Episode 18: Ken Preuss Interview
Ken Preuss is new to Theatrefolk with his play Epic Adventures in a Rinky Dink Art Museum. He talks about his writing process and a fascinating creative trick he uses to get into a play.
- Spotlight on The Two Person Scene
Lindsay: Welcome to TFP, the Theatrefolk Podcast. I’m Lindsay Price, the resident playwright for Theatrefolk. Hello. I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening. We’ve got another interview today, this time with playwright Ken Preuss, rhymes with Seuss; but first, let’s do some Theatrefolk News.
Did you catch the latest addition of our Spotlight Newsletter? It’s all about the duet. The two-hander scene, which might be a Canadian thing. I’ve referred to duets as two-handers in the past before and sometimes have received blank stares, like they’ve never heard of it before. It’s a very foreign thing. I don’t know, it could be because I something in my teeth. I digress. It’s one person talking to another person. We look at in the newsletter from an improve perspective, an acting perspective and a writing perspective. We also got some teachers to say what their favorite two-person scenes were to use in the classroom. If you’re sitting there, and you’re listening, and you don’t know what I’m talking about, we offer a free theatrical newsletter. Ten issues a year. Our aim is to make the newsletter as practical as possible, with play analysis, exercises, resources, questions, everything that you can use in the classroom. All you have to do to sign up is visit our website, scroll to the bottom and enter your email. Do it. Lastly, where oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every Wednesday at Theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook and on Twitter. You can also find us on the Stitcher app. And you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. Why not? All you have to do is search on the word ‘Theatrefolk’.
Lindsay: Hi Ken, how do you say your last name?
Lindsay: Ken Preuss. I am here with Ken Preuss.
Ken: Rhymes with Dr. Seuss.
Lindsay: Dr. Seuss. That’s a good way to remember it. You are new to the Theatrefolk global empire.
Lindsay: Family. The Theatrefolk family. We like to think of it as a very small, but a family nonetheless.
Ken: Global empire sounds cool too, though.
Lindsay: It’s so funny because we jokingly call it the Theatrefolk global empire because it’s literally Craig and I…
Ken: Two people.
Lindsay: In our pajamas in our house.
Ken: My global empire is just me, so you’re twice the size of what I’ve got going.
Lindsay: Well, there you go. You have joined us with your play “Epic Adventures in a Rinky-Dink Art Museum”.
Ken: Very nice.
Lindsay: That’s pretty good, because I don’t have it in front of me.
Ken: I went to auditions and the students were complaining that the title was too long.
Lindsay: Yes. Well, that’s a good complaint. If that’s the only complaint they have.
Ken: It was actually longer when I started. There was a ‘routine field trip’ wedged in there. It was “Epic Adventures on a Routine Field Trip to a”… See, I even get confused there, that’s why I cut it short.
Lindsay: If you get lost in the middle of your title, then…
Ken: Then something needs to be revised.
Lindsay: There’s something that needs to be revised. So, what number of plays, “Epic Adventures”, have you written?
Ken: I have written 11 plays. Ten have been published, and one keeps bouncing from publisher to publishers. It’s my, you know…
Lindsay: It’s the lost love that doesn’t find a home.
Ken: It is. It was the 11 one that I’ve written. The tenth one I’ve published. Unfortunately, it’s the last one that I’ve written thus far because I’m in a writing slump.
Lindsay: Oh no.
Ken: I will get out of it.
Lindsay: Of course. Everybody always…
Ken: Before my global empire crumbles.
Lindsay: Before Rome burns to the ground. What was your first play?
Ken: The first one I wrote when I was about in middle school- teaching middle school. It was one called “Wishful Thinking”. It was a parody of “The Monkey’s Paw”, where students made wishes and of course they don’t come true the way they want them to. I wrote it because I was going to direct a play and I didn’t find the play I really liked, so I wrote one myself, and that kind of got the ball rolling.
Lindsay: Was that sort of the impetus? Have you always been interested in playwriting?
