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Kirk Wood Bromley Interview


Kirk Wood Bromley is a playwright whose verse plays have received extensive critical acclaim, and can be seen in New York and Los Angeles. Michael Feingold of the Village Voice calls Bromley "The Verse-Play Champion". In the words of Robert Lopez, Tony-Award winning composer of Avenue Q, "Kirk's writing is some of the most crafted, interesting stuff in the New York theater. And it's almost as much fun to read his plays as it is to see them -- he's one of the few playwrights whose work can be considered literature".



Sheila E. Murphy is a prolific poet who has published numerous individual and collaborative books of poetry. Her book Letters to Unfinished J. appeared in 2003, and received the Gertrude Stein Award from Green Integer Press. Recent titles include Collected Chapbooks, Permutoria (with K. S. Ernst), How to Spell the Sound of Everything (with mIEKALaND), Quaternity (with Scott Glassman), Circumsanct and Reverse Haibun.

Since 1993 Murphy has led a consulting firm (now Sheila Murphy, LLC) that provides Customized Artistic Designs for public and private spaces; keynote speaking; and corporate consulting in Strategic Corporate Communication; Individual and Team Executive Advisement and Succession Planning.




SEM: It's a privilege to interview you, Kirk, after being dazzled by your artistry in bringing poetry to the stage. You've been praised by legions of critics and theater audiences in New York, including The New York Times, The Village Voice, and scores of others, and have been lauded by fellow playwrights and theater-goers. Please talk about your experience and share your insights regarding poetry and the stage.


KWB: I basically got into writing “poetry for the stage” because I was feeling unsatisfied writing “poetry for the page.” I was feeling this because the poetry I was writing felt like it was disappearing into itself. I had gotten to a point at only 23 of writing poetry that was composed almost exclusively of phonemes with various source meanings in foreign languages, and it all felt so cold and isolated and meaningless. So I decided that I’d force myself out of this rut by engaging other people in my poetic project, since I knew they’d demand that I “mean something,” and since I could think of nothing better than having people read my poetry out loud to me, I started work on a play whose language was poetry and planned for a production. Now, many years later, after writing over 20 verse plays and/or musicals, this combination – play and poetry – is one I go back and forth from and within every time I write. But it feels like a coupling that is very hard to maintain. I’m always tilting one way or another, though nowadays it’s towards the play. When I started out I had to labor to make my poetry playable. Now I struggle to make my plays poetic. But for me, the possibilities that theater offers poetry make for a poetry that could not be achieved in any other way. I’m not sure what it is, but I feel that when I set out to write poetry that I know will be involved in the theatrical adventure – actors interpreting and performing the text for audiences who will be interpreting and experiencing the text – I feel alive. I feel like my poetry goes places I could never go otherwise. I feel that I’m involving myself in a poetic world that is completely different from one that comes to someone simply writing for the page. No better or no worse, just different. The theatrical demands – of voice, of flesh, of movement, of light, of “entertainment,” of “conflict,” of “story” – these effect the poetry in ways that would not be able to occur any other way. And from the other direction, what I’m able to achieve as theater using poetry for dialogue is a form of theater that immediately sets it up as something very grounded in a vast tradition, and yet something that’s completely new. The club of American verse playwrights is relatively small, and the telling of American stories in stage-worthy verse is not that common. And all that said, I feel very ambivalent about “verse.” Ideally, I want to write poetry. Or maybe I just want to write plays. I guess I’m not really sure what the difference is anymore other than a level of attention I pay to either, which, I am hopeful, will soon simply mean paying attention to the one thing – the action of the play, which will have been pre-conceived by me as an already poetical thing.


SEM: This highly charged, highly evolved level of poetic composition (as plays) emerges from the stage as live in a way that page-texts rarely do. One feature that becomes immediately apparent is the audience’s obvious enjoyment of your language, and the capacity of your work to engage many senses in human experience at many levels. The context of theater causes audiences who might have appeared candidates for page poetry to flock to your work. Your writing shares many features of Shakespeare’s work: deliciously bawdy humor, a use of parody, metrical lines juxtaposed with celebratory cadenzas that fly off into the ether with joyous abandon. Talk a bit about your historically focused plays and the way that you deal with a range of social issues, past and present.


KWB: I am in the middle of a pretty major transition on this very question, so it’s been very hard to formulate an answer. I used to know what “history” and “social issues” meant, but I am going through a kind of physical reformulation that is holding me in a great and deep state of uncertainty. As far as history, in my already written plays, I’ve taken a fairly standard, objective view – such as in The American Revolution, where I covered “the main events” in a rather populist manner. But this play was always intended to be played in parks on July 4, so I kept it pretty traditional. My sense of history now is changing, and as far as what I think of history, of things that have already happened, I don’t really have a perspective on them that allows me to speak of them as things separate from my living them in whatever way I am living them. So when I do go to write a history play – the eight years of Jefferson’s administrations greatly interest me as does the Civil War and I will probably inevitably write “about” them – something very different, I think, from my past history plays is going to happen. Theater is personal. It’s about the bodies on the stage. It’s about the playwright’s desire to physicalize his psychology and understand his history in a public way so that others might also understand theirs and then achieve their ideals to a greater degree. So no matter what I’m writing about – the past or the present – that is what I am doing as a playwright.

