For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed playwright-screenwriter-producer Arden Kass. She is is the recipient of two playwriting Fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her work, ranging from full-length dramas and dance theatre to musical theatre, has been seen in Philadelphia, Minneapolis and New York productions and developmental workshops. She is the author of several full-length screenplays, and with her writing partner Mark Gallini, co-author of numerous screenplays and television pilots. To learn more, visit ardenkass.com.
Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.
My main project right now is writing the book for my first original musical comedy, Daddy’s Girl. It’s a mash-up of contemporary themes and music and old-fashioned Broadway/vaudeville-style theatricality, underscoring the idea of changing assumptions and values. Daddy’s Girl is about 40 year old Tracey Zelnick who returns home for her Papa’s funeral after twenty years of estrangement, where she faces a daunting task in briefing the Rabbi who will officiate – given that Papa was America’s leading merchant of sexy/sleazy women’s lingerie designed “through a real man’s eyes,” and she is now a noted feminist academic.
Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?
There are far too few stories about women’s lives, told from a woman’s point of view, on Broadway — not to mention the scarcity of great roles for women. I wanted to write a story that is relatable to audiences of various ages and genders, that is funny and emotionally authentic, and that addresses vital issues without being dogmatic or pedantic. This piece was inspired by a magazine interview from the 1970s or ‘80s with the man who founded an iconic direct mail lingerie catalogue – America’s first – which referenced the fact that his daughter had worked for him briefly, then left the company to take a totally different path. I couldn’t stop wondering what a young woman must have felt, coming of age (as I did) during the height of Second Wave Feminism and trying to process the growing realization that her father’s worldview, once considered progressive, now defined political incorrectness — or appeared to. I invented a daughter and several other characters and soon realized that the story was far more personal than I had understood; and also, that what I was writing about was in part, the contentious fault line existing today between being politically correct and creating meaningful political change.
Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?
Tony Kushner, Suzan Lori Parks, Jeanine Tesori, Bob Dylan, Paula Vogel, Marsha Norman, Wendy Wasserstein, Kurt Weill, Toni Morrison, Peter Schaffer, Maria Irene Fornes, Quiara Hudes, Lynn Nottage, Lee Breuer, Mark Morris, Laurie Anderson, Rinde Eckert, Tony Yazbek, Dorothy Parker, Alberta Hunter, Cole Porter, Carl and Rob Reiner, Mel Brooks, Art Spiegelman, Emma Thompson, the Coen Bros. and Frances McDormand. I could go on for pages …
Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?
Inspired: Visual art, music, travel, nature. Motivated: my children and their future on this planet.
Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?
In 2014/15, I conceived and co-created a “live documentary theatre” project, School Play, based on 100 interviews with PA residents statewide, that dramatized the chronic underfunding of Pennsylvania’s public education system and the devastating real life human impact on individuals and communities. It premiered at the National Constitution Center and toured Pennsylvania. I recently co-authored several TV pilot concepts, including one that’s a sort of American Downton Abbey drama set during post-Civil War Reconstruction, one that’s based on William Carlos Williams’ The Doctor Stories, and I’m about to write a series pilot about a woman attorney who defies many, many expectations when passed over for a partnership. Frankly, my list of dream projects would fill many lifetimes.
Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?
Discussing a word choice in my play Appetite with the perceptive and articulate Jemma Redgrave, and realizing that this was exactly the level and tone of conversation I live for, any time I am not sitting at my desk writing.
Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?
Writing a well-funded adventure/romance film set in an exotic locale in South America.
Q: What has been your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?
Time, timing and the times into which I was born. For a variety of reasons, including bringing up two kids and money, I have devoted time to many different things besides my writing career. Now that I’m more in control of my schedule and resources, my greatest obstacle seems to be “breaking in” to the various fields I couldn’t wait to work in years ago — which is frustrating, as I’m probably a much more thoughtful, disciplined and determined artist now, thanks to the variegated life I’ve had. To my great joy, I think I see some of those walls starting to come down.
Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?
I am never not-creative — my issue is how to stay focused and seated long enough to get at least a fraction of what goes through my brain onto the page. Walks, bike rides, museums and yoga are helpful. And espresso. (And Joanne!)
Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?
The negative, anxious goblin that lives under my bridge. It is a demon that whispers to me about my greatest fears: missed opportunities and mediocrity.
Q: What is your favorite piece of art?
I could never choose one – my whole life is about art. The first one I visualized is the Nike of Samothrace at the top of the stairs in the Louvre. I wrote about her.
Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?
Oskar Eustis. I love his taste in artists and how he treats them.
Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?
Writing an iconic role for a woman on stage, film or TV.
Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?
Q: What is your guilty pleasure?
Expensive black boots, on sale.
Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?
Believe it or not, you’re still young. And no, you’re not fat.
Q: Where would you most like to live?
Maybe the Southwest, maybe Monterey, maybe Italy. I like sun better than clouds, horses better than cars and natural scenery better than buildings. But I have to be able to get to a good city fairly easily.
Q: What is your idea of success?
Having healthy, inspirational relationships with creative colleagues, getting my work produced consistently and finally earning enough money to stop worrying about money.
Q: What is your idea of happiness?
Being healthy and fit, having a life filled with exciting, wonderful people — and knowing that I have succeeded enough to feel proud of myself and the choices I’ve made.
Q: Final Thoughts?
Girls rule. (Pity everyone else didn’t figure this out sooner.)