Ken: I’ve always been a writer, through high school and college, but I didn’t really write plays. When I started teaching language arts and drama at the middle school level… Everything that I’ve ever written in my life, starting in high school, was about high school students. My body and my self, I’ve grown up, but the part of my brain that writes has stayed in high school, so everything I write is always high school interactions with each other, with the real world. It’s just a natural fit. Working with the middle school students, I can… I actually wrote it very strangely. I guess it’s strange, I don’t know if other people have done this. I had an idea for the play, but wasn’t sure of all the characters, so actually I had some dialogue written and I had auditions right before Christmas. I auditioned students, I video taped the auditions, and then I went home during the break and decided which students I wanted. Then I wrote parts specifically for the kids I wanted to be in the play.
Lindsay: For their voices?
Ken: Right. Then I kind of rounded out the cast. I knew I wanted a handful of different types of students in the class, but I was able to write a part for the cheerleader girl, and instead of it being a generic cheerleader, I based it on this girl who auditioned, and I kind of gave her a more fleshed out character. The quiet, shy boy became a character, and the really loud, obnoxious kid, because he auditioned for the play, he had to be in the play. I wrote parts based on particular students, then I really made the play terrific. Then, unfortunately, after Christmas, some of them…
Lindsay: Half had dropped out?
Ken: Yes. I wouldn’t say half, but there were about two or three, so I was casting new students in roles that were specifically written for others, but that showed me the writing worked, because they were able to step in and create those characters.
Lindsay: What you did was create- you were writing based on a real human being, so ergo, the character was a human being. That means that anyone, you’re quite right, if anyone can step into the shell of the character and make it come to life, then that’s a real…
Ken: That gave me some confidence to do it again.
Lindsay: To do it again.
Ken: I have to admit that the first three plays that I wrote, I did the same process. I wrote the skeleton of the play, I auditioned students that I really wanted, and then I curtailed the parts to match their…
Lindsay: I think everybody’s process is the one that works and gets the play finished, right?
Lindsay: The thing that you can use to get a play done and then put on its feet is the one that’s a the successful one.
Ken: That’s true.
Lindsay: That happens all the time. When I’m teaching, well, how do I write? You put a pen on a piece of paper and then you keep going. How do we get, particularly with students, because that’s who I focus on, from A to B and get that finished product?
Ken: I remember you telling me that you always write first with pen and paper.
Lindsay: Pen and paper? I do. I always, I love my computer and I would never give up technology, to the point where I wrote a play this year on an actual type writer, and then after I got a first draft done and was ready to really get into the heart of rewrites, I went, “I can’t do this anymore on the computer”, because I’m so caught up with the formatting and the spelling, oh my God, the spelling. It’s like I’m interfering with my process. I have to use the technology, but I love the first act of pen on paper and also the same thing on the keyboard – type writer keyboard. It’s very tactile.
Ken: It is.
Lindsay: I like the tactile-ness.
Ken: I always tend to start with a sheet of paper and instead of writing, I draw, like in my mind.
Lindsay: Oh, me too.
Ken: I draw cartoons, but I draw these little stick, not even stick. Shadow figures, if you will. Okay, here’s the girl, and then we’ll draw a little line, and here’s the boyfriend. I’ll sketch out the characters. I might jot a word or two down, but I have several notebooks at home that still have, that I can look at and say, “This was the first moment.”
Lindsay: Did you do that for “Epic Adventures”? Did you?
Ken: I did. I drew the security to one side, then here are the two boys who are the goofballs that are hanging together. Here’s our main girl and her best friend, who are trying to solve this deep, dark mystery. Then I have a little side bubble – okay, here’s the backstory, the mystery – then I draw these little cartoons and it’s all there. Sometimes I can look at it and it makes perfect sense to me, but if I show it to a stranger, it would just look like scribbles on a page. No, this an entire, an epic adventure, right here.
Lindsay: Why do you think you do that? What do you think it does for you? For your creative process?
Ken: I guess maybe I’m lazy about writing the character descriptions, so if I can draw…
Ken: Yeah. I draw the curly haired girl, and this is my ingenious and I draw this evil looking face, and here’s my antagonist. I can just draw and instantly looking at it, all the ideas are in my head. Maybe I’m a visual learner.
