Dee Ann Newkirk interview, with Kathleen Dennehy
Faith is such a powerful play. What a heart punch of plot, character, action & dialogue laid over seemingly mundane stage directions- a couple readies themselves for bed could be what the stage directions indicate. Clearly, you have insight into this world, the world of people of deep Christian faith. But what sets your FAITH apart is your truthful depiction of this couple without even a whiff of patronization (is that a word?). I would love to see this acted, but it's still a deeply engaging and absorbing read. So, thank you for that.
What inspired you to write this play?
I had seen a few news stories within months of each other it seemed: Senators getting caught playing “footsies” in airport bathroom stalls, Gov. Jim McGreevy of NJ coming “out” that he was a “gay American” while his wife stood quietly in the background smiling, and then the clencher news story, Ted Haggard, a mega fundamentalist preacher and Senior Spiritual Advisor to President George W. Bush, got caught in a scandal with a male prostitute. As I watched all these stories unfold, I was not so shocked by the man “coming out”, willingly or not, or the scandal that ensued, but rather, I was in awe of how the women, the wives, as usual, were tuck in the background---silent. And I kept wondering to myself, “What is she thinking? What is she feeling and processing? How did this information get revealed to her? How did she accept it? Is she accepting it?” And I began imagining what that would be like to be in a marriage---for many years, children, a life together---only to discover this huge secret or revelation, and what would those bedroom conversations, or non-conversations, late at night, be like? If I could be a fly on the wall, and peek into these marriages at this very tentative, precarious time, what would I see and hear? And that’s how Faith came about. It was my imaginings of those private, possible bedroom conversations with that “other” partner—the wife---who didn’t seem to have a voice out front, in front of the microphone or cameras, like her husband did. Here, in this play I wanted to find her voice, and see the inner workings of her unraveling and understanding, and even denying, what was now going to be a new life.
At the risk of getting personal, how well do you know this world?
I, in fact, grew up very religiously, although I’ve always hated the word “religious”. I was raised Southern Baptist, and our family went to church three-five times a week: Sunday School, morning and evening worship services, youth rallies, Bible Study, Sword Drills, Youth Group on Friday nights, choir practice and mission trips. My faith and personal relationship to Jesus was a very integral part of my upbringing and life from my formative years all the way through college. I went to a Southern Baptist college in Missouri and was surrounded by even more extreme “fundamentalism” there, and still to this day, while I’m no longer a part of the culture or faith to the degree of which I was raised, some of my dear, dear friends are still in the faith. I believe art, good art, reflects truth and authenticity, and I absolutely find that many writers write “Christian” characters in a mocking, patronizing one-dimensional tone, and in Faith, it was very, very important to me, that the characters in this play be as truthful and authentic and as real as I was when I was in my faith or as my dear friends still are today.
Are you examining the quality of faith on many levels? Religious faith, marital faith and faith in the moral authority of the minister as well as reader’s faith in the accuracy of the press? Feel free to expound.
Hmmm…I think you are very insightful, perhaps, much more than I am. I like all those parallels, but I don’t think I consciously thought of all that while I was writing it. That’s what’s so beautiful about art: the audience/reader can project onto the piece things that the creator maybe never even thought of. I do, however, think I was thinking in lines of the double entendre of the faith of the devoted/dutiful/submissive wife in her husband and how blind spiritual faith can literally lead us blind and into denial.
Actually, this world of deeply observant Christianity seems to depend on a mistrust of the media, which is almost universally and categorically dismissed as 'biased' or 'liberal' and anti-faith. Do you find that this mistrust isolates people further into their belief system or was this simply a writerly tool to extend and expand on the dramatic tension?
It worked as both. For sure, many in the fundamentalist Christian world do not believe in putting “faith” into the media, and at the same time, that served the plot in keeping the tension going for a while longer why Karen does “not believe” the facts from the newspaper article. And yes, my personal take, is that not trusting the world or the media, can indeed create a bubble of isolation, where one can then set up their own system of what they see as truth.
Interesting moment where Scott tries to stop Karen from questioning him. In the Notes to Actors, you allude to the husband being the master of the house, therefore immune to questioning or retort. Is this is based on what you've witnessed, or experienced, as opposed to a dramatist using every arrow in her quiver? I guess I'm probing to find out how much is about real life or imagined...
