That was an excerpt from the play "Agnes Under the Big Top, A Tall Story" by Aditi Brennan Kapil. It was selected for the NEA's New Play Development Program which was done in partnership with the Arena Stage.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artist to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
Aditi Brennan Kapil's play "Agnes Under the Big Top" explores the intersecting lives of immigrants in a U.S. city. Narrated by an itinerant busker on a subway platform. We follow a Liberian home care worker, a former Bulgarian circus ringmaster and his wife, and an Indian call-center worker, as they grapple with language, identity, and reinvention in the today's United States. These competitive and sometimes conflicting identities is something that Aditi herself understands very well. Not only is she a actor, playwright and director, the Minnesota resident is also an amalgam of several disparate cultures.
Aditi Kapil: I am half-Bulgarian and half-East Indian. My mother was Bulgarian, my father Indian, and when they married they moved to Sweden, which is where I grew up. So I'm Swedish nationality and I grew up in Stockholm, and when I went to college I went to college in St. Paul, Minnesota to Macalester College, and I got married and I stayed and I had kids, and so now I actually am a dual citizen, I am American and Swedish, and my family is still all over the place. My family is in India and Bulgaria and Sweden, and various parts of the US and my first language was Bulgarian, my second language Swedish, my third language was English and my French has gotten very bad. But I find that my mind works in all the languages depending on what I'm thinking about they all sneak in there and in our household when I was growing up we spoke three languages simultaneously at all times, and no one else really could understand us, ever, but my mother was most comfortable in Bulgarian, so whenever she needed a word she'd just switch languages. My father would've preferred that one of us at least would speak Hindi but none of us did, so he kind of popped between languages to whatever suited what he was trying to say. My brother was most comfortable in Swedish. He was born in Sweden and he is extremely Swedish and he would stick to Swedish and then pop around in the other languages, and my mind was always in all three and I find that from my perspective language defines so much about how you see yourself, how the world sees you, not just the languages but the ways you speak them, dialects and I find that I change, my personality changes, my self-perception changes when I switch languages or go to, like I find that in Bulgaria I'm very adorable and young, and that has to do with the fact that my Bulgarian is very young, I left there at a very young age and I never did learn to swear, really well, I never did get all teenage and profane because I wasn't there. So I go to Bulgaria and invariably I'll get patted on the head, and I'm way too old to be patted on the head, and that changes, that changes how you see yourself, and you just kind of go ahead and accept that vision of yourself and you fill the role. And as I think about language and self, it tends to weave its way into my plays a lot. It's a big thing theme for me.
Jo Reed: What drew you to theater?
Aditi Kapil: I began as an actress, and to me it's it's the central focus, not because it's what I spend most of my time doing, because to be honest, with three kids and the writing, I don't spend most of my time acting, I do maybe one show a year, but I feel like everything we do in theater is in service to that moment when the actor connects with the audience, and for me to remain good at what I do, to remain in touch with what I do, I feel like I have to be on stage once in a while just to remember what that moment is so that I never write a line that is un-actable; so that I never put someone in a position where they're never going to connect with an audience with this material. It's all about that moment. So, acting first. Directing came second, and I feel like I had to get to the point as an actor where my mind expanded to the whole play rather than the subjective place that actors like to be in. And playwriting came last and I feel like that had to wait for me until I really had something to say, and that came with age and time and a growing family and my parents passing away. So playwriting is the most recent piece of the puzzle, but it's quickly taking over.
Jo Reed: Well, you've enjoyed a lot of success as a playwright, which isn't to say you didn't as a director and as an actor, but I think at this point more people probably know you as a playwright…
Aditi Kapil: That's probably true.
Jo Reed: Than as the first two.
Aditi Kapil: Yeah, that's probably true, especially nationally. I would say in Minneapolis, specifically in Minneapolis, probably more people are aware of me as an actor, but yeah, no, the playwriting has been an amazing gift, it's an amazing way to enter the dialogue on a much broader scale than you can as an actor in specific productions which open, close, move on, you do the next thing, but really getting to talk about things that I think about, to really talk to audiences in several productions out there about the world and ideas. It's an amazing gift to have this kind of success.
Jo Reed: Your play, Love Person, was nominated for a Pulitzer.
Aditi Kapil: No, it wasn't nominated, it wasn't what I would call nominated, that would be the finalist thing, it was in the big pool, it was nominated in the big pool for the Pulitzers.
Jo Reed: Nonetheless.
