Thursday, November 14, 2013

WAR chats with Playwright Kelleen Conway Blanchard

WAR chats with Playwright Kelleen Conway Blanchard
By Tom Mohrman on November 13, 2013

Wonder and Risk gleefully endorses The Underneath at Annex Theatre, running through November 16th. You have until the end of this weekend to experience something really worthwhile.

Playwright Kelleen Conway Blanchard was kind enough to answer some of our questions, and share some of her insights and experiences.

WAR: How would you describe your relationship with pulp fiction (not the film)?

Kelleen Conway Blanchard: I love the passion and humor and lack of pretension in pulp fiction. I also feel like in some ways, monsters and dames and big splashy villains, those are my people. I take the low road.

WAR: How does what you write reflect the kinds of things you like to see at a show?

KCB: Well, my favorite shows are funny and naughty and creepy. Which, is I suppose what I aim for. I have enough sad in my head, it’s hard for me to watch other people’s sad if there aren’t any songs or sexy maniacs or whatnot. That said, I’m in awe of serious dramatists and subtle writers. It just isn’t something I do with real heart. I can’t resist silly jokes and gore.

WAR: Would you say you have a special relationship with Annex?

KCB: I love Annex. They have been so supportive of me and my work. But, also they really reach out to the Theater community and take risks. I hope they keep letting me play with them.

WAR: How involved are you with a production you pen typically?

KCB: Well, I’ve been lucky to pair up with Annex and Macha Monkey on my most recent plays and they have helped me develop the scripts and let me be part of casting. After that, I show up to a few rehearsals, make script changes and let the cast and production crew do their thing. Some writers like to be more in it but I don’t think I’m all that helpful sitting at every rehearsal. I’m twitchy and make faces. It helps no one.

WAR: What’s your favorite thing that you got to do with The Underneath?

KCB: Trying my hand at full on horror was super fun. I wanted it to be scary which is hard to pull off in live theater and I think we did make it pretty scary while still staying true to my style. I really think the cast and crew get most of the credit for the scary.

WAR: Did the play come from a single idea, or a lot of ideas under a common banner?

KCB: I wanted to write a monster play and I like the sea and I wanted to include some characters (Winnie and Tina and Denise) that I had created at a 14/48 short play festival. From there it was mostly creating a mythology and letting the characters go.

WAR: Who is the intended audience?

KCB: I hope that some horror fans saw it. And people that maybe think plays are dull. Creeps of all ages.

WAR: What kind of space or budget constraints do you keep in mind while writing?

KCB: I try to keep the cast smallish and create full characters that actors really get to shine playing. I come from an acting background, so I respect actors and don’t ask them to play a maid with three lines for 5 weeks (unless that maid has 3 really great lines and maybe a dance number). Also, I try to keep stage action simple-ish. If I create impossible worlds, I make sure there are people that are into creating those worlds or I change it. I’m really pretty flexible. Theater is a big collaboration and I want the play to be good first and last and for everyone to get to do something great. So, I do think about what would be fun for designers and possible on a small scale. That said, I created some crazy set and prop problems for the designers of The Underneath. But, they were on board with all of it and their solutions were really exceptional.

WAR: Do you write with actors in mind?

KCB: Yes. There are actors I love for their talent and generosity. But, often when I see people read I am surprised and everything changes.

WAR: What do you hope to see more of in Seattle theater?

KCB: I hope we all continue to be a community and not separate little theater worlds. I think the 14/48 festival- which brings together all sorts of artists for an intense weekend of theater making- has done so much toward making that a reality and theaters like Annex that have their fingers in all sorts of pies. I hope the theaters keep investing in new local work. They should invest more.

WAR: What’s next for you?

KCB: I’m lucky enough to be working on a new play with Annex, slated for next October about Countess Elizabeth Bathory ( The female Dracula- if you will) Born in 1560 and dying in 1614, she was the infamous serial killer of Hungary. She killed hundreds of peasant girls and bathed in their blood to stay young. She was never put to trial because of her status and instead died walled up in her castle! I do love a villain!

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The Underneath
Presented by: Annex Theatre

The Annex Theatre just received the 2013 Gregory Award for “Theater of the Year” and their current production, “The Underneath” by Seattle playwright Kelleen Conway Blanchard is a perfect example of why the recognition was so richly deserved. This tiny theater on Capitol Hill, under Artistic Director Pamala Mijatov (who also directed this show) is committed to presenting new, locally created work that is adventurous, unusual and never safely conventional.
“The Underneath” is a mysterious, grotesquely comic and strangely threatening tale of a seaside community that is about to have a gaudy “Water World” amusement park take up residence to revive its stalled economy. The problem is that the construction is also reviving some frightening monsters of the undersea underworld, spitting up remnants of previous lost souls and taking captive new innocents who dare to intrude on the deep dark. Guiding us to a necessary understanding of the history of those ancient powers is the salty old cook in a cheesy seafood restaurant, a grizzled descendant of the Blackwater family. John McKenna does an excellent job of balancing Blackwater’s ridiculous characterization at the same time that he makes the danger and the history feel real.
Most directly affected by that danger are the sisters, Tina and Winnie, and their hard-working, marginally responsible waitress mother, Denise. Tina, as played by Pilar O’Connell, is a foul-mouthed, aggressively rebellious and socially outcast thirteen year-old. One of Blanchard’s accomplishments is in making her almost constant profanity sound both natural and surprisingly innocuous. She’s a smart girl with a flair for science and a lot of ideas she wants to build in her absent Dad’s basement shop.
Her sweet little sister, Winnie, is played with almost comic book preciousness and vulnerability by Meaghan Mary Halverson, and that’s just right for the monster she will become. Their mother, Denise, has all she can handle dealing with the customers at the diner, including her side-dish fling with Sheriff Rick Fantaub. Tracy Leigh gives Denise just the right amount of shop-worn debilitation and basic motherly concern. James Weidman does an excellent job of creating a Sheriff who is both a step up for Denise from the irresponsible father who deserted his family and a man with just enough decency to return her underwear from under the table where they’ve been “dating”.
The Sheriff is also responsible for safeguarding the community from the huckster Kevin, who wants to build the Water Park, the extravagant Teddy (both played by Daniel Christensen) and his sister Kimmi (a very funny Mandy Price) who has a fondness for dangerous marine life that has left her as scarred as she is enraptured.
Nothing comes to a very happy end in this show, and the horror and monstrosity make it an excellent choice for a Halloween show, but it is not limited to that. In fact, one of the things that makes this show notable and not just a holiday candy is the sense that the playwright wants us to think about deeper relationships between humans and the planet we live on. There are, in fact, probably too many gestures in the direction of greater complexity to the ideas behind this show, and the script would probably benefit from some simplification and focus. Still, what gives this consistently funny and amusing play a sense of significance greater than simply a scary story is the implication that our history, our myths and our connections with the eternal are never to be simply dismissed by the trivial desires of the present.
For all the Saturday matinee monsters unleashed in “The Underneath” there is an even greater argument that we must never forget that we are the most insignificant of transient details on the surface of an infinitely greater and deeper existence. But don’t worry. “The Underneath” never requires you to withhold your laughter or amusement for deeper thought during the course of the fast-paced action. Only later, say as you’re getting into bed, might you give some thought to what might exist far beneath the floorboards of your safe bedroom.
PICTURED ABOVE: Pilar O’Connell and John McKenna
PHOTO BY: Ian Johnston

Written by: Jerry Kraft