If you care about playwriting, you probably listen — or you should be listening — to the valuable podcast called “The Subtext,” hosted by Chicago-based playwright Brian James Polak, who asks dramatists and other theater makers smart questions about their backgrounds, processes, goals and strategies. In spring 2020, Polak’s new play Welcome to Keene, New Hampshire, a 21st-century riff in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, is getting a world-premiere staging in Chicago. It seemed like a good time to get to know Polak’s background, process, goals and strategies.
“I feel so fortunate to be working with…Leda Hoffmann of Strawdog Theatre Company in Chicago,” Polak told me. A separate co-world premiere was originally announced by PURE Theatre in South Carolina, but the plan fell through. This feature has been amended to reflect the change.
Welcome to Keene, New Hampshire — inspired by the playwright’s hometown in the southwest part of the “Live Free or Die” state, and filtered through the lens of Our Town and its fictional New Hampshire setting of Grover’s Corners, in the shadow of the real-life Mount Monadnock — will play Strawdog Theatre Company in Chicago April 16-May 30, 2020.
Here’s how Strawdog bills Welcome to Keene, New Hampshire: “Keene, New Hampshire shares a view of Mount Monadnock with Thornton Wilder’s fictional Our Town. Modern day Keene shares many of America’s challenges — guns, opioids, divergent political views. Brian James Polak’s play explores the way we are today: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”
Here’s my Q&A with Brian James Polak. Check out his website here and learn more about his work, including his day job of running Jedlicka Performing Arts Center in Cicero, IL.
Beyond the marketing blurb, share a little bit about what happens in Welcome to Keene, New Hampshire and who we meet?
Brian James Polak: In Welcome to Keene, New Hampshire, we spend a short period of time getting to know a cross-section of people who reside in Keene. I like plays that are multi-generational, so the characters range in age from teens to elderly. We experience the existential crisis of small town living from the younger generation yearning to get out and those whose ships have sailed as they are planted in this town whether they like it or not. We experience the day-to-day interactions of folks who work on Main Street and witness the good and bad of interpersonal relationships in a time of crisis.
Every playwright, it seems, eventually writes about the place they came from. You’re a Keene, NH, native. Can you share a little about the genesis of the play? What inspired it?
Brian James Polak: I moved away for college when I graduated from high school and never moved back, but Keene always remained what I considered my “hometown.” I hated it there when I was growing up, but when I left I realized it was for the same angsty reasons any kid hates their town. I also realized there was something different about this place. Every Presidential election cycle brought a new crop of candidates through town. It engaged me in politics perhaps earlier than I might have found an interest on my own. I got to work on a campaign (Jerry Brown in 1991-92) and meet President Clinton when he visited with a group of students at my high school as a candidate. While I was away at college the original “Jumanji” with Robin Williams was filmed in Keene. I thought that was the coolest thing. My affection for home grew over time and with the advent of social media, I was able to follow the news with regularity.
Over the years, Keene has found itself making national news more often than a random New Hampshire town should. In a two-week period CNN, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert each featured a completely different story about Keene. It was befuddling. This is when I started to think I should write something about Keene. The problem was, small-town New Hampshire life was already written about quite nicely by Thornton Wilder. I re-read Our Town and I think it was the reference to Mount Monadnock in his play that made me feel an emotional connection. The fictional Grover’s Corners and the very real Keene share that mountain, which I have hiked many times over the years. Ultimately, I decided to embrace Our Town for what it is and write both an homage and a response to it.
What was is like being raised and educated in Keene?
Brian James Polak: I was originally born in Nashua, NH, which is in the south/central part of the state. Both sides of my family go back a couple generations in Nashua. We moved to Keene when my mother moved in with the person who would eventually become my step-father, a lifelong resident of Keene. I moved around a lot as a kid. I don’t recall living in the same place for more than a year or two until we landed in the Keene area. As a matter of fact, I attended three separate fourth grade schools as my mother moved my older sister and me west across New Hampshire toward Keene. My childhood was plagued with behavior issues, likely due to the unmoored feeling I had from having divorced parents and moving often. I played sports and did little else until I was in my 20s. After I graduated from Keene High School and went to undergrad at Marymount University in Northern Virginia I started to develop a stronger sense of who I was and what interested me, but it would take many years still to find my passion and my voice.
