Saturday, December 10, 2011

"I was ruined by hippie chicks and bohemian girls. At this point, it became clear that I could either be a creative artist or a Modern Orthodox Jew..."
-Larry Kunofsky
Playwright

You have a religious background, can you tell me about that?


It's weird to think of a playwright as someone who was religious, isn't it? I'm not entirely sure on a conscious level why that is, but as I was processing your question, it hit me in a wave, objectively. Theater uses ritual and provides a place for community, which is very similar to religion, and yet so many plays - and so many of MY plays - have naked people in them, and the 7 words you can't say on television, and all kind of violations of the Ten Commandments. So there is a tension there.

I was raised in the Modern Orthodox Jewish tradition. Often, when I when I tell people this, all they hear is "Orthodox," and they picture me as a youth running around in a black suit, black hat, and peyes (those curly side-curls of hair that Chasidic men have). But although Modern Orthodoxy involves a deep commitment to Judaism (keeping strictly Kosher; not working on the Sabbath or other Holy Days; praying three times a day, all of which were a huge part of my earlier life), it also allows for a life within a larger community, rather than a life overtly apart from mainstream society, the way that the ultra-Orthodox Chasidim who clearly live an insular, hermetic life.

My dad was a dentist and my mom was his receptionist (who also ran his business) and although they were deeply proud of their religion, they appeared like a typical middle aged couple, and through their work, they developed close friendships with people from outside their community. My dad wore a yarmulke in our neighborhood, but not at work. My mom covered her hair, but only in synagogue. I always wore a yarmulke until I stopped being religious. But I was a fairly typical suburban kid. I listened to cool music. I went to the movies a lot. And I watched A LOT of TV. And it was on TV that I saw the American Playhouse televised broadcast of The House Of Blue Leaves when I was 15, which inspired me to become a playwright.

I went to a yeshiva all through grade school, where there was equal focus on the secular subjects like Math and English as there was on the religious subjects like Bible study and Talmud. I was a total true believer until I was around 19 and I loved all the stories of The Bible.

My project, THE GENESIS TAPESTRIES, which is a cycle of plays inspired by The Book of Genesis (of which the play I currently have up, The Myths We Need - or - How To Begin, is the first part) probably began as a seed of an idea when I was still in yeshiva. In third grade, I played Hagar, banished into the desert, (I wore my mom's wig and acted my heart out!) and even then I made up stories that were based on the Old Testament, just as I created stories based on my favorite superheroes.

I thought these biblical texts were so imaginative and dark and weird. Even when I was deeply immersed in religion, I was always a little shocked that we were supposed to look at the main characters of the Old Testament as bastions of Jewish ethics, since all the characters were so deeply flawed (which made them so interesting to me). When I read The Old Testament now, it seems like a very political text, dealing mainly in tribalism. I'm not trying to disparage these texts, but I never cease to be amazed by how Jacob tricks his brother and the Israelites smite all the other tribes, and how the apparent message is, this is what the Jews had to do to survive. (And maybe that's true, but I don't know if I feel so great about that, personally.) The other thing that always amazes me when I reread The Old Testament is how paternal, cranky, needy, bi-polar, and mean God is in these texts. This definitely comes up in my play.

When did you start to move into another direction (or however you want to call it) "branch out" so to speak?

I was 19. I was encouraged to find a Nice Jewish Girl to marry. But all the Nice Jewish Girls I knew were looking to marry a lawyer. I know how hateful this sounds! (I'm sure it was only true within the lens of an extremely limited worldview of a 19-year-old.) But it became immediately clear to me in college that a lot of arty, literary, film-geeky, and theater-immersed girls - most of whom were not Nice Jewish Girls - seemed to be interested in what I had to say and what I wanted to do. And that was it. I was ruined by hippie chicks and bohemian girls. At this point, it became clear that I could either be a creative artist or a Modern Orthodox Jew. Here in the present, as a full-scale adult, I don't believe that this need be true. But it felt true to me at the time. So I made the choice I made. So it was sex first. And then art. And then food. I remember eating my first non-Kosher hot dog and how it felt like dropping acid. But that might have something to do with the mysterious ingredients of non-Kosher hot dogs.

You have said (or I read) that you are more Dionysian (or was it hedonistic - I can't remember) How do you balance or integrate the two - particularly in the beginning? And not to get Barbara Walters on your ass (but if you cry it's cool, no one can see), did you have to reconcile feelings of shame of guilt in negotiating the two?

Micheline, you can go Barbara Walters on my ass any time. I'll tell you what kind of tree I would be. I'll cry about my not winning an Oscar, whatever you need.

