Ken Urban's play Nibbler is currently in rehearsals for its world premiere production with The Amoralists, in association with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Nibbler concerns a group of teens in South Jersey in the summer of 1992 facing life after high school and confronted by a mysterious visitor from another world.
In the following interview with dramaturg Jeremy Stoller, Ken discusses the project's origins and his career.
I last interviewed you in the summer of 2015 when we were working on the American premiere of Sense of an Ending, and asked you why you made theater. You replied:
The ability to see the world in a new way
To have an experience in a room with others
To feel like your brain has been re-wired
Does this continue to be what drives you?
Yes. I do really believe that to be true. It happens rarely but when it does, it’s amazing. Seeing the Ivo productions of Shakespeare at BAM last year made that clear. And I am not one of those people who think Shakespeare is the pinnacle of dramatic literature. I’d rather read Marlowe. And yet the Richard III section of that production made me rethink the play and re-see the world. It was my first taste of the terror to come on November 8th!
Nibbler looks at the transition from our adolescent to adult identities. So I’m curious about your own experience with that transition. I know you today as an articulate, opinionated, well-read, liberal, kind, occasionally snarky, dapper guy, and a varied and challenging writer and composer. How does that compare with the Ken Urban I would have met in high school?
I am not sure how articulate and dapper I am, but thanks. Was that snarky? I think I have lived lots of different lives, but there are threads that connect all the different people that make up who I am.
I was definitely an opinionated teenager with strong views about music, who read all the time and liked weird things like classic Doctor Who and David Lynch films. That remains the same. But I was also awkward, unsure of who I was, like all teenagers: still in the shadow of my parents, not exposed to much in the arts, not sure what I believed politically, not sure what I wanted to do with my life, not sure about my sexuality.
All of that changed in the summer of 1992, when I graduated high school and went off to college, and that’s what inspired this play.
Music plays an important role in the script, which is true of a lot of your work. I think of you as someone who is deeply aware of the storytelling potential of music, yet I also know you consider yourself to be anti-musical theater. How do you feel music and song enhance this story? And why won't you geek out about Sondheim with me?
I always disappoint people with my complete ignorance of musical theater. Sorry!
I spent a lot of high school in a band – I still spend a lot of time in a band – and so to tell this story honestly, it felt like a song was needed. I actually wrote the song in the play with a few friends from college when I lived in Boston for a few years.
Also, music was the thing that united my friends in high school. Later in college and adult life, there are many other factors that make someone a friend. But in high school in the 1990s you were friends with people who liked The Smiths, The Cure and Depeche Mode and you avoided jocks who liked U2 and top 40, and the theater kids since they always seemed weirdly perky. The play is about those allegiances in a way.
You began working on the play in 2001. What do you think changed – either in the text or in the world – to make this the right moment for Nibbler to premiere?
This play has had a long journey. I started the play right after 9/11. Like most New Yorkers, I was depressed, and I wanted to think about a moment when I felt hope. I remember the months leading up to Bill Clinton’s election as a real time of possibility. Of course, in 2001-2, I was writing with the hindsight about how disappointing Clinton would be, and how he set the stage for George W. Bush.
I decided to write a one-act set in New Jersey as a kind of Our Town-meets-Mac Wellman’s Sincerity Forever. The one-act eventually had a small production out in the Los Angeles area in 2003, thanks to the folks at Rude Guerilla (RIP). People kept saying that I should turn it into a full-length. I eventually did around 2008. But oddly, it didn’t feel like the right time for the play. Obama was elected and the 1990s just felt too close and too far. If I’m being honest, an early version of the full-length version of Nibbler had a production out in Los Angeles in 2009, and it was a disaster for me on many levels. Just thinking about it upsets me. That made me put the play in a (metaphorical) drawer for a long time because my confidence was shaken by that experience.
But over the past few years, the play felt more and more pertinent. That sense of hope and disillusionment, our changing feelings about the ‘90s, what happens when you are left behind by all the change and progress other people appear to be experiencing… Stable Cable, a small company here in the city, did a workshop of the play in 2013, and that set the stage for me to dive back into the play and finish it. I did a workshop last spring with the students at Davidson College where I was a writer-in-residence. Seeing actual college students do the roles of the teenagers answered so many questions about the play and got me excited to see the play realized in its final form in New York. Luckily, [Artistic Director] James [Kautz] and [his company] the Amoralists were keen to do it.
Are the things that interest you about the characters and ideas in NIBBLER now, the same ones that excited you when you began it?
Yes, but in a different way. I do wonder how some of the Clinton jokes will play given that we will not have a Hillary Clinton presidency. With the election of Trump, the surprise that so many Americans feel so angry and so disenfranchised, that gives the play a new resonance. I have changed little about the play since last year, trims more than sweeping changes. But it is an exciting time to do a play about coming of age in the early 1990s (thanks, Stranger Things!) and the politics of that moment.
Since Nibbler involves a character looking back a decade, I'd like to ask you how you are a different writer than you were 10 years ago?
Things have happened for me that I never thought would. Ten years ago, I had my first real production in New York. I was still struggling to understand who I was as a writer and trying to move away from the academic mindset. By that, I mean caring about the audience and not the critic or scholar, and being honest about my love of story. I wanted to reach more people.
I often wonder whether the state of so-called “development hell” that plays get caught in, deprives writers of the time and headspace to move forward to other projects, and whether more great plays aren't being written because writers’ back-catalogs are still queued up. Do you feel like your ongoing exploration of Nibbler and other of your scripts is driven by your own creative impulses, or is it greatly impacted by the pace our industry moves to produce new plays? And, to borrow a psychiatric cliche: "how does that make you feel?'
Development hell does exist. But oddly Nibbler never really suffered from that. I wrote it and it was produced by a small theater company in the OC. It’s odd that it had workshops and readings only after it had two productions. Very weird now that I think about it.
It does feel good that the plays that I spent the 2000s working on are now being produced. Sense of an Ending, Nibbler, The Awake and The Correspondent took up so much brain space, and now that they are out in the world, I can move on to newer projects. I will always love these plays, but yes, until a play is produced and published, it lingers and demands attention. And that’s hard.
But I also know just because you write a play in no way means the non-profit theater world should produce it. I used to run a theater company and that was super important because my early plays got done. Some of them were not great, but it was good to do them and get them out of my system and learn from it. I guess that’s why some writers do MFAs. That’s a safer and easier way to fail. It’s hard to do that in the professional world. But failure is so important to growth. And like every writer, I’ve had my share.
Nibbler, directed by Benjamin Kamine, runs February 23 - March 18, 2017 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, For more information, click here