FringeNYC 2008 Preview: Kansas City or Along the Way

Rebecca Benhayon and Adam Groves in "Kansas City or Along the Way"

Rebecca Benhayon and Adam Groves in "Kansas City or Along the Way"

2008 has definitely been playwright-director Robert Attenweiler‘s year so far. This past winter his play, …and we all wore leather pants, was published in The New York Theatre Experience‘s latest anthology of new work, Plays and Playwrights 2008. In the spring, Barracuda Theatre Club debuted his play, Torrents. Robert followed that production with the summer premiere of another new play, All Kinds of Shifty Villains, produced by his own theater company, Disgraced Productions.

As if all of that hasn’t been enough, Robert now has yet another production running, this time at the New York International Fringe Festival. The play is Kansas City or Along the Way, a Depression-era drama set against a backdrop of Woody Guthrie-style folk music and alternating monologues, starring two of the author’s frequent collaborators, Rebecca Benhayon and Adam Groves. In a slight deviation from the Fringe norm this current production – which opens on Thursday, August 14th at the CSV Cultural and Educational Center’s Milagro Theater – is a revival, having first debuted in the fall of 2006.

Robert took a break from Fringe-mania to visit the ol’ blog and talk about the play, his decision to revive it, and his neverending string of upcoming projects. Take a read…

This production is actually a revival, if I’m not mistaken. Why revive a previous work of yours instead of doing a new one?

Well, we did put it up back in October 2006. It was only my second fully independent production (third overall, counting my first show in the Fringe in 2005) and we’d just had an unexpectedly successful run of [Sam] Shepard’s Cowboy Mouth and my one-act Thick Like Piano Legs, selling out and extending.

Of course, I assumed things would just build off that – which they did not. Too few people saw our first run of Kansas City or Along the Way – but we were all very proud of the work we’d done on it. It’s a script I care about a great deal and both Rebecca and Adam are so amazing. So, I figured, why not treat the first run more like a workshop process – where we all got to learn things about the play and the characters and the production possibilities – and give the show another go with a more broadly cast net.

Besides, as people have pointed out to me, I don’t often return to my plays after I’ve done them. This is not by design, but since I’ve been producing my shows, I’ve always been looking for the next project. By no means does this mean I think my shows are perfect when they go up. I just get excited by new ideas and new stories.

I remember at NYU, you’d have a situation where you’d been in a workshop class with a bunch of people – and you’d read a bunch of drafts of a play, read the first-draft in class, read another draft, then see a staged reading. In the best cases, then you’d be invited to a production of that play somewhere down the line and it’d be like, “Really? I feel like I’ve already seen this play, like, 50 times.” Since I’m still in a place where I know many of the people I’m getting in the seats, I, at least, want to keep my entertainment fresh.

But, it was great to get to go back to this show and make it fresh, as well. And it is. I think we tap a lot more of what makes this show work and I’ve tried to keep to my motto after I saw the original production: 15-minutes shorter and 10% more clear.

The show’s press release suggests that it’s a monologue play in the vein of Molly Sweeney or Faith Healer. What made you choose that format for this particular story?

Well, it’s a little bit of that – and a little bit of some other things. The first half of the show is a monologue play – alternating longer monologues between the play’s two characters. One of the characters, Louise, is telling the story starting in 1932 and the second character, Joseph, is telling the story from 1939. As Louise’s story progresses, Joseph keeps feeling someone pulling him back from the past and, ultimately, the two characters wind up together in a scene. The scene is the crux of what has them telling all of these monologues – so it was fun to mix the genre of a monologue play with a traditional play … I guess a more accurate comparison would be a much, much shorter Homebody/Kabul.

"Kansas City or Along the Way"

"Kansas City or Along the Way"

But, as for why I chose the form, I love monologues. I really like dialogue and story and don’t like to feel like I skimp on those aspects, but I’ve said for a while that what I’m looking for in my stories is a place where I can, kind of, “lose my head” – just hit a point with a character where I can ride a rush of images and rhythm and find out what kind of cool ideas and sounds can come out of that moment.

At the same time, I’m mindful of how difficult it is to make a satisfying show with monologues. Monologue plays are tempting, but they are so hard to make work. That’s why I mixed in the scene between the two characters and the songs – to give the audience different storytelling elements that keeps them engaged and, in the end, makes a really rich theater experience.

Kansas City or Along the Way also utilizes Woody Guthrie-style folk music. Did you always have that element in mind for the play when you were writing it, or did it come along later?

It came later. Well, sort of. I solve a lot of problems in writing by listening to music. I find that – whether on the surface or a little more buried – there’s always some relationship to music in my plays because of how rhythm-oriented my characters’ speech patterns are.

There was a time when Kansas City was a solo show and was very concerned with the big band and jazz music of the 1930s. There’s still some of that left, but a change came when I had the opportunity to work with Adam Groves on this project. Adam, on top of being a fantastic actor, is an accomplished country singer/songwriter. So, I figured, why not play to that. I’d, by this point, become much more interested in Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie – and had solved some rewriting problems by listening to Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions album where he did all of these old Pete Seeger folk songs.

So much of the play is about storytelling – Louise and Joseph often break off one story and start up another one before getting back to the original. Folk songs are also stories. It gave another layer – but one that was very natural.

You’ve mentioned before that you’re always working on something – indeed, this will be the third play of yours produced within the last five months or something like that. So tell us: what’s up next for you after this?

Yes, I’ve named this stretch The Summer of Attenweiler. It’s kind of like The Summer of Love.

I think every time I’m asked this question I respond with, “I’m going to lie low for a while and work on this or that.” But that never really proves true.

I’m working on a couple of different scripts that I’m really excited about: a Bob Dylan inspired play (where I’m hoping to make it as obvious as I can who I’m writing about without getting my pants sued off) and an imagining of an American President in exile, based on J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.

I’m also working on one of a pair of rock n’ roll-related one-acts (the other one will be written by playwright Barton Bishop). So, the world will finally get its Lynyrd Skynyrd play.

I also just announced the formation of Disgraced TV – an offshoot of the theatrical wing of my company, Disgraced Productions. I’m working with some of my favorite actors on developing web-based programming that will be available on my website, disgracedproductions.com. Hopefully we’ll have a couple things up by the end of the year.

So, to answer your question, after this I think I’m going to lie low for a while. I could use a break.

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