Aditi Kapil: Nonetheless. Yes, no, it's fun to be in the pool, it's fun to be in the pool, no doubt about it.
Jo Reed: You were in the pool. You were in the Pulitzer pool.
Aditi Kapil: Every time I hear that I'm like, it's not one of those nominees, it's one of those things where it gets out there and I'm like, but I don't think it means what you think it means. No, but it won the Stavis Award for Playwriting, so that was delightful, it was nominated for the Steinberg Award and a couple of others. So I had like a gorgeous slew of productions over a year and a half, and given that it was my first real full-length play for adults that I had put out into the world, and I wrote it convinced that no one would ever produce it because I wrote it to be bilingual in American Sign Language and English.
Jo Reed: But it has some Sanskrit as well.
Aditi Kapil: And some Sanskrit and projected emails, so there was the technology element and in a world where people are like, oh, we really need a small chamber piece that doesn't cost too much, I thought, oh this is never going to go anywhere, and it did. It kind of captured the imaginations of more people than just me, and had a really, really great life.
Jo Reed: I kind of want to talk about the life of plays and their various incarnations. For example, when you mentioned that people want small pieces in the sense that doesn't involve a lot of staging and not too expensive to mount. As a playwright it's kind of hard not to be mindful of that when you're writing, I would assume.
Aditi Kapil: Yeah, no it's true, it's true, and it's completely understandable. I mean the economy being what it is if nothing else, there's this conventional wisdom out there that if you can get a two hander with one set, that's good, out into the world, then you're going to get produced. Otherwise, chances not so good. What's hard for me about that is the stories I need to tell are the stories I need to tell and the form in which I tell them always, in my mind, has to reflect the story that it is. Love Person had a very poetic structure because it was a poetic play.
Jo Reed: It was based on four Sanskrit poems.
Aditi Kapil: Yeah, it was in four parts and each part spun around a specific Sanskrit poem and they reflected the four stages of love and when you looked at it from a really objective place it was a chamber piece about love between four people with all the interpersonal complexities, but above and beyond that, what lifted it from that is that it was structured like a love poem, the fact that we had multiple languages, the fact that it was about communication, missing each other, connecting with each other, all the levels in which love lives beyond the most obvious, the attraction, but also the love of the mind, with someone you would never actually be with in reality. That one was a four person play but I would say it was not a cheap one to mount because of the technology, because of the American Sign Language, which requires sign master, an interpreter, all of those things, and with my newest play I really, really thought that next I'd write something very simple, but in the end it had to reflect what it was, the chaos of immigration and it became more complex. I still imagine I'll write a simple play one of these days. I dream of it.
Jo Reed: Well, language clearly plays a part in both plays.
Aditi Kapil: It does.
Jo Reed: The one that's in development now, that's part of the new play development project is Agnes Under the Big Top.
Aditi Kapil: Yeah.
Jo Reed: A Tall Story. Where did the whole idea of Agnes come from?
Aditi Kapil: It came from a lot of different places. Many, many years ago I took a trip with my first daughter, she was two years old, and I went to Sweden to visit my dad who, at that time in his life, the end of his life he was a subway driver in the Stockholm subway, and he was a modernist poet before that, but you got to make a living, and modernist poets in no country make a living, and we had a visit with him, then we went to Bulgaria to visit my family there, and we saw my very drunk uncle, Pitze [sp?] who told me all about the closing of the Kalashnikov Factory and how it had broken the economic back of this one town, and I went to see the circus with my daughter and there was this fascinating ring master and as I'm going back to the US my dad, in Sweden, is taking us to the airport and he suddenly starts telling me the story about how in his time as a subway driver he's killed three people and one dog, and I had never heard anything about this. And all the sudden I've got to get on the plane and there's no closure and I sit down, my daughter falls asleep, and I've got all of these things spinning around in my head, and I get to the US and I had to write a 10-minute play for something and I ended up writing a play called Circus Kalashnikov in which my father's stories and my uncle's stories in Bulgaria and this ring master had morphed into this character named Shipkov [ph?] who was a Bulgarian former ring master, subway train driver who, for some reason, kept killing people and couldn't figure out why. And it was really great. It was a great way for me to grapple with some of the thoughts I have about-- I mean coming from an East Bloc country, some of the thoughts I have about migration and East and West and all of that, and the character stuck because he then migrated into "Agnes Under the Big Top" when I started working on this larger play about immigration.
Jo Reed: In Agnes several characters move between Bulgarian and English. And what's interesting is this beautiful voice in Bulgarian becomes painful and almost stuttering in English.
