The Importance of Being Lisa Kron

In Well, she plays herself writing a play about herself. Will Broadway get it?

An interview by Wendy Weisman

Few writers turn humble pie into haute cuisine quite like Lisa Kron. She's made a name for herself penning one-woman shows—such as 101 Humiliating Stories and the widely produced 2.5 Minute Ride—in which the bitter pill of self-abasement comes sugarcoated with a mischievous wit and a sly embrace of life's absurdities. This month, theatregoers can look forward to more subversive autobiography when Kron's multi-character play Well, which had a successful run at New York City's Public Theater in 2004, opens on Broadway, with Kron herself in the role of a writer named...Lisa Kron.

Concurrently, the play runs at Ohio's Cleveland Play House March 3-26 with a different cast (including another actor playing Lisa Kron). Well initially purports to be about Kron's mother, Ann, played in New York by actress Jayne Houdyshell. But when Lisa Kron (the character) attempts to deliver a sentimental memoir about racial integration and healing, she is trumped by Lisa Kron (the playwright), who has darker and more treacherous territory in mind.

Related Links:

Well by Lisa Kron (TCG Books)

2.5 Minute Ride and 101 Humiliating Stories by Lisa Kron (TCG Books)

Five Lesbian Brothers/Four Plays (TCG Books)

Related in American Theatre:

A profile of Five Lesbian Brothers by Alisa Solomon (September 1998)

By the time the rug is pulled out from underneath her, the quasi-fictional Kron has implicated not just herself, but everyone who has ever succumbed to the impulse to repackage lived experience into digestible sound bites with conclusive endings and lessons learned. Well, which Kron developed through workshops with director Leigh Silverman and dramaturg John Dias, represents the latest step in a career that encompasses the East Village performance art scene in its 1980s heyday; co-founding the award-winning playwriting team the Five Lesbian Brothers, which recently premiered its first new work in seven years, Oedipus at Palm Springs; performing solo work throughout the U.S.; and, most recently, teaching playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.

Kron arrived in New York in the mid-'80s, with dramatic aspirations firmly rooted in what she calls a "small-town, conventional idea of theatre." A different kind of education awaited as she was drawn into the performance art scene then thriving in East Village venues like Dixon Place, P.S. 122, WOW Café and La MaMa, where raw artistic experimentation was fomenting a maelstrom of unorthodox spectacle. Observing that the vaudeville sketches and interdisciplinary acts that captivated her were created by amateurs without theatrical backgrounds, Kron's initial dismay at the lack of convention ultimately became a revelation.

Inspired by the "nonlinear, scrappy and staggeringly imaginative" work done by Deb Margolin, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, who made up the boundary-pushing performance troupe Split Britches, as well as provocateur Holly Hughes, Kron joined the ranks at WOW Café. Equally liberating for Kron was freedom from conventional gender roles; at WOW, lesbian sexuality was "central, complicated, normal, unquestioned," she says. It was in this environment that Kron began her methodical, self-taught curriculum in solo work. Eventually she landed her own variety show, where she made use of slide shows, musical numbers, costumes and her own chorus of dancing girls ("The Creamettes").

Three of those dancing girls—Maureen Angelos, Dominique Dibbell and Peg Healey—soon joined Kron and performer Babs Davy to collectively write a play that could tour. "We all loved the same dumb jokes," says Kron, though the struggle to share artistic control among five writers turned out to be more far more difficult that they'd bargained for. Voyage to Lesbos's rewriting process, however, cemented a long-term partnership. When, for the program, Dibbell drew a cartoon of the five women, aping the title of the children's book Five Chinese Brothers, the new group knew they'd found a name.

"Five Lesbian Brothers" was chosen, in part, to refute the perception of lesbian theatre as combative and didactic. (Speculates Kron, "Imagine if we'd called ourselves the 'Sapphic Sisters.'") The Brothers would go on to win acclaim for incisive, screwball satire, taking cues from both their WOW brethren and Charles Ludlam, avatar of the Theatre of the Ridiculous. With targets ranging from gender stereotypes to iconic figures in entertainment, while abstaining from sermonizing, the Brothers produced work that reveled in the ridiculous even as darker themes lurked beneath the surface—as in 1994's The Secretaries, in which corporate office culture imparts addictions to Slim-Fast and unchecked homicidal tendencies upon its titular characters.

Co-founding the Brothers became, for Kron, a crucial transition from improvising solo work on her feet to writing, although her flair as a raconteur and variety-show host shows up in her scripted play 101 Humiliating Stories. The solo work chronicled mortifying incidents in the playwright's life from temp work and junior high gym, along the way revealing Kron's interest in—and aptitude for—forging the illusion of the spontaneous moment and the gradual revelation of the writer's hidden agenda. When Kron's character borrows a pen from an audience member (which she forgets to give back) and bosses around the sound operator, the play anticipates the techniques she would make more ambitious use of in her next solo work, 2.5 Minute Ride.

