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The Play's the Thing

last modified Aug 08, 2011 03:11 PM

Richard Kalinoski and students 
in play photo composite

Photo composite by Shawn McAfee

By Grace Lim
COLS Special Reports

All the World's a Stage

In a rapidly evolving world where entertainment can be found on a cell phone screen, Richard Kalinoski still sees the stage as a significant and viable medium. “If students learn that the theatre offers a level of intimacy not applicable to film and TV—the power of immediacy—they can sometimes begin to appreciate the mystery and charm of the theatre,” says Kalinoski, an award-winning playwright and associate professor in the Department of Theatre at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

photo of Richard Kalinoski at lectern

Award-winning playwright and UW Oshkosh professor Richard Kalinoski.

Kalinoski, who has taught at UW Oshkosh since 1998, juggles teaching, directing and writing with great aplomb. This spring, he directed “Collected Stories,” a play by Donald Margulies that is about a complicated relationship between a professor and her student.

Kalinoski’s latest play, “My Soldiers,” is featured in the May/June 2010 issue of American Theatre magazine. The play, which is about a female U.S. Army medic, back from deployment to Iraq, will have its world professional premiere at the Detroit Repertory Theatre on June 3. Only 15 months earlier, Kalinoski held a My Soldiers reading at the UW Oshkosh with a cast of students, alumni, faculty and professionals. (The reading was directed by Mark Hallen, Eastern University (Pa.), Director of Theatre.)

Kalinoski has won numerous awards including the Osborn – Best New Play in America by an Emerging Playwright - awarded by the American Theatre Critics Association in 1996, and, in 2001, five Ace Awards, including Best Play, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His “Beast on the Moon,” a play about two Armenian genocide refugees, captured the 2001 Best Play from the Repertory prize at the Moliere Awards in Paris.

His works have been translated into 17 languages and have been produced in venues all over the world, such as Athens, Brussels, London, Moscow, New York (off-Broadway), Prague, Sao Paolo, and Toronto.

In a Q & A with COLS Special Reports producer Grace Lim, Kalinoski shares his goals as a professor and as a playwright.

1. What attracted you to the world of playwriting and directing? How old were you when you realized that you wanted to be the person behind the words or the one who drives the actors to create magic on stage?
When I was an undergraduate at U W Whitewater I had a chance to study theatre at Oxford University in England for a summer between my sophomore and junior years. While at Oxford I participated in a tiny production of King Lear (I “played” Edgar). I learned that I was not an actor even while I became fascinated with the mystery of presenting a play. I had a hunch that I might write a play and when I returned to my home campus I wrote an emotional mess called “Naked on the Subway” (note the lurid title). I had written and produced my first full-length play at the age of 20.  I produced the play myself and together with friends it was presented in the basement of a high dormitory.  The play sold out its entire run. Two years later I was accepted into the graduate playwriting program at Carnegie-Mellon University (then called Carnegie-Tech).

2. What made you decide that you wanted to teach young playwrights?
I suspect that I was influenced by my playwriting professor at Carnegie-Mellon. He was a bad teacher but a smart man. I thought I could do it (teach) better than I had been taught. The art of playwriting can’t be taught. The craft of playwriting can be.  I began teaching playwriting in workshops after my first play was published in 1990. I like to share what I have learned about playwriting with my students but I also learn more about the discipline each time I teach it.

3. What are your goals in your teaching?
The single most important goal (among many) is to help my students understand that they are writing for what Thornton Wilder called the “group mind”.  Students are asked to write for live audiences but also for live artists—the artists involved in producing a play. Of these the actors are the most important. Actors carry playwrights on their backs.

Richard Kalinoski during rehearsal

Stage Craft: During a Theatre Appreciation Day this spring, UW Oshkosh associate theatre professor and playwright Richard Kalinoski ran a scene from "Collected Stories," a play by Donald Margulies, with students Lauren Johnson (l) and Kim Davister (r). The play ran in February at the Fredric March Theatre.

4.What preconceived ideas about playwriting or directing do your students have?
The most common preconceived idea is that plays can unfold anywhere, can be set anywhere—as in cinema.  PLACE is absolutely essential to the fashioning of a play. Students struggle to understand how a single place (a garden, a deck, a kitchen) will become a kind of character in a play—more profoundly (usually) than the many places used for a film.  Plays don’t “travel” particularly well…films do.

5. In a world where people can find entertainment on screens as small as their cellphones, how do you convince young people that the stage is still a viable medium?
I force my students to attend the theatre often. Many of my students reluctantly admit that they have not attended the theatre. Few have seen a professional production of a play—fewer still have seen a play in New York. If students learn that the theatre offers a level of intimacy not applicable to film and TV—the power of immediacy—they can sometimes begin to appreciate the mystery and charm of the theatre. I don’t lie to my students—theatre can be very good at boring audiences (it usually doesn’t have good explosions). Once in a while audiences (here and elsewhere) can be so transported by a play that the feeling of having attended remains for days or even weeks. I want my students to have that kind of experience. My impression is that many academics dismiss theatre as not being intellectual enough or not being contemplative enough. Vital, visceral theatre should be emotionally compelling and intellectually satisfying simultaneously.

6. What do you want your students to walk away with after their years here at UW Oshkosh?
I teach more than playwriting, of course. I want my students to come away from here with high artistic standards—and to use those standards to inform their lives.


 Richard Kalinoski Video  In an interview with COLS Special Reports producer Grace Lim, UW Oshkosh theatre professor Richard Kalinoski talks about his goals as a teacher and as a playwright. Kalinoski's latest play "My Soldiers" will have its world professional premiere at the Detroit Repertory Theatre on June 3, 2010.


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by Ledwell, Brian A last modified Aug 08, 2011 03:11 PM