Aditi Kapil: Aditi Kapil: Yeah, it's one of the most painful, to me, changes that comes over one when one migrates. My parents never spoke English, or Swedish for that matter, very well, and they came from being extremely charming and educated people in their own countries to, I mean they led a good life, we were middle-class, it was fine, but never again were they that clever and witty and charming and the life of the party because when language is choppy and you can't be the person you are inside your head on the outside things change, things shift and some really interesting, imperceptible and yet deeply, deeply, deeply significant ways. So, yeah, that's a part of the game I was playing with the Bulgarian in Agnes was allowing for some insight into who people may have been and how you perceive them now based on how they speak. I mean it's in the rhythm of the voices in my head.
Jo Reed: I have a question as we're talking about rhythm, because I was thinking, okay, given your background and your father is from India, your mother from Bulgaria, I would imagine those are two very different styles of storytelling.
Aditi Kapil: Oh yeah.
Jo Reed: But then again, I would imagine Sweden would pop up with its own and America would be different, then again.
Aditi Kapil: Yeah.
Jo Reed: That's a lot of rhythms.
Aditi Kapil: Yeah, yeah, I love that. I love the ways-- I mean there's an incredibly universal nature to storytelling, but there's also the character to where it comes from. I feel like my dad planted firmly in my mind this affinity for magic realism and complete flights of fancy. We once tried to write something together, one of those exercises where he writes a piece, then I write the next piece, and then he writes a piece, and I started out with, "A girl walked into a room," or something silly like that and he started out with a monologue delivered from the insides of a cow's belly. You know, his mind was just out there, so yeah, I've got that from my dad, from my mom I have the whole juicy, Slavic realism. She liked it when it was true and painful, and from, oh God I grew up on Astrid Lindgren, and I don't know how much you know, aside from Pippi Longstocking, which everyone's heard of, the more teenage books that she wrote, wow, just the Swedish sensibility for magic, to me, is one of the most---I mean that's my childhood so obviously that has an influence on me, and I don't know, if you know and love Astrid Lindgren you could probably see where I really, really love her in my work. And then there's, because my theater in my home where I was born into theater was the US, the American naturalism completely lives in all of my plays. So yeah, no, the ways of storytelling are, yeah, they're huge.
Jo Reed: And in "Agnes" you really do get to play with all of them because you have a character from India, Happy, you have our Bulgarian couple, and then you have Agnes who's from Liberia.
Aditi Kapil: Yeah, and I have Ella who's American, and then I have this guy, this busker who can transcend everything and pop around everywhere. Yeah, no, I think the collision of styles is another way of illustrating just what the difficulty of different cultures coming together is, but also the beauty of it, the things that are just fantastic about it. Yeah, Agnes is an interesting case because of all the characters, that's probably the one where you go, where did that come from? I used to be a homecare worker way back when I was in college, that's what I did when I went home for the summers in Sweden is I was a homecare worker in Stockholm and the woman who trained me was named Agnes and she was actually Kenyan, not Liberian, but I just didn't want to add another language into the play, so I went with Liberian, and she was phenomenal and she took so much grief from some of the older patients because of her skin color, and she was phenomenal. I just wanted to get a little tribute to her and to the play because I loved her. I knew her for one summer but she made such a huge impression on me and I actually also worked for a woman named Ella who was difficult. She was difficult to say the least.
Jo Reed: When you first finished the longer play, I'm sure it looks different.
Aditi Kapil: Oh my yes.
Jo Reed: And how does that process-- how do you get through that process? Can you talk about just some of the permutations?
Aditi Kapil: It's been a little crazy. Like I would say this has been crazier than most plays. At least I've never had quite such a complex or such a long process. I think the thing is, is that it was so personal and when things are so personal it takes time to go from, well, this is what really happened, to something that can be art and that can be other, and have its own agency and its own dramatic-ness. When I started writing it one of the characters had a wife who has since been killed off. I have a joke with my dramaturge, I have a graveyard of characters that she's killed off and I should have a little ceremony for all of them one of these days. It also was a play that needed to figure out what its central theme was because there's so much, to me, in the immigrant stories of my family members, the ones who want to come, the ones who did come, the ones who think about it, the ones who are never going to leave their home country and I have so much that figuring out what the central trajectory was going to be was a lot of saying goodbye to things that are important to me and that's maybe the hardest part is taking something you love and saying, you don't live here anymore, and cutting it out of the play.
Jo Reed: Just back up for one second. What does a dramaturge do exactly?
