Kerrigan, McKenna reflect on what it means to be a modern playwright



Up-and-coming playwright Kait Kerrigan doesn’t mind if one of her plays makes it to the Great White Way. It is not that the writer’s indifferent to Broadway; she just has another goal in mind for her burgeoning pieces.

“I grew up in community theater, so on some level there’s always a part of you that’s thinking about … the day that my show is visible [is the day that] my community theater back home does it,” said Kerrigan. “Not because they know me, but because they want to do it.”

Kerrigan and fellow playwright Colin McKenna share the same view of Broadway: Though they would never turn down an offer, especially with the likes of a Broadway budget, the two artists think that their works might be better suited elsewhere.

Naturally, Broadway always seems like a dismal pipe dream for any playwright. For the two writers, who will each have a work featured in the Chautauqua Theater Company’s New Play Workshop this season, a regional theater is the perfect place for their shows to gain traction.

“It’s hard to find home right now, in the theater world,” said McKenna, whose new work, Dark Radio, opens Thursday at Bratton Theater. “That’s why places like Chautauqua are so important in the theater world.”



McKenna said that the theatrical atmosphere of Broadway is sadly changing, making it even harder for a new playwright to showcase his work. He feels that the New York City theater scene is specifically catering to the needs of the audience rather than artistic innovation. A number of musicals are featuring the “magic” of Disney — as noted with the short-lived The Little Mermaid — and many plays are stuffed with Hollywood A-listers, like Tom Hanks in Lucky Guy and Orlando Bloom in an upcoming revival of Romeo and Juliet.

“When I look at my work, I don’t see it going up there,” McKenna said. “I don’t see this as a particularly adventurous time in producing theater. I think people used to come to Broadway to see what the New York theater scene was doing and then that would spread to the rest of the country.”

Even so, regional theaters sometimes fear taking that leap with new playwrights; new works, especially coming from an unknown name, tend to be financially frightening. McKenna said that he doesn’t blame artistic directors for playing it safe, usually having to choose a recent Broadway smash to work into their season.

Breaking into the business as a playwright is no easy feat. Oftentimes, works will be workshopped, rewritten, read through and rewritten again several times before gaining any serious momentum.

“If you tell people you got an MFA from Tisch [School of the Arts] in dramatic writing or playwriting, people are like, ‘What, you can get a degree in that?’ ” McKenna said. “It’s like Bavarian folk dancing or something — what do you do with that?”

Kerrigan hasn’t earned a graduate degree in dramatic writing, which she said can make it even more difficult to break into the playwriting world. Aside from writing plays, Kerrigan is a musical librettist — she won the 2009 Edward Kleban Award for most promising librettist for the children’s musical Henry and Mudge — often working with friend and composer Brian Lowdermilk.

Kerrigan began writing plays while she was a student at Barnard College, even working on children’s musicals.

“I do feel very lucky for having done children’s theater more than anything else,” she said. “I learned economy and how to make sure that your story continues to compel an audience until the bitter end. I mean, there’s no one more critical than a 6-year-old in an audience.”

When it comes to writing, both Kerrigan and McKenna have very similar habits. Though both admit they don’t spend hours writing when they get up in the morning — they both wish they were more disciplined — they tend to have writing bursts.

Kerrigan described her periods of nonwriting with a term her mother coined: “gathering periods.” She said that it’s another, more generous term for writer’s block. McKenna and Kerrigan usually have writing spurts, usually following a period of research and reading — a gathering period.

“I have a tendency to be really excited about writing and pushing through or really voraciously reading and taking in movies and art and bringing in all these new ideas,” Kerrigan said.

Both writers have seen many of their scripts simply collect dust, which showcases the bitter side of their profession.

“I’ve gotten to the point where, if I’m not passionate about it, no one else is going to be passionate about reading it or seeing it,” McKenna said.

Playwriting was not something that the two writers consciously chose to do. Kerrigan was an English literature major while she was in college. It wasn’t until she worked on her first devised piece of theater that she began to take writing more seriously. McKenna, a Fordham University graduate, worked in the New York City theater scene doing technical work and directing before he evolved into a serious playwright.

And though both have seen professional success, they still consider themselves emerging writers.

“As a craft, it’s a difficult one that takes a lot of time and a lot of years to get better at,” McKenna said. “So, I guess I’m only starting to write plays that I really want to put my name on. I guess in that way, I’m emerging into the playwright I want to be.”