Ken Urban, playwright, screenwriter, and director, is the busiest man in show business. He’s done a trifecta of plays in three cities: New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C.
Urban sat down with me to discuss his inspiration to become a playwright, his aspirations for his plays, and the rollercoaster life of a professional writer.
Michael: When the Huntington Theatre Company told you they were going to do your play, what was the feeling for you?
Ken: It’s a feeling of responsibility. I want to give the Boston theater audiences a taste of something that is really intimate and emotional that makes them feel uncomfortable but is ultimately rewarding. I feel pressure to try to do something that even if you don’t love it, it’s something that you haven’t seen before.
Michael: Was there a moment like that for you in the theater that made you decide to become a playwright?
Ken: I started college as a chemical engineer I had no intentions of ever being a writer or a playwright. Then I took a class on African-American Drama in the 20th Century, and that’s what made me move in the direction of studying dramatic literature. I always was a creative writer on the side and I used to write short stories. All my friends said the same thing: “All your short stories are primarily just dialogue. Have you ever thought about writing a play?” Hearing them say that to me made me think, maybe that is something worth doing.
I was living in London during my senior year abroad. It was the first time in my life I was seeing plays every single night, at the Royal Court, the Bush and other small theaters, and I was so excited by theater for the first time in my life, and I said, “ I’m going to try and write a play.”
I don’t know if I would have had that experience if I had seen plays in the United States, if my parents had taken me to Philadelphia to see something at the Walnut Street Playhouse. I think what excited me was seeing these small, very dangerous plays in these small theaters in London, with these amazing actors who were so brave.
I grew up middle class so my parents were like, “You need a desk job, you should be an engineer.” I never thought being an artist was possible. I never knew any artists, and I didn’t see plays until I went to college. My freshman year I saw a production of a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, a British playwright, called Our Country’s Good, and it was the first time I was like, “Wow, you can have all these ideas in plays.”
Michael: So London was the turning point for you.
Ken: Exactly. We have these moments in the theater where … your mind is blown and you see something. It also makes you realize that maybe this is something that I could try and I could be good at. I didn’t know if I was going to be any good at writing plays. I felt like there was no template and then I did, and the bug bites you and you can’t stop.
It’s a hard career. Sometimes there’s a lot of existential pain that goes into, not to mention financial sacrifices that you have to make, so a lot of people get out of the game because it’s hard to have a family, find any stability when you’re on the road so much and waiting for the next gig. My boyfriend is in New York City, and I’m living in my corporate housing here in Boston for the next six weeks. It can drive you a little crazy. But it’s worth it to be in the rehearsal room with my director Colman Domingo and these two amazing actors.
Playwrights are so weird because we’re this weird mix of introvert and extrovert at the same time. There are periods where I need to be alone to write, to think, to imagine, fantasize but I also get lonely and I want to be in a rehearsal room with the director and the cast and designers and stage managers and work together to figure how the play will work on stage.
Michael: You’re mounting three plays in 12 months. That’s a pretty good indication you should not have gone into chemical engineering.
Ken: You feel rewarded and just need to remind yourself that not every year is going to go like this and that’s okay too. You ride the wave.
It means a lot to me that A Guide for the Homesick will premiere here in Boston. The two characters come from the Boston area and I started this play when I lived in Cambridge in 2011. Now I’m back here with a teaching gig at MIT. It means a lot that this story is being told in this particular city.
Michael: Are there plans at this point for the show to go elsewhere or are you just going to wait and see?
Ken: This is the first step for this play. It’s the first production and there will be more. This play will have another life after we open at the Huntington Theatre Company.
A Guide for the Homesick runs from Oct 6-Nov 4 at the Calderwood Pavilion. For more information, visit http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2017-2018/a-guide-for-the-homesick/