Maine will feel a little like Florida this month when Mad Horse Theatre Company, the Portland professional resident troupe devoted to presenting classic and contemporary titles in an intimate 50-seat venue, stages the first production of Maine playwright Callie Kimball‘s Alligator Road March 12-29. It may be the first play you’ve seen that includes a “yarn-bombed” set.
The Sunshine State-set comedy about a white family’s business being turned over to new African-American owners as part of reparations for American slavery was previously read in Mad Horse’s By Local reading series.
“The entire play happens in real time, in 90 minutes that the audience is present for,” Kimball told me. “It centers around a white woman’s act of reparations for slavery. It’s set in central Florida’s oldest hardware store, where Kathy, a recent widow, has yarn-bombed all the hammers, saws, and paint cans. It’s a gesture of whimsy before she hands the store over to a stranger. But when Kathy’s daughter arrives, she’ll do anything to stop her mother from throwing away the family store. It’s a comedy that unravels ideas about entitlement and the price of freedom.”
(See more of my interview with Callie Kimball below.)
Reba Short, artistic director of the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, directs a cast that includes Mad Horse artistic director Christine Louise Marshall as Kathy; company members Mark Rubin as Scott and Marie Stewart Harmon as Kathy’s daughter Candace; and Sarabeth Connelly as Lavinia.
The production team includes Chris Sullivan (set design), Corey Anderson (lighting design), Scott Leland (sound design), Megan Tripaldi (props), Christine Louise Marshall (costume design), Matt Silverman (carpenter), Jennifer Halm-Perazone (stage manager), Nate Speckman (production manager) and Stacey Mancine Koloski (painting).
Props designer Tripaldi is “leading a team of nearly a dozen knitters who, in a true community crowdsourcing effort, are creating the set dressing for the yarn-bombed hardware store during weekly knitting circles where they get to observe the play in process.” (Check out this Time magazine photo gallery about “yarn bombing,” a term I’d never heard before; I’m sheltered.)
Callie Kimball’s plays have been produced or developed at Washington Shakespeare Company, Lark Play Development Center, Project Y Theatre, The Kennedy Center, and The Brick Theater. She teaches playwriting at Maine College of Art. She graduated in 2012 from the first Playwriting MFA class at Hunter College. She has received a MacDowell Fellowship, a Ludwig Vogelstein grant, and won the Rita & Burton Goldberg Playwriting Award two years in a row (sharing it with her three Hunter classmates the first time). She was an O’Neill National Playwrights Conference semi-finalist, a finalist for the Clubbed Thumb Biennial Award, and a 2012-13 Core Apprentice at The Playwrights’ Center. Her MFA thesis play, Dreams of the Penny Gods, was selected for the 2013 Playwrights’ Week at the Lark. She works as a production manager for NBCUniversal in New York City, and splits her time between New York and her home in Maine. Visit her official website.
Mad Horse was founded in 1986 in Portland as a professional resident theatre ensemble.
Opening is March 13. Mad Horse Theatre presents at the historic Hutchins School, 24 Mosher Street, South Portland, ME. Performances play Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sunday at 2 PM. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for seniors/students. Thursdays are pay-what-you-can nights.
A post-show talkback has been scheduled for Sunday, March 22, after the 2 PM matinee.
Here’s my chat with Callie Kimball.
Can you share a little bit about your relationship with Maine?
Callie Kimball: My family on my maternal grandmother’s side goes way back in Maine, to the 1600s, actually. They were carpenters and lumberjacks and lobstermen by trade — quite humble. I lived in Maine on the coast from ages two to nine — basically the time when you discover the world. I was in for a rude awakening when we moved away — I had thought the rest of the world was just like the coast of Maine! So I suppose my whole life I’ve wanted to move back, but of course jobs are tricky up here. I’m very lucky because I have my day job in New York, and they let me telecommute. So I’m mostly in Maine, and I go back maybe once a month for a few days to see friends and theatre and check in at the office.
How did you get involved with Mad Horse Theatre?
