GRR's Christina Riley sat down with Kyle Bass, Syracuse Stage's dramaturg. She captured an inside look on what it's like working with Ping Chong and co-writing "Cry For Peace: Voices From the Congo." Most importantly, we find out what exactly a dramaturg does.
By: Christina Riley
Kyle Bass sits at his desk on the second floor of Syracuse Stage wearing a simple black button down and jeans. Tucked in the back corner of a shared office, his space is cluttered with books, scripts and papers scattered across the desk and floor. On a Friday afternoon, his phone rings and his emails chime in, when he interviewed though, Bass is focused and reminiscent. His pensive persona saturates the conversation, as his speech is calculated and cool.
While his story isn’t terribly unconventional, he has traveled a less-trodden path. From being an English major to working in the pharmaceutical industry, Bass ultimately found his flooring in writing for the dramatic arts and his home at the Stage. With an affinity for words and a talent for crafting poignant stories of humanity, Bass has built a career in the theater industry.
Bass is the dramaturg for Syracuse Stage and is currently working as a co-writer and associate director for “Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo” which recently moved to New York City after finishing a two-week world premier at Syracuse Stage. He also teaches at Goddard College, Syracuse University and Colgate University.
Green Room Reviews: Tell me about the writing side of working on Cry for Peace and how it was collaborating with Ping Chong as a co-writer.
Kyle Bass: I’ve never collaborated with anyone before. I’ve always considered myself as a solo act, as a writer. So, that was interesting…in a great way. I’ve described it elsewhere as: he and I got together, we got married and we moved into his apartment, and I moved my stuff in with his. It’s like that, that kind of collaboration and finding a way to fit my aesthetic into something that’s already formed. It was a challenge.
GRR: Was it difficult to write the story of another person while writing for Chong’s aesthetic?
KB: I love actors. I like writing for actors and actors have crafts. You can give them harder things to do in terms of language, nuance, subtlety, length, reach and depth of utterance. Here, this is really different. We’re dealing with people of which English is not their primary language. Having to recalibrate how I was going to use language and having to overcome things like just the pronunciation was a part of that challenge.
GRR: Did you find yourself writing more toward their speech or did you try to coach them on how to say what you had written?
KB: Since they’re all from the Congo, their primary language is French. So, they speak very much at the back of their throats. Even when they speak English, it can be very hard to understand. It was challenging trying to find words that they could say clearly, so that the lazy American ear could understand it. The accommodation was really for the audience. The vast majority of the language is us listening to their stories, taking it in and through our lenses and our creative use of language, putting it back out. It’s not meant to be verbatim. It’s more like the autobiography of them by Kyle Bass and Ping Chong.
GRR: When you say, “I’m a dramaturg,” do you get weird faces and people asking you what that means?
KB: Yeah, well, the job is really defined by the person in the job. I didn’t come the academic route to dramaturgy; I didn’t study dramaturgy. I came as a playwright. So, I’m really interested in the text. The simplest kind role is that I protect the integrity of the art form for the organization. But that’s a great big ol’ grand statement. [laughs]
GRR: So what do you really do?
KB: What I really do is read a lot of plays, do a lot of research, talk to the directors about their concepts, and act as another set of artistic eyes in the organization. And increasingly, my role has been more of default associate artistic director—that’s been my relationship with Timothy Bond [Producing Artistic Director of Stage]. I work extremely close with him in selecting the season, which he ultimately selects, but we have ongoing conversations in which I have a great amount of influence. He trusts me and I trust him ... So as a dramaturg, I do a lot of things, I read a lot of plays and talk a lot about the plays we do. I’m involved with casting, procuring scripts, talking with agents and playwrights, creating talkback and lecture series, and curating lobby displays a lot.
GRR: Take us back to when you first got interested in theater and writing.
