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Interview with playwright Mike Kenny & CTG's Student Ambassadors

Participants of our Student Ambassador Program recently sat down with Mike Kenny, the playwright behind the 24th STreet Theatre production of Walking the Tightrope. Student Ambassador Interviewers: Genesis Arana, Alen Anuran, Alexis Raygoza, Jake Contreras, Tyaira Daniels and Mollie Grubman

Ambassadors: What is your role as a playwright?
Mike Kenny:

Part of the clue about the role is in the name, in the difference between wright and write. A playwright is not really a writer. We create blueprints that other people build and inhabit. It’s like being an architect of a building which is actually living. It’s a social art which is more like a craft. It is about bringing people together in a space and telling the tales of what it is to be human.

The script for Walking the Tightrope is very open to imagination. It is written in poetic prose without stage directions. Can you tell us about your reason for leaving so much room for interpretation?

Before I was a playwright I was an actor and a teacher. For about 10 years I worked in a theatre company, which created work to take into schools. In my view the real play happens in the hearts and minds of the members of the audience, not on the stage. The theatre should only put in front of people things to provoke the pictures, which should find a pathway straight to their own memories and feelings. So, starting with nothing, you choose very carefully. This applies across the board — the set, the costumes etc. — but especially to the words spoken. It leaves room for everyone else — actor, director, designer, musician and most importantly, the audience — to do their jobs. I have seen many very different kinds of productions of my plays. There was a production of Walking the Tightrope in France that was done as a one woman show. It worked because the director understood that the job is to put pictures in people’s minds, thoughts in their heads and feelings in their hearts.

To my taste, I feel too much that is offered to children treats them as part fool, part customer. It’s trying to sell them something — a view of the world, maybe. However, children are extremely clever and can see that stuff coming a mile off. They are usually not buying it.

Do you have any rituals (activities you repeat) around writing?

I’m not a big one for rituals. You just have to get on and do it. I write best in the mornings. I carry a notebook with me always, and these days I love my iPad. I came from a very ordinary, working-class background, and I suppose I thought people like me didn’t become writers. I didn’t think people like us lived the kinds of lives that would be of interest to others. I stumbled into writing almost by accident, and now I think the lives of ordinary people are absolutely the subject of art. And I don’t develop rituals because I don’t want to make it appear to be magic. It’s just about paying attention, then starting to write.

Who do you relate to more, Esme or Grandad Stan?

Both, I think. I was the one and now I’m the other. I always say I write characters for myself to play (though I haven’t actually acted professionally for 30 years), and these days I would look pretty strange as Esme (the beard might be an issue).

What do you eat for tea?

I have a bread and butter pudding story. If you’ve never had it, it really is made of what it says it is. It’s comfort food made of leftovers and stuff people have in their fridges — eggs, milk and so on. It is great. Well, once I was working on a play in France. I speak French, but not great to be honest, and I was staying in a big house with the director and the actors, and some clever person suggested that we share the cooking. So I thought I would make B and B pudding. Which would have been fine had not the director’s grandmother come to stay and [decide] she wanted to see what I was doing. She spoke no English and asked me how to make it. So, I stood there, cooking and explaining this dish (in French) as I made it, while a French grandma watched my every move. In the end, she tasted it, pronounced it a success (though it would be better with cherries) and said it was just like a French recipe called Pain Perdu. It means Lost Bread. Isn’t that cool? I thought, one day I will write a play called that: Lost Bread.

Where do you imagine these characters are five years after the events of the story?

My grandmother and I were close right through to her death. In the last few years of her life she lived in a nursing home and was around long enough to meet my eldest son Billy as a baby. I think there is a very special relationship between grandchildren and grandparents. And Esme? I don’t know. I like to think she may have followed in her grandmother's footsteps. She liked balancing on the sea wall, after all.

The Center Theatre Group Student Ambassador Program is a free program for Los Angeles County high school students who are curious about the arts and want to build leadership and teamwork skills.  Student Ambassadors work with other students and with theatre professionals on exciting projects that get more young people involved in the Los Angeles arts community.
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