Aditi Kapil: Oh my dramaturge, Liz Engleman is the dramaturge that I've worked with since "Love Person" and the relationship we have is probably unusually close. A dramaturge, to me, is someone who is capable of, and it's amazing to me that she's capable of this, of reading each draft of the play with completely fresh eyes and telling you what she receives from it, and when you then say, oh oh wow, no I was going for this or that or, oh no, I thought asking you the questions that help you work your way around to how you're going to do it better next time, and then reading it with completely fresh eyes again. It's amazing. I know that I can't do it. Once you know too much you know too much, but that's what a dramaturge does, she facilitates the development of a play.
Jo Reed: Now the actors. There's a way, I'm assuming, it's very difficult to see what that play is going to be like until you see it literally embodied.
Aditi Kapil: And it's not an easy play to cast either just because we have a character who speaks almost exclusively Bulgarian and it's not that common of a language. Yeah, no, the actors are an amazingly important piece of it and because I'm an actor I love to write things that are juicy for actors. I mean ultimately, I think that's where it happens, that's where the magic happens, not on the page, it happens in that moment when the actor connects with the audience and makes it work. I tend to write a lot of subtext, I leave a lot of space for subtext and I leave a lot of room on the assumption that an actor's going to fill that and so for me, even more so, I can't just look at it on the page and know what it's going to be, I need an actor to actually bring it to life and show me what all that space that I built into the play is going to be filled with, because a lot of my story resides in the silences. So yeah, can't do it without the actors.
Jo Reed: Because you also act, is there a part of you that just wants to say, okay, Rosa, sit down, let me just take over now.
Aditi Kapil: It's a part of me that I try very hard to quash. Yeah, it's the worst, it's the worst, actors who are playwrights generally have acted out the whole thing in their head about a million times, which is not to say that I liked how I performed it, there are roles that I would never-- in fact, I have to be honest, never written a role for myself, which is probably stupid, I should write myself a role one of these days, but the stories are what the stories are, and none of the roles I've written in any of my plays am I suited for and so it is. However, I definitely know what rhythm would make that line funny, and what rhythm wouldn't make that line funny, so yeah.
Jo Reed: How is it being in an audience and seeing a play mounted that is, in fact, in development?
Aditi Kapil: Yeah, that's interesting. There's a part of you that uses it as a complete experimental test tube learning experience where I get to see what the audience reacts to and I get to see the play in front of them - there's a difference. To me there's a difference between the work you do when actors just read the play for your benefit, and when they get in front of an audience because automatically their minds, because they're actors and they're brilliant, start connecting the dots and storytelling to the audience. So seeing it in front of an audience is actually really helpful because you get the real deal a little more but then it's incredibly naked and vulnerable too. Especially when it's personal and especially when, oh man, every thought in my head and people are looking at it and I feel like my pants are down, it can be really, really difficult too.
Jo Reed: Do you want to stand up at times and say, hey, it's only 65% guys…
Aditi Kapil: You have to learn, after a while, to not apologize. Because who really wants to hear that? You know, who really wants to hear you say, it was okay, really they just want to hear thank you, or if they have feedback, huh, I'm going to think about that. But yeah, there's all kinds of childish impulses to apologize and excuse yourself, but really, I found that as years go by, new play audiences, people who come to readings, they tend to know what's going on. The reason they came here and not to the gorgeous, fully-mounted production in the next stage next door, is because they're curious about process. They're interested in things that are a little raw, and sometimes there's something magical that happens in a reading that's a little raw that may never happen again, even in a production, and that's not to say the production won't be great and it won't be great in its own way, but there's something raw and interesting about readings, and if you're in that mindset and you're not looking for polish, then I don't think anyone needs to worry too much, I still feel like my pants are down, but you know.
Jo Reed: As an audience person it's exciting because you don't know and there's a sense in which you feel like your witness to something that's being created and that's really a cool feeling.
Aditi Kapil: Yeah, and I feel like the sharing that happens there, I see people putting together things in their heads because we don't have staging, so I see the stories being connected up in people's heads in a way that I find really, really interesting and valuable, like I'll see someone lean forward and nodding at a moment, and I'll go, oh my God, they caught that, how could they've caught that? But then you know that the writing was really strong in that moment and you could catch it without even the visual that's needed. I think it's a really fun form.
Jo Reed: Okay, here's a question. Theater is so collaborative, and there's a way in which, as the playwright, particularly, or as the director, more so I think than as the actor, your job is to create this common vision for the company to get people on board.
