INDIALOGUE

Deserving in Kansas: Catherine Trieschmann

Catherine Trieschmann offers New York a breath of fresh air from the red states, writing non-ironically from a small town in Kansas. I was introduced to Catherine’s sharp-edged but inclusive work through the beautiful production of her play Crooked with Women’s Project Theater in 2008. Crooked is an emotionally rich story of a girl with a crooked back finding God and love with a lesbian-esque crush on a Bible-thumping peer, much to the confusion (and horror) of her hip, atheist mother. I absolutely loved how the play simultaneously challenged and valued the viewpoints of the average theater-goer by presenting characters that sprung out of their neatly categorized boxes and came to messy three-dimensional life, hearts on fire and heads racing to catch up. So I jumped at the chance to talk with Catherine about what will be her third New York production, and her third production with Women’s Project, The Most Deserving, a comedy that goes behind the scenes of the arts-grant selection process in a small town in Kansas.

Catherine is not a native of Kansas. She’s from Georgia, transplanted to Kansas by way of her husband’s position as a philosophy professor at Fort Hays State University. She lives a peaceful life there, finding space to think and write in the quiet town of Hays while raising two small children (something that is not so quiet at all). Writing, for her, is the place where she breaks free and behaves badly. As do many of the townspeople desperate to prove themselves deserving of a small arts grant in her latest play. As I read The Most Deserving I was struck by how the situation in the provincial setting of the script resonates with any setting: insider dealings, limited funds, and passionate questions about what makes someone a “real artist” are certainly relevant to an urban arts board as well as a rural one—but the rural setting is essential to the play and provides characters that don’t always get their due on the city stage:

JOLENE

Did you see the painting he gave the blue ribbon to?

LIZ

Yes.

JOLENE

And you found that painting appropriate for a public gallery?

LIZ

thought the brushwork was energetic and the colors vibrant. I wasn’t surprised it won.

EDIE

Oh dear.

DWAYNE

I think it’s fair to say, taste is more liberal at the college.

EDIE

Some of our supporters were offended.

LIZ

Why? Because the girl was nude? Would our supporters be offended by Michelangelo? By Leonardo da Vinci?

JOLENE

Of course not.

TED (overlapping)

Yes.

JOLENE

What? No, they wouldn’t, Ted. I think I know. I’m the one who fields the complaints. And what are you doing? Are you texting?

TED

No.

JOLENE

I can see your phone. Who are you texting?

TED

I’m not texting. I’m playing Scrabble.

JOLENE

Put it away, Ted, for crying out loud, and the problem was not that the girl was nude. The problem was a) she was spread eagle on the hood of the car, and b) it was Heather Dinkle.

EDIE

Poor Pam.

LIZ

Pam?

EDIE

Pam Dinkle, Heather’s mother. She’s married to Bobby Dinkle, Dinkle’s Dry Cleaning?

Under the surface of the witty dialogue are the politics of arts patronage and an investigation of what motivates human beings to commit themselves to a life in the arts. Ultimately, says Catherine, the play is rooted in “the dichotomy of insecurity and ambition” inherent in being an artist, and exploring how that operates in a climate of artistic drought.

I found myself curious how Catherine finds an artistic community in the sparse frontier landscape that she lives in, which boasts rodeo and mutton busting, speedway racing and demolition derby for entertainment. Catherine says she misses having collaborators close to home, but it’s easy to see how her experience as an outsider in Hays, Kansas, has provided inspiration, as in this moment from her play How the World Began:

MICAH

Most people who aren’t from here don’t want to come here.

SUSAN

Well, that may have been true at first. Plainview is at least 1,300 miles away from anyone I know. But as I drove into town off of I-70 and saw the flint hills melt away and the town grow straight out of the dirt. There was something about it, even with all the destruction. Sky. Lightness. I thought, this will be the perfect place to start over.

MICAH

Start over from what?

SUSAN

From...that’s kind of personal, actually. I’m not comfortable talking about it with a student.

MICAH

Okay.

SUSAN

But I hope you feel comfortable talking to me. I mean, you can tell me anything that’s concerning you about school or...you know, there are other people you could talk to, if you’re uncomfortable. The school counselor. What’s her name? Marcia something?

