I recently had the opportunity to see KISS – a new play written by Guillermo Calderon, and directed by Bart DeLorenzo. It was a special meetup for our Los Angeles community and the cast included our LA Festival Director, Nagham Wehbe.
KISS is an amazing play, and entirely surprising – I cannot say more – the power of the play lies in its power to shock, confuse, and challenge its audience. You can read the rave reviews it has been getting here. KISS runs until June 18 at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in LA, and you can get your tickets here.
I asked KISS’s director, Bart DeLorenzo, to share more about his process in bringing KISS to Los Angeles. Bart is an award-winning LA-based theater director and the founding artistic director of the Evidence Room theater where he has directed many local and world premieres over the past twenty years. Recent productions include the New Group (off-Broadway), the Geffen Playhouse, South Coast Rep, and the Odyssey Theatre. He is on the faculty at CalArts.
Arab Film Festival: How did you get involved with KISS?
Bart DeLorenzo: I think Guillermo Calderon is one of the most exciting playwrights in the world today and as a director, I had been following everything he was up to. When I read last fall about the US premiere of Kiss, the first play that he’s written in English, it struck me as exactly the sort of theater that I was interested in presenting in Los Angeles right now. Guillermo kindly gave us the rights and when he came to LA, provided some invaluable advice for our rehearsals.
AFF: What drew you to the play?
BDL: I don’t know anyone who isn’t alarmed about what has been happening in Syria and the region. As a human, you want to do anything to stop the madness. As an artist, you want to find a way to contribute to a response, but it’s difficult to know what to say or what to do. Kiss is a piece of theater that acknowledges that difficulty but moves forward anyway. At the same time, it’s not didactic political theater. It’s witty and engaging and more than any other play I’ve directed, enormously surprising. I especially love theater that is incomplete in the sense that it provokes questions and discussion among the audience afterwards – and in this case, during.
AFF: How did you approach casting?
BDL: I hadn’t cast a play with so many young characters in awhile, so we held several rounds of auditions. Because the play, among other things, explores soap opera, I also asked the actors to take on different styles at the audition to see what they might do. And because the play is so challenging and demands so much from the performers, I wanted fearless actors who felt passionately about what the play is trying to express. It’s an outstanding committed cast and I don’t think I could have found a better one.
AFF: How did you work with the actors to prepare for the play?
BDL: We spent a lot of time in rehearsals on the context. Researching, watching video, sharing experiences, doing everything to try and learn what we could about the Syrian people and the crisis. We also watched a lot of Syrian soap operas.
AFF: Did anything particular come up for you, or was most challenging to deal with, as you explored the work?
BDL: Well, the subject is so upsetting. You sit in a rehearsal room in LA and you watch on YouTube a boy in a refugee camp screaming at the camera, a boy who has had everything, his whole life, taken away from him, and he’s crying, begging you to help him and his family. And every day, there is more video and more stories. The tragedy is immense. April 4th was a particularly difficult day to rehearse. You know, here we are putting together a play, something that we all enjoy immensely, but we have to remember what and whom we’re doing it for.
AFF: What are some of the reactions you have observed in the audience?
BDL: The actors can answer this better than I can, but I will say that it’s a show that uniquely activates the audience. The play has a lot of twists and turns and it asks you to take a stand on what you believe and what you will tolerate. Every night after the show, we discuss the audience because so many things happen. We didn’t actually expect this, but you can often hear people talking back to the play and talking to each other. Some nights there is a lot of laughter, other nights there is a stunned silence. Applause in different places. Quite often, there are tears. And we’ve even had some walkouts. The play is a wild ride and because of that, people react really differently, which I entirely respect. It’s a revolutionary piece of theater. You know, in the past after a play I’ve directed, audience members have occasionally found me online and written me, but I have to say that I’ve never received so many heartfelt notes as I have with this one.
AFF: Has the play changed the way you look at Syria and the way we share and consume stories from and about the Arab world?
BDL: Yes would be the understatement. One of theater’s central purposes, I believe, is to teach lessons in sympathy. Why should I care what happens to Hecuba? Why does Macbeth commit his crimes? And theater stories play back and forth with things we find familiar and things that are strange. As an American who watches what is probably an unhealthy amount of news, in this process I nevertheless discovered how little I knew about daily Syrian life both before and after the war. And while I’m not sure it’s possible for a foreigner to fully understand the complex history and background that has led to the current moment, it’s impossible not to see your own life and your own family in all the families and individuals currently struggling for normalcy in the present tragic insanity. I just think Americans generally need to experience more stories from the world.
AFF: Is there anything you’d like to share with our readers before they see the play?
BDL: As I said before, Kiss is a wild ride. Hang in there and know that whatever questions you may be having you’re supposed to be having. Luckily, it’s a very short play so you’ll have plenty of time to discuss afterwards.