B O D Y editor Ben Williams interviewed playwright and performer Kate Benson in New York on October 3, 2014. Her play A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER ON THE BANKS OF THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT LAKES will be remounted in January at City Center, Stage II – Women’s Project space.
B O D Y: I think one of the big draws for your work is how funny a lot of it is.
Kate Benson: Thanks.
B O D Y: And it’s funny to read, too.
Kate Benson: Funny on the page.
B O D Y: Yeah you don’t have to have a big conceptual statement – you get it when you read it.
Kate Benson: With Great Lakes I’ve had a lot of meetings with people who are a little confused about the notes at the beginning that say this is how this should be staged. There are people who really want there to be a turkey, real bad.
B O D Y: And you don’t want that.
Kate Benson: Ever. Never.
B O D Y: Then we’ll definitely run that disclaimer: playwright insists – Samuel Beckett insists – that this is the way to do it. Don’t stray.
Kate Benson: You can do whatever you want, but not that–
B O D Y: Or we’ll sue. That’s a good lead into this discussion I wanted to have, which is that I think people are excited that you’re writing plays. And when I say people, I mean downtown people because a) they’re all folks who have worked with you, at some point, mostly as an actor, and b) you’re an actor who has worked on so many new plays. So that’s the lead-in to what you just said about knowing what you want, as a writer. Is that something you feel comes from having worked on so many new shows?
Kate Benson: Yeah and going to see a lot of things. And I frequently don’t know what I want, but I know what I don’t want. Because I’ve been in some deadly situations.
B O D Y: You’ve been in the trenches.
Kate Benson: I’ve been in the trenches.
B O D Y: A lot of people have been in the trenches, but have you worked on previously produced shows before? Or have you only ever done new work?
Kate Benson: Well I was in Three Sisters. Done some Brecht. I was in the worst production of Julius Caesar anyone’s every perpetrated on humanity.
B O D Y: If we quote you on that will you get in trouble?
Kate Benson: I don’t think so, no. I think that will be ok.
B O D Y: Because how much worse could it get?
Kate Benson: Oh it’s gonna be alright. It was fun. It was a great experience. We drove all over the South.
B O D Y: Oh it was a tour–
Kate Benson: A touring thing. And there was a short version and a long version.
B O D Y: What – a long version for Friday nights?
Kate Benson: Pretty much. For the grown-up arts councils. And then a short one for the quick three-in-a-row school crowds. Like that.
B O D Y: Ohhhhh.
Kate Benson: Yeah. Yeah. Yes. A great adventure. And Julius Caesar. So mostly though– oh and a kabuki play Benten Kozo. I was in that for a very long time. But most of the plays I’ve been in have been new. I don’t know how you consider Mac Wellman. We didn’t do the first production of a lot of things, but we certainly confused a lot of people. And delighted them with novelty.
B O D Y: Mac’s plays are definitely an exception. It’s not like you’re touring Julius Caesar.
Kate Benson: Yeah.
B O D Y: It’s unconventional and not frequently produced.
Kate Benson: Yes. Well, he was around, is one thing that makes it different.
B O D Y: When you say that what do you mean.
Kate Benson: He was there for rehearsals and excited about the productions and was advising and would come in to see what was happening.
B O D Y: What era is this – when Mac was doing things at the New York Theater Workshop?
Kate Benson: This is when Mac was doing things at the Flea.
B O D Y: Ok.
Kate Benson: I was in Cellophane and Cleveland at the Flea, and I understudied one of the furballs in Sincerity Forever. And then coming out of the Flea, three of us decided to do Three Americanisms in a Chashama space, and Linsay Firman was doing an Anne Washburn play called Apparition–
B O D Y: I remember that – that was one of the first shows I saw in New York.
Kate Benson: The one at Chashama or the one at the Vineyard?
B O D Y: It was definitely not at the Vineyard.
