Barry Kornhauser & CTCIn part one of our interview with Barry Kornhauser, he discussed the development of 2018’s production of Corduroy as well as told stories of his experiences at CTC. In this continuation, we focus on his preschool production of Balloonacy returning to the Cargill stage Fall 2017, as well as digging deeper into his process and partnership with CTC.
What’s your favorite thing about Balloonacy?Probably my favorite thing about this little play is its welcoming inclusiveness. Some years back Peter and Elissa kindly invited me to join a series of CTC “convenings” funded by the Bush Foundation. We met to explore approaches to early child development and their application to theater.
One of many things made abundantly clear in that process was that early learners come into contact with reality less on a linguistic-discourse basis than on a bodily-sensory one. Therefore, it made some sense to utilize stage languages other than the spoken word to tell a story to kids of this age group. However, there was another advantage to that. Without dialogue, the play becomes accessible to children who, for one reason or another, might be facing language barriers beyond those of the developmental sort. These would include refugee or immigrant youngsters with limited English skills or even kids who are deaf. Back in 2012, an early CTC workshop production of Balloonacy was invited to the International Quest Fest of Visual Theater in Washington, DC. Seeing the piece performed for an audience of incredibly receptive preschoolers from the Maryland School for the Deaf was both heartwarming and deeply gratifying.
I was similarly touched - and also rather surprised - by the comments of a father who took his son to see the Dallas Children’s Theater (DCT) production of the play. Daniel is a child on the autism spectrum. Noting that “one of the main attributes of autism is a high orientation toward objects,” this father (who holds a Ph.D.) remarked how Daniel identified with the balloon “right off the bat,” but that the feelings the boy had for the balloon were shifted to the old man. “This was major for Daniel,” said the Dad. He concluded, “Balloonacy is a fantastic play for children on the spectrum precisely because of how Daniel reacted. There was an object that autistic children could relate to and a person on whom they could transfer their feelings toward the object. This is empathy development, and people on the spectrum – people everywhere – need to experience more of this.” (Watch DCT’s animated synopsis of the show through Daniel’s experience here.) I am very happy that this little play can have such a big reach, that Balloonacy might be enjoyed by children from so many walks of life.
What was the biggest challenge or most interesting aspect of creating Balloonacy?This very much relates to my response above. A challenge that was both big and interesting was to try to tell a clear, comprehensible, engaging and meaningful story without words. CTC helped me a great deal with that in several ways. Firstly, I had previously been given the opportunity to create a play for CTC without spoken dialogue – Reeling. That was an invaluable experience in teaching me to fashion a wordless plot and to write stage directions precise enough to convey its elements. (However, even in Reeling we “cheated” a bit, relying now and again on silent movie-style captioning.)
The greater gift of CTC is the unparalleled development process it offers playwrights for all of its commissioned projects. Balloonacy, was workshopped extensively, and even with preschoolers as young as three years old serving as essential partners in the creative process. We tried a variety of formats for the piece—presenting it over the course of five days, or all in one sitting, and with and without active participation, the former requiring a bit of spoken set-up, though the piece was otherwise entirely non-verbal. Many of the youngsters we worked with had limited English speaking ability. Among them were recent Hmong and Somali refugee preschoolers and others enrolled in an Ojibwe language immersion program on the only urban Native American reservation in the U.S., which just happens to be located in Minneapolis. All of these very young children were true collaborators in the writing of this piece, demonstrating from their responses what they understood and what confused them, what made them laugh, what moved them, in short what worked and what did not.
They were also far easier to work with than our balloons, which we learned can be more temperamental than any “Terrible Two.” I would guess that our human performer might argue that working on-stage with a balloon as an acting partner is a far bigger, more interesting challenge than any that I faced. And one last note has to do with that actor and that balloon. Balloonacy is a one-man show. (Or rather, a one-man/one-balloon show.) Because the character played by that one man lives alone, it made some sense not to have him speak. After all, there was no one for him to talk to but himself. But this quiet man is also supposed to be old. For me, an interesting aspect to explore was whether preschoolers could relate to a character at the other end of life’s continuum rather than a more typical protagonist such as an animated toy bear cub or a child, like Lisa in Corduroy. They seem to do so, to even root for the old guy. Maybe this is because there are significant elders in many of their own lives – grandparents and such. Or maybe it’s because the old man in Balloonacy comes around to embracing a notion that they champion intrinsically, and with a certain mantle of expertise - that play matters.