Do your other plays reference where you came from on some level?
Brian James Polak: Most of my plays are set in New Hampshire. I actually imagine all of my plays existing in the same universe. When the events of Welcome to Keene, New Hampshire are occurring, the events of the other plays are occurring at the same time. As a matter of fact, I just finished the first draft of a workplace comedy called The Gravediggers Union set in the cemetery a town called Acworth, just outside of Keene. The characters in that play reference Keene as the local town where all the nighttime activities take place, like bars and whatnot. They could possibly be digging graves for characters who die in Welcome to Keene. I have also written a play that is a father/son reconciliation, something I was unable to do before my biological father died several years ago, titled News for the Deaf Man, which is set in Nashua.
For years I have been asking myself “what does it mean to be from New Hampshire?” There are several plays I have written and a couple more I have yet to write that act as my attempts to answer that question. My dream scenario is to publish an anthology of these plays with the title “What It Means to be From New Hampshire.”
I doubt there’s an American dramatist who doesn’t have some relationship to Our Town. What’s yours? Did you read it or study in school?
Brian James Polak: I love Our Town. I find it fun and whimsical and deeply moving. I will cry in Act Three every single time I see or read the play. Part of my affection is because of New Hampshire pride, but most of it is because Thornton Wilder so perfectly creates a blueprint for what it means to be a human being. I am obsessed with living life as it is happening and seeing, really seeing, the people around me. I fail at both of these things often, but this is how I see life and I would be lying if I said it had nothing to do with that play.
What’s the primary tragedy of the fictional and/or real Keene and what’s the best thing about it?
Brian James Polak: Keene, NH, was recently referred to as “the heroin death capital of New Hampshire” and that moniker influenced a major storyline in my play. I describe Keene as a snow globe. When you shake a snow globe it looks so pretty and romantic, but as time passes, and the snow stops falling, you realize you’re just holding a little ball full of water. That’s Keene in a nutshell. Stop in for a minute and you will see the most lovely, picturesque New England town, but stop for a while and the flaws begin to reveal themselves. None of that is to say Keene is an awful place, it is nice town full of kind people, but there is a darkness that lurks below the surface today that wasn’t around 25-30 years ago when I spent the bulk of my time there.
Do you still have family in Keene? Do you ever go back? Has the play had a reading there?
Brian James Polak: I still have close friends and family living in Keene and I try to get back at least once each year. I was just there over the Fourth of July, as a matter of fact. My experience was a little different this time because the town just became aware of my play and the local paper ran a story about it on the front page, days before I returned. I hope this triggers a reading or production in town. It’s not a documentary play about Keene, but it is discussing topics worth engagement.
How much are you trying to make Keene an allegory of America today, which is how I read the play? And could you share some of the ways it reflects national experience(s)? That’s a departure from Wilder’s goal, which was humanity through the lens of small-town America, right?
Brian James Polak: As I mentioned before, I find Wilder’s Our Town to be a perfect blueprint for what it means to be a human being in a very general sense. I set out to write a play about what it means to be a human being very specifically in this time we’re living in today. When I set out to write this play I knew Keene had its own idiosyncrasies, but it was clear the problems of the town are being experienced by towns all over the country. I hoped the more specific I was in the writing, the more universal the play would be seen.
Given the divisiveness and social unrest in America today, was it hard picking and choosing “conflicts”?
Brian James Polak: The only conflict in the play I specifically knew I would write about is between the Parking Officer (a.k.a. “meter maid”) and the cadre of nihilists that harasses her. This group, originally based on a group who referred to themselves as “Robinhooders,” were sort of orthodox Libertarians who believed parking meters were illegal. They’d follow parking attendants all over town, videotape themselves harassing them, and putting money in meters just before tickets were written. Some of these videos are still available on Youtube. This conflict felt like a good representation of the divisions in our country. There’s a certain orthodoxy in every corner of various political parties, and people often take out frustrations on people in various systems rather than the systems themselves. This is the direction I am working toward in the play. The other conflicts involving guns, drugs, and the interpersonal organically grew out of the writing.
One of the things I love about the play is its sense of whimsy. I could not guess where it was going. The structure is twisty. The characters are varied. The narrator, the de-facto Stage Manager, introduces us to the town, but at one point she’s bullied off the stage. And then she exerts some power. Called only Parking Officer, someone who checks parked cars for parking violations. How did you arrive at making her your main character? Is she the main character? In the breakdown, you call her Mexican.