Kate Benson: Yep. That thing [Apparition] had one of the scariest moments I’ve ever had in the theater, which was T. Ryder Smith with the bag, and that scene–
B O D Y: T. Ryder can deliver like that–
Kate Benson: But so can Anne. This fact floating across the space was like: there’s a baby’s head in that bag. Nobody said it. They knew it was right…. I don’t know how that happens. That set a very high standard for me for – like you should terrify people in the theater. That’s important. I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. So instead I make dumb jokes.
B O D Y: Was that one of Anne’s first big shows? When was The Internationalist?
Kate Benson: The Internationalist was the next year. Another incredible thing. So we jumped in at the 10 o’clock spot at Chashama space, and performed Three Americanisms on the Apparition set. And Mac was around for that a lot. That was fantastic.
B O D Y: Is there another playwright whose work you’ve performed in more than Mac’s?
Kate Benson: That’s a really good question.
B O D Y: Who are your go-to people? Do you have any? Because I feel like I’ve seen you in so many shows. Have you worked with Erin Courtney before?
Kate Benson: I have. One of the best things that happened during St. Joan of the Stockyards was I was also in her Weasel Festival play, which was Nanny Goat Jane. So I got to run down from PS, walk up the three blocks, walk into CSC, and then into another play, which might be one of my most favorite things to do.
B O D Y: It’s fun to jump from show to show in the same day. Or it can be anyway.
Kate Benson: If you like both shows.
B O D Y: And if you don’t have to cross the whole island to get there.
Kate Benson: There can be weeping involved in that scenario, but if not, then it’s maybe the best. It’s a kind of cognitive whiplash.
B O D Y: How long have you been working as an actor in NY?
Kate Benson: I moved here in 1991 to go to school at NYU, so depending on whether we count college, either 23 or 20 years.
B O D Y: But by ’91 you’re seeing downtown shows.
Kate Benson: Yeah. And by ’95 I had probably figured things out and was seeing important shows.
B O D Y: Who else have you worked with the most?
Kate Benson: You know I’ve done a shit ton of readings with Ken Urban, and then I’ve been in two of his shows. Early readings with Jason Grote, one of his shows. You know, so it went like that a little bit – there were a lot of readings.
B O D Y: What about Bradshaw.
Kate Benson: Oh, yeah. Two Bradshaw plays. Only two? Two. That’s right. Those shows also blew things wide open for me, as far as what you’re supposed to do to an audience, and how an audience is supposed to be with you.
…Brecht. Three Brecht shows.
B O D Y: You did the one with Taylor Mac and the Foundry just recently.
Kate Benson: Yeah with Lear Debessonet. She went to the Foundry and said this is what I want to do, and they were like we don’t do old plays. And she was like: this will be new. And it was. Before Good Person I was in Lear’s St. Joan of the Stockyards.
B O D Y: I remember that.
Kate Benson: And that Baal at the Flea. Left Baal to go do the Julius Caesar situation. That was quite a run I was having there. Yeah probably the most new things: Mac. Two Sibyl Kempsons. I feel like I burn out my relationships after two shows.
B O D Y: Which of Sibyl’s, Potatoes of August?
Kate Benson: I was in Potatoes in Scott Adkins and Erin Courtney’s garden at the Cho-Chiqq Backyard BBQ Festival, but I didn’t do the Dixon Place run. But the first cast-of-thousands Crime or Emergency with Rich Maxwell and Mike Iveson on the piano, and a workshop of Kürbisgeist, also at Dixon Place – the old one.
B O D Y: I think it’s probably not so much that you do two shows and then burn out your relationships, I think it’s more that you do two shows and then someone else says “I have to have you in my show.” And then they grab you.
Kate Benson: Well I think that’s a better thought.
But I also think from the writing side, I can see how people get attached to actors. But then also casting is much weirder than I thought.
B O D Y: How so.
