Q&A: Playwright Kati Schwartz on Finding Political Humor in Personal Pain

As is often true for young, queer women, for playwright Kati Schwartz the process of self-acceptance was a long, hard slog. Perhaps because Kati is a trained clown as well as a comic actress, she eventually saw the humorous potential in her own painful story. But it was her burgeoning interest in politics and social activism that revealed to her that her story had political edges and a relationship to a wider societal experience.

In its one hilarious act, Kati’s earliest play, “The Coward,” looks hard at personal cowardice, at posturing, and—most memorably—the occasional weaponization of shame within the LGBTQ community. I saw “The Coward” when it was in development at a sold-out performance in a small space in Brooklyn in early 2015, and I’m looking forward to being in the audience again when it is performed October 9 at the much bigger (Off-Broadway) Duke Theatre as part of the New York New Works Festival.

“The Coward” lampoons both self-shame and its cousin, homophobia. But the intensity of Kati’s comedic insight in that play as well as in her other three plays raises interesting questions about the intersection of art and politics today. Kati Schwartz’s script for “The Coward” was a semi-finalist in the 2017 Eugene O’Neil National Playwriting Conference. Her second play, “She Got Off the Couch,” is also a hard-hitting comedy. About the shifting sands of family dynamics when an adult child comes out, it won a Producers Encore Award at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. It was also performed as part of New York’s “Hot” Celebration of Queer Culture at Dixon Place. A third play, “Caring for the Dead,” is in pre-production for a full New York City run.

Is it political folly for marginalized communities to make fun of their own struggles in 2017? And, if so, how can a playwright make sure that the laughter she creates comes down on her intended side of the political equation? As a feminist writer and director of a different generation, I was interested in this latest exploration of shame and personal agency as seen through a lens of humor—so I sat down with Kati and asked about her work, her inspirations, her craft and her politics.

You’ve said that “The Coward” is based on a painful, shaming incident that really happened to you. How closely after the shaming incident were you able to see its potential for humor? And what got you to the point where you could see that potential?

It took a while for me to recover from the aftershock of the incident. The first writing I did for “The Coward” was done out of the hurt and anger I felt towards the person who the play’s closeted bully, Christopher, is based on. That therapeutic writing quickly turned into a monologue in which Christopher, a gay character, declares, “I don’t believe in gay people.” Which was something the person on whom the Christopher character is based actually said to me.

When he says that line in the play, is the Christopher character trying to deal with his own shame? Is he trying to dispel with that sentence the idea that either one of you could possibly be queer? As in, if there’s no such thing as being queer there’s nothing to be ashamed of?

That’s the intention I’ve given the character. In real life when I heard that sentence I didn’t find it funny at all. But when, as a playwright, I gave it to a closeted gay man I saw that the sentence itself is profoundly absurd—and, I think, hysterical.

At what point growing up did you realize you could see the humor in things, especially difficult things, more than most people did? Do you remember the circumstances or did it all just dawn on you gradually?

I didn’t know it growing up. It was really in writing “The Coward,” my first play, that I realized I could see the world in a very funny way.

That must have been an exciting realization. 

Yes, it opened up all kinds of possibilities for me, personally and creatively.

I hear you’ve had considerable training as a clown. Tell me about your “clown character.”

I do have a lot of clowning experience! Over the past five-ish years, I’ve studied with Christopher Bayes and Virginia Scott, two incredible teachers who created “The Funny School Of Good Acting.” They have a whole process through which they lead each student to ‘discover’ your clown and get a clown name. My clown is Moldy Carol Cheese Nugget.

The humor in “The Coward” is both highly personal and subtly political. Does anything about your clown training help you see the political humor in pain? Does it sharpen comedic insight or political insight?

Clowns are inherently not political. What makes them funny is that they’re brainless.

Is it that they’re brainless or that they’re freed by not being mired in intellect?

Well, in clown classes, as an exercise, we sometimes visualize wind blowing through the space between our ears where our brains should be.

Clowning probably didn’t help make me more politically astute. Just growing up did while paying attention to what was happening in our country did that. But clowning did help me realize that pain can be funny. Some of the funniest songs I’ve ever heard come out of clown class and are about real life events like a grandparent dying or a break up.

