Kempson studied playwriting at Brooklyn College, in the acclaimed program headed by Mac Wellman, and her work has been produced at many of the city’s hippest theaters, including the Soho Rep, PS 122, and the Brick. In October, her collaboration with Big Dance Theater opens at the Chocolate Factory.
What neighborhood do you live in?
After many, many long years of wishing I could just live in the East Village, I now live here. The first day I woke up and walked to the bank I nearly cried. I did live on St. Marks between Second and Third one summer during college, just above Dojo’s, right over the street. I just sat in the window the whole summer, whenever I wasn’t working at Gourmet Garage sweaty catering headquarters, where I was doing data entry, and watched the show outside. Friends would come over with beers to watch as well. It was a lot different then, of course. We saw amazing displays of humanity. An array of displays of what it means to be human. I was across from a big community center that is now some kind of a shopping mall. There was so much expression happening in such a concentration of space and area. It’s still a lot of energy, but it’s not as expressive. It’s loud, but it doesn’t say as much. Still, I’m glad to be here. We were able to move in to an apartment that a friend has had for a long time since the 1980s and now rents out. We waited a long time and then it opened up. We moved in here in April.
How long have you been in NYC?
I moved to NYC in November 1995. So however many years that is. I’ve lost count! The time is going by so quickly if I think about it in a linear way. Lately I’ve been considering time more as a cyclical concern.
What brought you here?
I was brought here by some kind of burning determination, which now escapes me. But I’m still here. I found out how hard it is here pretty quickly, and I decided I would stick it out. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere …” etc. And I am certain that’s true! But the question is: where else would I go now? To make it? Where else is there for me to make it? Where is “anywhere”? Frank? Frank?
What’s the best venue where your work has been performed in NYC?
I just did a piece at New Dramatists in June, a work-in-progress with some folks from Austin, Tex., I’m working with, and we used a whole bunch of the building, which had been a Lutheran Church complete with a soup kitchen and orphanage back in the day. Not to mention the many giant playwrights who have worked there over the years. So it has a very special feeling there, a kind of creative psychic echo I think, and I’ve done a lot of writing in there, and I am always unusually inspired when I work there. So making this performance was very, very moving. We had music cascading down the stairwell – piano and (TWO!) trombones and ppl singing in harmony, and scenes happening in the entryway. It was pretty magical. So that’s my favorite right now.
Where would you love to see it that you haven’t yet?
I want Charas to be somehow opened back up again (the beautiful old abandoned elementary school on 9th between B & C), so we can all rehearse and perform grand shows there again, for next to nothing. They closed it up over ten years ago now I guess. They were supposedly going to turn it into luxury apts, but it never happened. So it’s just blocked off and chained up, just standing there, empty. How many shows could have been made there in the meantime? I also become obsessed with abandoned car dealership and repair buildings. They all will make excellent theaters, I think. They have got everything you’d need! So, I’d like to do shows in several of those I see around the tri-state area.
If you could collaborate with any living artist, who would it be?
I always fantasize about collaborating with the people I work for at my day job, and making a piece together with them. I know it’s wrong, and I shouldn’t be having thoughts like that in a work environment where I’m supposed to keep a professional attitude, but I can’t help it!
I think it would be creepy to collaborate with a dead person. But if I had to pick one I guess it would be Anne Bancroft. I just know we could make a great piece together. And if I could add another person it would be my old friend Elaine Bradbury, who died some years back and who I miss terribly. Both of them draped in beautiful gossamers of exquisite spider webs. Like the kind of spider webs you find suspended on between the branches of a fallen tree that lays over a stream. With beads of very clean moisture on them. I would say Tom Murrin, but I did get to work with him not long before he left us. He recorded the voice of the “Old Bishop” in a play of mine we did at Dixon Place last year. I didn’t know he was sick. Ben [Williams] did the sound and layered an Olivier Messiaen organ improv under his voice to separate it from the others. It was crazy and so wonderful and now it’s an honest-to-goodness treasure. Tom was always doing magazine interviews like this, for Paper magazine. He was always helping the younger artists who were starting out. Now that he’s gone he’s like a great and mighty ancestor, and he can guide all of us.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to teach this semester at Brooklyn College for the playwriting program there! I’m very excited about that. And then in the Spring I’m going to teach performance writing at Eugene Lang at the New School. Also exciting. Big Dance Theater opens ICH, KÜRBISGEIST at the Chocolate Factory in the Fall, and that’s a play I wrote. In a made-up language. I can’t wait to see it. They are absolutely fantastic artists. I don’t know how they do what they do. Restless Eye, a piece I wrote in collaboration with David Neumann/Advanced Beginner Group is going to be published in PAJ in the Fall issue (yowsa!) and I’m presenting some bits of River of Gruel (the piece I’m making with a bunch of Austin folks which is a Full Stage USA commission through New Dramatists which is the piece I was talking about before) at the Prelude Festival in October, with help from the St. Fortune theater company and others. See you at the ‘lude, dude!