MICAH

Ms. Kelch. She used to own Plainview Drugs.

SUSAN

When did she become the counselor?

MICAH

Last week.

SUSAN

Well I’m sure she’s qualified. I mean, they don’t just appoint school counselors willy nilly do they? Do they?

MICAH

She got a degree in psychology from Fort Hays State 40 years ago.

SUSAN

Then we’re lucky the field of psychology hasn’t changed much in 40 years, aren’t we? My God, what are any of us doing here? Would you like a ride home?

MICAH

Why?

SUSAN

It’s been a long day, for you. I imagine. Let me give you a ride. Where do you live?

MICAH

I stay at the Dinkle’s.

SUSAN

As in Cade Dinkle, third period?

MICAH

No, he’s their nephew. But it’s close. I can walk.

SUSAN

If that’s what you’d prefer.

MICAH

Yeah. So. See ’ya.

(He picks up his backpack and heads for the door.)

SUSAN

Yes. Tomorrow. Third period.
(Micah opens the door and steps outside. Wind.)
Jesus H. Fucking Christ That Smell!
(Micah steps back in.)
Oh God. I’m sorry. It just slipped out. I admit, in that other life I mentioned, I cursed like a sailor. I’m trying to quit, I am. I’m on the patch.

Interestingly, Catherine is getting her work produced more in New York than in the Midwest—although that might change with the Denver Center becoming a creative home. The Most Deserving was first developed and produced there this past fall.

Julie Crosby, Artistic Director of the Women’s Project, says she loves “Catherine’s ability to write non-judgmental plays about very messy people who believe strongly in something, regardless of how crazy their beliefs might make them.” Catherine is definitely interested in crazy. “My sister tells me that all my plays contain themes concerning mental illness, storytelling, and religion,” Catherine says, “;which is mostly true. I suppose you can take the girl out of the South…”

The South is also evident in her work, both in tone and her approach to character. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Flannery O’Connor was a significant influence, as well as Tennessee Williams and Mary Karr. As twisted physically or psychologically as her characters are, they are also perfectly ordinary human beings trying to make their way in the world. There is no finger-pointing in Catherine’s work, no easy way out of the issues she tosses our way, and no way to not like or empathize with people whose views may be abhorrent to us. Crooked and How the World Began place those characters in dramatic situations with high stakes. In the piece that Catherine is currently rehearsing with Women’s Project, she turns up the comedy.

“I think I’ve turned to writing comedy as a sort of mid-life crisis. Comedy is the ultimate coping mechanism, right?” And as a mother of toddlers with aging parents of her own, she could use a laugh. “Of course,” Catherine continued, “Good comedy must acknowledge the void in one form or another, as humor without pain doesn’t have much bite.”

In the current production with Women’s Project, Catherine continues her collaboration with director Shelley Butler, who she went to college with, and costume designer Donald Sanders, who designed her thesis play in graduate school. Set designer David Barber also designed the set for the Denver production. Catherine says she’s “head over heels” to see these particular actors in her play. “Adam Lefevre was in my play How the World Began at Women’s Project, and I admit, I wrote the role of Dwayne with him in mind, which can always be a little dangerous, as agents aren’t always super keen about Off Broadway contracts,” she explains. “Jennifer Lim contributed to the very first workshop of the play and inspired much of the character’s subsequent development. Veanne Cox is a comic gem, of course, and now that we’ve spent a couple of weeks with the other actors, Ray Anthony Thomas, Daniel Pearce, and Kristin Griffith, I can’t imagine handing the play over to better hands.”

And I can’t imagine the rural inhabitants of the story in more intelligent and empathetic hands than Catherine Trieschmann’s.



The Most Deserving runs through May 4th at New York City Center State II with Women’s Project Theater. For tickets and further info, visit wptheater.org.

Contributor

Trista Baldwin

TRISTA BALDWIN is a playwright and co-founder of Workhaus Collective, which just wrapped up a decade of new work with its 25th production. Her own plays include Eye of the Lamb, American Sexy, Sand, Patty Red Pants and Chicks With Dicks: Bad Girls on Bikes Doing Bad Things.

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