An Interview with Kenley Smith — Playwright

Recently, I took the time to interview Kenley Smith before the staged reading of Maidens on February 12th. Mr. Smith answered a few questions (below) about his writing process and what the audience should know about Maidens.

What can you tell the readers of In Process about your process with Maidens?

Kenley: This piece had a long gestation, at least for me. The idea started to form around 2011–12, when I was an Ingram playwright at the Nashville Rep. I ran across some images of the Stutthof hangings — a bit of history that was then new to me — and one picture of Jenny Barkmann just seemed to pierce me. And even when I knew who she was and what she had done, the sight of her dangling, dead, at the end of a rope — it refused to leave me. I couldn’t see anything beyond the brutality and misogyny that put her there. I worked on the first few pages for one afternoon in 2012, and then I put it aside; it felt a bit impersonal, abstract. I didn’t return to it until the spring of 2015, when I was facilitating the Writing Room at Nashville Rep. The thought was to write a dozen or so pages to discuss at the first meeting, but as soon as I made it past the courtroom scene and isolated Jenny and Elizabeth in their cells, it took off. I think I wrote the first draft in around 10 days. By the end, I just wanted to finish the damned thing so I could get Jenny’s voice out of my head. To articulate that kind of raw, unrepentant hatred, I had to delve into the ugliest parts of my own psyche, and that was not pleasant. Necessary, I think, but it wasn’t a happy place.

The character of Jozef, by the way, came from another photo of the executions. Jenny has just been hanged, and we see the spectators from the rear. And in the crowd, one can clearly make out a couple of young boys, both lifted high to get a good view. What on earth would they have thought? Jozef offers one answer.

(Many of the photos are here: http://www.geocities.ws/epjacobs4/biskupiae.htm. They are very graphic, so be warned if you click on the link.)

Why did you choose Maidens to bring to the In Process Series?

Kenley: I’ve always wanted to find a home for this play, so Molly (Breen) and I decided to produce it ourselves in Nashville. It will go up in July at the Darkhorse Theatre, and hearing it read via In Process will tell me where it still might need attention. Claudia Barnett was a Fellow last year at our organization, Tennessee Playwrights Studio, and we’re so glad that she invited us to MTSU for this opportunity.

What drew you to become a playwright?

Kenley: My seventh-grade geography teacher commissioned me to write a play about, well, geography. Kinda broad, I know. That went well, but I didn’t come back to the form for more than 30 years. After my M.A. in creative writing, I had a decent little collection of short stories that I realized were parts of a single novel. Crafting prose, for me, was a painfully tedious process, and so I kept putting off writing. A year passed, then two, then 30. After I sold a business, I promised myself that I’d get back to writing. I took a class at a theatre in Roanoke, VA, that required me to write a short monologue. In the midst of it, I suddenly had an idea for a full-length play. I simply put this woman on stage, and I let her tell her story. It went on for maybe 100 pages. Nothing became of it, but I found my own secret of writing, which was to play to my strength — dialogue. My own voice comes through giving voice to my characters, so the stage and I are stuck with each other.

Your stage directions are beautifully written without being superfluous, a common hardship for young playwrights. How do you balance novelistic descriptions with the conciseness needed of stage directions?

Kenley: Aw, shucks. Thanks! A script is just a blueprint for a production, if you’re lucky. So, no matter how eloquently you describe the sofa at center stage, no one in the audience (if you’re fortunate enough to have one) will be aware of your mad skills at writing stage directions. I tend to take the Jack Webb approach — just the facts.

I know there’s a bit of a trend toward adding flourishes to notes and stage directions, and I think it rises from all these public reading opportunities, where the audience DOES hear everything. I remember one case from my MFA days, where the audience absolutely howled, in a good way, at a young playwright’s stage directions. They had almost become a character, so in later drafts, she actually made them one.

Your characters’ voices are incredibly distinct and natural. Do you have any exercises or suggestions as to how to differentiate between character voices?

Kenley: Step one: Listen. I think that might also be steps two through two hundred. For me, the distinct voices seem to come naturally, but it’s really the result of being such an introvert. As I kid, I rarely spoke up, but I absorbed everything around me. I’m a bit of a natural mimic, too, so that helps me come up with unique speech patterns for all of my characters. It’s the little things — diction, vocabulary, grammar — that differentiate an individual. They might not be fingerprints, but they’re close.

Gary Garrison of the Dramatists Guild teaches a simple but effective technique. Take a page of dialogue, and then remove the character headings. If you can still pick out unique voices, you’re on the right track.

What is the most crucial part of beginning the writing process for you personally?

Kenley: I usually don’t start until I have an ending, whether it’s a final line or an event. Even though that ending may change during the writing process (and it often does), I still have a target. Everything runs downhill toward that conclusion.

What would you say is your writing kryptonite and how do you overcome it?

Kenley: Remember that novel I mentioned earlier? I still haven’t written it. Getting started is my killer. When I finally sit down and knock out a page or two, I realize that writing isn’t really that bad. It’s the dread of writing that eats me alive. Deadlines help me tremendously. At Tennessee Playwrights Studio, I have to lead by example, and that means parking myself in front of a keyboard and cranking it out.

Do you have any other unfinished works hiding in the cracks?

Kenley: There’s that first attempt at a full-length play that I mentioned. It was a very personal piece, so with some distance, I think I’d have far more control over the material and could make it a decent narrative. I’m even rethinking AKUMA-SHIN, which premiered in L.A. last spring; I knocked out a new ending a few months ago, and I think it’s what the play needs. For me, a play is never finished. Whenever I’m at a premiere, I invariably hear something that makes me cringe, and I want to tweak it. There’s always next time.

Whenever I think about revisiting an old piece, however, something shiny and new wants to intervene. In my head right now, there’s a Mothman play wriggling in its cocoon; as a West Virginian, I just can’t help myself.