Brian James Polak: She is as much the main character as the Stage Manager is in Our Town. What I wanted to do with that character, however, is make them part of the story rather than a passive narrator. This is how I use what people might know about Our Town to keep them from becoming too comfortable. We know the Stage Manager is relatively inactive so we expect the narrator of Welcome to Keene to be the same. When she gets directly involved in the story, it should come as a bit of a shock, in the way gun violence is a shock. We know shootings happen, but they happen over there to anonymous people, not here in front of us. I made the character Mexican-American because I wanted to dramatize one of the cruelest aspects of America today, the demonization of people of color by white people.
With whom do you most identify in the play? Who was easiest to write and who the hardest?
Brian James Polak: Milo, a non-binary recent high school dropout, is the character with who I most identify despite the fact I could never in a million years understand what it feels like to not identify with my birth gender. I have a great deal of empathy for people who struggle both to realize their selves, and openly live their life in the most authentic way they can. This is what makes Milo [who is given the pronouns they and them in the play] the most challenging character to write. What I lock onto with them is their yearning to reach the potential they see for themselves. They want to be seen and be heard as a person and as an artist and that is something I struggle with every day.
I love that in the stage directions, you leave lots of room for the design team to figure out how literal or “blank” the production might be. Will you share a little about the movie in your mind vs. what designers might conjure?
Brian James Polak: I am not a particularly visual writer. I don’t have exact images in my mind when I write. I also love the work theater designers do. I want all of my plays to have room for designers’ inspirations. The great thing about theater is great designers can serve the needs of a play in millions of ways, all dependent on the dramaturgy of the play, the parameters of the space, and the voices of their collaborators. I love to contribute to that process with my writing, but I prefer not to direct it from the page.
Our Town famously has very little set. Do you have a preference? Would you like to see a literal set with storefronts and gazebos?
Brian James Polak: I wrote Welcome to Keene, New Hampshire knowing that it could be presented in the same way as Our Town, but I don’t believe it needs to be. My dream is to have the play run in rep with Our Town, with the same actors and set. I love the sparseness of Our Town’s essential aesthetic, but I also love creative people sharing their own visions for the way stories can be told on stage. If my play was presented with literal staging, which would require pretty massive scene changes between each act, that could be amazing. I also see a version that is like a trunk show, with all the actors on stage the entire time and very few pieces used to identify locations.
You draw on real names and events from Keene’s history. How much research about your own town did you have to do to paint your picture?
Brian James Polak: I did a lot of research on drug abuse and crime, but other than that I mostly pulled from my own experiences and memories. Most of the play, to be honest, is completely made up. As the Parking Officer says at the beginning, “One could say most of this is fabricated, but it’s all true.”
Were there topics and people and real tensions that you avoided out of some kind of sensitivity? For example, there is a character with the surname Faulkner, reflecting a historical family in town — and there’s a law firm in Keene today with the name Faulkner (Bradley & Faulkner) on the shingle. Is that touchy?
Brian James Polak: The character with the last name Faulkner is wholly fictional. I did choose the last name Faulkner because there was a mayor of Keene a very long time ago with that name. There is no intentional connection to Bradley & Faulkner, and I actually think this unintentional connection is bad writing on my part. I will likely change the name to keep from distracting from the story.
Since Our Town was your jumping off point, and that play has lots of townsfolk with speaking parts, was it a challenge to choose how many characters to have — were there characters who got cut because of financial reasons? We all know large-cast plays are harder to get produced…
Brian James Polak: I knew I would be writing a large-cast play and never stopped to count the characters. I wrote the story as I imagined it, and then I went back and looked at how many actors it would take to pull it off. I figured there would be more opportunities for actor doubling, but it didn’t work out that way. I didn’t do anything to make the play more produceable. I sincerely believed this play would never be fully produced. I thought, at best, it would get a couple readings because the cast is far too large for most theaters. My hope was people would read it, like the writing, and then find interest in my other work. I never imagined it would get two separate world premiere productions. You just never know what might inspire people. I am very lucky.
