An Interview with Ken Slattery, Writer of “Death to the Audience”

Our series of interviews with BOA playwrights continues as festival dramaturg Marissa Skudlarek talks to Ken Slattery about his play “Death to the Audience” and related matters.

Ken Slattery is a longtime member of PlayGround and of sketch comedy group Killing My Lobster, but this is his first time at BOA. “Death to the Audience,” despite its threatening title, is a comedy that imagines the god Mars setting out to wage war on his most vicious foe… the audience.

Marissa: Can you talk a little about the genesis of “Death to the Audience”? I know that it originated as a piece for PlayGround (which gives its writers a prompt each month and then asks them to write a short play). What was the prompt that inspired this piece?

Ken: The topic was “Son of Juno.”  I wrote it in March 2004, so I can’t remember exactly how I came to have the idea, but I’m sure I researched who Juno was, discovered Mars was her son, read that Mars was the God of War, and somehow progressed to writing a play where Roman characters onstage decide to declare war on the audience. PlayGround topics often work like that; they usually require a little research that inevitably opens up all sorts of ideas you wouldn’t have thought of having.

Marissa: So that’s what inspired you to use the Roman gods – Mars, Minerva, and Juno – as characters?

Ken: Yes, the topic definitely steered me in that direction. Most writers would not have taken the literal approach to the characters that I did; if I remember rightly, I was the only playwright who had these Gods in my play on the night of the reading. Writing about Gods suits me; they’re larger-than-life characters, a little childish too, definitely not adults, and that seems to suit me generally when it comes to writing comic characters and situations.

Marissa: As a longtime member of PlayGround, you’ve written dozens of short plays. What do you like about the short-play form?

Ken: The short form is deceptively easy; but it is very hard. I think what I like the most is I can sit down and actually complete a first draft of a short play in one night, if I work at it; and that gives me a sense I’ve actually achieved something. It’s good to sprint to the finish line rather than jog there sometimes.  I think audiences might appreciate short form plays for the same reason. I also think audiences like nights where there is a mix of short plays; there’s nearly always something for everyone.

Marissa: What do you hope the audience will get out of “Death to the Audience”? (Besides, um, death, of course.)

Ken: I hope they laugh in all the right places, and pause for a moment to consider the plight of the characters onstage too. We sit in the dark and watch characters/actors struggle, week in week out; I hope we can get a glimpse into their point of view for a change–what do they think of us, the audience? There’s a spear-carrier in particular with whom I hope people can sympathize.  Overall, I think it’s a pretty light play that shouldn’t tax anyone too much, and there’s probably a bunch of inside-theatre jokes that regular theatre-goers or anyone with knowledge of theatre will enjoy. I’m not sure anyone dies in the play; though I missed the last rehearsal so who knows what Graham and the actors have planned…

Marissa: Do you have any audience-member horror stories that you’re willing to share?

Ken: I wrote and produced a play in Dublin a long time ago, and we staged it in such a way that the audience entered behind the stage. One night, just as we started Act 2, and the lead actor was in the midst of an emotional monologue, one of the audience members–a  friend of his–came in late from the intermission and said hello to him onstage in a less than formal way, totally disrupting him. It was pretty traumatic at the time but years later, it makes me laugh. I always think it’s cool when audience members comment on the action or start talking to the characters onstage, even though that might be horrifying sometimes; it’s a sign they’re engaged, and that’s good.

Marissa: What about “Death to the Audience,” in your opinion, makes it feel like a “Ken Slattery play”?

Ken: It’s hopefully funny, and it’s hopefully a little dark. I think I write about childish people a lot of the time, even if the characters are supposed to be adults, or in this case, Gods. I think where I’m coming from with that is sometimes it seems most of us never grow up, or we get stuck somewhere in adolescence. That’s a sweeping generality of course but um, prove me wrong, everybody on Facebook :-). I think I also like to write about people who  are unhappy with their lot in life, and are struggling to change it, banish some demons, and gain some control over their destiny. In this play, the God of War fits that type of character, which tends to be the main character in most of my stuff, and is clearly an issue that I seem to have most of the time for some reason.

Marissa: How has the rehearsal process for “Death to the Audience” been? Has the script changed at all during the process?

Ken: Yes, the dialogue has changed quite a bit. I wrote the play back in 2004, when I was still more accustomed to writing for Irish audiences; as such, a lot of my expressions were very Irish-sounding or English-sounding; I changed them all to ones a US audience would find more comprehensible. Also in rehearsal, we trimmed a few lines or cut them and replaced them with action.

Marissa: You and your BOA director, M. Graham Smith, will be collaborating again this summer. Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on?

Ken: We’ll be doing Truffaldino Says No with Shotgun Players. It’s another play of mine that I initially wrote as a result of a PlayGround prompt (Arlecchino). PlayGround commissioned me to develop it into a full-length play back in 2009; Graham took it to Shotgun in 2010, and they agreed to do it this year. It’s about a stock commedia dell’arte character who wants to leave his life in the old world (Venice) behind, and moves to the new world (Venice Beach).  The play’s about what happens to him when he gets to the new world–which resembles the world of a sitcom–and also the effect his departure has on the old world, i.e. the people he’s left behind. He’s also in love with two women, which informs a lot of his decision-making :-). It runs at the Ashby Stage in July.

Marissa: Ken, thanks for taking the time to discuss “Death to the Audience” with me! Your play, with its jokes about actors and audience members, is the perfect curtain-raiser for Program 2 of the Bay One Acts.

And if you have a question you’d like to ask about “Death to the Audience,” come see BOA Program 2 on Thursday night (April 26) and stay for the Spotlight Series talk-back with Ken, Graham, and the cast!