Playwright Ken Urban says he felt the Boston area calling him home from New York after a one-two punch. He was offered a job as the new head of the playwriting track at MIT’s music and theater arts department this fall, and he reached a deal to premiere his A Guide for the Homesick with the Huntington Theatre Company at the BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion on Oct. 6-Nov. 4. Urban expounded on what he’s expecting from both of his gigs.
What was most exciting about the opportunity at MIT? I don’t think I realized that MIT had a theater company for a while, and certainly theater is not the first thing you think of when you think of MIT. But it’s actually been a really growing department, and after our engineering classes, it’s been the most popular classes at MIT. Also, MIT just opened a brand-new building where there’s a flexible black-box space, rehearsal spaces and I’ll be teaching a playwriting class over there.
Do you have a vision of how the department will grow while you’re there? I think it’s interesting to think about what theater is in the 21st century. One view is a very technological and very screen-oriented type of theater, like the type of work that Jay [Scheib] does. I tend to be a little more lo-tech as a playwright. I see myself as a sort of storyteller. I’ve started thinking about how you tell a story in the 21st century. There’s no doubt that a lot of my students will be interested in writing about science or how you write about science. And there are very few good plays about science. Usually they’re pretty bad. So, I’m trying to figure out how to write about science, and how our very sense of self has changed because of things like iPhone apps. All of that stuff I think is kind of interesting in how you can tell that story on stage. And maybe there are a lot of projections and lighting designs, or maybe it’s done very simply—that’s what we’re sort of figuring out.
What can the audience expect from A Guide for the Homesick? It’s going to be a pretty emotional ride. I’ve been working on this play for a while. I’ve done interviews with folks who worked with Doctors Without Borders. And I was really interested in the process of homecoming and what it means to come home after you’ve had a really traumatic experience. I knew Colman Domingo as an actor. He had seen one of my previous plays in New York, and we had been looking for a way to work together. He’s an amazing director as well, so it worked out that he was free of his shooting schedule on Fear the Walking Dead this fall. Everything perfectly aligned for us to work on this play together. It’s about two friends who meet in a hotel bar in Amsterdam and what happens when they spend the night together. It’s kind of erotic, and it’s about how we process grief. I think a lot of us in this country are currently experiencing a lot of grief on a daily basis.
Do you have any experience with plays that deal with science? I’ve been working on a play about Henrietta Lacks and about cellular immortality. So I spent about six months to a year with people working in the biopharmaceutical industry about what are the ethics of taking DNA from people who are unaware of it. I’ve learned a lot of disturbing things, such as: Most dental offices sell all their waste and then they harvest cells from all of that. So when you go to get your teeth cleaned and you spit into the sink, that stuff is collected and people are making money off of that. Gross, right? When I started in college, I was a chemical engineer. I always thought I was going to go into math or science. I was never that good in English when I was in high school. It never really interested me. It was only when I was in college and started seeing plays and I took a class on African American Theater in the 20th century that I got hooked into theater. I never saw plays as a kid.
Were there moments in the writing process where you were stuck? There are similar stories about people battling depression. I find that a hard thing to write about. It’s something that you see all the time in pop culture, and I’m not sure it’s always dealt with in the most sensitive and truthful way. So cracking into that story was really tricky. All plays are kind of hard to write, but the weird thing about this play was that the first half of the play happened really fast in 2011, and there’s been changes since then but it kind of came out fully formed, which is good when that happens.
Can we look forward to more premieres of your plays in the area since you’ll be at MIT? I’d love to work with the MIT students, and I’d love to work with Jay Scheib, who directs the theater program here. It’d be fun to work with someone who has a very different relationship to text. … And I think working on a project with MIT students would be fun. Their expertise is different than my expertise. I was working on a lamp in my office last night, and what should have taken like two minutes took me 25. I should’ve asked some engineers to help. I’m excited, since my head is so full of words, to be working with people who are good with their hands and numbers.
20 years have passed since Spiro Veloudos began serving as producing artistic director at Lyric Stage Company. In honor of that milestone, he’s restaging one of his favorite productions, Souvenir, with the same two leads Leigh Barrett and Will McGarrahan as its previous run. It’ll be curtains up for the Florence Foster Jenkins-centered play on Oct. 20-Nov. 19.
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