The play is set in 2017, which seems significant as there is a group of alt-right kids making noise in town. When did you start writing this, and if Hillary Clinton had been elected President in 2016, would it be the same play?
Brian James Polak: As I continue to work on the script, the time is evolving to be “present day” so long as that time is still prior to the 2020 election. I wrote the first draft of the play in February of 2016. If Hillary won, a lot about this play would have been irrelevant, but it was never dependent on any particular outcome. The issues of drugs, guns, racism, and depression don’t go away based on a Presidential election.
Share a little bit about your writing process? Do you land on an idea and let it brew before you write? Do you write fat and raw, banging out a draft and then returning to it edit? Do you outline, or does it depend on the piece?
Brian James Polak: I only write in the mornings before work. I get up at 5 or 5:15 every day and write until 8 or 8:30 and then go to work. I find the mornings to be the best time to work because it is the only time of day when I am totally in control of what is going on because they world isn’t awake yet. In an ideal world, my ideas sit with me for a very long time while I work on other plays. When I am afforded the luxury of time to think on a story and its characters, when I finally set out to write it, it comes out quickly. That was the process for Welcome to Keene, New Hampshire. I spent almost a year thinking on this play, reading Our Town and watching productions of it. I tracked the writing on Instagram. Act One took me a week; Act Two was nine days; Act Three took me 13 days. That is fast, but it is normal. I have written about a half dozen plays that quickly because I had the time to think them through. I am working on a play currently that has taken me over a year just to get a rough draft completed. These things can be unpredictable.
How did Strawdog come to produce the play? Did you have an existing relationship?
Brian James Polak: Minor miracles. It’s all a matter of writing the right play at the right time and following every single opportunity that reveals itself. The production in Chicago came about because I hired Leda Hoffmann to direct at a theater I run for my day job. I loved working with her so when she asked me to send her a play I was thrilled. I sent her Welcome to Keene because I knew she just got hired to run Strawdog and they are an ensemble theater that does large cast plays from time to time. I really thought she might like the writing and keep me on her radar for the future, but she just happened to be in the middle of season planning and was searching for a large ensemble play to direct next season. My play fell in her lap at the perfect moment. I think they verbally committed to it within two weeks of receiving it.
I was lucky enough to have access to the entire run of my first play, Alabama Story, and I think I watched every performance, taking lots of notes and working on a 2.0 version. Is that something that interests you? Seeing the play as a work in progress?
Brian James Polak: I used to think a play could be “done.” I don’t think they are ever done. We just stop working on them. I will keep working on this script until each production is satisfied, or opening night arrives (whichever comes first). I will attend a few performances…but not with my script in hand. I will take in the work we all created, and I will likely have notes for myself that I’ll keep in mind if another production opportunity arises in the future.
What was your first brush with theater? Did you folks take you? I think I recall that you were an actor? Can you share about your transition into playwriting?
Brian James Polak: I was a pretty mediocre athlete growing up. I don’t come from a particularly artistic family. And I grew up in New Hampshire, which didn’t have much to offer theatrically speaking when I was a kid. It wasn’t until I graduated from undergrad that I started to wonder what I should do with my life. I was living in Washington, DC at the time. I got a regular job and started to take some acting classes just so I could meet people. Then I moved to Boston and started doing improv, which lasted a few years. I quit doing that before getting fired (I wasn’t very good at it). I started a theater company with some friends, did a bunch of plays, but never felt comfortable on stage. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I started to write plays. It took me a long time to get there, but when I did it felt almost religious. I’m not a religious or spiritual person, but I did feel something that I can’t quite put words to. When I started to write I felt connected to the world and humanity in a way I never felt before. It was the moment when I realized that I did have a purpose.
You went to grad school for playwriting. What was the greatest thing you took away from grad school? What is the best advice you got that informs you playwriting today?
Brian James Polak: I received my MFA from USC’s School of Dramatic Arts. It was the toughest thing I ever did in my life because I maintained a full-time job throughout the three years of the program, despite the fact that the program was not designed for people working full-time. I had a job at a theater that I loved, I didn’t want to lose it, and I really needed the income. This is when waking up at 5 AM became normal. For three years I woke up at 5 AM, wrote/did homework, went to work, then to class, then to work, then to class, then home at night. The day I graduated was the day I learned what it meant to feel pride. I don’t think I missed a single class in three years. I won two national playwriting awards from the Kennedy Center when I was finishing school, so I thought I was pretty hot shit. I really believed it was only a matter of time before the commissions and productions would start rolling in. It turns out, not many people were interested in me or my writing at the time. Everybody seemed to like me but my writing wasn’t inspiring anybody. Here I am five years later and just now getting my first professional productions.