Ride revisits Kron's travels with her father to the concentration camp where his parents were killed, juxtaposed alongside humorous anecdotes of a family pilgrimage to an amusement park. When the main character (oblivious to the fact that the slides she's pointing to are, in fact, blank) balks at her failure to recreate the past, it becomes clear that the playwright has mastered the art of feigning a traditional dramatic structure—making it all the more poignant when the whole effort seems to fall apart.

If this all sounds terribly "meta," audiences can be assured that, in Kron's hands, every disruption occurs when characters are overtaken by emotions—messy, contradictory, volatile ones—rather than philosophy. Far from a strictly cerebral enterprise, Ride is also a character study, with Kron deftly employing family members' idiosyncrasies to propel the action. Kron conjures three-dimensional personalities, often with only a few choice details—an oft-repeated phrase, an irrational fear or a forbidden favorite food.

That empathy she offers to her characters points to Kron's unflagging commitment to communicating other people's points of view. As she recounts the evolution of her career, Kron takes enormous care to portray central figures in her own biography—colleagues, peers, family members—as flesh-and-blood human beings, retracing her steps and providing another description, or a different anecdote, if the initial effort doesn't satisfy her.

That compassion is critical to the mechanics of Well. Kron makes it easy for the audience to share in her bemused horror at life's mundane indignities, while continuing to push the dramatic structures that interest her even further. Several months before Well's Broadway debut, Kron reflected on the challenges that writing the play presented, what playwriting and drawing have in common, and why it takes seven years to learn how to tell a funny story.

WENDY WEISMAN: Unlike your previous work, Well is, in your own words, a "solo show with other people in it." Is the underlying idea the same?

LISA KRON: Well is an actual play. But the nature of its dramatic structure is absolutely informed by my history of doing solo work, and grappling with the inherent problem of that form, which is: "Where is the dramatic action? What's the obstacle?" In a solo show, you're on stage doing whatever you like. What's going to stop you? The solution I've come to is that the dramatic action is the act of telling a story, and—somehow—the teller gets knocked off course, the intended story gets derailed and the unexpected is revealed.

In Well, this "derailment" begins early on with the character of your mother, who wrests control of the narrative away from you, and even instigates a revolt among the other actors. The play-within-a-play that gets interrupted—did that ever exist in the first place?

No, and one of the difficulties was figuring what the intended play would have been like—because, of course, it's a bad play.

So you created an alter ego who writes bad plays...?

Well really is about how we create narrative to make sense of our lives, and how each of our own individual narratives is not necessarily true for someone else. We each make sense of the world in a different way. In order to communicate that idea dramatically, I had to turn myself into a character who oversimplifies, so that the character of my mother can correct me and explain how much more complicated things are in real life.

This tactic is reminiscent of 2.5 Minute Ride. Both plays, though comedies, address the painful realization that memory distorts, that it cannot reconstruct history.

It's a progression, certainly. In both plays I started with a desire to write about my parents, both of whom are people with extraordinary qualities, and then I struggled with separating what is truly extraordinary about them from a daughter's natural inclination to mythologize. In both plays I present myself as a suspect narrator. The difference in Well is that there are actually other people on stage questioning my version of events.

At the Public, you were in the Martinson, an intimate setting. Is it a big leap to communicate this story on a Broadway-sized stage?

We did the show at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco last season and, as I suspected, the mechanism of having this housewife just plopped onto a big, formal stage, unaware she's breaking every theatrical convention, worked even better than it did in the Martinson. Jayne Houdyshell completely resized her performance for the 1,040-seat Geary Theater, while still appearing to be a real person dumped onto a stage. Her stagecraft is incredible. Every show, there were people who had no idea they were watching an actress. They thought she really was my mother.

Has Jayne ever met the real Ann Kron?

They didn't know each other when Jayne was developing the role, but since they met during the run at the Public they've become close friends. Jayne's even been to Michigan to visit my parents.

So Ann Kron does have a relationship with a play in which she is a central protagonist. Is it a burden to see a theatrical facsimile of herself on stage?

In the big picture, it's more positive for her than painful, I think, but it's not something she would have chosen. But she's been extremely generous with me about it. When you write about other people in a direct way, it is always a moral gray area. In some ways my mom understands that the character of Ann Kron is a construction, and, in other ways, it feels very personal. When the play is reviewed, she feels like she is being reviewed. She loves the way Jayne plays her, but is a bit terrorized by the notion that someone else will be taking on the role in the upcoming Cleveland Play House production.

Being in the business of autobiographical plays, you're not a stranger to having someone else play you on stage. Is that disconcerting?

