In Conversation with Playwright Stephen Brown
I sat down with Alliance/Kendeda Playwriting Competition Winner Stephen Brown about his play, The Many Wondrous Realities of Jasmine Starr-Kidd. The interview was intended to be used for the feature article in the show's program, but was so good that we decided to put it on the blog as well. Check it out!
Let’s start on a fun note! If you could go back in time and change anything, what would you change? What would you choose to leave the same?
I would definitely go back in time a couple months ago and remember to water my wife’s plants. I definitely didn’t water them enough when she was out of town in August and I almost killed one of them and she burst into tears when she saw and it was like the worst moment of my life. Everything else I would leave the same. I’m one of those people that cherishes their mistakes and embarrassments and failures because they make you who you are. They also make great writing material if you happen to be a playwright… except for that plant watering situation. Oh, man. I would definitely do that over.
Tell me a little about your background and what led you to Jasmine Starr-Kidd.
My wife and I got married about 2 years ago and one thing we love to talk about is what our kids are going to be like, when we eventually have kids, and whenever we start dreaming about them they always seem way smarter than us. Like, we always joke that they’ll be doing our taxes when they’re 9 years old or teaching us about how to invest in the stock market when they’re 7, but also be really annoyed at us for not knowing about investments yet. So the character of Jasmine really came out of my wife and I thinking about what our kids are going to be like. But the thing that really kickstarted the play is when my wife and I talked about what kinds of movies and plays and stories we wanted to show our kids. My wife is also a playwright, so stories play a huge role in our lives. I grew up loving these big adventure movies like Armageddon and Back to the Future. As a kid, I was super emotional and my emotions felt as big as these adventures on the screen and really helped me feel understood in a weird sort of way. But these movies also largely centered white casts and my wife and I are an interracial couple. I wanted to be able to show our future kids adventure stories that centered characters that looked like them — which, there just aren’t that many. So Jasmine Starr-Kidd really came from a place of wanting to create characters for our future kids to identify with, with families that look like their family.
That definitely makes sense, because this play feels incredibly personal. What other personal experience did you draw on to create Jasmine’s story?
Personally, I am nothing like Jasmine. Jasmine is far smarter and more capable than I ever was at 12. I am definitely much more like Doug or Todd in this play. I’m the heartbroken guy desperately in love with someone much cooler than me. I think where Jasmine and I do crossover is that my parents also got divorced when I was a kid. I had amazing, very loving parents where the divorce was a super healthy choice (shout out to my awesome parents!). But I think I always had this urge to put things back together the way they were — this innate desire to make it so that we were all under the same roof. There’s an ache that forms in the sudden absence of certain parents or family members and you kind of feel it all the time. I think deep down that’s something that Jasmine is going through in the play: This desire to put things back together and bring everyone home.
Out of all the shows in our current season, this is the only script that made me cry in my cubicle as I read it. What do you think makes Jasmine’s story so touching and accessible to audiences?
Oh, man. I wish I could say something really smart here to this lovely question. I think most of my plays, Jasmine in particular, are stories filled with a great deal of longing. Longing for that person that’s not around as much as we wish they were. Longing for that person that doesn’t love us as much as we wish they did. Longing for things to be different. And Jasmine (the character) is dealing with this the most. Yes, it’s a story that’s filled with a lot of fun adventures, mishaps, and humor, but underneath it all, it’s a story about this young girl with an incredible ache in her heart. Who hasn’t felt that before? Who hasn’t wanted to be able to change reality to the one that’s less painful than your current one?
I love that. Shifting gears a bit, you have a pretty impressive resume with a lot of exciting things currently happening – new plays being developed, a TV show, Juilliard... What makes Jasmine Starr-Kidd stand out?
Aw thanks, Ashley! That’s so nice of you to say. I would actually counter by saying that I think it’s the Alliance that stands out. I don’t think there were any other theaters out there that were going to produce this play. (Stephen laughs.) There’s not a particularly long history of sci-fi adventure plays getting produced across the theatre landscape., which is why I’m so grateful to the Alliance for taking a chance on me and this play I love so much. Not only is this production going to be just the coolest thing ever, it was this production and the Kendeda Award that also directly led to a lot of the things you mentioned. The truth is that a lot of playwrights are very talented, but they’re waiting for someone to come along and legitimize their work by giving them their first big production. Once that happens, it’s kind of like they’ve gotten a stamp of approval, which is when other theaters and companies start to take chances on them. This is the exact thing that the Kendeda Award does. It gives playwrights that first stamp of legitimacy and helps launch careers. This is true of so many Kendeda winners of the past and I will always be immensely grateful to be given the opportunity to work here at the Alliance.
One last question: If a version of you from the future showed up to talk to you, what do you think he would say to you?
Oh, whatever he would show up to say would be quickly forgotten. Because first of all, he’d realize that I hadn’t sprayed my wife’s plants yet and would immediately help me out because there are 30 of them (yes, there are 30 plants in our apartment; shout out to my wife). And then after we were done spraying the entire apartment, we’d get distracted by sharing dog videos together. And that would last for several hours. And then we’d probably geek out about how much fun we were having together and really just need to share that with one another. So I really hope my future self doesn’t come back to save the world, because we would fail.