I referred to myself as hedonistic in another interview to illustrate how secular I am. But I don't want to suggest to people that I have showgirls pouring chocolate over my naked body at orgies on a regular basis. That only happened a couple times.

But I must admit that even though I gave up being religious a long time ago, I still get a visceral thrill at being purely secular in so many ways. It's liberating, as if I've finally come into my own when I gave up my religious practice. That doesn't mean I have negative views of religious people - I actually have a deep respect for those who use religion to guide them towards an ethical life and towards a sustainable and nurturing community. I'm just not one of those people, and I'm at peace with not being one of those people and still get greater and greater joy at discovering who I am apart from all that.

I felt tremendous guilt and shame about disappointing my parents when I gave up religion, but in retrospect, I view my disappointing them as an important stage of growing up. Both my parents are gone now and even though it always made them sad that I didn't feel the same joy in religion as they did, I think they lived long enough to realize that this was about me coming into my own as well.

My play deals a lot with the shame that Adam & Eve felt at their own bodies once they "knew" each other, and the shame that God makes them feel, and this is the part of the ancient story that makes me angry. We should never feel shame or guilt about our own bodies or our own nature, but we do need to develop ethics and morality in order to guide us once we discover who we are and what we're capable of. Organized religion has always tried to govern people through shame and guilt, and I think this is terrible. But at the same time, when I see what world leaders and CEOs have done (and often in the so-called name of God, perversely), I question where their guilt and shame is.

Everything in life is about balance. If we feel too much guilt and shame, we end up hating ourselves and we then treat others through that shame, guilt, hatred as if it were the very engine of life. But we need to develop a conscience, and maybe some degree of guilt and shame is necessary for that. (ie, if I treated someone like that, I could never look at myself in the mirror again.) Balance. It's not an easy thing.

You had mentioned in your wonderful interview with Jody Christopherson for the New York Theatre Review that the myths of the bible are there to help us grapple with issues of gender. Can you expand on that?

Gender is a fluid construct and Purple Rep, my theatre company, was designed, in part, to present plays that explore this fluidity. Within mainstream society, we still view gender through a very rigid framework, and this makes the story of Adam & Eve that much more relevant today. One can look at The Old Testament in much the same way that we look at Shakespeare's plays, when it comes to gender. Women are subjugated in these texts, and given a raw deal. But I think it's important to look at these texts not just as a history of gender inequality, but as a key to how difference itself is always viewed as dubious or threatening by we humans, a species predisposed to suspicipon.

For anyone reading this interview who suspects that my play must be very egg-heady, now would be a good time to point out that The Myths We Need is all about sex, and there's sex in all kinds of variety. There's an underlying homo-eroticism between God and man in my play. And Lilith and Eve totally get it on.

What I love about the story of Genesis is how, when Adam and Eve make love, they "know" each other. The idea that love is knowledge and that knowledge is love is a deeply beautiful concept to me. But they get punished for their knowledge, and Eve much more so than Adam. And so I wrote a play that addresses this gender inequality through a contemporary lens. The main character is The Kid (who is basically Adam, the first man) , and his journey is to discover what kind of man he is. Ultimately, he discovers that the best part of himself as a man is his love of a woman. And so Adam & Eve find paradise once they're expelled from paradise, as they build an equality between them.

Do you pray?

I must confess that I do. I don't consider myself religious, and I don't even really consider myself spiritual, but I have been unable to escape the need for prayer. Sometimes I pray for very specific things for myself. This kind of prayer always makes me feel a little guilty, since the idea of asking God for a good review seems deeply unseemly to me. I do pray for justice for the oppressed and peace for the whole world. I pray for people I know who are sick or suffering. I pray out of joy when I'm happy. This might detract further from the notion that I'm just a secular hedonist, but I have thrown off all trappings of organized religion, so some might even consider me a heretic. Which I like. That sounds so badass!

I think of prayer as a kind of art form, just like playwriting. And when I'm inspired along these lines, I go at it. It's always by myself, usually in my apartment. I don't go to any places of worship. I write in cafes, in libraries, etc., and along those lines, I pray wherever the mood hits me. It's very internal. It's like when I'm coming up with an idea for a play. I walk around in a daze. I've definitely run into people I know on the street when I was coming up with play ideas or praying, and it's clear from the look on the other person's face that I'd been talking to myself in the middle of the street, and that they suspect that I must be off my meds. So all of this might just be symptoms of my mental illness. But, as with writing plays, prayers provide me solace. So crazy with solace is better than sane unconsoled, I say.