2.5 Minute Ride has been performed a few times by other actors. The only production I've seen was in Tokyo, where it was performed by a man, in Japanese. It was fascinating. You can't point at someone's face in Japan. [In the show, the Lisa character uses a pointer to indicate family members during a slide show, although the slides are blank.] When he used the laser pointer, he couldn't direct it at anyone's face, even though the faces are imaginary.

Friends of mine saw a production of 2.5 in L.A., and they thought it worked surprisingly well with that actress. I'm very happy that other actors are doing these plays. The big concern is finding a director who can decipher the peculiar mechanics of the script, because it's not obvious where the dramatic action lies.

So having a doppelgänger is no problem, then?

If I were protective of my own image, I wouldn't do this kind of work, because I don't find what I do particularly flattering to me, especially in Well. I use this character of myself as a tool to accomplish the goals of the play. When I work with students, one of the main things I try to teach is how, as a playwright, to observe your ego rather than writing from within it.

That seems like a tricky thing to teach.

It is. Often, people use storytelling to try to communicate qualities about themselves—that they are clever, or compassionate, or funny. But an audience will always see the subconscious agenda. I try to teach students to make use of that dynamic.

I also encourage them to differentiate between the retelling of an event and the actual event. I use an exercise where they draw a simple object, like a cup. But they have to draw what they really see, rather than what they think they see, and draw the actual shapes and spaces in front of them, rather than their preconceived idea of a cup. I ask them to reconstruct events in the same way—to remember what the experience was before it was organized into a narrative. I want them to learn to be innocent of the conclusion; in life, none of us have any idea what the next moment is going to bring. And that's the effect that must be achieved in drama—even in autobiographical solo shows.

This philosophy sounds reminiscent of your approach to comedy as well.

I had the great fortune of coming to New York at a moment when I could be on stage all the time. There were a million small performance spaces in the East Village in the '80s, and those of us performing then went from club to club and performed everywhere all the time. So I feel I got this great sort of vaudevillian education. I was able to develop a very dynamic connection to an audience, which I think is central to my work. I think it's very rare now for stage performers to get so many hours on stage, and it really makes a difference.

About four years into my time in New York I heard someone say that it takes seven years to make a good comedian. And I thought, "Well, I don't know about that, I'm really funny now." But after I'd been performing for seven years, I had this moment on stage, in Buffalo, actually, where I was telling a story I'd told many times. And when I got to the punch line, I understood, all of a sudden, that I should wait, and let the audience fill in the next line in their minds. And there was an enormous laugh as the end of the joke formed in the audience's heads. And I thought "That's the thing! That's the thing that experience will teach you." The first time I was on stage on my own, I thought, "Omigod. When I'm not talking...nothing happens!" You think you have to provide everything. What seasoned performers understand is that there is an interaction between what the artist provides and the audience's imagination.

That's been critical to all of your plays.

The most gratifying response to my work is when someone says to me, "I love that part where"—whatever—"where you got into the blue car." And I say, "There was no blue car in my show. You must have had a blue car. You filled that in yourself." My goal always is for people to create an intersection between their lives and my work.

Well comes on the heels of the first play by the Five Lesbian Brothers in seven years, Oedipus at Palm Springs, also the group's first tragedy. Is there a reason why the Brothers tackled such a different kind of theatre?

Over the last seven years, we've all grown and changed, and when all that individual growth went back into the collaborative process, it fueled a very different product.

I think what we accomplished in Oedipus was an immediate, visceral experience of a Greek tragedy rather than an intellectual one. The way tragedy works is that you believe you know the boundaries of experience; you think you know how far you can fall. And then, suddenly, the unexpected occurs and the bottom drops out and you fall much further than you ever suspected was possible. The structure of the play itself mirrored this experience. It was a big stylistic choice and not everyone got on the ride, but when they did, that was their experience.

Do you have concerns Well's leap to Broadway might alter the storytelling?

The experience of preparing for this production on Broadway is very different from anything Leigh [Silverman, Well's director] and I have experienced in the Off-Broadway and regional worlds. It feels like we're operating in a whole different culture. It's fascinating, exciting and sometimes a bit harrowing. Liz McCann, our producer, told us early on that she expected us to fight like tigers for our play. I think there are probably moments when she wishes we would fight a little less hard, but the fact that she expects us to go to the mat for the integrity of our play is what makes her a legendary producer.

Everyone involved knows it is a risky choice to bring this play to Broadway. It's not a musical and we have no stars. It's a really brave choice on the part of the producers. I think what has compelled them to take the risk is the intense personal connection they've seen audiences make with this play. Jayne has a monologue about three quarters in, and she draws the audience deep into the inner life of a woman most people wouldn't even see if they passed her on the street. This invisible person is now the center of their universe. The thought that this could be seen on Broadway is incredible to me.

Wendy Weisman is a New York City-based arts writer and a frequent contributor to this magazine.