The Writer Side
Former Fiction Devotee and Would-Be Filmmaker Stephen Kilduff Discovers That the Play’s The Thing
"My wife said, `You're more suited to a blank stage with two people talking.'" Stephen Kilduff allows a pause, then deadpans, "I'm not sure that was a compliment."
A simplicity of approach, a directness of purpose--these seem to be Kilduff's virtues. They're paying off for the 48-year-old Catonsville resident as he sees the first production of one of his plays: Snow on the Stand runs at New York's American Theatre of Actors from Aug. 16 to 20.
Kilduff is definitely dazzled by making it if not on Broadway, at least near Broadway. Like many writers, from time to time he's considered relocating to New York. "There are times when I thought, Maybe I'll leave," he says. "But one thing or another kept me from leaving."
The lifelong resident of the Baltimore area is also a lifelong writer. "By high school, I was getting the urge to imagine stories and lives--maybe because it was occurring to me that mine was not that interesting."
As a graduate of the University of Baltimore with a degree in English, Kilduff has always made a livelihood through words. He worked as a proofreader and copy editor at City Paper for four and a half years in the late 1980s and early '90s. He's now a freelance scientific copy editor, an arrangement that leaves him time for his storytelling. He started with fiction. In fact, when he worked at CP, it published fiction more often, and he contributed.
But around 1999 something drew his eye elsewhere. "I got an idea that I thought would work as a movie," Kilduff says. "I could see it cinematically." There ensued a period in which he taught himself about the movie business--not taking screenwriting courses, as so many do. His education was "just observing and reading and figuring it out."
And the more he observed, the more he figured out that the movie business was a bad match for him. There was the matter of Hollywood. "I didn't want to move out there," he says, a little harshly. But there was also the matter of muse vs. mammon.
"For a very lucky few [screenwriters]," Kilduff says, the movie business "means million-dollar contracts and Academy Awards. For most people, it's revisions of other people's scripts and adaptations of books you wouldn't want to read. That's what would happen--if I was lucky."
It wasn't the sort of luck he wanted for himself. And he was appalled by a couple of visits to screenwriters' conferences "out there": "Everybody was selling wares," he says.
What he calls the "slow realization--three years in the making--that screenwriting wasn't going to work" led him, about two years ago, to turn his attention to plays. "The emphasis in plays is so much more about human relationships," Kilduff says. "In a movie you start out and you see a person's apartment, and you know something about them." In a play, characters and themes develop differently. "This spareness of telling the story through conversation and dialogue appeals to me."
By last spring, after readings in Baltimore, he had three plays ready to be produced, and he packaged them up and sent them out to theaters whose names he got from the Dramatists Sourcebook. What happened with Snow on the Stand, the newest of the three, he calls dumb luck: "It landed on the desk of the right guy at the right time."
The right guy was James Jennings, president and artistic director of the American Theatre of Actors, which is dedicated to developing and showcasing the work of newer playwrights. "It's a developmental theater," Kilduff says. "They're not committing two months to this unknown play by this unknown playwright. They can just put it on and see what happens."
Jennings--who founded ATA in 1976 and also fields all the theater's phone calls--is a fellow so busy that when an interviewer asks for a few seconds to grab a paper and pen, he barks, "I don't have much time," and keeps going. "We produce 20 to 22 shows a season," Jennings says over the phone. "We have 20 playwrights in our company. We have eight directors in our company. We have four theaters. We've been in business for 30 years.
"We get 800 submissions a year, from out of nowhere. I read all 800, and I pick 20 to 30, based on credibility. Then I let my directors pick. Out of that 30 that I tend to like, I'll produce six or seven."
Snow on the Stand appealed to both Jennings and director Annie Coburn. It tells the story of 50-year-old Harry and his siblings, confronting their different beliefs about the disposition of their father's estate. "I liked how quiet and controlled the play is and the emotional explosion at the end," Coburn says. "I'm from Cleveland, which has a huge set of Rust Belt problems like closing factories and companies bought out by large conglomerations, so one of the themes in the play that deals with a concept of new business and old business really attracted me.
"I feel that the challenge in the show is to make all of the characters both likable as well as guilty or complicit," she continues. "I want the audience to come away from the play recognizing these family dynamics like their own--where long-buried problems become a minefield. I want them to be able to talk about who is really at fault and have that not be so cut and dried."
Kilduff himself sees a slightly different thread running through his plays. "The one theme that is present in the plays--it's not something I set out to do--is of middle-aged men who are sort of lost in their lives: looking forward, looking back," he says. "[Snow] is the harshest of the plays. It doesn't leave a whole lot of hope for Harry.
"It's no mystery why a 48-year-old man would be interested in this [theme]," he continues. But he stresses that his plays are not autobiographical. "As a writer, from the beginning, I've been interested in `stories' rather than `my story.'"
Kilduff hasn't seen Snow yet--he's excited about attending the production, which he hasn't been involved with at all--but he's more focused on what's next down the ongoing stream of creation. "Writing's not a young person's pursuit, exclusively," he says. "It is not like gymnastics or theoretical physics. Since I've gotten more serious about pursuing the playwriting, I'm working less and less [on copy editing]--and my wife allows me to do that."
It's a life that works for him. "What I often do is stop in the middle of the day and take a really long lunch--just sit and write and eat," he says. Scheduling time to write doesn't work for him; instead, he goes where inspiration takes him. And right now, he's pondering a theme that should come as no surprise, given the recent turn his life has taken--"the nature of luck."
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