What is your concept of God?

I do believe in God. Not as an old dude with a beard, but as the source for beauty and joy and life itself. Whenever I feel joy or see the beauty in the world, it heals me from my revert-to-default existential dread that the universe is governed by randomness.

As a creative artist, I think of the part in Genesis that claims that God created man in His image, and I transfer that to Man creating Art in God's image. Somebody else might claim that this is making graven images. But those people are too uptight. Whenever I hear The Beatles' Abbey Road or watch a great Looney Tunes cartoon, or read a short story like John Cheever's The Swimmer or Delmore Schwartz's In Dreams Begin Responsibility, I think that there must be a God. Because humans suck so much, so much of the time, with their wars and their greeds, and their bigotries, and their abuses of power, etc., and so through art, I feel that humanity has been given a glimmer of a reflection of God that might redeem our species.

Purple Rep, in addition to producing Myths, has commissioned a group of fantastic playwrights for the Dark Night Serials Series. Can you talk a little about that? Is there a theme involved? How did you chose your playwrights?Are you deeply entrenched in the burlesque scene? Have you ever done burlesque?

I was hell bent on having Purple Rep present The Myths We Need this month, because it was the only time this year that I'd have the opportunity to work with director Jose Zayas, who really wanted to direct this play, but who is much too sought-after to pin down for too long. So I made this production happen at the spur-of-the-moment. But how could Purple Rep just do one show at a time? We're supposed to be a playwrights' collective that produces plays in rep. And so I devised PURPLE REP PRESENTS: THE DARK NIGHT SERIALS SERIES, which is a weekly, Monday night variety show, in which 8 full-length plays by 8 playwrights will be produced in serialized form. So if you come to the Series on any given Monday night, you'll see four scenes from the 8 plays and you tune in next week to see another line-up. And so it's fun to come to just one evening of the Series, but if you keep up with the series, you will see all these plays in their entirety. And that's my way of putting the Rep back into Purple Rep.

The 8 playwrights in question are Johnna Adams; Charlotte Miller; August Schulenburg; James Comtois; Brendan Burke; Kristen Palmer; Adam Szymkowicz; and... who's the other one...? Oh yeah: me. I chose these playwrights because I knew and loved their work. As curator of the event, I curated the playwrights, not the plays. I gave the playwrights absolute autonomy of which of their plays they'd select, who their directors would be, and who they'd cast. My only instructions have been that the plays need to be broken down into 15 minute installments and that the actors have to be off-book.

We had our first installment last Monday, and it was gorgeous! The level of commitment among all the artists was just remarkable.Everybody should come see the next installment this Monday. Oh, did I mention that this event is FREE to the public? I don't know about your readers, Micheline, but I, for one, tend to get the blues on Mondays. Nothing beats the blues better than this venue. I guarantee it. If you show up on Monday and are not ecstatically happy after the show, I'll give you your money back. Which is very difficult to do, since the event is free, but still...!

Along with the plays, this event features musicians, performances artists and the like. So far, we've been a little light on burlesque, which is a shame, because I love burlesque. I think it's the next chapter in independent theatre. But I remain, sadly, an outsider in this world. I hope that as Purple Rep grows, we will involve more and more burlesque artists (women burlesquers; men burlesquers; transgendered burlesquers; burlesquers of every stripe and every body type!). I have a dream of commissioning four playwrights and four burlesque artists to collaborate on four plays. But that's for somewhere down the road. I've never done burlesque myself. I tend to suspect that large audiences would prefer that I keep my clothes on, but I do secretly wish I could be a burlesque artist. Maybe in another life. Or maybe in this one, but later. I'd probably need to gain a sense of rhythm. And lose about fifteen pounds.

Are you a good bartender?


I tend bar at every performance of my play and at the Dark Night Serials in order to drum up some extra cash for the company. I'm like Isaac from the Love Boat. I pour and smile and people seem to like me. So yeah.

If Eve offered you the apple, would you take a bite?

Oh, sweetie, she offered me a bite a long time ago. And I bit. I bit and bit and bit. I ate it all.

The Myths We Need - or - How to Begin was written by Larry Kunofsky, directed by Jose Zayas, and features Luke Forbes, Anna Lamadrid, Annie Henk, and Hugh Sinclair. You can catch it at The Monkey @ 37 West 26th Street. Tickets are $18. Shows are Thurs-Sun 8, 9, 10, 11 and 15, 16, 17, and 18, all at 8pm.

To purchase tickets, bite into this.

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