Here There be MONSTERS
Playwright/performer John Kuntz and Director David R. Gammons are easy to interview. Over nearly a decade of working together in Boston, these two artists have developed a fast-paced rapport and intellectual synchronicity that makes it easy to see why they’re such strong collaborators. Recently, they sat down with SpeakEasy Artistic Associate Walt McGough to talk about their history, shared sensibilities, and the genesis of NECESSARY MONSTERS.
SpeakEasy Stage: How did the two of you first start working together?
David R. Gammons: I’d been aware of John’s work as a local celebrity—
John Kuntz: Oh, pshaw.
DRG: —and was about to direct Titus Andronicus for Actors’ Shakespeare Project. This was back in 2007. When we made a decision to make Titus an all-male production, I immediately asked the company’s artistic director if he thought we could put John Kuntz into the role of Tamora. I’d seen you around, John, but that was the first time we’d worked with one another.
JK: That was so exciting because I remember getting the call saying, “Are you interested in playing Tamora?” and I was like, “What?!” I didn’t think that was possible. And then I was talking with David, and he said, “Y’know, I think the only difference between the men and the women in this production are that the women are completely bald. So would you be interested in shaving your head? Other than that, y’know, there’s no make-up or anything. You’re just in a wedding dress. And barefoot.”
SES: Besides that, it was a totally standard production.
JK: Yeah, exactly. And from that first meeting, it was like, “Oh, he thinks a lot like me.” And soon after Titus, I wrote my play The Salt Girl, and Kate Snodgrass at Boston Playwrights’ wanted to produce it. And there was something in me that just thought, “David’s gonna get this.” It was a one-person show, but it was a big sprawling piece with all this mythology about a cursed family. And that was really the beginning of this collaboration.
SES: You both joke about sharing a brain between the two of you. What do you think caused that?
DRG: We have a lot of common references. We’re the same age, and we grew up not too far apart, in the same basic time period, with similar kinds of influences. The television shows one grew up with as a child, or the breakfast cereals—those kinds of connections are just some of what we share.
JK: David’s cousin actually dated my sister.
DRG: We have those little connections, and we share a sort of perverse sense of humor. Our ears are attuned to the same turns-of-phrase, or senses-of- personality. Soap operas, horror movies, bad sitcoms—those kinds of early formative cultural reference are both very much in our shared sensibilities.
SES: John, how did Necessary Monsters come to be, and David, how did you get involved?
JK: Every year at The Boston Conservatory, where I teach, I write a play for my students. And I never know what it’s going to be, exactly, but I tend to have some sort of idea, like a book, or something that’s an anchor. That particular year, the book that I stumbled upon was Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings, which is this beautiful compendium of man-made beings that Borges just goes through alphabetically and describes in this very poetic, beautiful language. I gave the book to these kids, they’re 20 years old, but I call them kids, and I think there was a very specific symbiosis. There’s not a word from the book in Necessary Monsters, actually; it’s all stuff that came about from our discussions and me thinking about the play. The play is about all of these people who at their core, deep down, have this tiny grain of one or a couple of the monsters in the book. That concept was then coupled with the idea of different stories living inside of one another, that stories can be like little Russian nesting dolls, living inside one another. And we did that at the Conservatory, and David saw it.
DRG: I did, and I just really fell in love with it. At that time, Johnny and I had already worked together on The Salt Girl and then The Hotel Nepenthe, and in a certain way, I’ve always thought that Necessary Monsters completes a sort-of trilogy with those two. Even though the plays aren’t written that way, artistically I think they connect. Certainly the ubiquity of TVs and television, that multimedia element, and the ways that cameras and monitors are so interwoven into our culture are very much a part of all three shows.
JK: There is a lot of surveillance and paranoia in all these plays, and it’s funny because, now that I think about it, I realize I’m a pretty paranoid person. I’m constantly having people watching other people, or giving that sense of being under surveillance.
SES: What excites you about one another’s work?
JK: As a director, David really thinks about the world, and what’s in the world, and what are the elements of the world. I think that he gives all that to the actors, and says, “Here’s all the things that I’m thinking of; go ahead and start playing with these elements.”
DRG: And you’re a really intuitive artist, John, as a writer, and an actor, and a director. What I find so exhilarating about that is your trust in your own gut and intuition. “I don’t know why it is this, but obviously it is.”
JK: That took a while for me. I had to learn not to second-guess myself all the time, and how to turn off that little voice that says, “You can’t do that. You can’t do that.” But I feel like my writing and the way David directs really bang off each other in very instinctive ways. We’re going from instinct and emotions and dreams a lot of the time. I know that’s true for me.
SES: There’s certainly a lot of that feeling to Necessary Monsters.
DRG: One of the driving ideas that I had right from the beginning of this process was to imagine the play more like an art installation, and referencing the modes of performance art as much as those of more traditional acting. What’s great is that we have some of the best actors in town doing this show, so they’re going to be doing good acting under any circumstances. But, by taking away some of the other traditional reference points, it in fact puts their acting in even starker relief, and I love that.
JK: There are little things, stage directions, in the play, which David always kind of likes, like, “A hundred-foot wave crashes into Drake.” And I kind of write those just for David because I know he’s going to come up with something really awesome when he reads it.
DRG: My feeling is: everything we do on stage is an act of the imagination. So why is it any crazier to see an actor imagine a certain situation, that a wave crashes over the stage, or that we’ve suddenly been transported to a different time or place? I always get brought down by plays where I feel like so much has been spelled out for me. I feel like my own imagination has been insulted. It’s like, “You think I don’t know what an apartment looks like? I already know that. I can imagine all sorts of things.” I need things that open us up, that provide possibilities, and launching pads for response. That’s the kind of art that we should be making.