I am a big fan of your podcast “The Subtext,” about playwrights and playwriting. How did it come to be? What’s your mission as creator and host?
Brian James Polak: I was working as the marketing and engagement manager for Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena, CA, for many years so I knew a lot of people in the theater community. LA Stage Alliance, which is a sort of central organizing body for theaters in Los Angeles reached out to me to create playwright-focused content for a new website they were launching. I wasn’t interested in writing anything so Dani Oliver, who was the editor for the website called @This Stage suggested a podcast. That sounded interesting to me. She and I agreed on calling it “The Subtext,” she created the logo with my half-face, and we worked on it together for a couple years. I was eventually laid off from my job at Boston Court and decided to move to Chicago. That essentially ended the podcast since it was focused on Los Angeles writers.
How did it come to be a program sponsored by American Theatre magazine?
Brian James Polak: I eventually learned “The Subtext” was actually my intellectual property so I was allowed to take it on myself. I didn’t have the wherewithal to relaunch, so I pitched it to American Theatre and they were interested.
Are you a one-man band, curating, recording and editing it? Do you get financial support from American Theatre? Does the magazine help give access to writers and theater makers?
Brian James Polak: I now record and edit all the episodes myself. American Theatre provides financial support and they absolutely help give access, even if it is simply by allowing me to drop their name. I never would have been able to get people like Paula Vogel or Rebecca Gilman on my own. And they help me travel sometimes. It is a sort of dream side project for me. I love doing it. I love talking with so many playwrights. I hope I get to do it forever.
I love that you’re giving exposure to writers who really need it, in addition to interviewing more established writers who may need it less and whose experience we can learn from as dramatists.
Brian James Polak: My only challenge is that I only do one a month. There are so many playwrights I want to talk to (like you), but I struggle to find the time and space for them all. I am in two writers groups and would love to interview all of them as well, but I don’t know how to squeeze everybody in. I just returned from a road trip to New York City and interviewed four playwrights while I was there. That means I’m booked for the next four months, and it is actually six months because I have two others in the can waiting to be released. It’s an embarrassment of riches, but I often feel painted into a corner when I meet new writers I want to speak with.
The mission of the podcast is to give voice to as many writers as I possibly can. I see these as sort of time capsules for writers. I am acutely aware of who I invite on the podcast and the diversity of the writers presented is crucial. So I am constantly evaluating myself and trying to find ways to give access to both the superstar writers of the American Theater, but also to those who don’t often have the chance to tell their stories with their own voice.
Can you also share a little bit about your role at Jedlicka Performing Arts Center in Illinois, and your work as a playwriting instructor at Morton College and how that informs your career?
Brian James Polak: When I was laid off from my long term job at a theater, I thought I would have to return to civilian life, which makes me miserable. I moved to Chicago and applied for all sorts of jobs and happened to land one running Jedlicka Performing Arts Center at Morton College in Cicero, just outside of Chicago. In this job I get to program and produce seasons of plays. I get to hire directors and production staff. I get to engage with students. It’s such a great situation. The theater program at the school has not been particularly robust in recent years so I am trying to find ways to engage students more. My full time job is focused on running the theater and I get to teach some classes on the side. I am hoping the two might meld together in the future so I decided last season would include one student production, which wasn’t something my theater was doing in recent years. I looked at it as a sort of “build it and they will come” moment. If I keep providing opportunities for them, there could be more of them and then bing bam boom I have a theater program. I hope that’s how it works, anyway. In the meantime, I will keep working with some of the best and brightest theater artists Chicago has to offer and produce the best work I can.
The reason this work matters to me so much is because I don’t feel fulfilled only focused on my own writing. I have a yearning to advocate for others as best I can, and engage with others on creating theater both my own and the work of others. That is where I find fulfillment.
Welcome to Keene, New Hampshire isn’t the first New Hampshire-set play I’ve written about. Check out my earlier interview with playwright Charles Morey, on the topic of his play The Granite State.