Callie Kimball: When I moved back here in 2012, one of the first people I met was fellow playwright Brent Askari, who is a company member at Mad Horse Theatre. Mad Horse has been around for decades and they do incredibly smart work. Brent was curating a new reading series for them called “By Local” and it was centered around Maine playwrights. They did [a reading of] my play Alligator Road, and then from that they offered to do a production of it. They’ve been amazing to work with.
Can you share a little more about the people of Alligator Road?
Callie Kimball: Here are the character descriptions, which I had a little fun with:
KATHY. White. 40s. Sweet, trashy, and slightly hot.
CANDACE. White. 21. She is a dagger.
LAVINIA. Black. 20s or 30s. A pretty peacemaker with starch.
SCOTT. White. 30s. Not as much of a dick as he could be. If the women are having multiple conversations at once, knitting the words of the play, Scott is a pair of scissors.
Is Florida important as the setting of the play? Do you have a connection to Florida?
Callie Kimball: Indeed I do have a connection to Florida, I was born there! There’s an intersection in Daytona where you have my parents’ high school on one corner, the speedway on another corner, the hospital I was born in, and then the mall. I think there’s a Chick-fil-A. Or maybe it’s a Steak ‘n Shake. One of my mom’s high school friends’ parents owned a local paint store that was very successful for many decades.
But other than the personal connection, Florida is important because as I was working on the play, the Zimmerman verdict was handed down in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. So I originally used that as a recent event in central Florida that spurs Kathy to try to make a difference. Then this past summer we had the deaths of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice as well, so Kathy’s line “You don’t think, you really don’t think, after what happened this summer? To that young man?” just kind of transferred, so I moved the date of the play to 2014.
“Yarn-bombing” is a term I’ve never heard. How did yarn become a part of your yarn? Are you a secret knitter, Callie?
Callie Kimball: I wish I could knit! I took a class once, and made a scarf out of rather expensive cashmere yarn that I promptly shrunk in the dryer. I think it’s in a box somewhere in my basement. …The yarn-bombing just hit me. I always look for layers to fold in, and I especially like to take juxtaposing elements and push them up against each other. It’s really exciting because we have an army of knitters creating all of the set dressing [for the Maine production]. It’s created a little side community that I adore. Kimball shared more about the play’s genesis and the local knitting in a post for TCG Circle as part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich.
Do you meticulously map out your plays, or do you follow a general outline and “discover” along the way as you write? For instance, do you generally know the final scene of your plays early on?
Callie Kimball: Of course any writer gets ideas all the time — we’re kind of Idea Addicts. I especially get ideas while traveling, when I’m between places and have nothing to do but think and observe my surroundings. I try to keep my head out of my phone and let myself daydream.
The trick is telling what kind of idea will take you the distance. I usually have to have several things going on at once, so that it becomes like a kind of complex logic problem that I have to then solve. I’m often writing towards one big moment, one place where all of the different trajectories of the play intersect before going along their divergent paths.
As I’ve written more and more plays, I find I can be a bit looser, more playful in my approach, letting the dialogue just come. And I’m no longer afraid of the Page One Rewrite, where you start over completely from scratch. I’d hear from my friend Christina Ham that she was doing a Page One Rewrite and I couldn’t believe it. I’d be like How Can You Throw Out A Whole Play. It requires a certain faith, or bravery, I suppose.
Alligator Road was read in Mad Horse’s By Local series. You attended the reading and rehearsal, I assume? Was it developed elsewhere? What did you learn from the development process? Did it help in the rewriting?
Callie Kimball: I did some work on it at the By Local series, and I also had a Roundtable at the Lark, which was a closed workshop. My director, Reba Short, baked two weeks of table work into our schedule, which was great, because when I dusted off the play in December, I was surprised to see I only had 60 pages! I hadn’t realized I still had so much work to do on it. Part of that was because I still had some decisions to make about Lavinia. The first part of the play has Kathy and her daughter Candace going in a million different directions — that was my comfort zone and so I stayed there. But when I brought Lavinia on around page 30, it went kind of flat because I was hesitant to define her voice and character.