There is certainly a belief system within the Christian community that God is the Head of Jesus, Jesus is the Head of the Church, the Church is the Head of the Man, and the Man is the Head of the Wife. And certainly, preachers, especially mega-preachers, like any man of power and persuasion, can have an ego, backed by the principles of his faith that he gets to rule the house. I don’t know if I’ve seen it so overtly as is in my text here, but certainly, there was a lot of, I’ll just say it, sexism, in the Christian faith, where the man is the “head of the house”, and for Karen to actually be warned to not continue to question, and then she chooses to do so anyway, is really I think, her first small step towards thinking for herself…. her little rebellion... her getting out of denial. And yes, I think all that is a great set-up for that quiet, still tension that is felt intensely in this relationship.
To be honest, I found the ending deeply unnerving, heartbreaking and almost every cell in my body was desperate to see some kind of showdown, or resolution, or Karen fighting for the truth, or fighting to cover it up and save her life. I could imagine everyone in the audience sitting in their seats afterwards, plunged into debate or sitting with their own profoundly provoked emotions. I guess I'm asking was it intentional to end where you ended or are you mulling a continuation of the story? It's so deeply powerful as it is, and stands alone as a gut punch event... but do you imagine picking up the thread ever?
I appreciate hearing that, and perhaps, I should look at extending beyond where it leaves off now. However, I rather like this “unsure” feeling that Karen… and Scott…. and therefore, the audience, have at the end. Because we don’t really know how it’s going to end. We only know that Karen now “knows”. She’s no longer in denial, she can no longer turn the other cheek and just walk away as if nothing has happened. Or…will she?? I’m not even sure. We all have those moments in life, where we discover some truth, that forever changes us, but what we decide to do with that truth…make a change as a result, or bury our heads in the sand and pretend like we never heard it (even though we can never go back to “not knowing”, as much as we’d like to), this is now Karen’s predicament. And I like that the ending is her staring out (symbolically towards the unknown future) while the telephone rings, and we have no idea what that telephone call is also going to reveal. But then, this is where…. perhaps… the story stops as the “fly on the wall”… this is where next we see the Mrs. McGreevys, and Mrs. Haggards of the world, and other wives in similar situations, who decide, it seems, to “stand by their man”. I can only imagine the power of loving a man so much, who has given you a life of luxury and power and prestige, not to mention, the father to your children, and even though he has done the ultimate betrayal to you, how difficult it would be to just walk away from that marriage and security…and perhaps, all you’ve ever known. Easier, perhaps, to just go into denial….or not do anything. Which in a way, it seems to me, many wives choose to do, for whatever reason. Hence, why so many of these wives stay in the background smiling, silently, standing by their husbands, despite the fact that the world is crashing in all around them.
Warning! Female question. Who do you feel is the protagonist of this play? Is it Karen's story or Scott's? And if it's Karen's- what do you see her character's journey as being about?
This is most definitely Karen’s story, for me. But I hope that, like an amazing documentary, it’s a good enough script, that the reader/audience walks away feeling for both characters equally. Pulled by both. And the journey for Karen is going from being in denial, to knowing deep down, to struggling with how much she’s going to allow herself to know, to what she’s going to do with that knowledge when she finally let’s herself own it.
Have you seen this play performed? If so, what was that experience like? What was the response from the audience, and actors?
Actually, I performed “Karen” at the Yo! Yo! Theatre Company here in Los Angeles. And it was an incredible experience. I think the honest and authentic characters made for riveting theatre, however, as an actor I felt the writing didn’t lend itself to a confrontational climax like it needed and I got frustrated by that as both an actor and a writer. I’ve now reworked some sections that allow for a better climax/build to the questioning interrogation-like section between Karen and Scott and that allows for a better payoff I think. I would really love to see that performed now with those rewrites in place, and see if indeed, it runs with that burst of tension at the revelation when Scott confesses he “knew him”.
What brought you to play writing?
I have written in a journal for years, and that eventually led me from writing just journal pages into short plays. Being an actor first, I love imagining scripts I’d like to act in. One day, a theatre company I was involved with, said they were looking for scripts for an upcoming festival. I decided to submit one of the plays I had written in my journal, and it was accepted. Seeing my writing come to life off the page onto the stage was a profound, fulfilling experience.
What is your education- or more pointedly, when did you become a writer?
I guess I began seriously seeing myself as a writer when that first play was produced. But even now, I battle with seeing myself as a writer…
Who are playwrights or other writers who inspire and motivate you to get pen to paper? Or fingers on keyboard?
More than a particular playwright or writer inspiring me, it’s more stories I hear about or news stories that motivate me to write about a point of view. And while I do love Inge and Williams, it’s political plays, like Laramie Project, etc, which are the most inspiring to me. Spreading truth through theatre, making an audience think about things, that’s the kind of theatre I like to see, and I hope I can create.
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