Kate Benson: You just know when someone is very, very good – and wrong. Wrong for the part. There’s nothing personal in it and there’s nothing volitional in it on anybody’s part. You can watch – there are so many really really good people, but there’s a real specific key-in-a-lock kind of situation and when it happens you know it and then, you know, you’ll give up a kidney to get that person to take the job. And so I feel like that’s important for – I want to see those plays where somebody was careful and smart about casting. I don’t want to see those plays where I’m looking at something that was cast because there’s a 20 year relationship – as much. I mean that stuff is interesting too.
B O D Y: That’s interesting. There can be so much taken for granted, in the 20 year relationship.
Kate Benson: Yeah there’s a lot of juice–
B O D Y: There’s a lot of Jews?
Kate Benson: A lot of juice.
B O D Y: I was thinking of Susie Sokol – lotta Jews!
Kate Benson: Ok ok there’s a lot of energy. I’m just gonna get right outta that. There’s a lot of energy in those long relationships and what the company is doing, and in a way you can’t cast outside for that. But or if you do you might make something that doesn’t fully cook. But I think people should – sometimes I am disappointed, but I don’t think casting is “well, I don’t think you’re good anymore.” I hope not!
B O D Y: On that idea of working as an actor who is really into a very collaborative process on developing a new show, and knowing that playwrights and directors like to work with certain people over and over again, or with certain people if they can, knowing that this person will help me make this show, will help me navigate very new territory – do you find yourself doing that when you’re writing?
Kate Benson: Yeah. Sometimes a person lands in my brain while I’m writing.
B O D Y: Yourself. You want to cast yourself.
Kate Benson: Sometimes. Always a mistake.
No sometimes I know what the cast is, or some actor, someone I know gets in there, and then I find myself thinking about how much fun it would be to make this person do that completely ridiculous action. But most of the time I have no idea what I’ve written, and then I know some smart people and I want to hear them read it out loud. And right now I’m very lucky to collaborate with Lee Sunday Evans, who knows how to cast and has a real good feel for actors. So we just did this table reading of another play and it was cast perfectly in shocking and amazing ways.
B O D Y: What was it, if you don’t mind talking about it.
Kate Benson: I can talk about it. It was [Porto]. Kate Scelsa was Porto. Mary Rasmussen was Dry Sack. They’re friends. It’s an attempt at a traditional romantic comedy with the genders reversed so that the woman is the eccentric exciting mess who does not fit any standard recipe for sexy girl and yet is an extremely sexy woman. And the guy is kind of a cipher a little bit. Cipher isn’t the right word. He’s not precisely the point.
B O D Y: So you guys have had a reading.
Kate Benson: Yeah we just got together around my dining room table and read it out loud.
B O D Y: I’ve read a play there – it’s a nice dining room table. Not a lot on the walls, so you’ve got to focus. It’s calming.
Kate Benson: It’s got a library feel, but there’s always a little bit of bourbon in the room.
B O D Y: No stairs. You just walk right in.
Kate Benson: True. Well there’s three little stairs.
B O D Y: But they’re going down.
Kate Benson: They are. You have to go up to get out of my reading. Only up from here! But no, house readings turns out to be really important, and knowing a lot of really good actors makes it all work.
B O D Y: I need to write myself a note before I forget something.
Kate Benson: (reads)
That says something?
B O D Y: I know what it means, but before I can get to that – if you just had a reading of another play, this means that you’re on a pretty good pace. You’re cranking shit out man.
Kate Benson: Yeah. You come out of Brooklyn College with four plays, if you weren’t having struggles. And I came out with a fifth started, in tutorial, that is gonna take years, but it’s getting there. So I think last time I counted there are eight now.
B O D Y: And you finished Mac’s program when?
Kate Benson: May. The day that Great Lakes officially opened was my last day of grad school.
B O D Y: That’s great timing.
Kate Benson: It worked out pretty well. I gave a 10-minute speech about brothels and Jean Genet and Proust, and then I ran to see Great Lakes.
B O D Y: You gave us that story at rehearsal for Julia’s show [Julia Jarcho’s Nomads]
Kate Benson: Right, because I saw you guys the next day in rehearsal up at Barnard.