Ken: That’s where I start, and then those notebooks, I start like you do sometimes too. I start writing by hand, but I tend to get on the computer, but I tell you, I’m cursed as a writer because I have terrible carpal tunnel syndrome, and when I’m sitting on the computer typing, it becomes painful, but then I tell myself, “I’m suffering for my art.”
Lindsay: Do you ever wear those…
Ken: I wear the braces when I sleep and I just purchased some Dragon software so that I can talk and have it type. I’m hoping that will maybe inspire. But I do feel like when I’m suffering, like when I’m forcing myself to go, it’s kind of…
Lindsay: You’re being an artist?
Ken: Noble, yes. I’m noble.
Lindsay: You’re in the garret with the freezing and the…
Ken: I’m not starving in the snow, but I’m like, “Oh, my hands hurt, but I must keep going.”
Lindsay: I have thought about the voice activated software, and I don’t know why, but it really, it scares me a little bit, and it shouldn’t, because as playwrights, it should be the most natural thing in the world. Because I know, I know, that’s why I succeed as a playwright, one of the reasons I succeed as a playwright, is because I write the way people talk.
Lindsay: I don’t write, I- very poor grammar. I’ve not very- the structure of true sentences, I don’t do correctly at all. But because I have that piece missing, what goes down on the page sounds, I know when I look at it that it sounds natural.
Ken: I’m the same way and that’s why just experimenting with this software, the problem that I have is that I often read back what I’ve written, and so if I’m writing and I’m speaking and it’s typing up, then I read it back and all of the sudden…
Lindsay: It does it again?
Ken: Yeah. I haven’t mastered the process of actually shutting off the microphone. I actually took a phone call the other day. When I looked back, I recorded the entire phone call without punctuation, because you actually have to say ‘period’. If you don’t, it just keeps going.
Lindsay: It just keeps going.
Ken: I’m extremely- I have not written a play yet on it, but I just received it in the last week, so I’m going to attempt to write a play using part of that, and at least see if I can… I think it’s going to be great if you’re doing a monologue and you just start riffing and the monologue is there. But we’ll see. My process is not smooth. Sometimes I get jealous of you when I listen to you talk about writing and other writers too that have spoken, that can get an idea and get that play out very quickly. I tend to edit myself as I go. I’ve got to really break that habit so that I can… Right now, I haven’t written a new play since “Rinky-Dink” – and I always thought that “Rinky-Dink”, which is a bad nickname, should be “Epic Adventures”.
Lindsay: It should be “Epic Adventures”. “Epic Adventures” is the…
Ken: “I haven’t written a play since ‘Epic Adventures’,” sounds much more palpable than “Rinky-Dink”.
Lindsay: It’s Greek.
Ken: That’s where the comedy comes in. The juxtaposition of the epic and the rinky-dink. But I feel like I’m in kind of a writer’s slump, so I want to try something new, just to kind of break out of it.
Lindsay: Just to kind of see what happens. See, but you know what, grass is always greener. I’m a constant first scene rewriter. I have a lot of, a lot of trouble getting to the end. What I do is, I just book workshops. I’ve book, I have a new play that I’m very futzing with right now. It’s sort of, sorry, I’m making a circle motion with my fingers that you can’t see. I’m futzing with it and I just… So I booked two new play workshops. I go into a school and I just throw my script at them and we just sort of play with it. I booked them for December, so I’m going to have to do something, because otherwise, they will just stare.
Ken: When I taught in the classroom, I could do that more often. Now I work for an online school, so I don’t have a student… I can’t walk in.
Ken: My friend Pam, who is actually doing the first production of “Epic Adventures” – “Epic Adventures, dum, dum, dum” is the music in the background – I actually went into her school last year, and she was kind enough to have two drama classes read the play for me. We had basically 40 minutes of the classroom, so I had to go in there and read, read, read, and I could take notes. It was interesting listening to the students read it, because a lot of what I wrote actually really worked, it sounded like characters, but then there were a couple jokes that the kids just didn’t get. I thought, “This is the best joke.” In fact, I had a joke that was a reference to both Dan Brown and Encyclopedia Brown.
