Your characters all seem to be in some form of rebellion against the past, against the rules, against the changing culture. How were you led to these themes and the play's context?

Kurt: Family.  My father's ambition, he told my mother after they married, was to be a hobo.  His father moved his family from house to house to keep ahead of creditors and the law as he sold stocks to non-existent gold mines, organized illegal card games, and ran numbers.  I'm drawn to writing about lives like these that resist socially acceptable patterns, characters that create their own rules.  B&E strikes me as my most autobiographical play-not because anything that happens in the play necessarily happened to me, but because, by pushing my imagination in a certain direction, I can envision that our family might have been like Wally's and Vern's family.

Linda: Interesting. Those brothers -Vern and Wally - are at the heart of the play, and their dance conveys universal sibling dynamics of loyalty, jealousy, shared history and hope. Talk about who these men are.

Kurt: If Vern and Wally weren't brothers, they would have nothing to do with one another.  Family binds them together-even while both are trying to escape the family history.  In early drafts of the play, the two weren't brothers.  One day in my workroom they became brothers, and that's when the play started to vitally interest me.  I just now realized where they might come from … In my extended family, there were two brothers that ended up back in their mother's house after she died.  For years, one lived on the second floor and the other in the basement, and once or twice a month they might run into one another in the kitchen.  One eventually died in the house and the other did not know about it until someone else found the body.  I guess I've been obsessed with such a setup for some time.

Linda: And another part of the "setup" for this play is the sociological context of a city in transition.  A particular city?

Kurt: I did have a city in mind when writing but deliberately don't say in the play, so I won't say here. People have guessed a number of industrial cities from the northeast to the Midwest, and some have even named particular neighborhoods they know.

Linda: Is it fair to say that the very house in which the brothers grew up becomes a character itself in the play?

Kurt: I think so. Just as productions after this one will have different actors who bring out different aspects of the three characters of Wally, Vern and Jamila, I think theatres will have a lot of fun playing around with the house as a character.

Linda: You mention "three characters;" I'm intrigued by the presence of additional (off stage) characters. We only know Linda through phone conversations; there are frequent references to neighbors watching - what's up with that?

Kurt: In early drafts Linda appeared on stage.  She would have been only a secondary character had I allowed her stage time.  That would have hurt the play-having to get her on and off, give her enough good lines.  She seems more alive this way because the audience has to create her.  I also like implicating audiences in playing a role, as here where they are a kind of surrogate for the silent staring neighbors that surround the characters.

Linda: Ohhh, of course! Now, am I projecting my Presbyterian heritage on to Wally when I sense undercurrents of Predestination in his wrestling with religion/ with "something bigger?"

Kurt: Ah, I think you're on to something.  Wally is the romantic and struggles with bigger questions.  Jamila and Vern are much more pratically inclined in their immediate battles.  They want to win.  Wally wants the world to be better.

Linda: And both brothers seem intent on some kind of self transformation and erasing the past, yet there is this counterpoint of longing to be a "perfect stranger?"

Kurt: If you succeed in transforming yourself and changing your past, then you will become a stranger to yourself.  Vern will have to tell us if that's a good thing to wish for.

Linda: And of course an urban setting can invite estrangement. You have said that at the readings you found the play "rather hopeful in an odd way?"

Kurt: Yes… Jamila, Vern and Wally are strivers.  They're willing to go to dangerous limits to carry out their plans.  They're willing to get hurt for a cause.  Even Vern's plan, while logical in a kind of mad way, is focused on how to make life fairer.  All three strive to break down barriers of race or class.  And maybe each manages a kind of escape by the end.

Linda: And the audience? What is your hope for them at the final curtain? What is going on in the viewer's heart?

Kurt: Tough questions.  I hope the audience gives the actors and director a well-deserved ovation.  I hope the comedy in the play sets up a visceral emotional reaction to the ending.  And I hope people forgive the brothers, even if they might have been one of their victims.

Linda: And Kurt, may you too receive a well-deserved ovation! I can't wait for opening night! Thank you for your remarkable talent and for these reflections.

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