During the past few months, I have joined a small circle of prolific playwrights, most of whom write specifically for students. We're a kind of a support group for playwrights -- asking questions about directors and publishing companies, and prompting the occasional whine session about our small royalty checks. Christian Kiley is one of my newest Facebook friends/fellow playwrights from the group (and for some reasons he doesn't seem to whine nearly as much as I do -- maybe it's just us old guys). He's too busy writing, I guess.
His latest project is a collection of four plays, tentatively titled "The C-Word." (I'll let you stop guessing right now: C stands for cancer.) In May 2012, Christian was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a type of cancer that originates from white blood cells. Fortunately, Christian has been responding positively to his medical treatment, and the whole frightening process has inspired what promises to be one of his most compelling dramatic works to date.
Q: What is the story behind "The C-Word"?
Christian: I just completed a collection of plays about how cancer patients and their families cope with the disease. I wrote these four plays with the working title "The C-Word" after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma on 5/10/12. I am nearing the end of my treatment with very positive results, but I felt strongly that I needed to share what I have been through and experienced with others. The plays look at cancer from the perspective of young people and their families. I think this may be the most amazing thing about teaching and writing, the chance we have to relate to others, to share experiences, to grow.
Q: How did you first become involved in theater?
Christian: I grew up in Fremont, California and went to high school in San Jose. My younger brother participated in a lot of theatre and I watched him act in plays, write and perform sketch comedy, and play on a comedy improvisation team. I always admired the work a great deal and even psyched myself into auditioning but never did. Until one day at Gonzaga University, I walked through an open door which happened to be the theatre where auditions were taking place for The Little Mermaid. I was cast as a prince (not the Prince Eric prince but his funny, bad-dancing brother, who does not fall in love with a beautiful mermaid). I was hooked, sorry Ariel, I mean I really enjoyed it and kept participating in it.
Q: In addition to being a playwright, do you have a "day job"?
I teach Theatre classes at Etiwanda High School (Rancho Cucamonga, CA) and during my second year I was looking for a play with a lot of fun and dynamic roles. When I could not find anything that really fit the casting pool, I wrote Strings Attached which has a lot of zany and fun roles. The idea for "Strings Attached" came from my childhood when my brother and I would play with action figures (I know, dolls). The idea of a real world and an imaginary world that are so close together was intriguing to me. And what if those worlds were to collide? Well, that's what happens in the play. These life-sized dolls, come to life and are so much more than anyone bargained for.
(Note: Strings Attached by Christian Kiley is available at Big Dog Plays.)
Q: What challenges did you face during your early days as a drama teacher?
Christian: My first year as a theater teacher was really a lot of trial and error. In the classroom, seeing what assignments and exercises worked and which ones could be improved. Play selection was always a challenge in trying to figure out the play that would work best for our playing space, the casting pool, and the audience. You have to have a resilient sense of humor.
I think all teachers face challenges with limited resources and finding proper environments to lead instruction. My students and I have been working in the MPR (Multi-Purpose Room) and I think the challenges with the space have caused us to dig deep and discover creative solutions for problems. One solution we came up with was to build a black box space in the classroom. There is something authentic and exciting about having a theater class in a laboratory theater.
Q: What was your first published play?
My playwriting career started when I submitted a play entitled "The Art of Rejection" for publication. I was pleased and surprised to get the acceptance email from Theatrefolk and I danced (not very well, but by definition, I think it was dancing). I really thought I would write a few plays and that would be that. But I'm still writing!
Almost everything I write deals with personal empowerment to some extent and people overcoming obstacles like peer pressure, bullying, or expectations. Honestly, a lot of this comes from being picked on and being a bit of an outcast at times as a kid. This has really turned into a positive, though, in a way. A play can change people's lives, including my own life. This is one reason why I love playwriting as a teaching tool.
The most positive experiences for me are those "click" moments when you have a breakthrough in a class or a rehearsal. I remember working on a one-act I wrote for my students to perform entitled "P.M." and watching a run-through and completely being disconnected from my job, or being critical, or anything. I was just enjoying the play. Those few moments where you see the actors and the play come together are amazing. "Click."Q: Are there advantages to being the director and the playwright?
Christian: As a director and playwright, the imagined and actual performance can be quite different. With "Strings Attached" I truly felt the changes enhanced the play and made it better. There were changes that took place in rehearsals and they became part of the stage direction or an added bit that was not there before. That is one of the joys of working on a piece of theater that is still taking shape, you can really feel like your choices can have a positive impact on the final product.
Learn more about Christian Kiley's work by visiting his web site.