Lindsay: Oh, that’s too old, man.
Ken: I thought students would know Encyclopedia, but it was eight graders and there were 60 of them, and only two of 60 knew who either Dan Brown or Encyclopedia Brown.
Lindsay: And that’s when it has to go.
Ken: A joke, it’s gone. It was my favorite little reference. It was literary. It had to do with art. They’re solving a mystery, like Dan Brown and DaVinci Code. It was a perfect… and boom.
Lindsay: It is a perfect storm of a joke…
Ken: It was.
Lindsay: For that play, and it’s…
Lindsay: It is so necessary to do that, to go in and sort of have them read. I used to do all my stuff, when I lived in Toronto, I used to have a big group of professional actor friends, and we would come and do it. It just got to a point when I really started to hone in on schools. Professional actors are never going to do these plays. Kids are going to do these plays.
Ken: You have to get an authentic voice.
Lindsay: You have to go in and not only hear how they say it, but also they don’t know how to filter their feedback. They just tell you…
Ken: This sucks.
Lindsay: They tell you as it is. You just have to take it. And that’s how I know- people say to me a lot, “How do you know how to write for teenagers?” I’m like, “Well, I get their instant feedback.” I’m the same way. The writer part of my brain is a teenager and I don’t think teenagers… The core of what a teenager is, I think has never changed.
Ken: It hasn’t.
Lindsay: I think it’s the same.
Ken: Ten years after I graduated high school and I started teaching, there were the same kids in the class. Technology was different, they dressed a little different, but their…
Lindsay: Their heart is exactly the same.
Ken: It is.
Lindsay: And they- all they want is to be told they’ve done a good job at something, and they’re so vulnerable. They of think their worldly problem that no one else has ever done them.
Ken: Right. That’s in my plays too. I try to latch onto those universal fears and joys of being a teenager, and the sarcasm that they always use, whether it’s just to be mean or whether it’s a defense mechanism. I’m talking really lofty, like these are deep meaning.
Lindsay: Well, they are.
Ken: They are.
Lindsay: They’re deep to them. It’s their whole life.
Ken: It is.
Lindsay: I think that is something that- I don’t think there is a more entusiastic or entertaining or truthful or just- the high school drama production, the heart they put into it, is just- it’s a never- it’s wonderful. I just think it’s wonderful.
Ken: They really all the best kids in the world. If I judge an acting competition or a playwriting competition and I go to the thespian festival, when I see those kids – no matter how many times you see people on TV talking about, “This nation is going terribly…”
Lindsay: It’s not.
Ken: “And the future of the world is in bad hands” – and I look at these kids and they’re so supportive and they’re so loving. They’re so friendly and they’re so fun. They’re so adventurous and they’re so creative. Those are the kids that- I have faith that the world is going to be a better place when I look at these drama kids. I really do.
Lindsay: I feel exactly the same way. You can tell me until you’re blue in the face that teenagers today are horrible, and I’m like, “You know what? I think…”
Ken: Come with me and watch this rehersal and look at these kids.
Lindsay: Just as high school students have not changed, I think there horrible, horrible students in the ’80s. I think there were horrible students in the ’70s. Horrible students in the ’60s. It’s just as… I just don’t buy it. I don’t buy that they’re worse today than they were.
Ken: I agree. Definitely their technology and the fact that they’re always latched to a phone…
Lindsay: They’re different.
Ken: They’re different, but, like you said, those inner feelings are exactly the same. Unfortunately, they never left my brain either.
Ken: I sa’y unfortunate’, , but I don’t think it is unfortunate.
Lindsay: It’s not fortunately. Well, it is.
Ken: I love writing for teenagers. That’s…
Lindsay: Have you ever had to reconcile with the feeling of “it’s not real”, writing for schools?