KB: One of the very first plays I ever published was a short play using a dialog composed of all one-syllable words. Although, when it went into publication, I read it and I realized there was a two syllable word. And I said, “Oh, wow! How did I miss that?!” [laughs] ... The word was “ticket.” He wanted to buy a ticket. A “ticket” is two syllables. I set myself up for that. [laughs] How was he going to ask for that? It was fun; in doing that I discovered his voice. He doesn’t say "ticket," he says "seat." “I want to buy a seat.”
GRR: That does sound like a really fun mental exercise.
KB: It is. I really enjoyed doing that one but the overall story is: The strictures of what we can do and what we can’t do in any art form can become liberating. When you can’t do something, you’re are liberated to be more creative to find out how to do the thing you want to achieve in a new way.
GRR: Did your theater interest start in college?
KB: It did. All of my friends were theater majors. I liked those kinds of people. They were just big and interesting. I came from a family of show-offs. I’m really good around show offs. [laughs] So, it started there on some level. I actually started of as a poet. Then, I began to be interested in writing fiction. I felt like I wasn’t smart enough to be a poet. I was interested in action and transitioning from poetry into fiction writing, I found myself even more interested in action. Even my short stories were very much about describing what people are doing and letting that tell the story. I remember discovering Sam Shepard, Edward Albee and just loving all that action, all that tough action on stage, all those people wanting those things so badly then watching them go about trying to get it. But writing had always been my thing
GRR: From there to here, what happened?
KB: Well, I came here [Syracuse Stage] in ‘92 and left in ‘95 and came back in 2005. [He worked at Stage as Assistant Director of Marketing and Development, Publications Manager, Public Relations Manager and Literary Manger] And in the interim, I was in the for-profit world, tragically miscast as a senior account executive for a pharmaceutical marketing firm. It was and then some—death. It was a misery. Profitable, but a misery. Profitable but at enormous cost.
GRR: How’d you transition back to Stage after working in the pharmaceutical industry?
KB: Somewhere somehow, I discovered the Armory Square Playhouse, a group of playwrights who got together and workshopped each other’s plays. They read my piece aloud, and when they finished, everyone was quiet. But I also knew it was good. [laughs] And I knew they were quiet because they were thinking, “Who is this guy? Where has this guy been?” A month later, they produced a reading of my work and it’s that day, I’ll never forget. They performed it at a coffee and dessert house in Armory Square called Happy Endings. They were performing three playwright’s short pieces and they performed mine last. I knew they performed mine last, because it was good. I was sitting in the audience, and the artistic director was sitting in front of me and he leaned back and whispered, “Look at the audience.” And I looked at them, they were all on the edge of their seats, really, really into it and, from there I was hooked.
GRR: What advice do you give your students who want to be a writer or a dramaturg?
KB: I tell them to read a lot of plays, to see a lot plays to imitate till they find their authentic voice or it finds them. I tell them to tell the truth and not to waste the audiences’ time. It’s part of the maturation process: that you imitate those you love, and developing your craft and be honest, you’ll find your voice. I think the voice is always an amalgam of what you’ve experienced, what turns you on in terms of thing in the world and what has impressed you. You discover your own aesthetic by discovering the aesthetic that moves you. For instance, I’m drawn to character over plot, rich language on stage, tragedy by which I mean the dramatic by which I mean not comedy but then comedy is drama.
GRR: What’s next on your plate aside from teaching and working on Stage’s season?
KB: I’m giving the commencement speech at Goddard for the next graduation. I finally figured out what I’m going to talk about…tears.
GRR: Sounds like an appropriate graduation speech.
KB: Doesn’t it? That’s exactly what I thought. 'Cause I’m always so emotional after graduations and I wondered about that. And then I read William Blake’s quote, “ A tear is an intellectual thing.” And I love that and thought, let me figure out what that means … That will be in the speech somewhere. I guess you can extrapolate from that, we cry because we think.
GRR: That’s an interesting journey. Sounds like it’s all worked out for you though.
KB: It’s been a circuitous route and it continues to be one. I don’t feel settled; I feel like this is what I’m doing now.
GRR: So, you’re happy where you are, making it work?
KB: I’m not unhappy.