A Conversation with Greg Kotis and Kip Fagan

By Kathi E.B. Ellis.

Greg Kotis. Photo courtesy of Actors Theatre.
Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved

Both Greg Kotis and Kip Fagan have previous experience with The Humana Festival of New American Plays.  Kotis’s play An Examination of the Whole Playwright/Actor Relationship Presented As Some Kind of Cop Show Parody was one of the Ten-Minute Plays in 2010, and the previous year he was a contributing playwright for the Apprentice anthology show BRINK! Kip directed the 2008 entry Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom.  It is this year’s Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards that brings these two theatre artists together. Actors Theatre of Louisville sent Kotis’s script to Fagan who, after he read the first scene, says, “My mouth was hanging open…” “I thought, ‘Oh no, that’s not right,’” citing the comedic elements that lead to a darker exploration in the script, an opportunity to bring his absurdist directorial voice to the work of a writer he’s followed since coming across an early Kotis short Pretzel, Pretzel.

What is it that brings them back to the Humana Festival and Actors Theatre of Louisville? They both cite the obvious prestige of an internationally-renowned festival dedicated to new plays now in its 36th year.  “It is one of the premiere venues for launching new work”, says Kotis. It’s “where you want to be…want to go,” adds Fagan, as they agree that what makes Humana unique is the commitment to give new works full production resources while still maintaining a development aesthetic towards the script that is playwright-centric. As an added bonus, they both like Louisville itself.

Kip Fagan. Photo by Walter McBride.
Enlarging on the theme of development and production, Kotis speaks to the process of discovery in the rehearsal room, and having enough time to allow the director and actors to click with the script, that he’s learned to be patient and not “fix” a line immediately if he doesn’t hear what he thought he should hear. “Actors need to own what they have,” he says, noting also that there is a practical consideration to rewrites – “…how much the company can bear.” Fagan speaks to the fun that the company has had during rehearsal, that they’re “a good, funny, inventive” company of actors which has made lots of small comedic discoveries over the past few weeks.

Both Kotis and Fagan hone in on the end of the play. Kotis says that as a playwright he always hopes to be “…focused enough to catch the discoveries when they come,” giving as an example that he’s happy with what the title character decides to do at the end of the play – something that wasn’t entirely clear to him until later in the rehearsal process. Fagan adds that it’s in the last week he’s focused in on the “universality of what he (Michael von Siebenburg) is going through… (that) he has something to grapple with in a little less than two hours”.

Asked about their relationship with the dramaturg in producing a new play, Kotis says that after the solitary process of writing, it’s “…good to have someone to turn to…a confidante whose job is the text.” Fagan agrees that it’s good to have someone in the rehearsal room whose “purpose is clarity of storytelling.”  Specifically for this process he adds that the dramaturg with whom they’re working, Zach Chotzen-Freund, is based in New York and has joined the rehearsals from time to time, thus bringing in a fresh and valuable perspective each time he’s been in the room.  From a production perspective, Fagan is pleased to be in the Pamela Brown Auditorium which, he feels, lends itself to fantastic ghost stories. He couldn’t imagine Kotis’s play done in a small performance space. “It’s essential it’s in the Pamela Brown because of its epic nature,” he says, while Kotis speaks to a major design element he had not envisioned as the writer: actually seeing the walls of 1453 Constantinople in the distance, something that is clearly only possible in this venue and not in either of the other two ATL theatres.

A question about the title, Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards, elicits a recounting of a trip to Romania that Kotis made in 1995 – and an aside that many projects came from his experiences there. Kotis is animated as he describes Balkan Ghosts, a book he read prior to traveling to Eastern Europe that prepared him for the history of so many ethnic groups living in such close proximity, and so unhappily, for so many centuries. His time in Transylvania, right next to the Balkans, during the wars of the 1990s brought this history into sharp focus for Kotis together, of course, with the vampire traditions of this region. The title character’s name is a nod to the complexity of these historic tensions. He says that he tried other titles, but this is the one that felt right, and that titles are frequently one of the first things that come to him as he begins a new work.

New work is what shapes Fagan’s directorial career, a process he has come to love. He has directed already-published plays and plays by dead authors, but says he gets “anxious without a playwright beside me.”  If offered two plays, the odds are more than even he would take the new play, the caveat being that he and the playwright click – there has to be chemistry between the two. For Fagan, his role in bringing a new play to opening night is in “shepherding a play to be the best that it can be.”

On Friday, March 23, 2012, Kotis and Fagan have one preview performance behind them and are preparing for an afternoon rehearsal before a second preview that evening, and the premiere the following day. They agree they learned a lot from last night’s audience and are cautiously pleased that the audience stayed with them throughout the performance. This afternoon’s rehearsal will be about making adjustments learned from last night’s experience. Fagan notes the challenge of a festival environment is the truncated preview period and thus the abbreviated time in which to make the adjustments that new plays frequently require once they’re in front of audiences. However, both men agree on the positive experience they’ve had in the past few weeks, Kotis appreciating “everyone trying to solve problems from different directions (with) time allowed to fix things.” For Fagan it’s everyone “working together for a common goal. (It’s) genuine hard work.”

Caralyn Kozlowski & Micah Stock in Michael von Siebenburg Melts
Through the Floorboards, Part of the 36th Humana Festival of New
American Plays, Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Alan Simons.
Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards runs through April 15 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium, Actors Theatre of Louisville, www.actorstheatre.org. 


Greg Kotis (playwright)  is the author of Yeast Nation (Book/Lyrics), The Truth About Santa, Pig Farm, Eat the Taste, Urinetown (Book/Lyrics, for which he won an Obie and two Tony® Awards) and Jobey and Katherine. Kotis’ work has been produced and developed in many theatres, including Actors Theatre of Louisville, American Conservatory Theatre, American Theater Company, Henry Miller’s Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York Stage and Film, Perseverance Theatre, Roundabout Theatre Company, Soho Rep, South Coast Repertory and The Old Globe, among others. Kotis is a member of the Neo- Futurists, the Cardiff Giant Theater Company, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, and the Dramatists Guild. Kotis grew up in Wellfleet, MA, and now lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Ayun Halliday; his daughter, India; and his son, Milo.

Kip Fagan (Director)  At Actors: Jennifer Haley’s Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom. Regional Theatre: Sam Hunter’s A Permanent Image (Boise Contemporary Theater), Jordan Harrison’s Futura (Portland Center Stage), Tommy Smith and Gabriel Kahane’s musical Caravan Man (Williamstown Theater Festival) and Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Galler y(Empty Space Theatre). NYC: Jesse Eisenberg’s Asuncion, Heidi Schreck’s There Are No More Big Secrets and Sheila Callaghan’s That Pretty Pretty; or: The Rape Play (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater); Sheila Callaghan’s Roadkill Confidential and Rachel Hoeffel’s Quail (Clubbed Thumb); Zayd Dohrn’s Reborning and Cory Hinkle’s Cipher (Summer Play Festival); Sheila Callaghan’s Recess and Christopher Durang’s Not a Creature Was Stirring (The Flea Theater); Sam Hunter’s Jack’s Precious Moment (P73); and Greg Keller’s The Young Left(Cherry Lane Theatre). He was a 2003-2004 National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communications Group directing fellow and the 2007 Bill Foeller directing fellow at Williamstown Theatre Festival.

(Bios provided by Actors Theatre of Louisville)