Ken: No, because that’s what I want to do. My friends ask, “When are you going to write that novel?” Maybe someday, but right now I have this great idea that I’ve love to see on stage, and I think kids would really… If kids can find a play to perform in, you know the kids in a school that doesn’t have anything else but drama, I love providing the character that a student can identify with. I want to play this part. I want to be in this production. Or I want to work backstage for this play. I feel like, just like being a teacher, people don’t always look at that as a lofty thing, or a noble. I love writing for teenagers. I love teaching teenagers. I think that is not real art, but it is a real passion.
Lindsay: It all depends. I think that it is, well, people put, I think, lofty ideals on what art is. And I think that what art is is something that impacts.
Lindsay: And I think, without a shadow of a doubt, that what we do with students has impact. Not only does it impact, sometimes it changes their life.
Ken: It can.
Lindsay:? Wou know, why would I want three weeks at a big theater when I can have somebody is in a play and will remember that experience for the rest of their life.
Ken: And it’s true. I remember every- I remember my first play in the second grade.
Lindsay: All right, tell me. What was your first play?
Ken: I was not cast as a lead role – I was just a background elf – but the kid who played Santa Claus somehow took his… it was either a candy cane or his big sack of toys, and he whacked the reindeer in the head, and basically got suspended from the play.
Lindsay: And so you got the part?
Ken: I did. I think maybe because I fit the suit. I was roughly the same height, but I was suddenly Santa Claus in this little play, and I haven’t stopped acting since. Through elementary school… I was in a play in the fifth grade where I had to do a magic trick for the audience, so I did that. In high school, I was a detective in this mystery parody. In college, I auditioned for “Romeo and Juliet”. I read really well for Romeo. I got cast as Paris, the guy who doesn’t get the girl, then I get killed by Romeo. I’ve been acting my whole life. I love those plays. Some of the best friends I still have in my forties were people with whom I’ve performed on stage. I loved… I look back fondly. I still have every program of every play I’ve ever been in. And I’ve accomplished things in my life. I have a beautiful wife. I have kids. But if I think back at the greatest moments of my life, you’re absolutely right. Those plays were a big part of it.
Lindsay: That community.
Ken: It is. Yeah. It made you who you are. The idea that you can get in front of an audience and say something, whether it’s your words or it’s the playwright’s words, and effect that entire audience. Have them gasp or cry or cheer. That’s empowering, and it makes you feel wonderful.
Lindsay: It does. It’s a… It’s something that never leaves you. Now, did you ever have a defining moment when you felt, “Ah, I’m a writer.”?
Ken: “Ah, I’m a writer.” You know, the first play that got the publication offer, that was kind of a nice moment. The most terrifying moment as a writer, I will tell you, is when the first time I went to a school who was performing one of my plays. I hadn’t been involved with it at all, I just came in, I sat down. They said, “Hey, we have a special guest here, the author of the play,” and I had to stand up. People politely clapped. Then I watched the production.
Lindsay: It was…
Ken: It was. Every beat was missed and there were some really wonderful performers, but it just… I think it was one of the earlier performances, and they hadn’t really done it for an audience, so there was no holding when there was a laugh. I’m sure it was much better than what was in my mind, but in my mind, I put it on the page. I produced several years before. It was my first play, and I’ve finally gotten to the point now where I can go in and just enjoy what the artists… I’ve seen some amazing productions of my plays. I love them. That first time watching your words interpreted by someone with whom you had no contact, that was frightening. Afterwards, I really envisioned in my head, and it was as bad as I thought, but that moment of sitting in the seat, every line they said, I’m like, “Oh, I should have rewritten that joke,” or, “Oh, they missed that punchline,” or, “Oh, no, that’s not how that character should look.” It was tricky. But now with 10 plays under my belt, I’m much more relaxed and I love watching a production of my play. I love meeting the students and answering their questions.
Lindsay: They’re so appreciative.
Ken: They are.
Lindsay: They’re loving. They love when you come, and they love, well, because we’re alive, you know? And sometimes they don’t make that connection. “Oh, you mean a live person wrote this?” and “Oh, they might come and see it?”
Ken: Plus I feel like they’re expecting this author to come in in a tie and beard and a pipe and say, “I am the author of this play,” and I’m just like, “Hey kids!”
Lindsay: “Hey, how you doing?”
