• Apr 15, 2020

An Interview with Kate Cortesi

by Trevor Scott Floyd

Kate Cortesi is not someone to be taken lightly. She is fierce, funny, and whip-smart, the kind of person who makes you lean in when she speaks and the kind of artist that you cannot help but want to see what she is going to do next. I had the opportunity to interview her about her journey as an artist and as an American. That interview, edited for clarity and brevity, is printed below.

Trevor Floyd (MTC Artistic Producer): Tell me about yourself. What led you to playwriting? I know you’re a teacher, and a mother.

Kate Cortesi (Love Playwright): I’m from Washington D.C. My mom is a journalist, everyone else in my family is a scientist or an engineer. I was a math-science kid who thought she was going to maybe be a painter. And then I went to college in New York at the height of the spoken word scene. There were a ton of incredible one-woman/one-man shows in that circuit. People like Sarah Jones, Roger Guenveur Smith and Danny Hoch were performing multi-character monologue shows to small houses in the East Village. The work was loud. It was so charismatic and virtuosic. Being in that audience at the age of nineteen woke something up in me. I didn’t know theater could feel like that.

I saw a fair bit of theater as a kid in DC. A very different kind of theater. My parents, who didn’t always want to spend the money on theater tickets for all four of us, would sometimes send me by myself to see Pygmalion, The Magic Flute or The Importance of Being Earnest. Stuff like that. They really saw it as part of my education and I’m very grateful to them. I saw Romeo and Juliet at the Folger Theater when I was 12 or 13, Juliet’s age in the play. I was mesmerized. The most intense love story ever was happening right in front of me and I bought every moment. It felt so real I was positive they were going to change the ending, and Romeo and Juliet would get to live happily ever after. I really believed that. Nothing could destroy a love like that. So when it all went down with the poison and the letter I was like “WHAT???? Nooooo!!!! He didn’t get the letter in time?? HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED?!?” I was devastated, and genuinely surprised. That’s good theater. 

So sometimes the theater I saw growing up felt like that. Alive. Surprising. Hot-blooded. A summer camp production of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter confused me in the most riveting way. But more often the plays were kind of bloodless. You know, that reverent theater filter that tints everything sort of vaguely English and stuffy. I’m grateful for that education but it didn’t inspire a writer in me. The canon did not suggest a calling for a teenage girl in DC in the 90s. 

Looking back, it kind of feels like I was sent to the theater the way I was told to eat my vegetables. Because it’s good for me. It had this aura of virtue. There was no expectation that I would cry from laughing, or feel anything too primal, you know? 

I know this sounds critical but I’m very grateful for that exposure. Not just because it introduced me to a lot of well-written work I still admire. I’m grateful because I actually now react against that eat-your-vegetables virtue when I come to the page. I want my work to live in the audience’s body. I love how integrated the body and the mind can be at the theater. We are capable of thinking and feeling so furiously at the same time. Laughter, fear, suspense, arousal, curiosity. These are physical sensations. I want my plays to feel like a good first date. Or a bad one! Can I make the end of Scene One feel like the moment you dare to kiss someone? Can I get you boppin’ in your seat like a great pop song is playing in your car? Can my play crack you up like your best friend is in the middle of your favorite story? I like theater that moves us. Literally moves us around in our chairs. 

That’s what the East Village theater scene in the early 00s felt like. And that’s the feeling I wanted to try to give other people. So I did. I tried. I wrote my first play, a monologue play called Telephone, when I was nineteen or twenty. I cast my friends. We performed it for our friends. I was inspired and fearless and probably a little cocky. It was great. Then I wrote two more plays and one of them won my school’s biggest writing prize and I used the money to take the cast to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The rest should have been history. But. A funny thing happened. I stopped writing plays. For almost ten years. It’s a turn in my story that baffles me, even to this day. 

Those ten years are a whole other tangent. I was an educator in New York City and I wrote some screenplays. For now I’ll just say, I wish I’d had a mentor or even a theater peer to talk to about this stuff. I didn’t know anyone else writing plays. I didn’t know any actors. I did very little to protect my love for this art form. It was a mistake. I’m glad I corrected it. 

I came back to writing plays after the birth of my second daughter. I was overwhelmed and miserable and so I wrote a play. That play, Great Kills, won a big award, the Princess Grace Award. The award gave me the theater community I'd been lacking, in the form of a one-year residency at New Dramatists. New Dramatists is a building full of mentors. Brilliant mentors who are also hilarious friends. That was six years ago. I’ve been writing plays more or less non stop ever since. So I’m good now.

TF: As a playwright, do you have a specific mission? Do you have ideas that you are continuously exploring and find yourself going back to, or do you think you’re more responding to what’s happening in the world or your own life?

KC: That’s such a good question! You know when we write artist statements we are tasked with answering that question. What do we come to the page to do? And because I’ve written ten thousand artist statements and applied to everything, you’d think I have a great answer ready to go. I don’t. I come to the page with an idea that excites me. I don’t know where these ideas come from. But I think if you read my body of work, you’d find consistencies. There is such thing as a Kate Cortesi play, I’m just not sure what that is.

I write strong characters on the page. Front-footed characters. Characters who are fun to listen to. Wherever they’re from, the sound of English in their mouths should be a thrill, that’s how I feel. The talking should feel like music, with its own tempo and time signature. I really love the sound of people speaking in English in their own particular way and I try to have as much fun with that as I can. 

I have to point out that my leads tend to be female, right? Not all of them, but generally my leads are women who take up space. They’re big, messy, bold characters and they take up space. And their taking up space is not complicated. Like, taking up space isn’t the problem. Other things are the problem. Women’s and girls’ lives are endlessly fascinating.