Corduroy is an adaptation of an existing story. Balloonacy is an original story. Do you prefer working from an existing story or writing an original one.I can’t say that I have a clear preference. Regardless of its birthplace, each play I write comes with its own pleasures and perplexities, especially, for me, the latter. Far greater playwrights have said this better. Moss Hart once remarked, “You never really learn how to write a play, you only learn how to write this play.” And another Pulitzer Prize-winner, Suzan Lori-Parks, has taken this a step farther, noting “Every day when I sit down to write, I can’t remember how it’s done.” No matter the basis of the work, I share those sentiments wholeheartedly! All I can count on each time I set about to write is the expectation of lengthy periods of “incubation” and the hope for moments of “illumination.” (Yet also in the case of a CTC commission, of highly productive deeply appreciated workshop opportunities with incredible collaborators who will help me find my way.)
When it comes to original work, I turn back to the words of Lori-Parks. About beginning work on new play, she writes, “I’m frightened of encountering the wilderness of my own spirit which is always, no matter how many plays I write, a new and uncharted place.” On such an adventure, you face the risk of stepping into quicksand or falling over a cliff, but there also lies the possibility of discovering a wonderful terra nova that you can’t wait to share with the rest of the world - or at least a few audiences.
With a dramatic adaptation, you’re taking a piece written for the page and striving to make it work on the stage, a very different medium, while remaining true to the core values of the original. It cannot be a literal conversion, nor should it be. You want to invite audiences to experience stories and characters they may know and love in a whole new way. (Think, for example, of CTC’s Bert & Ernie, Goodnight! As Elissa Adams observed: “On Sesame Street, Ernie and Bert are puppets and the world that they’re in is real. In the stage version of it, Ernie & Bert are real and the world that they inhabit is puppeted.) The risk here, of course, is that audiences may be disappointed or displeased with your interpretation of familiar and beloved content. The hope is that perhaps you have helped to broaden their perspectives.
So it seems, despite the inherent risks, both paths are well worth exploring. From the very beginning of my playwriting years, I have been penning both sorts of plays, and I am truly appreciative of the opportunities I’ve been given to do so. It seems to me that mixing it up like that, getting to exercise the different creative muscles required, may be artistically healthy, hopefully helping me to grow as a dramatist.
Do you remember your first impression of CTC?My first impression has been a lasting impression. Here is a theater company comprised of some of the most brilliant, passionate, talented, committed and caring people I’ve ever run across, who also happen to be the NICEST!
Even before CTC became the first and only children’s theater to win the regional Tony Award, the company earned the well-deserved reputation as the flagship theater for young audiences company in the nation. As a long-time TYA practitioner I was certainly well aware of that, but until I arrived at the door, I had no idea of what a warm and joyful joint it was – as “heart full” as it was artful. Nor indeed just how much the joint was jumping, with its matchless zeal for developing and producing new plays (and pedagogies) for young people of all ages.
That said, I’ve often wondered about CTC’s initial impression of me. I say that because the first time I actually met the fabled Peter Brosius was when we both had projects at the Kennedy Center. After seeing a piece I had worked on, he came up to me and said “Kornhauser, you’re a mad man.” And that was it. I didn’t know if that was good or bad, and I was afraid to ask. But a few years later, we found ourselves back at the Kennedy with new projects, and this time Peter asked me if I’d be interested in working with him on something at CTC. (Who’s the mad man now I thought.) I was thrilled by the opportunity, but also a bit terrified of screwing it up. Still, with the help of Peter, Elissa, Dean and the rest of an extraordinary creative team, Reeling was born.
One thing that really stood out for me during its rehearsals was how generous Peter was with his time and attention, showing genuine kindness and respect to the entire cast and crew, no matter their status. He welcomed the input of everyone in the room, whether a young high school intern or an intellectually challenged performer who would be playing one of the Keystone Cops. That truly touched my heart. And the stream of ideas and energy that flowed out of this atmosphere of openness and collaboration made my head spin. Here, I realized, was a theater that honored heart, mind and spirit alike!
The first time I entered the halls of 2400 3rd Avenue South in Minneapolis I did so with a feeling of immense gratitude and a little bit of awe. I still feel that way today.