I felt a great responsibility, being a white writer creating a black character who was receiving property as an act of reparations. My nervousness held me back and her character was undernourished for a time, until I realized I simply had to make her care about the issue the way that I do, that the only way to the heart of the character was by opening my own heart on the matter and laying it bare.
Share a little bit about your journey into playwriting. Has it always been something you’ve done? You seem to have an eclectic background in various cities — DC, New York?
Callie Kimball: I started as a poet when I was seven, then I added ballet when I was nine, which I always hated because it teaches you to hate your body if you weigh over 70 pounds. I acted a little in high school and community college, and then I picked up acting again and that morphed into playwriting. How I became a playwright is a story only a few select people know, fueled by the urge to share horrifying stories. To write it out would ruin it; it’s best told in secret and over martinis.
As to my wanderings around the country, we always moved around a lot — I went to 12 schools by the time I graduated from high school, and my chaotic childhood made for a chaotic early adulthood, I suppose. But now I’ve settled down and Maine has been a terrifically welcoming and stimulating creative community.
What’s your writing routine like? In what space do you write plays? Home? Coffeehouses?
Callie Kimball: First drafts always have to be done at home. It’s awful. I’m suspicious of anyone who says they enjoy writing a first draft. Revisions I can do pretty much anywhere, because by then I’m usually working in chunks, or from a sort of punch list. I do different kinds of revisions, where I maybe look at each character’s emotional journey, or ask how each scene or page advances the play, the sort of technical swipes you make.
Are you in Maine for rehearsals?
Callie Kimball: I have been here the whole time except for one trip to New York in February and another trip I’m making [the week before the March 12 first performance]. We’re at the point where I stay away for the most part because I don’t want to get underfoot. It’s their show now, really — the director and I are on the same page and I have very few notes. I’ll go to tech and bring snacks, that sort of thing. Mostly when I’m in rehearsal I just sit there and laugh. I’m shameless. I have this huge cackle that bursts out when they nail a line I forgot I’d even written. I just sit there and take the journey every time. It’s such a joy. This is the fun part.
What did you take away from the Hunter MFA program that you didn’t have going in?
Callie Kimball: The critical importance of revisions. And questions. And confidence. And my three classmates, Johnna Adams, Chris Weikel and Holly Hepp-Galvan, who are some of my dearest friends thanks to that MFA program.
I see that your MFA thesis play, Dreams of the Penny Gods, will be produced by Halcyon Theatre in Chicago in 2016. Is it the world premiere or has it been produced before?
Callie Kimball: Well, it had three performances at Hunter College, so I don’t know if that counts as a “production” or not. Luckily, Halcyon isn’t caught up in all that “world premiere-itis” stuff. They just want to do strong, exciting work. I did mention to them that I thought they could legit call it a world premiere, and they were like yeah our audience doesn’t sweat that. I wish more theatres were open like that. I think whether a play is new to a community — not the entire world — should be the relevant question. That’s just bragging rights, in my opinion, not art. It limits the life of too many good plays.
What are you working on at the moment? Share some details? Other upcoming productions?
Callie Kimball: My play May 39th will have a production at the Hollywood Fringe this summer, produced by Absolute Theatre — they’ve done readings of a couple of my plays now, and they want to do a film version of this particular play. This will be the play’s fifth production in nine years — by far my most successful play. It’s a two-hander set the morning after a first date 1,000 years into the future.
And I’m workshopping my play Rush with Christopher Diercksen, who is working on securing a venue for a New York production later this year. It just had a production in Portsmouth, NH, but we didn’t have the luxury of table work, so I’m looking forward to unpacking the script with Chris and arguing over the finer points of life in the Yukon in 1899. He pings me every day with new ideas and questions. I feel so lucky to have so many great directors to collaborate with.
What play or plays have you seen lately that you admire?
Callie Kimball: I just saw Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2, and 3 in Boston at A.R.T. It’s really something to sit back and watch a master at work. The assuredness of her writing is so inspiring. That play has so much going for it on so many levels. True genius.