This Interview is an excerpt from a conversation between Jeremy J. Kamps (our Playwright-In-Residence and Playwright of Breitwisch Farm) and Charlie Murphy (our Managing Director). They sat down over the Holidays to talk Breitwisch Farm, Writing, Politics, and more. Enjoy!
CHARLIE MURPHY: What inspired Breitwisch Farm?
JEREMY KAMPS: For me it’s never one thing that takes me into a play, so I have a few answers for that. First, I love Anton Chekhov. I saw the Seagull at the Guthrie when I was 14, and on the drive home I wrote my first play! But you write like Chekhov today, and people are like “what’s the plot? what’s the event? what’s the action? It’s not moving!” So [the question of] how you do Chekhov today — and that’s not necessarily what I set out to do, but it definitely was [on my mind] — and I love him! So part of this is homage to Chekhov.
Second, I had been in India for some months just before I started writing this play. And what really stuck out to me was how several people I spoke with were so enthusiastic about and rallying around and proud of a growing middle class. Granted, that’s not the whole of India’s population, but for those who are receiving opportunities and experiencing this ascent into middle class created a sense of hope. Here was this 60-year-old democracy and a growing middle class which I noted as a stark contrast to the US where the middle class is eroding. Strangely enough, a play that examines aspects of what it means to be in the US middle class , set in rural Wisconsin, was partially inspired by my time in India.
CM: And was it that eroding middle class that made you think of Cherry Orchard?
JK: It was partly that, because instead of the disappearing aristocratic class, now we were on the other side of that spiral, of a disappearing middle class, and the change of an era.
And of course one of the major issues especially going back to 2011/2010 when I was exploring this was foreclosures. And losing the farm through foreclosure feels like the other side of selling the orchard.
CM: And that's when you started writing it? Back in 2011?
JK: I started it between 2011/2012, with a very big re-write in 2014, and then we did some workshops with Esperance in the last three years.
CM: Are there any ways it’s changed because of Trump’s America in 2018? Has that affected or bled into the play at all?
JK: It’s funny, some of the things that happen in this play, we’ve seen play out in some version since. One is a football protest, using sports as politics, and free speech. I also think it’s really looking at the Tea Party movement in response to Obama, and what the Tea Party gave rise to, politically, and I would argue that a lot of what that gave rise to is the tide that Trump rode into office. Then there’s one BIG one which I’m not going to spoil, but was also written in and now we’ve seen happening. More generally Immigration is a major part of this, because Immigration and the middle class have historically been one and the same. With all these things, maybe my hope is that people can look back and realize, “Oh, it’s not just Trump” it’s something that has been in the fiber of our nation’s trajectory for a long time. Trump is the icing on this cake, not the ingredients.
CM: With all of these issues being so polarizing, your writing never feels preachy, is that something you give conscious effort to?
JK: Yes. A lot, a lot, a lot. I think once you show your hand — because I definitely have my opinions, my politics — but once you show your hand, whatever it is, even if it’s something really diplomatic or like, “I like ice cream”, and we all can agree ice cream is good, right? But once you tip your hand, you’ve disengaged your audience. And as an artist, I’ve shut off my ability to push my own perspectives and risk the dangers of partisan politics defining community rather than vice versa.
I can give you these people’s lives as I see them and I can give you their journeys, and it’s hopefully adding to the nuance of our dialogue and discourse. Because to me the worst thing, worse than being didactic, is feeling like something is void of nuance. And complexity. And I think that’s the logjam of where we’re at right now and how we feel about each other in this country— is we’re just in our corners, and the same way I root for the Packers and you root for the Steelers, people are rooting for political parties in that way. We’re in this heightened partisan era, and I think dramatic art by design is the antidote to that.
CM: Absolutely. And I think it’s really dangerous in this time to not get stuck arguing with Strawmen, such that we stop engaging with actual intelligent people on the other side who have different viewpoints, but instead end up fighting with the most extreme version of the other side’s viewpoints, which everyone can easily dismiss.
JK: Yeah. A few thoughts on that. When you get in the Facebook battle and you tell someone off, you feel good, but have you moved the needle? Probably not. But then, and this is where nuance and paradox come into play— if there are people who are going to say racist, hateful, misogynistic, homophobic, or such things, classist — sometimes it’s okay to say “Stop, you can’t do that. Your comfort level isn’t the barometer for our dialogue”. But then other times you want to engage people. So it’s very difficult. This sort of genuine discourse with people has been buried in the era of 24/7 TV news where political theater — and not the Brecht kind, unfortunately — exploits and trivializes issues that deserve listening, examination and even spiritual reflection. My hope, I think is to perhaps honor and challenge every character voice in the play.
CM: I was going to ask you about Home, and the role home plays in the show, as that’s a big theme in the play and for Esperance. But also with it being the Holidays, and since Christmas is a big part of the play —and I know I’m taking you from a family Scrabble game as we speak — any Christmas traditions for you that are the equivalent of some of the characters in the play?
JK: Yeah, for most of my Christmases I’ve been with my family. You know, it’s a vivid time. Especially in a smaller community in Wisconsin. It’s a major moment of community. As a writer, you look for heightened moments and the holidays just give it to you, so you don’t have to invent anything, it’s already heightened.
I’ve always felt, growing up here, being with a family where Christmas was us together, I’ve always been aware of friends or community members for whom the holidays can be very much the opposite of good cheer and togetherness. It really can pronounce the pain in our lives as much as celebrate the joy. So I think these characters in their own ways go through that. And the play is also very much about who is Insider and who is Outsider and how that can change by context and circumstance. Who belongs on this farm and who doesn’t? Who belongs in this town and who doesn’t? Who belongs in this family and who doesn’t? And where do people go when the thing they call home is gone?