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Backstage: Playwright builds plays around 'faction'

Playwright Lynne Kaufman has authored 20 plays since her first play, “Couch,” a romantic comedy about Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Jung’s marriage, premiered in 1984 at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. We visited in College Hall at the University of London.

EH: What is your writing process?

LK: A lot of my plays are what’s called ‘faction,’ based on real historical characters, catching them in some major change and conflict in their lives: imagining the dialogue, dramatizing it, hopefully serving the truth of who they are and who they were. I focus on a short period time of interaction and shifting change. Once I know who the characters are, I don’t think of how they’re saying something, I just think of what they need to say with heightened dialogue.

One of the best things I’ve heard about playwriting is: “When you’re feeling blocked in a play, don’t go outside and drag in something new. Focus: go deep into what you already have, and let the new come from there.” That’s tough, but it really works. Plays should continue to open.

EH: Do you do a lot of research?

LK: I always do the research and then put it away. My great mentor in my literary life was Joseph Campbell. Campbell talked about good writing: “Think about two lead pipes; one would fit into the other. You envision drilling little holes in each pipe and putting one inside the other. When you turn it, and they align, the light goes through both, and you have something.” The research informs the main action. The light shining through is a very human moment.

EH: What’s the light shining through?

LK: The insight about the particular and the universal: so when you’re hitting on timeless truth, but you’re doing it in that very limited specific meaningful moment, it resonates. Everything should be leading towards that. Try to say something true.

I always start with a question, something I want to know. With “Couch” I was exploring, “Can you only love one person at a time? Can you only serve one god? Is it possible? How do you balance that?” We have to do that in our lives. You have to hold two opposed ideas at the same time. How do you balance these two poles? What I say in every play is, “Look at the gray areas; look at the complexity; don’t be so certain that there is only one way. Try to look at all sides. Life is not so black and white.”

EH: Have you explored that in other plays?

LK: I did “Sex Scandal” for The Unscripted Company. I was examining that question of the Me Too movement: How do you balance women’s autonomy and not be seen as a sex object, and not be exploited in any way? How do you balance that with feminine flirtation, seduction and freedom of sexuality? Is there a backlash there? There was a French actress who dared to say, ‘This is not a problem. This is puritanical.’ I wrote a play looking at that, showing the human dilemma of the complexity of our lives.

EH: Does theater affect politics?

LK: Perhaps in a totalitarian country where everything has to be hidden, then I think, yes. It can certainly give voice to an underground movement. I think of Vaclav Havel, and then I think yes.

In a free society, more or less, not enough people go to the theater to do it. I think theater provides a sounding board, a gathering point, a way to merge the moment and human destiny.

Lynne Kaufman’s play, “Acid Test: The many incarnations of Ram Dass” opens at The Marsh San Francisco on Sept 21. For tickets and information visit: themarsh.org.

Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director based in Ashland. To read more interviews with remarkable people, visit her blog: ashlandtheater.wordpress.com. Reach her at evalyn_robinson@yahoo.com.