B O D Y: Which was yet another new play.
Kate Benson: That’s a playwright I would do a lot to work with over and over and over and over again. That Julia Jarcho.
B O D Y: It’s on the record.
Kate Benson: I feel good about that.
B O D Y: Skipping back a couple of points, this note says “making people do ridiculous things.” And using that as a tactic, or as an inspiration, or whatever, to write. I feel like, also as an actor, that’s the kind of thing where you know what you like to perform. As an actor, you like those kinds of tasks or challenges, even if it’s an experiment that might not work out. But I feel like that’s an actor’s point of view, as opposed to other kinds of writers, who have other ideas…
Kate Benson: (laughs)
B O D Y: Lemme rephrase that. Because making people do ridiculous things could mean a lot of different things – it could result in some kind of performance art, it could result in something really conventional. But having read a few of your plays now, I feel like you have a good sense of what’s satisfying for an audience to see.
Kate Benson: Thanks.
B O D Y: I don’t want to say there’s something easy about that, but there’s not a lot of bullshit about it. You know what you’re getting into.
Kate Benson: I know what I’m getting into or they know?
B O D Y: You know what you’re getting into when you’re writing this – this goes back to how we began this conversation about knowing what you want. And if you don’t know exactly what you want, you definitely know what you don’t want…. I’m just trying to get you to say that you know what you’re doing when you create these kinds of ridiculous situations for actors to be in, because you know that they will be fun to watch.
Kate Benson: Yeah I don’t want anyone to be bored, really ever in life. Even though boredom has an important job, I’m not into it.
B O D Y: And you know that seems like a pretty obvious thing to do, when you’re dealing with live performance, and yet – fuck man, people have other ideas. They’re like no this show needs to be 10 hours long.
Kate Benson: My number one fear is making something boring, and every time I hear a play for the first time that I have caused, I’m sure that it’s boring. I just sit there thinking “this is boring, this is boring, what I wrote is boring.” So you don’t choose those kinds of fences, or those kinds of swamps to get caught in. They just find you. But I think that actors who are willing to be ridiculous are my favorite. I think that actors who want something noble out of the theater are doing something that I can’t find or see or understand. I think that actors who are trying to be attractive are doing a job I could never do.
So it’s not that I necessarily love clown, per se, but I like actors who are willing to throw their vanities down on the ground and stomp on them.
B O D Y: If not their dignity.
Kate Benson: Yeah, dignity.
B O D Y: That’s just kind of implied.
Kate Benson: And also I think that audiences don’t need help. And I think that it’s really important to write plays where people get to figure something out, and where people get to discover some things, and where people get confused, but I don’t necessarily also want to completely obscure whatever it is that made me try to write the thing in the first place. I want them to feel like “what the hell was that?” That seems like a good night at the theater.
B O D Y: That’s true. And I think different playwrights have very different ideas about how to get there. And one of the things that I like about your work is that you’re definitely not afraid to embrace something that’s pleasurable and that what other people in the avant garde might see as just conventional or maybe – I don’t know exactly. It’s hard to imagine what other people might imagine about your work, but what I’m thinking of is in the Lee Miller piece, where you set up this scene at one point in the play about how Lee Miller accidentally ended up discovering the process of solarization in photography, because this mouse ran across her foot on the floor. And then later on in the play, we get a scene from the point of view of the mice.
Kate Benson: Well they’re rats.
B O D Y: Right I’m sorry – you were just talking about the swamps earlier. Swamp rats. I got no problem with that – you read that: that’s a fun thing to read. You would want to see that in a show.
an excerpt from
flashbulb: Untitled (4 Rats)
4 director’s chairs: on the back, ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR.
Lee Miller sits in the chair marked ONE, Tanja Ramm in the chair marked TWO, Kiki of Montparnasse in the chair marked THREE, Man Ray in the chair marked FOUR.