One reader said to me, “All of your work culminates in the moment where somebody stops lying to themselves.” That knocked me off my feet. Because it’s exactly right. I can’t believe I didn’t notice that for myself. The pivotal moment in all of my plays is when someone is forced to put down an illusion and tell the truth. They have to try to tell the truth, and it’s hard. The build-up to that moment is the friction of telling the truth. Or rather, the friction between the truth and what it takes to maintain the illusion. A comforting illusion. A helpful illusion. An illusion that’s there because it works. I think the exchange of a pretty lie for an ugly truth is such difficult, soulful work. This is the work of becoming a mature person. A mature society. I’m so grateful to that reader for noticing that. (Okay it was my husband, he’s a very good reader.) I’m going to start putting that in my artist statements.

TF: That’s awesome. I don’t think it’s very common for artist statements to focus on the pivot that you keep coming back to in a play. Like the specific moment of what happens when this sort of great realization occurs from all these different angles.

KC: What’s funny is that when I get into a playwright I really go down their rabbit hole. I read all their work. And I’m pretty good at diagnosing what they come to the page to do. I can write everyone else’s artist statements but I have such a hard time seeing what unifies my own work. There’s an expression in Spanish, the monkey can’t see its own tail.

TF: With all of your work, how do you feel it is either evolving from, adding on to, or responding to the canon, for lack of a better word, or all these works by the playwrights that you dive into? You have mentioned that you wrote this play initially modeling the style of it after Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, and now it’s gotten away from that. How do you feel that Love and your work in general are in conversation with or responding to what you’ve seen and read before?

KC: The obvious answer is that there are a lot of #metoo stories in the news, onstage, and on TV, as you know, and Love is in conversation with those. The famous stories out there are very black and white. The perp is the perp. The victim is the victim. The harm is obvious and egregious. I have some of those stories in my own history and I’m grateful these patterns are being brought to light. I’d like to think the world is a fairer and safer place as a result. I hope so.

But the experiences I kept mulling over in the wake of the 2017 revelations did not involve the most obvious violations. I kept thinking about relationships, romantic and not, that lived in a grayer area of power, consent, inappropriateness and attraction. Within one relationship I might feel powerful one minute and disposable the next. Inappropriateness could feel wonderful and then turn unsettling, and wrong. My girlfriends and I marveled at how reflexively we played along with certain behavioral dynamics but we had to acknowledge what had appealed to us about it all, too. We did a lot of collective soul searching that went far beyond identifying monsters. It was confusing, and unflattering at times, but very rich. Love is an expression of that soul searching. Moral confusion makes for great theater, no?

TF: Tell me about the process of developing Love, what working with Mike and the other directors and creatives you’ve worked with has been like, and what does it mean for you to have your first professional production happening now, happening here at MTC, happening with this play? Because you’ve written a number of great plays, but this is the play that’s gotten you here. So just what does that mean for you?

KC: That’s an easy question to answer. It means a lot. Rehearsal is the best drug on earth. To be able to go through a full process with a play as complicated as this one is such a gift. Emotionally and psychologically, this play is very intricate. It’s very hard on actors. In a great way, I hope, but it’s a lot of work. The full process at Marin allows them to really dig in. 

Our cast is so great. They are beautiful. Mike is the best there is. 

The play began as a rant of mine to a friend at a bar. I was complaining about the lack of nuance in #metoo stories on stage. I wanted to see a story about a man who abused his power who we also love. Because it’s not just “bad men” we’re going through this with. We have to go through these reckonings with good men. Wonderful men. He told me to write that play. I laughed and said “no.” I meant it.

But, two nights later--I had been teaching Betrayal to my NYU students and I had the structure memorized. Two nights later I had insomnia and I gridded out Betrayal’s structure in a sketchbook I keep by my bed. I replaced Pinter’s scenes and characters with mine. I then wrote the first draft according to that Betrayal structure alongside my students, who were writing first drafts of their own. Then I took that draft and reshuffled the scene order. My play no longer has that structure, and it’s much better for it, but I stole his structure to get that first draft out. Mike helped me cast a closed reading of that raw first draft. He’s been working on this with me from the beginning. He helped me see I had something exciting in the works. From there we kept workshopping subsequent drafts and kept learning. He’s been invaluable.

By the time we got here to MTC, Mike and I had spent dozens of hours figuring out what this play was. When we started rehearsal, he and I were very much on the same page about what we were here to do. The value of true synchronicity between the playwright and director cannot be overstated. So here we are! We have all this time, this beautiful cast - fun, game, generous people, very very talented people - and we’re playing. It feels very luxurious, it feels very safe, we laugh a lot. We are laughing a lot in the rehearsal room. It’s such a privilege to get to do this work.

TF: What do you hope is next for you?

KC: I assume lots and lots of wonderful things are next! Some I know about, some I don’t. There’s a production in New York of my play Is Edward Snowden Single? produced by The Pool 2020 at the New Ohio Theatre. I am adapting my play Great Kills into a feature screenplay for a wonderful producer in LA. I’m feeling pretty great at the moment but that feeling doesn’t last forever so the trick is to enjoy it while you can. Overall, I try not to let the stress of my ambition weigh me down too much. Which is admittedly hard. I just try to return to the joy of being a playwright. It’s such a privilege to get to do this. I stopped writing plays for ten years and dammit, I’m not making that mistake again. That clarity is very comforting. I don’t need an AD to program my play for me to go through the world with curiosity. I can always listen to other people, the way they talk and what they have to say. I can always notice when someone makes me laugh, when they move me. I’ll never stop trying to figure out how it works, the magic that passes between a storyteller and an audience member. That’s always there. As Maria Irene Fornes said, “There’s always food on the table.” I really feel that. The practice of being a playwright is what’s next for me, always.

Special thanks to Victoria Snow for transcribing!