Over coffee on a snowy January afternoon, I sat down with playwright Ken Urban and director Stephen Brackett to discuss their provocative new show The Correspondent, now running at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. I first met Ken Urban in 2008, when I directed his play The Private Lives of Eskimos (or 16 Words for Snow) for The Mill in Chicago. Like Eskimos, Ken’s new play deals with the repercussions of the untimely death of a loved one. In The Correspondent, a grieving husband hires a dying woman to deliver a message to his recently deceased wife in the afterlife. When he receives letters describing events that only his wife could know, he must determine if the correspondence is from a con artist or if his wife has returned from the grave. After seeing a reading of the play, I wanted to sit down with Ken and Stephen and find out where the play came from and how they were bringing it to life, including the play’s explicit sex scene.
Jaclyn Biskup (Rail): I couldn’t help but notice in the acknowledgments that you thank Brian Rogers for introducing you to the Afterlife Telegram Service, which inspired the play. I was surprised that this type of service is a real thing. Was that your original entry point into the story, or did some of the ideas of the play exist before that?
Ken Urban: I first learned about the Afterlife Telegram Service during a workshop back in 2006. I was working on a project inspired by the Terri Schiavo case at the Chocolate Factory in Long Island City with artistic director Brian Rogers. Everyone was bringing in research and Brian found this website where you could hire a terminally ill person to bring a message to a deceased loved one. I was intrigued by the service, and at the time, I had just moved to the Boston area, so those two events were the entry point into the play that became The Correspondent.
Rail: Do you believe in an afterlife, ghosts, or something else? If so, have you ever had any personal encounters? As a reluctant Atheist, I find that I still have a nonsensical fear of ghosts. In fact, the night my grandfather passed, I had the totally irrational fear that he would appear to me, and it was totally terrifying. He didn’t, but I definitely felt what I could only describe as a shift in energy right around the time he died. I was in my bed, not really sleeping, totally tense and all the sudden around 2 a.m. (the time of his passing), everything just released and I felt really calm.
Urban: As a writer, I enjoy imagining characters who possess a belief system different from my own. I don’t believe in ghosts or an afterlife. We live only to become food for worms. Yet, I was raised Catholic and that stuff never leaves you. In my unconscious, there’s a part of me that desires for there to be more. Rationally, I know this life is all we have, and that truth demands that we make the most of life. Yet, it is impossible not to understand how comforting it is to believe that loved ones we’ve lost are still present in some fashion. Sometimes memories aren’t enough. That is true for Philip in The Correspondent. He has unfinished business with his wife, Charlotte, and her death has robbed him of answers. He needs her back, not as an idea, but as a physical presence.
Stephen Brackett: I believe that people have individual relationships with the dead, and those stories can be spiritual, haunting, even mundane. While I do not believe in ghosts, I’ve had moments in my life where I have felt an extreme closeness with someone I’ve lost. Personally, I can get quite lost in pondering the question of what happens to one after death, what happens to one’s soul. I’d like to believe that there is an afterlife, that there is a world in which I will be reunited with family members who have passed, but the rational part of me kicks in and ultimately believes in science. I’ve always read ghost stories as reflecting psychological issues the living have with the deceased. And, most definitely, that perspective is shaping my view of Ken’s beautiful and difficult play.
Rail: The untimely or unexpected loss of a loved one is a recurring theme in your work. Personally, I try to avoid thinking about the fact that everyone I love will one day die. You, on the other hand, spend a lot of time thinking about it. What do you think compels you to keep writing about it?
Urban: The act of writing my first play and the death of my grandmother are intertwined. When I was 8, my grandmother suffered a brain aneurism while I was home alone with her. Her death was incredibly hard for me because I could not process it. Shortly after, without any prompting from anyone, I wrote a play. I had never seen a play, not even one in school, but that play was a way of coping. That is why grief is a subject I return to time and time again. Hand in hand with grief is my fascination with the idea of the tragic. In a tragedy, regardless of what choice a character makes, that character faces loss. Perhaps that is the cruel joke of life: we live just to die. But—and this is Nietzsche’s idea of tragedy—what the tragic spectacle shows us is the poverty of ethical categories. The tragic hero is not good or evil.
Rail: I’m so sorry that happened to you as a child. I’ve joked with you that this play makes me want to give you a hug. But, really what I mean is that the play feels so personal; you leave your whole heart and soul out there, and yet the circumstances are so clearly outside of who you are as a person. It makes a lot of sense, hearing about your grandmother and your childhood. I was weeping during the reading of The Correspondent: for Philip, for you, for me. Your interest in tragedy seems to reflect and facilitate a moral ambiguity amongst your characters, as well as a general ambiguity toward what is actually happening. I wish I could be more specific here, but I certainly don’t want to spoil the play for anyone. But, is there anything you can say about the questions of authenticity that arise, without giving too much away?
Urban: I do try to write truthfully about difficult things. And being truthful means no judgments and no cynicism.
Rail: My own experience of grief was very alienating. Again, I think about the loss of my grandfather. I remember it was summer and very sunny and hot outside. I, of course, was in rehearsal for something and I had to be there instead of with my family, grieving. There was a major disconnect between myself and my surroundings. I remember thinking how strange it felt, like I was in a parallel universe—everything was sunny, everyone happy, and my world was not.
Urban: It is important to not sentimentalize the experience of grief. The disconnect that you describe can actually lead to anger, violence, sexual confusion. Never forget that the person in the throes of grief can act in cruel ways. In my own experience, the day of my grandmother’s funeral I actually said to my paternal grandmother, who was taking care of me, that I wished she had died instead of my other grandmother. I was in pain and I said something incredibly hurtful. I suspect she never forgave me for that. Where did that rage come from? No one let me experience the pain of that loss. Or acknowledged that she died while I was alone with her. I alone had been there when she “passed,” as they all euphemistically said. Whenever my mother broke down or someone got upset, I was escorted out of the room. So I acted out.
Rail: What happens to Philip in the play is pretty cruel. Do you think he is just being taken advantage of, or do you see him as complicit in this cruelty? Do you see him as more than just a victim?
Urban: Philip is no more a victim or a victimizer than anyone else in the play. What unites all three characters is anger, need, desire.
Rail: How do you stage grief? What are the rehearsal room challenges?
Brackett: Ken and I are lucky in that we have a room of disciplined and nuanced actors; none of them want to sob their way through the show. There has been a real interest in vigorously understanding the process of grief, and the behavior of grief. This ranges from despair to relief to surprising moments of levity and capacities for joy. We’ve talked a lot about how one relates to other people in moments of grief, and how sometimes grief opens you up to allow for incredibly meaningful and deep relationships with people you barely know. That has been a lovely aspect of this play to pursue, the way in which grief can open you to experience aspects of life you might normally dismiss.
Rail: And the sex scene?
Urban: It’s intense and beautiful. That’s all we should say about that.
The Correspondent by Ken Urban is directed by Stephen Brackett and features Thomas Jay Ryan, Jordan Geiger, and Heather Alicia Simms. It runs January 29 – March 16 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place. For tickets and more information visit www.rattlestick.org.
JACLYN BISKUP is a freelance director and acting coach working in N.Y.C. and Chicago.