Ghosts, Memories, & Transformation: Playwright Ken Urban on A Guide for the Homesick

Playwright Ken Urban’s past plays have premiered at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Summer Play Festival at The Public, and Theatre503 in London. Now, the Huntington Playwriting Fellow alumnus recently spoke with Huntington Director of New Work Charles Haugland about what inspired this latest work A Guide for the Homesick


CH: What inspired you to begin writing A Guide for the Homesick?

KU: In 2011, Epic Theatre Ensemble, a New York theatre company devoted to social justice, commissioned me to write a play about international aid workers. That commission gave me the time to do research, and interview volunteers from Doctors Without Borders. During the interviews, I saw how these men and women were haunted by what they experienced. They all spoke about the difficulty of coming home and re-adjusting to life after their experiences overseas.They felt ostracized. Even small things, like friends complaining about going to the grocery store or problems with the subway, would mak ethem very angry because they didn’t have a place to process what they had experienced. I thought: that’s my story. I cannot write about issues or themes. I think that leads to bad writing. Those interviews helped me discover the story of Jeremy and Teddy. It would be the story of two strangers who become friends in a hotel room one night.

How did living in Boston and Cambridge shape how you thought about the issues you explore in the play?

 In 2011, I taught at “that school in Cambridge” and was living in Kendall Square. It was my introduction to students like Jeremy: insanely hard working, intellectually curious, sometimes crippled by intense pressure to succeed. Teaching at Harvard was a reminder that coming out is still difficult despite the vast changes in our country over the last 20 years. More importantly, I was following American involvement in the rise of anti-gay and lesbian violence in Uganda, and Massachusetts was crucial in fueling the flames that led to 2009’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Scott Lively’s Abiding Truth Ministries, based in Springfield, conducted talks about the “homosexual threat” wit hleaders in Uganda. That is why the Boston piece of the play is so important. Jeremy and Teddy both had to be from Boston.

One of the things I love about this play is that each actor plays twocharacters. Can you talk about how you arrived at that choice?

 Thanks. It’s been in the play before I wrote the play. The people I interviewed were haunted by the people they met when theyworked abroad. When I saw the play in my head, I saw two strangers in a hotel room. And nothing is more haunted than a hotel room. Each character would bring the person that haunts them into that hotel room with them. I am always amazed at actors’ ability to transform, and so I decided before I even started writing that two actors would play four characters. I love watching actors navigate that in rehearsals. It’s an amazing thing to watch them discover.

What has working with Colman Domingo as a director broughtto the play?

I have known Colman as an actor and playwright for years. New York theatre is a small world, so our paths crossed. This is a play driven by the power of acting and an actors’ ability to transform,and so I thought about him early on as a possible director of my play. Now that he is a huge TV star slaughtering zombies, I assumedit wouldn’t work. But I reached out and to my surprise, we hada coffee right away here in New York and talked about the play. Since we hadn’t worked together before as writer and director, he suggested that we do a reading to see if we were a match. We did a secret reading at New Dramatists, just us, two actors, and an intern reading stage directions; the five of us sitting around a table to see if we clicked. He worked with the actors so carefully, pushing them to go deeper, and he encouraged me to be bolder as I returned to the script. I knew he was the one. Paula Vogel calls the peoplewho get you artistically “fellow travelers.” You just know when you meet one.

What does it mean to bring this play to Boston for its premiere?

 It means a great deal. The Huntington took a chance on me when I first moved to Boston and made me a Huntington Playwriting Fellow, and I am eternally grateful for that. This is also a story about two Boston men and I am excited that the play will premiere in the city where I first wrote and developed it. The pull of Boston is strong.This fall, I will begin running the playwriting program at MIT.

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