Kate E. Ryan: Spectacle of the Unassuming
Friday night I hung out with Cherry you know?
And we went to like Puppy’s and late at night this guy came in she knew, Steve, um Raback? He used to work at Haggett’s? He looked familiar but I didn’t know him or anything and they were getting another drink but I didn’t, you know, I was just ready to go so I did. But we were in Tarry Town, you know? so I stopped to you know, Cupcake, Cafeteria? And I went in there just expecting to get something to go but it was like really crowded it was like s—like a late-night cafeteria… crowd I didn’t know existed it was like kind of a, hip scene, real crowded. And I went up and I ah… the only cupcake I’ve had there is the like strawberry one? So I went up and I ah… asked for the chocolate coconut one have you had that?
No… I’ve never, eaten there.
Really? It’s so good. They have cookies too they have other stuff if you don’t like cupcakes. So I went up there and I um. Sve—I asked for this chocolate coconut one ‘cause it looked really good and h, I wasn’t really ready to go to sleep you know how coff- chocolate can kinda keep you up. For a little bit. It has a little bit a caffeine in it. I just wanted like a—you know I was feeling kinda like, I was gonna fall asleep. So ah
Why didn’t you just go home.
I don’t know I just… You know how that… So I got that but then the guy behind the counter this kid, he’s he was pretty nice he was like you know, get—don’t get that one get the ah vanilla one. So, instead I got the vanilla one and then I like sat at a, table and ah you know you get the little wax paper and ah. Ate my vanilla cupcake and it was damn good. The, filling inside though, it tasted kinda sour.
Yeah it was weird. It was like normal cupcake, and the frosting was like vanilla and coconut but then inside the filling tasted sour.
Yeah but you should go there it was quite a scene they were playing like rock music? It was fun.
— from Design Your Kitchen
Humor does not stand up well to deconstruction. I’ve heard Kate Ryan’s Design Your Kitchen read numerous times, have seen productions by Clubbed Thumb and The Flea Theater, and each time, this section retains an arresting, haunting hilarity. It sneaks up on you. “Why does it do that?” I muse to Ryan. She is almost equally perplexed. She explains that before she heard this segment performed, she didn’t know why it was in the play and nearly cut it. We decide what works has to do with the weird chop/flow of language and familiarity/otherness of the whole exchange.
Ryan has a penchant for thwarting audience expectation that leads to these incredibly fresh moments of live theater. “It comes from my rebellion. To make you pay more attention,” she says. Sometimes, she does this with unexpected language and punctuation. Having performed in her work, I remember how particular she is about oddly placed pauses in the dialogue: “They’re not Pinter pauses, full of portent, my pauses are just space. Nothing is happening. You have to wait.”
Part of Ryan’s self imposed writing training has consisted of transcribing actual conversations. “I love to do it and it’s taught me a lot.”
In terms of structure, Ryan asks herself, “What is the driving force of a play if it’s not story or psychology?” Her newest play, Mark Smith, finds its arc in the incongruent progression of events among a range of characters. She follows a traditional theatrical plot arc more like a music score in terms of building tension through length of scene, number of characters and the emotional tone of each scene.
Riffs on music permeate the play, and fittingly so. Mark Smith is a lesser known rock star, front man of a band called Cheetah, and the piece follows the making of a documentary about the musician. Over the course of the play, an interviewer talks with various characters from Smith’s hometown. During these talks, the interviewer is an unseen, unheard character to which the documentary subjects play. The result, slyly effective, is for the audience take on the interviewer’s perspective. But part way through, the interviewer is fired. The audience loses its guide, and viewers are compelled to give up their sense of control in the process. They are left to piece together the reality for themselves, unmediated, as characters reveal themselves from new perspectives including a romance at the catering table and a basement jam session.
“We are exposed to so much television and film these days, why make theater?” posits Ryan, who was interested in what a play could do with the fake documentary genre– where it might elevate the concept and where it might fall short.
