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Crafting Surprise: An interview with Kate Snodgrass

I sat down with Kate Snodgrass, the morning after the first snow, Dec 12, 2022.  Her apartment: hot tea, sunny windows, playful cats, and floor to ceiling books. Kate was one of my first playwriting teachers, and my boss at BU, and has been a mentor and friend for years.


Kate Snodgrass (playwright): What is this for?


Melinda Lopez (Huntington artist in residence): The program?  Your program


KS:      OK, but you’re going to edit it though?


ML:     Oh yeah —  I think someone just thought that we would make a good match.


KS:      How odd for them to think that!


ML:     Yeah strange… So I woke up today to the first snow — driving last night was bad bad — and so I guess my first question is: why Boston?


KS:      Why…?


ML:     Why are you still here? The weather, horrible.


KS:      I should be at Saint Lucia! No but talking about here– here’s where I’ve been for 35 years so I do have… two or three people that I love (laughter) and they keep me here. Why would I move away from them? And I know the community. The theater community is so wonderful.


ML:      Some might say you built that community.


KS:      Well. I’d like to think I helped to build it.


ML:     There are a lot of people who would say that.


KS:      I have a stage named after me –isn’t that good? At Boston Playwrights Theatre. They finally said “OK, you’ve been here long enough, let’s go ahead and we’ll call it your name.” I saw the plaque. Oh my god, that really happened!


ML       You started back in the day, first as a producing director in 1991 and then as an artistic director, in a city that had very few female artistic directors, and now, everything is run by women [laughter and cheers]. But what was that like, leading a theater at a time when not many of your peers were like you?


KS       Do you know I’ve never thought of it like that. I just thought, let’s put blinders on and move ahead and try to produce the best plays that I could in the best way that I could, and then teach myself about what’s important in the theater. And I didn’t think about the politics of that– if there are politics–


ML       So you’re not a bad ass feminist icon?


KS       A bad ass! Yes right — that’s what I wanna do right now– but you just don’t think about that when you do it. You’re working hard, and Derek (Walcott, Nobel Laureate and founder of Boston Playwrights Theatre) trusted me. He would leave town so I could do pretty much what I wanted to do


ML       Derek was your teacher too?


KS       [Running BPT] was my second job—and Derek was my second playwriting teacher. My first play was Haiku, and I wrote that in Wichita, Kansas when I was in an MFA program in Creative Writing. I took an elective class, and my first teacher was Bela Kiralyafalvi. He was wonderful, and then I came to Boston — I was following a love — and I applied to BU and got in, and then Derek was my second playwriting teacher


ML       What are the lessons that you remember from them? the early early lessons?


KS       I remember Bela. I’d like to think the Bella was a teacher a little bit like you–


ML       Was he very lazy?


KS       No! Not lazy at all! He asked important questions, and he was not prescriptive in any way. He would just ask very pointed questions, and that’s what I remember most about him as a teacher.


ML       Your plays always have these incredible characters — I’m thinking about Glider, and those three sisters, and Observatory. And you create characters who have their own moral compass. They make really hard decisions over the course of the play.


KS       Oh that’s great, I hope I do that!


ML       And that’s what I see in Art of Burning


KS       Patricia’s making some difficult choices and learning things about herself–some hard hard things. And she keeps learning after the play is over — I mean it doesn’t stop —


ML       I feel like one of the things that I’m sure I learn from you:  characters have to break things. And those things can’t be undone. It’s what makes a play work. I see that in your plays all the time


KS       I’m just not interested in conversation. If something doesn’t break, then there’s no reason to write about it. Something has to collide.


ML       …So the Supreme Court…


KS       Oh yes.


ML       As bad as you feared?


KS       It’s pretty bad, isn’t it?


ML       It’s pretty bad


KS       I figured you were gonna ask me where the play came, from so I’ll just tell you


ML       I was sneaking up to the question


KS       I was listening to the Kavanaugh hearings, and I was shocked. I watched these mostly white old men — for the most part, my age many of them — and I thought ‘Have we learned nothing?’ I remember watching Anita Hill and thinking, ‘well we have to learn something from this!’ and it turns out, we didn’t learn anything … and it so enraged me. I’m still enraged. And so I started asking myself questions. What I tell my students is ‘write about something that means something to you…’  So I started asking myself, ‘Why am I so angry with him? and what is the heart of this really deep endemic misogyny?’ And I don’t know that the play answers it — I’m not interested so much in answers, but I hope it asks important questions, or at least points out some things: ‘What is this? Take a look at this. What would you do to solve it?’ I hope that it that it does that at least for one person, somewhere, somehow. How can we solve that deep divide? As people? And what’s at the heart of it? Parenting is a big big part of it — I think the ills of the world could be solved if we were just better parents.


ML       I know that [the Kavanaugh hearings] was the generative event for The Art of Burning, but you’ve been working on this play for a while, so —


KS       It has morphed, and I feel like it’s gotten deeper. I just continually ask myself questions about these people. ‘What is it they want? And what are they bringing to the table in order to get that? Who’s in this play? And what’s going on with Mark? And Charlene? And what’s going on with the daughter?’ Asking a lot of questions and trying to answer them in scenes — putting people together in the room and having them need something from each other. That’s so much fun. [laughter] I could do that forever! Give me a couple of people and let me figure out what they want, and let me just write.


ML       A lot of people who aren’t playwrights don’t understand that you don’t come into a scene knowing what’s going to happen.


KS       Let them surprise us! It’s so much fun — coming to that place where… “oh my god she’s pregnant?” So it’s those little epiphanies — they continually surprise me. And working with Melia has been great because she is also very much asking questions, and saying you know ‘I wonder about this’ and maybe write that and see what happens… This is a dream job. Getting to work with all these people and this great company?


ML       Of course the other thing is that your plays are full of theatre!


KS       I hadn’t really thought of that but… yeah so much has to do with theatre…


ML       Patricia is an artist — but her friend Charlene, her secret shame is that she hates musicals and loves Eugene O’Neill. Is that you?


KS       No, no I love Stephen Sondheim! I’ll go see Stephen Sondheim any time! Guys and Dolls is one of my favorite musicals! But poor Charlene– she doesn’t like them–  I feel for her


ML       Do you want to say anything about influences on your work?


KS       I wish I could be influenced! I’d be a better writer possibly, but I love to go to the theatre and be affected. I can tell you my favorite writers. Of course, Beckett and Caryl Churchill and Tom Stoppard — they’re exploring more than just the plot. It’s about the experience, about the space that we’re in, and about something much deeper. I love Eugene O’Neill. I do. Long Days Journey — I loved Midsummer Nights Dream, the Peter Brook. I loved Fool for Love—  I saw the original production of that,  and that was mind blowing. Amazing and wonderful! Candide at the Huntington, that was spectacular. I love — you know, when we’re all in the room together, experiencing it all at once.  There’s nothing like it. Those few moments that happen, very periodically, keep you coming back saying ‘I hope that happens again.’


Kate Snodgrass; photo by T Charles Erickson