As far as social issues, I am personally and regularly concerned about so-called social issues, particularly the degradation of the environment and the loss of biodiversity and wilderness. But I am not a big believer in plays that just “address” social issues. Everybody everywhere is addressing social issues, yet very little is changing. For that reason, my take on bringing social issues into my work now is only as a charismatic leader whose singular stated goal is conversion to my mindset, from which then flows a change of behavior that begins to alter the actions that cause social issues. My plays are about changing people. I want them to come in and then leave and start behaving differently. And obviously I want them to behave in ways that bring about resolutions to the social issues of concern to me. I never used to have this idea about art, but I’ve come to feel that any artist who somehow masks or denies his/her objective of changing people so that they behave more in accord with the artist’s ideals for behavior is lying to him/herself and the audience, and that bothers me whenever I see it. I am a charismatic leader passing on a truth that only I can see, and with all the conviction of a church master, I plan on involving my audience in a dialogue about their deepest nature and sending them from the building changed and ready to behave in accordance with my word and begin bettering the world according to my plan.

SEM: I sense in your answer an increasingly strong sense of personal responsibility for our time and the time periods yet to come. Would you say that the objective of bringing about change is principally rooted in the high level of corruption in the current day, or would that be an inevitable point of arrival for your work, do you think?


KWG As much as I’d like to declare I receive all my emotional, I-want-to-write-a-play-about-this information from timeless inspirations, yes, I will admit that the political realities of the last 6 years have thrust me into a new way of thinking. Maybe it’s just a matter of feeling that “art is not enough” in a time like this, or maybe it’s just that the gross negligence and malice that seems to be so widely popular as represented in our elected leaders has me so aghast has helped me discover new crises around which to orient my dramatic instincts. But whatever the reason, it’s true that I am feeling of late a new urge to write plays that address, or attempt to resolve, or investigate the ways out of what seems to be a suicidal social pleasure now so acceptable. I have friends that have lived for 60 years and say that in a way it’s better now than it’s ever been, and that very well may be. And maybe this change of mine – this feeling of needing art to help us find a way out of our crises, to adopt a moral agenda – is more about my personal life, about having children, about getting older myself and losing my currency in the free-for-all sexual arena of chemical abandon – I’m not sure. But what I do know is that somewhere in the first part of the 21st century it came to me that it’s not enough for drama to be active within itself; it must also be acting upon its milieu in very specific, conscious ways. So that’s just about the laws of drama as I understand them, or now care about them. I want my plays to be active both inside and outside themselves because one writes plays in order to investigate the realm of action, what action is, how it plays out in our lives, and how we are basically it. And in this day and age – no, in every day and age – action is present in every dimension of our lives – biologically, psychologically, socially. So when a play has a “social agenda,” I just think of it as being socially active, which, in the end, is good drama. I think.


SEM: It is entirely probable that many readers of this interview will be poets. Your own poetry has come to life vividly and resides distant from the page. Based upon your artistic transformation evidenced by 20 plays, what would you say about poetry per se. Apart from your own work, what is your interest in poetry at this stage of your artistic career?


KWB: Before I wrote plays, I wrote poems. That's been primarily what I've done as a writer other than a few lame attempts at short stories or a couple novels in my early 20's. I don't like prose at all. It just feels stuck. So my interest in poetry is just that I think it's the most beautiful and honest way to write. It lifts me up, it couples perfectly with rhythm, it feels cool to move from one line to the next... sort of wild and abrupt..., it brings speaking closer to singing, it facilitates a wider and deeper way of thinking, it loves vocabulary, it's ultimately circumspect, it's easy to recall and project. In deciding to do plays in poetry, I knew that I was bringing together what are often considered the most passive and the most active forms of writing into one creation, and I liked that. So my "interest" in poetry also comes from what I like about its interaction with drama. Early on, just as I was deciding to become a verse playwright, I felt that the synthesis of poetry and theater was something that would make it possible for me to find and express truths that no other "genre" would. To wander in that space - that poetic theatrical space - is to see and hear and feel and say and know things that you can't find anywhere else. It's a biote totally unto itself, but it is, I think, our most basic biote, so what I dredge out of it feels somehow more important than anything I've been able to get elsewhere.


SEM: What are some of the most stimulating and perhaps important texts that you are reading now?

KWB: I am heavily into reading German poetry from the 1960's... I have a great anthology from Reclam... I'm also into the French surrealist poets right now... also a great anthology from NRF... and Bill Knott, and books on schizophrenia (I'm writing a one-man play for a schizophrenic actor), and the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, and Emily Dickinson, and, of course, Sheila Murphy!


SEM: Ah, Kirk, thank you! You’ve placed me in fine company, indeed. We spoke previously about political issues, but I want to look at your play about Tourette Syndrome. I’d appreciate your talking about this piece, discussing what prompted your creating this work, and whether you have plans to do any related plays.


KWB: I was asked my an actor I knew to write a one-man play for him, so we sat down and talked about what was unique about him, and it came up that he had Tourette Syndrome, which got my interest, so I wrote a show for him about his history with that and the condition in general. And I guess I do have a related play coming as I'm now writing a play for a different actor who has a life-history of acute schizophrenia, so I'm researching that now and talking with him about his experiences. We think the play will be a kind of ritual that investigates what the schizophrenic spectrum means about the efforts of the self to heal itself.


SEM: One final question: what would you hope that an astute perceiver of arts and culture two decades from now would say about the place of your work in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries?


KWB: Good question. I hope that people will feel that I was able to make poetry play.



copyright © Kirk Wood Bromley & Sheila E. Murphy