Aditi Kapil: Yeah, it's the hardest thing in the world to figure out how to do on the page. And I try very hard to have the language that I write for people have inescapable rhythms so that as an actor you want to say something the way that makes it work, the way that suddenly you feel like, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I made that work, and if I can be a precise enough writer so that they naturally fall into my rhythms, then I think I've gone a long way to setting the tone. I feel like probably more of that control ends up being in the hands of the director which is why having a director that you trust and believe in is such a big deal. I spent a long time looking for the right director for Agnes because it is a very peculiar hybrid style and it's something that I end up talking about at every single workshop opportunity, I end up talking about the fact that this is kind of a collision of European and American theater styles. There's this very naturalistic American acting style that collides with European theatricality in this play and to some degree also collides with the more imaginative magic realism Indian style, but without ever losing the American naturalism because if you lose that then you end up in the wrong performance world in a weird presentational performance world, and it's so hard to figure out what that is because it works in my head, but communicating it is a whole other thing, and when I met Eric Ting who will be directing this play at Long Wharf Theater about a year ago during one of the last workshops, it was the first time where someone completely got me and the trust of knowing that, knowing that every question he asked was absolutely the right question, and when something wasn't working we both knew why, it wasn't just me and him looking at me and going, what's going on with your scene? So yeah, I feel like I'm so dependent on the director for that kind of insight because ultimately that's who's talking to the actors. First couple of productions maybe I'm around, but after that I better have done my job on the page and then I just kind of hope that whatever director takes it in hand isn't going to-- my biggest fear, okay so my biggest fear about this play is sentimentality. That's the one thing that I try so hard in the language to make it impossible to drop into because it's not a play about the poor sad immigrants, it's a play about these incredibly strong people and the circumstances they're in and I think it's very funny, like if anything I want the humor to never, ever, ever be lost, and, I don't know, I might write a stage direction at the top of the play that says, "No sentimentality." But that's really hard to implement, so that's my biggest thing, directors who get that this is not the sad immigrant play, this is the magical immigrant play.
Jo Reed: Finally because I'm always interested in this. It's not easy to support yourself as a playwright, as an actor or as a director.
Aditi Kapil: It's true.
Jo Reed: How did you manage when you were first starting?
Aditi Kapil: I will say that Minneapolis is a town where you can make a living as a theater artist. It's a town where there's a lot of theater, it took me about two years, when I was first starting out it took me about two years to not be temping and doing the various other things, and it was a combination of acting for theater, doing a little bit of on camera, a little bit of voice over, teaching some random workshop, put it all together, call it a very humble living, I mean it's not a lofty living by any stretch of the imagination and then over time hopefully you build up what that is. I now do a combination of playwriting and directing and acting and that's pretty much it right now. I don't believe I'm ever going to have oodles of money, however, it's doable, it's doable in Minneapolis and I find a lot of playwrights especially make the bulk of their living doing something else, and the nature of a play you could end up writing a play that never, ever ever gets produced and so you never actually get paid for the labor you put into that because we write them essentially on spec every time. Even when they're commissioned you don't actually know if they're going to get produced and the commission money, you never know how far that's going to take you. For me it's day care. I love, love, love a commission, and a fellowship, and a grant, or whatever it is, because it allows me to actually put my children in day care so I can actually write some things so I that I can potentially someday get paid. But I've got enough of a balance going right now between the acting and the directing and everything that I can usually make ends meet. And it's profoundly uncertain as a living, I mean easily the jobs could just not show up when they need to show up and then there's no paycheck for several months.
Jo Reed: Yeah, it takes a lot of guts.
Aditi Kapil: Yeah, it takes faith, something, yeah. Blind faith, blind stupid faith.
Jo Reed: Well, I'm glad you have it. Aditi, thank you so much.
Aditi Kapil: Thank you.
That was playwright, actor, and director, Aditi Brennan Kapil. You've been listening to Art works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from Agnes Under the Big Top, A Tall Story, by Aditi Brennan Kapil, from the Mixed Blood Theater production, Music by Zoe Keating, subway announcer Nick Demeris.
Special thanks to sound designer for Agnes Under the Big Top Katherine Horowitz,
Excerpts of "Bavna Melodia Ruchenitsa" by Yuri Yunakov, who is a 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellow, it's from the CD, Balada---Bulgarian Wedding Music, used courtesy of Traditional Crossroads.
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Next week, Baltimore novelist, Laura Lippman.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.