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A conversation with Kristin Idaszak, playwright of “Strange Heart Beating”

On Thursday, January 11th, 2018, playwright Kristin Idaszak joined CFPA Executive Director Jackie Hayes and Managing Director Jennie Ward in a conversation over webcam to discuss the upcoming reading of Kristin’s play, “Strange Heart Beating” (Saturday, January 20th, 7:30 pm at CFPA Mpls.) Kristin is a two-time Jerome Fellow (Playwrights’ Center) and a member of Chicago Dramatists. In March, Kristin’s play, ANOTHER JUNGLE will be produced in Chicago by Cloudgate Theatre and the Syndicate.

Jackie Hayes: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today, Kristin.

Kristin Idaszak: As I told Jennie when she first spoke to me about this possibility, I am so energized about [the ReClaim series] you’re doing.

JH: What motivated you to write “Strange Heart Beating”? How did some of the characters and mythical moments come to you?

KI: The world of the play came to me first. The town in Strange Heart Beating is loosely inspired by the town where my husband grew up, in Central Minnesota. I was talking to a friend of his family; she works at the Jennie-O processing plant. Her job is to go to all the turkeys and give them their shots and then to take away the dead ones. As she was describing her daily routine, the imagery of the industrial farm became extremely visceral for me. In this same period of time, Jacob Wetterling returned to the news – this was right before they apprehended the man who abducted and murdered him. And this all happened [very nearby.]

The first character that came to me was the town, the place. Then I began to think about the people who I encountered as I spent more and more time in this town. It’s a place that’s so different from my own experience of growing up in a city. I thought about the ways in which I find small town life to be really beautiful and the ways in which I find it to be a little bit oppressive, in that you have no secrets. Everyone knows everything about you – sort of!, right? – That’s really beautiful, in that there’s always someone who cares about you, and knows your history, and knows when you’re struggling. But at the same time, sometimes when you need a moment of privacy, you don’t always get that.

So as I began to write, this friendship of Teeny and Lena began to crystalize, and began to form the backbone of the play. These two women who’d had extraordinarily different experiences growing up in the same place: how does a traumatizing event test their friendship, and how do they begin to grieve, and what does that grief do to them? As I was writing, the 2016 election happened, and [some of us] were thrust into this new moment of national grieving. That began to shape the play as well.

JH: How does the character of the Turkey/Girl, for example, come to you? What’s your process? How does this stuff emerge for you?

KI: I have a longstanding interest in transformation in all of its forms. There are shape shifters who show up in almost all of my plays. I wrote the first act of Strange Heart Beating as part of a BAKEOFF with Paula Vogel; one of the writing prompts was the myth of Leda and the swan.  There are different versions of the myth: in some versions she’s raped, in some versions she’s not and it is a consensual sexual act.) So that notion of “a woman who is a bird who is a woman” was really in the mythological waters from the start. Then I kept going back to the conversations I had with the young woman [who works at Jennie-O], and how she loves animals so much, and – this is my own take, I don’t know that this is how she feels about it – but this job was asking her to do something that felt a little bit monstrous. And I kept thinking about images I’ve seen in the past of birds with lots of wings: like, “Game Day!” where you just see ALL the drumsticks . . . That was pulled out of the back of my subconscious. A lot of times, as I’m writing, I’ll know what happens in the play to a certain extent, and then I get to a precipice and I don’t know that happens. That’s usually when things get a little magical.

JH: Which leads to another question I have about the role of the playwright and, really, all artists. How does one function as an artist when there are real issues of social justice in need of time and attention and resources?

KI: I’ve found myself shifting in a purposeful and specific way to write plays that necessitate a kind of casting and a kind of creative team that looks like a lot of different things. There’s no way that you could do a play that I’ve written with a homogenous group of people. That’s something that I’ve shifted really specifically.

But I think you’re asking a larger aesthetic question as well, that I think is a really important one: how does theater situate itself in the entertainment landscape but also in the political landscape? I try to create an experience for people to come together. There are times when things are really hard and I just need to go and be alone in my room and put on Netflix and shut off for thirty minutes. That’s one way that I recharge. But more often, I need to be in a room with other human beings, going on a journey with them. So I try really hard to create experiences that necessitate a community, that you can’t possibly get on a screen, especially in terms of how I ask the audience to relate to the play. I think the character of “The Lake” is a really specific example of that in Strange Heart Beating. The “Girl Bird” is another one, where I’m asking for a specific kind of [imaginative] contract with the audience, and we can only have that experience in a room together. But that’s all of our jobs: the director, the actors, the design team: we are all coming together to create empathy, to create a space to be together, to heal, to laugh, to rail . . . It’s been such a rapid spiral of emotions, constantly, every day for the past year and a half, right? And we all need different things moment to moment. Sometimes we need to be together and not talk about it; sometimes we need to dig really deep into questions around racial injustice or economic injustice.

I find myself asking these questions in my writing. I can’t put them aside when I sit down to do my work. I don’t think of myself as an overtly political playwright, but I don’t know how to leave behind the burning questions about how to live in the world right now, and how to create a world where we can all live together, when I sit down at the page or walk into a room.

JH: You speak of diving into fears – pedagogically, how do you do that? Some creators might consider the making of a work a research project. “I think this, I’m going to go test.” Your process sounds different than that.

Kristin jumps into the Southern Ocean, Dec 2017

KI: I’m the daughter of two scientists, so I certainly love that spirit of inquiry, and that kind of certainty, but for me so much of the “fire in the belly” comes from the things that scare me. That’s true of me as a human as well. I tend to do things like jumping into the Southern Arctic Ocean. I get myself to a point where I’m standing at the edge of the water and there’s nothing to do but jump in. That’s how I try to write my plays as well. I start with a set of questions, a set of things that scare me about the world – and instead of letting that fear be something debilitating, I want to write into the unknown. If it’s something I know or find containable, that’s a less satisfying journey for me. The risks are so much greater [when I] write towards the things that I’m afraid of, but the rewards are equally much greater. It means my process is really messy, and my plays are often really messy.

Right now, in academia, where I spend some time as well, we are talking a lot about the impossibility of “safe spaces”, and that instead we need to create “brave spaces”, where everyone is accountable both for their intentions and their impact. Instead of saying, “We’re going to create a world where everyone feels safe all the time,” we’re going to lean into the discomfort, and grow and blossom in the discomfort. Fear can have connotations of shutting down, but that’s not how I experience it. For me, its a way to constantly push past the very small circle of my own lived experience, and into a much more inclusive, equitable, beautiful world.