Q&A with Aditi Brennan Kapil

Posted on October 28, 2011

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Actress Nic Zapko as "Dag" in "Gruesome Playground Injuries"

I had an opportunity to chat with “Gruesome Playground Injuries” director, Aditi Brennan Kapil. Aditi has been a featured artist at Mixed Blood for years and will be presenting a different take on Rajiv Joseph’s work during our Center of the Margins Festival. Read what she has to say about her casting choices, conversations she had with Rajiv and how this show fits her aesthetic:

MB: Tell me about what you’re doing with Gruesome Playground Injuries.

ABK: Jack brought up wanting to do a play with ASL for this festival, and I said that rather than plugging a deaf actress into a hearing show, I’d love to do a show entirely in ASL. Then my wish list grew… I’ve worked with both Nic Zapko and Alexandria Wailes before, I’ve voiced or Nic extensively and we collaborated on creating “The Deaf Duckling”, a Mixed Blood touring show in ASL, and English, and Alexandria originated the role of Free in my play Love Person, also at Mixed Blood. I think they’re both astonishing. I think they don’t work nearly enough given how astonishing they are. I think they’ll be astonishing on stage together, in fact, it makes my brain melt a bit thinking about it.

So I started looking for two-woman plays, and really had a hard time finding a perfect fit, and then one day I started thinking about Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, which I had recently read. The play was written for a man and a woman, but these two actresses were so incredibly right for the roles. And the more I thought about it the more it felt like the perfect fit. So this is the wish wish list I brought to Jack: I need permission from Rajiv to do this play with two deaf women in the roles he created for a hearing man and woman; I need Nic and Alexandria; I need a musician- probably string: and I need a video designer to create super titles and giant, animated chalkboard drawings. Jack said he’d work on it, and by some miracle all the pieces came together.

MB: How will the casting affect the production?

ABK: I mean it infuses everything about it… in practical terms, this will be an almost completely silent theater experience, were doing it entirely in ASL, with super-titles providing access for the hearing audience. There is an aural element, created by phenomenal Paraguayan harpist and composer Nicolas Carter, who will be playing the electric acoustic harp, adding a music to the chalkboard drawings being created by designer Dan Roth for the scene transitions. It helps that the harp is such a visually beautiful instrument, one where you can actually see the plucking of the strings. This production emphasizes visual storytelling, but I’m hoping for a full and layered experience for hearing and deaf audiences alike.

In terms of interpretation, casting two women instead of a man and a woman raises the states in a lot of pretty fascinating ways. A scene that before was this fairly sweet asking for a kiss, is now still a sweet asking for a kiss but also a young girl coming out to another girl, with all the stakes and tension that involves. Their deafness adds another layer of intimacy between them as they share a language and an experience that the mainstream world can’t understand. Rajiv wrote this beautiful, funny, tough, play about two misfits connecting with each other, loving each other,  hurting each other, and all of those elements live fully in this interpretation, with casting heightening the themes in amazing ways. What I love about this project is that it’s not a play about being deaf, or about being gay, it’s a play with juicy complex roles that incorporate all these things and more. And these two actresses are going to kill it, I can’t wait to watch them work.

MB: Did you get any pushback from the playwright when you approached him about changing the sexes of the characters?

ABK: Not at all, Rajiv was completely supportive of the casting and also the minor script changes it led to, for which I’m unbelievably grateful! I mean we just wouldn’t have done the show if he hadn’t been. He even gifted us with a new name for the character of Doug, being played by Nic Zapko- for our production she’s Dag, which I love, it’s tough and gender-neutral, and I’ve decided it’s short for Dagmar, which is an old Swedish name, what kid wouldn’t shorten it to Dag? In the end, we only needed to make 3 fairly minor changes to the text itself- we removed a reference to Dag’s male genitalia, we cut a brief song since deaf characters wouldn’t sing to each other, and we cut one line that specifically identified Dag as a boy. That’s it.

That’s another thing I actually think is kind of amazing… we live in a moment when I can take a play written for a man and a woman, a love story, and cast two women, and not have to make any huge changes in the text to explain or justify that fact. There’s a mention of one of the characters almost marrying another woman. A year ago I would probably have had to cut or change that line because it would jar the general audience out of the story. But today I don’t. Instead, the fact that two women marrying is more rare, more political, raises the stakes in the scene and informs it differently than if the lines were exchanged between a straight man and a straight woman, but it doesn’t interrupt the story telling. That’s wonderful to me. Just the experience of investigating and creating this play with this cast is an exercise in our common humanity. Actually, I think that might be the magic of watching it too.

MB: Having been such an important part of Mixed Blood’s programming over the years, how does this piece fit in to Mixed Blood’s overall mission?

ABK: I think my favorite thing that we do at Mixed Blood is to provide a stage for brilliant artists who are outside of the mainstream. Artists who are really at the top of their game, but for whatever reasons (lack of imagination, lack of awareness, myopia) don’t get programmed on the scale their work merits. It diminishes our art form, and our society, to not have these virtuosos in the dialogue, to be without their insight and perspective. We talk about diversity a lot, both in the field of theater and in our culture at large, and my way into that conversation has always come from knowing artists of such extraordinary gifts, and wanting their voices in the cultural dialogue. I was inspired to write a deaf character into my play Love Person because I know brillant deaf actresses, and that made it a far richer play than it otherwise might have been. And I guess to me that’s a big part of what Mixed Blood does. The world is more rich and astonishing than mainstream arts programming might lead you to believe, and I think Mixed Blood does its part to fill the gaps.

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