TWIN CITIES DAILY PLANET
Aditi Kapil is one of the finest comedic talents ever to see a Twin Cities stage. Too bad she’s squandered her gift by deciding to write and direct in addition to acting. That decision has led to Kapil’s play “Love Person” being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It’s led to her newest work, “Agnes Under the Big Top, A Fairy Tale,” copping a New Play Development grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She broke into Twin Cities theater as a would-be successor to Lucille Ball, only to wind up as, without question, an artist of proven consequence.
The NEA award also goes to Mixed Blood Theatre, where company member Kapil’s been a franchise contributor since she stepped on board. Kapil “is the consummate theater artist,” says Mixed Blood founding artistic director Jack Reuler. “As a writer she has versatility: crafting comedy, drama, and spectacle with a global vision and a foundation of classical writing. As a director she is a disciplinarian, insisting that designers and actors do their homework, come prepared, work hard, and pursue perfection. As an [actress], she demands those things of herself and can morph from character to character.”
Dwight Hobbes: “Agnes Under the Big Top, A Fairy Tale” explores the intersecting paths of a handful of immigrants — from Bulgaria, India, and Liberia — as they struggle to form a new identity in America without losing connection with the past. That’s asking one script to do an awful lot. But then, you’ve never been shy about taking on premises that have a far-reaching scope, particularly when it comes to dealing with mixed blood. What’s behind all that?
Aditi Kapil: It comes down to what interests me. Ideas interest me. I like to investigate them, take them apart, search for meaning. I don’t expect to know the answers when I start writing. I do expect revelation and epiphany. If I can surprise and illuminate myself, then perhaps it’ll work for an audience too.
As to the “mixed blood” thing, in the end you write what you know, right? Agnes has been a few years coming. This play first started gestating four years ago when I was on a trip to Sweden and Bulgaria with my oldest daughter, visiting family. We went to a dilapidated Bulgarian circus and I was fascinated by the ringmaster, this bored young guy who did his job practically asleep and was brilliant at it. Over dinner at my uncle’s house he told me about the Kalashnikov factory in Northern Bulgaria. That factory that was closed down, and now made buttons, leaving the town destitute.
Back in Sweden, my father told me about the three jumpers and one dog he killed while working as a subway driver. These three pieces resulted in a 10-minute play called “Cirkus Kalashikov,” which illuminated for me something essential about East-West relations. A few years passed and I read an article in the New York Times about how starlings came to America, and it struck me as a perfect metaphor for immigration. I started thinking about writing a play about immigrants based on some women I knew years ago when I was a home care worker in Sweden. Then those new thoughts began to merge with “Cirkus Kalashnikov,” and after a year of hammering away at drafts that just didn’t work, and long-winded conversations with my amazingly patient dramaturg Liz Engelman, it all came together.
So four years later I have a first draft, which is four years worth of complication, and yet now that all the pieces are in place it’s exactly right — albeit rough, as I have many more drafts to go. The fact is, I don’t tend to write a play unless I am compelled to because it feels absolutely right. It’s too much work for me to go into it blind; I need a vision. And apparently I have complicated visions.
You went from acting to directing to writing. How has the experience of acting and directing informed your playwriting?
I can’t imagine any other path. I need acting to ground me in the ultimate purpose of theater. In the end, theater happens in that moment when the actor communicates with the audience. Everything else is in service to that moment. Acting is how I understand theater on the most basic level, and I believe that if I ever stopped doing it, my work overall would suffer. Directing allows you the greatest insights, I think, into what is possible on a stage. When I write for theater, I use all of it — everything I’ve got. Which might also account for the complexity of my plays. I think theater can sustain more than we sometimes give it credit for. It can sustain anything we as artists and audiences can collectively imagine.
What, thus far, has proven to be the most challenging aspect of writing this play?
Getting to the first draft. I nearly lost my mind. I think I wrote about four unusable drafts over a full year, and I began to wonder if there was actually a play there.
How is the process going with dramaturg Liz Engleman?
She is amazing. We’ve worked together in every capacity since the second draft of “Love Person”: She’s dramaturged shows I’ve written, directed, and acted in, and she’s directed me as an actress. We’ve developed a sort of shorthand over time. At this point we’re talking before there’s a single word written: She’s with me from the seed of an idea to its production. It’s the most fulfilling artistic partnership I can imagine. Probably my favorite thing about Liz is that she gets where I’m going, and never stops challenging me, never lets me get away with anything less than art. It’s a gift, truly.
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.