My guess is that Mark Smith will be informed by Ryan’s musical ear and love of the spontaneously performed song. As in song writing, although she may be pushing structure and form, there is a playfulness and simplicity to Ryan’s playwriting that seems to ask, unassumingly and with true curiosity: What are these characters talking about? What are they up to? Ryan often catches her characters during slightly inopportune moments or moods, a knack that boosts the live quality of the piece.
From Mark Smith:
(SERGEI is talking to the INTERVIEWER. He is in his house.)
My name is Sergei Garafalo. I’m the music teacher here. Been the music teacher for about twenty-seven years.
All of those Smith kids had some talent. And they were disciplined, too. Their parents taught them that. You can have the talent, and you can have the dedication, but that doesn’t add up to anything unless you also have the discipline to practice. I encouraged my students to practice upwards of four hours per day. It was a lot. It’s a lot for some kids. Some of them went on to become professional musicians.
Mark was every bit the star, even in high school. He was handsome, and he was funny, bright, you know, but not too bright? Well, some of his siblings, especially that Sarah, shame what happened to her, they really were the brightest kids in the school. They scored well on all the tests, were very curious, went on to have very interesting lives. Mark, he didn’t do quite as well.
He’d take one of my instruments home with him—I was always giving the kids these instruments. They were necessary for my concerts. And instead of practicing with it, as he was supposed to do, he would put stuff on it. Stickers. Labels. And then bring it back. Eventually I threw him out of the music program. I had to.
Cheetah came to Yark must have been 20 years ago. And I went. I took a girl as my date and we went. And I got to tell you, I was sorry I took her. Never saw that girl again.
No, I’m not married.
I was married, yes, a very long time ago, for a very brief period of time.
I am very focused. I am a composer as well as a music teacher.
My compositions? Avant-garde rural. That’s the term I’ve come up with. Because I am inspired by what’s around me—the animals, the nature—you know. The wild, uninhibited milieu. And the musicians who live in the big cities—they’re inspired by, I guess, traffic. Hard noises. Industrial noises. And the general hustle-bustle. I’m inspired by the woods at night, the quiet.
Oh, it’s gorgeous. It’s gorgeous country. Thanks.
I’m from New York. I went to Columbia.
I was—I got married there, lived there for a while with my wife. Then we got, you know we got a divorce. Moved out here. Been here ever since.
I hate Mark’s music. Mark’s music is disgusting. But as I said, I liked the Smiths. The Smiths are a great family. Is Margaret still living?
Good. Give her my best.
My hybrid instruments are, well—I can show you a couple. Hold on.
(He goes to another part of the room and gets a few instruments. He plays them a little as he describes them. This text may change based on the instruments that Ken and Karinne create.)
Triangle-angle. This is a cross between a triangle and an erector set.
Floutaphone. This is a cross between a telephone and a flute.
Greenscale. This is cross between calcified grass and counterfeit bills. See, it plays kind of like a washboard.
I do have patents on them.
On, ah, all that I just showed you here except the triangle-angle. Somebody—some guy not too far away, coincidentally, in Dover, has the patent on an instrument called the flexi-tube, which is very similar in that it’s a metal tube that you strike, and by bending the instrument—the tubes are attached together like joints—the player can produce different tones. So they rejected my patent, which was similar, although mine involved the technology of an entirely different tool—the erector set.
Did you have one of those? Do you know what I’m talking about?
Mark Smith, a 13P production, runs June 3-24 at Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street (between Church Street and Broadway). The piece has been a yearlong collaboration with director Ken Rus Schmoll and designer Ken Nintzel. Tickets: $15, at www.smarttix.com or 212-868-4444. For more information: www.13P.org
Kate Ryan grew up in a small town in New Hampshire where one of her past times as a child was creating parades and spectacles in the neighborhood. As an adult, her plays lend themselves to lush collaborations of performance and design. She is a graduate of the MFA Playwriting Program at Brooklyn College, and is 13P’s P#5.
Rachel Hoeffels play Quail had a production in Clubbed Thumbs Summerworks 2006. It ran June 18-25 at the Ohio Theater. For more information: www.clubbedthumb.org Ryan and Hoeffel met in 2001 in a Pataphysics playwriting workshop at the Flea Theater.