Ken: “That’s him?”
Lindsay: “Oh, we don’t like this play anymore. He’s no good.”
Ken: “I no longer wish to be involved.”
Lindsay: I don’t think that at all.
Ken: I know, but I wonder. I think that when I was a student, and when I was acting, I think that’s how I envisioned the playwright. When we were doing “Romeo and Juliet”, I kind of had an idea what that guy was like, but the other plays, I always pictures the polished professional with the beard and the pipe. Me, I’m just a goofball. A teacher who never grew up and that one part of my mind that writes. I hope I don’t disappoint them, but I really do hope that more students will discover these plays. Every play that I’ve seen performed, when I speak to the director, they always talk about how much the audience appreciated how much the kids had fun. I’m not writing these plays that are changing the world, but I’m writing a play that really good night at the theater. Maybe change the kids who are in it, but when you finish watching my plays, I don’t think there’s eight hours of conversation about the deep, dark meaning of the… But there’s a lot of fun. The audiences enjoy them. The kids are playing characters who maybe they can relate to and maybe they can learn from, so I have a lot of fun.
Lindsay: There is nothing wrong with a solid entertaining evening of theater, because I have seen a lot of crappy theater.
Lindsay: There are a lot of playwrights, a lot of, I’m sorry, not “writers” – who put very little work into just putting out stupid crap. I find, I think it’s a lot harder to write decent comedy and decent entertainment, than it is to write, you know, it’s easy to go to the…
Ken: Deep, philosophical…
Lindsay: “Oh, my mamma’s dead!” You know? I think it’s easy to go there as a trick. It’s a lot harder to create heart-warming, true, like sincere, sincere, heart-felt characters in a heart-felt comedy. I think that is a very hard thing to do, and it’s wonderful to see. I think you did a fine job. I don’t think you should… “Epic Adventures” is by far just a lovely, a lovely adventure, with wonderful characters.
Ken: It has a little bit of mystery, a little bit of romance.
Lindsay: A little bit of romance, great humor.
Ken: You know, writing plays, all my plays usually take place…
Lindsay: Someone should publish that play.
Ken: I know. I thought it’d be funny, every kid has gone on a field trip, and whenever you go on a field trip, there’s always the educational part, and there’s always the “we’re out of school, we can get away with stuff”. That’s what I tried to capture, the different ways that students react when they’re released from the classroom and they have a little bit of freedom. Here, running around the art museum, and getting all kinds of nutty hijinks and mysteries and romances and…
Ken: We’ll say it was a lot of fun.
Lindsay: Absolutely. Well, there you go. I think… Oh my gosh, look at that. Ken, we’ve been sitting here chatting for like 25 minutes.
Lindsay: I know. That’s pretty wonderful.
Ken: Just edit out all the dull parts.
Lindsay: No. And here we are and we’re done.
Ken: Thank you. Thank you very much. Just flash the picture…
Lindsay: That’s right.
Ken: And pronounce my name, and we’re done.
Lindsay: It’s Ken Preuss, which rhymes with ‘Seuss’.
Lindsay: See, I’ll never…
Ken: Whenever I say that to a student, I say, “It’s Mr. Preuss, rhymes with Dr. Seuss,” they always end up calling me Dr. Preuss, which makes me seem way smarter than I really am.
Lindsay: You should take that.
Ken: Not a problem at all.
Lindsay: All right. So now your job is to go out and write another play.
Ken: I shall.
Lindsay: So epicly. And now you must do that.
Ken: I will. And I’ll only write the epic part, and not the rinky-dink part.
Lindsay: That’s right. Thanks a lot, Ken.
Ken: Thank you very much much.
Lindsay: You’re welcome. Thank you so much, Ken Preuss, for taking the time to talk to me. What a lovely, lovely chat we had. So often, because we receive so many of our play submissions by email, there are playwrights with us who we have never met. We’ve only communicated electronically. It’s such a wonderful thing to sit down and have another talk with a playwright, particularly when you like their work so much. And that’s where we’re going to end. That’s it. That’s all. Take care my friends. Take care.
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