All that being said, I think that, if “The Coward” is political, and I think it is, it is simply because dramatizing LGBTQ issues—or the issues of any marginalized group of people—is political by nature. It would be impossible to write a comedy about a group of young LGBTQ people and not create a political discussion around it.

I’m wondering if writing “The Coward” helped you overcome your shame and pain about having been bullied as you were trying to learn to accept your own queerness. Did you feel as if writing “The Coward” gave you power over a situation that had made you feel powerless? Do you ever think in terms of equating humor and power?

When I wrote “The Coward” and discovered that I could see humor in all of my pain, I felt like I’d discovered a secret super power that I didn’t know I had. Leading up to that point, I’d spent a lot of my life taking things way too seriously. In high school, I had been someone who would have a meltdown and feel like I was dying if I didn’t do well on a test or didn’t get a big part in a play. Once I discovered my super-humor-power, all of my previous meltdowns became comedic material for my writing.

That’s fantastic. You began to feel like you were taking action rather than merely being acted upon. 

Yes. I have come to definitely equate art of any kind with power. If you’re able to create something beautiful or moving or funny out of something negative, that is real power.

In “The Coward” you are making fun of cowardice within the LGBTQ community. And you’re doing it to make a life-affirming statement. But are you ever afraid of being misinterpreted? How do you make sure that the audience laughs about the characters’ predicament and confusion, and not in derision of the characters themselves? How do you make sure the audience knows where your sympathies lie?

There’s always the potential that my intentions will be misunderstood. But I’ve found that if I worry about coming off wrong in my writing, it stifles my ability to tell the story I’m trying to get across. I just do my best to write from my own experience, to trust my judgment, and not to try to speak for anyone else.

In “The Coward,” the character I was the most afraid people would misinterpret is Matt. Part of the humor of the Matt character is that he bastardizes and misuses words such as ‘polyamorous’ and ‘pansexual.’ In writing the character of Matt, I was not trying to make fun of people who identify with the words he misuses. What I wanted was to show that some people—like Matt—struggle with identity and that struggle can be hilarious. I believe I was ultimately successful, but it’s a challenge.

Many television series created by and about young women are popular these days. What are your favorites of these series, and what do you like best about each one?

I just recently discovered Fleabag on Amazon, which is written by and stars Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It’s a great example of a painful, even tragic story told in an uproarious way. One of the things I love about it is the honest writing that shows plainly the main character’s idiosyncratic relationship to sex. Sexual eccentricity is a challenging subject and one that is hard to depict authentically. I think Ms. Waller-Bridge has done it admirably. I’m also a huge fan of Broad City, and all the work Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer do together. Broad City has an unapologetic air that I think is necessary when showing close friendships between women. 

Things have always been tough for women writers, producers, and directors and for creative people in general from marginalized communities. They certainly were for my generation. Do you think this is changing? Where do you see opportunity lying for rising women playwrights and screenwriters? Plays? TV? Movies? YouTube? Where should a young women writer spend her best effort?

I like to think it may be getting better. I think women, and all artists, should put their efforts into whatever medium they’re the most drawn to. There’s a huge need for the authentic voices of women and gender non-binary people, and there’s no real telling where opportunity lies.

When putting one’s art out into the world, there is always potential for burning out or losing drive and energy. The biggest advice I can give in that regard is that no one should be afraid to start small and build from there. “The Coward” had its first reading in the basement of a college dorm. Other plays of mine began with self-produced readings consisting of five audience members. This conserves energy, builds confidence, and allows your work to be the best it can be by the time larger opportunities arise.

I also encourage young women to hire as many women for their production teams as possible. The New York New Works Festival team for “The Coward” is all female and gender non binary. Having their voices involved is incredibly valuable.

Tickets for the New York New Works Festival production on October 9 of “The Coward” are available here.

Joan Lipkin is a playwright, director, producer, educator, social critic and human rights activist who divides her time between New York City, St Louis and Los Angeles. Widely anthologized, her play, “My Eating Disorder, Donald Trump and Me” was produced in September in New York City as part of the Raucous Caucus Theater Festival. Lipkin recently returned from convening a series of conversations for the Civil Rights Defenders in Belgrade and is developing a script with a young Serbian dramaturg about the experience. 

Comments

  1. Bows to Joan and Kati for such a great interview!

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