ADR [automated dialogue replacement] again. They sit facing the screen, backs the audience, looping.
all the time.
I think about it all the time.
all I want to do
just get in there
just right in
it feels so good!
you think: you can’t
you won’t fit
no way this could work.
press the nose against it
feel it start to give
shut your eyes
you shut your eyes?
I don’t shut my eyes
of course you do
I never shut my eyes
it only works if
you shut your eyes
everything looks all
open all the way
B O D Y: Because in the course of that play, you don’t see it coming. Even on the page, the play is set up as a thing to make you think. It’s following a woman’s life, a real historical person, in the larger context of other real people, and then all of a sudden here are these rats. It’s almost a vaudeville thing, but it’s great. I don’t know other people who are writing that. Who are writing rat plays.
Kate Benson: Well there might be a rat, or a mouse, in every play. That might be one of the swamps you can’t escape. That might be true. Are there rats in Great Lakes? There are no rats in Great Lakes. There are rabbits in [Porto].
B O D Y: But I also like how different your plays are.I’m very curious to read the [Porto] play. Because if I read your works, I’m not sure that I’d be able to identify “oh this is a Kate Benson play.”
Kate Benson: Oh you’d – I don’t know…
B O D Y: It’s not like you’re trying to work out the same issue over and over again.
Kate Benson: A little. But no. I think there are a couple of constant goals, though, and one is to make a theater that looks like the streets that I live on. More than like the boardrooms that exist in this city. Which sounds like it’s about class, and I don’t necessarily–
B O D Y: Like modes of life?
Kate Benson: Yeah there are some pet projects that keep coming up, like rats. I think the street is more exciting than the living room. And I think that any space you can make that’s like a street is going to be more full of surprise, unpredictability, surprising people in charge, surprising disasters, surprising moments of beauty – in a way that, in a living room, we know living rooms real good from television, film, life. They’re matching. They’re about matching. Does the painting match the sofa. And if you just go for a walk, you have no control over what you may or may not see. And so I want plays that do that. I don’t know if I can make them that way, because I have a kind of mathematical brain, so I keep making patterns even if I try not to. So I’m not sure my plays are so chaotic. I have not achieved Radiohole.
But I think surprise is important.
B O D Y: And I think it’s a different thing to have patterns that just keep repeating and to have patterns that change. Because the pattern can change.
Kate Benson: Yeah. I hope when I get better at this, I get smarter about how to surprisingly break the pattern. Great Lakes has an ending that is not necessarily perceived in the first 10 lines–
B O D Y: No not at all.
Kate Benson: And I’m pretty happy about that. That took a lot of work on the collaboration front to make that happen.
B O D Y: A big chunk of that play is a self-contained kind of unit, and then, just when you think it’s going to close, it blows open.
Kate Benson: I also think that women should be front and center. But I think men are pretty interesting too, so I find myself constantly trying to navigate that balance.
B O D Y: Also if you’re on a street, it’s easier to do that – there’s not as many expectations or conventions about what’s supposed to happen.
Kate Benson: It’s a freer space, absolutely. I think plays that happen outside in the world are exciting. Even though Great Lakes is in a very claustrophobic place in a way. The Annie Baker play The Aliens happens out back behind the store – it’s so much more exciting that it happens outside the store than inside the store. Because we know what inside of the store is. But under the sky is a real good place for the theater I think.
KATE BENSON is a writer and actor living in Brooklyn. Her plays include A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes, produced by New Georges in 2014, [PORTO], Lee Miller, and Radium Now. She is a member of the Jam at New Georges and the 2014-15 Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab, and she is a graduate of the Brooklyn College MFA Playwriting program. Kate is the recipient of the Clubbed Thumb Biennial Commission and has had readings and showings of her work at Dixon Place, 13th St. Theater, Jimmy’s No. 43, and the Room at New Georges. As an actor, she has appeared at the Public, NYTW, the Flea, PS 122, the Incubator, and LaMama.