La MaMa Blogs: 6 Questions: Karen Malpede

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

6 Questions: Karen Malpede

Writer and director Karen Malpede's EXTREME WHETHER comes to La MaMa from March 1 - 18, 2018. EXTREME WHETHER is a fierce exposé of politically motivated censorship and a family divided by money, power and science. It is, equally, a love story: of people for nature, a girl for a deformed frog, two embattled climate scientists for truth and one another, and an old man, Uncle, for the land in his care. Inspired by crusading climate scientist, James Hansen, and arctic ice scientist Jennifer Francis, and praised by both. Karen took time out from rehearsals to answer our 6 Questions:

1. What was the original inspiration behind writing EXTREME WHETHER?

I’m into what has to be said in the theater, now. I believe the theater should be urgent, necessary, and bring the news. In 2010, I was in rehearsal, with my play Prophecy, about veteran suicides and the human impact of America’s wars from Viet Nam to Iraq. The BP oil spill happened. I remember saying to Kathy Chalfant, who was starring in Prophecy, “If I were not directing this play, I would be going mad about the environmental crises.” I determined, then, to write a play about the earth under attack, but my anti-torture surrealist drama Another Life intervened. I have always thought that if we had a strong enough culture to counter-act our horrible government policies, we could avoid some of the suffering people endure. We’d have an informed audience and public! So, I came to climate change in 2012; though I’ve been active in the ecofeminist movement all my life. When I began to research, I was immediately struck by the ferocity of the attacks against climate scientists and by the courage of the scientists in response. I thought that this was a heroic American story that had to be told.

2. The play has been produced previously in New York and then in Paris; what have you learned from the different productions?

Doing a play is always a crisis. There is never anything easy about it, and especially my plays which are big dramas and could and should be done with budgets far larger than I’ve ever had—but because of their content, my plays are edgy, too edgy, it often seems, for the American theater, they end up in the adventurous, experimental venues, like La MaMa. We first staged the play in what was a sold-out workshop at Theater for the New City. Though it had been through a series of four public readings, it was still not quite tight. I was rewriting in rehearsal, something I do not like to do. There was a lot of good acting and also a terror and unevenness within the cast. Then, the set designer disappeared—and I had to call in help to more or less jerry-rig a set. We had design problems with the projections as well, due to budget and space. For all this, the audience was enormously appreciative. We received a long and terrific article from Andrew Revkin on his NY Times science blog, and praise from many climate scientists and writers. We thought to the play would and should move to a larger theater (it was, in fact, scouted by several in DC, Boston and New York)— we didn't realize how timid the institutional theaters are about this subject. In Paris for the ARTCOP21, the arts events surrounding the Paris Climate Conference, I had a terrific collaborator, a bi-lingual director/actor, Nathalie Sandoz, and she and I knocked the text into its current tight shape; these were small edits, but they made a big difference, and I also rewrote a crucial scene. We had an accomplished bilingual cast and European actors, of course, are more used to plays with content and language than are Americans so they came through beautifully and the play was wonderfully received. 

For this La MaMa production, knowing the script was now pretty much exactly where I wished it to be—it has just been published in my new book, Plays in Time,--I had two desires. I wanted a very high-level, evenly matched cast, and we do have that—a wonderful cast, in fact, led by two of my favorite actors: my partner, George Bartenieff and Rocco Sisto, who were last seen together in JoAnne Akailitis’ production of The Bacchae in Central Park. We have three fantastic women who play three strong female characters. Clea Straus Rivera, has acted in many Irene Fornes plays all over the country, Dee Pelletier was on Broadway in August Osage Country and a young woman from Oklahoma, who did version of the play at her college, with a very progressive professor. Emma Rose Kraus, is the intersex, brilliant Annie. Then, there is Khris Lewin who plays the most charming climate denier imaginable. I also wanted a real set design. Gian Marco LoFranco, who is a La MaMa resident artist, has given us a beautiful, functional set and my long-time, wonderful costume and lighting designers are going to be able, now, to complete the visual look of the play at a level far beyond anything we’ve done so far. And the music, by Arthur Rosen, is beautiful, too. On top of this all, there is the current reality. Suddenly, this play feels as necessary and as urgent as the daily news or as any high-powered resistance. This is the play that tells us the reality about money and power, and shows us the courage and ingenuity of scientists who are being censored and attacked. Plus, it’s a family drama, so there’s plenty to feel with and about. It has got humor, love, hate, betrayal and courage. So, this is the production, the full one, the real one. And, it feels as if this is a play whose time has come.

3. What are some things everybody could do right now to help the climate situation?

Everyone is now struggling with ecoanxiety, whether consciously or suppressed. It is no longer possible, in the face of the extreme storms and fires of this year, for anyone in the country to deny that the climate is changing. Those who do deny it, vocally, are lying for the sake of big business. First off: we need to remember our love of nature and act to save earth and her creatures. This play helps people reconnect to what nature has meant in their pasts, and to give us courage to protect what we love. “The love of nature is the most important part,” climate scientist James Hansen said when he saw the play. There are whole scenes in which conflict stops and the love of nature infuses characters and audience. Magical moments. I think people need to face the reality of the now—our grief and our fears. Then, they feel mobilized to think about what matters in life: that means, working to leave a livable planet for our children and their children. It means, most of all, acting out of love. It means living a more conscious, fulfilling, poetry-driven life.

4. What is the last good book you read (or film or theater piece or museum exhibit you saw etc)?
I start every semester by teaching James Baldwin. I teach The Fire Next Time and Blues for Mr. Charlie. Baldwin is one of America’s greatest writers. He takes on the difficult issue of race and he writes complex stories of sexual passions. It is always a pleasure to return, again and again, to Baldwin. Baldwin, too, thought the theater should bring the news. He was unflinching, complex, and compassionate in his portrayal of the crimes of racism.

5. Who inspires you?

Euripides, Ibsen—so many writers inspire me—as does the tradition of the poetic and political play, in the tradition of Jean Genet, to whom my play Us is dedicated, along with my good friend, Julian Beck, who was a friend of Genet’s. The stories of brave individuals acting for justice and truth inspire me. This is an American tradition of which I am proud.

6. What does working at La MaMa mean to you?

La MaMa is a venerable venue. I am delighted to become part of the La MaMa family. So many artists I’ve admired and loved have worked here. I worked here briefly in the 90ies as one of the writers on a collage called Collateral Damage about Gulf War I, with Ruth Maleczech who performed my piece, and Vanessa Redgrave and George. I am so glad to be back. So grateful to Mia, Beverly and Nicky for bringing us back, for their commitment to powerful theater that tells the truth. It just feels so good and right. I hope the production lives up to our expectations and that we have a full audience.


La MaMa in association with 
Theater Three Collaborative presents


Written and directed by Karen Malpede 

Starring: Rocco Sisto, Clea Straus Rivera, Khris Lewin Dee Pelletier, Emma Rose Kraus and George Bartenieff
written and directed by Karen Malpede 

March 1 - 18, 2018

Thursday - Saturday at 7:30pm; Sunday at 3pm

The Downstairs @ La MaMa
66 East 4th Street
(between Bowery and Second Avenue)
New York, NY 10003

Tickets: $25 Adults; $20 Students/Seniors; La MaMa's 10@$10 tickets available for all performances - advance sales only!

For Tickets & Info: CLICK HERE

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