Interview: Playwright Kim Rosenstock on HBO’s ‘Girls,’ Her Play ‘Tigers Be Still,’ and ‘New Girl’ Game True American

Kim Rosenstock, playwright, is looking at me, but not looking at me. I’m sorry, she says, blue eyes wide. She’s distracted by the weird, floor-to-ceiling circle curtains (they look like someone went nuts with a giant hole punch) obscuring our view out the top floor of the Wyly. They look heavy, but they’re actually made of ultra-thick felt. We shoved them out of the way, revealing an astounding view of downtown, and continued with our conversation. We were talking about how much we’d both enjoyed Next Fall, the issue-heavy drama by Geoffrey Nauffts we’d seen the previous evening at the Kalita Humphreys, a discussion that evolved into our inability to name a mainstream Christian and/or right wing playwright who wasn’t David Mamet (Mamet’s Jewish, but one could argue Tyler Perry and also, potentially, the apostle Luke, who certainly should be credited with a first draft of the frequently performed Nativity play).

A mention of Mamet led to a sidebar on HBO’s Girls, since his daughter stars alongside Brian Williams’ daughter, Allison (“Honestly, I’ve seen this girl [Williams]. And you can’t fake improv. You can’t fake comedian skills,” Rosenstock says, after imparting an anecdote about an undergrad impov comedy show. “She’s the real deal.”) and the much ballyhooed, much maligned Lena Dunham.

“I think that she’s that successful at such a young age should be like inspiration,” Rosenstock says. “People are so angry. ‘How dare a young person be so successful.’ And people are like, ‘Oh, she’s connected.’ And again, I’m sure that helps. But let’s get face the fact that you have 25-year-old woman, who is the creator, star, and head writer of a huge, successful, so far, HBO show.”

She hasn’t watched any of it yet, but she wants it to be good.

How Rosenstock, a New Yorker originally from Long Island who’s spent the last six months in California for her writing gig on New Girl, made it to Dallas not once, but twice is, by her own admission, somewhat surprising. Her play Tigers Be Still, a sweet, sincere comedy drenched in post-grad malaise currently running in the Wyly’s smaller Studio Theatre, brought her here. Last week, it took her to Oregon. In February, she was in Fayetteville, Arksansas, where her boyfriend proposed.

“If you ever told me I was going to get engaged in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I would have been very confused,” Rosenstock said. “Is there some awesome chocolate factory there? But actually there’s a great, amazing arts scene.”

New York was once the sole star in Rosenstock’s theatrical sky. She grew up riding the Long Island Railroad into Midtown with her mother, her grandmother, and bunch of her grandmother’s friends (“Because they knew how to get all the discounts,” she says) for lunch at a hotel and a Broadway show. After college, she went about obtaining what she thought was her dream job. She became a literary manager for theaters dedicated to new plays, and she worked at Playwrights Horizons and The Public.

“But I ultimately  realized that what I liked the most was the hands on stuff,” she says. “Not just talking about the script, but talking about the production and being in meetings where we were decided things about design, and things about audience development. So I realized I wanted to be a producer, and I still wanted to do the script stuff. I would be like a dramaturge and producer on productions. And this is what I was doing.”

And that’s how she ended up at Ars Nova as an associate producer. She was 24, surrounded by writers, thanks to her job and then the writers group she started.

“My mission statement was plays, pizza, and beer. And it was great,” she recalls. “Not a lot of people missed meetings. Liz Meriweather (creator of New Girl) was actually in that writers group, and she was also the playwright in residence. I was creating these positions for my friends who were young playwrights at the time. And, actually, it’s interesting that we were talking about Girls, because I feel like what at that show is depicting is what I was sort of experiencing when I was looking at the kind of plays that I wanted to bring to the public…because it felt like emerging writers…that was more and more being more and more defined as sort of what I would consider at least like, early career or slightly early mid career. And truly emerging, which again, Girls is about those years right after college. And I feel like that’s when so many people will give up on that thing that they dreamed of doing. Because it is really hard to muddle through.”

But, and there’s always a but: Rosenstock wanted to write.

“I’d always wanted to write, but I hadn’t written anything. Mostly because that job was so time consuming in the best possible way,” she says. “And something in me was like, you should at least try. Because you’re not really trying right now, even though I felt like I was doing so much, because I was, but what I wasn’t working on at all was this little tiny dream I’d had, and I kind of think at some point I’d put it away.”

Rosenstock had written one full-length play in college, and had actually applied to MFA programs with it. She’d been rejected. By this time, she was 27 ,and she could either write writing off as a hobby, or she could apply to graduate school a second time. Part of what convinced her was the belief that “theater is supposed to be up, it’s a three dimension thing,” she says. “It’s not just supposed to be on your laptop, which is where most of my theater was at that point.”

So she wrote a new play on nights and weekends and during her single, one-week vacation, the first draft of what would eventually be Tigers Be Still. She applied to Yale and got in. “An absolute miracle,” she says.

“It started off as, ‘I think I’m a playwright,’ and people would be like, ‘Are you…what do you do? ‘And I’d be like, ‘I’m a student,’ she says. “I sent an email  to everyone in my contact list when I left Ars Nova, and was like, ‘I’m going to graduate school.’ I didn’t even say for what,  because it felt like…everything felt like it would jinx it. I slowly started to almost come out of the closet as a writer. I hadn’t talked about wanting to be a writer with anyone. It weirdly felt like I hadn’t earned the right. Only recently, really in the last year, have I been able to say with confidence. I wrote it on my taxes as my occupation. That felt like a big milestone.  My accountant last year wrote “play-space-writer” as my occupation. And I thought, that’s accurate. Because I didn’t really tell him last year. I think he tried to guess what my career was based on what 10-99s I gave him.”

Ensconced in New Haven, she wrote 99 Ways To F*ck A Swan, which someone sent to her now-agent, Derek, who she’d actually  know during her years as a literary manager. He asked her to send him her other plays, and she didn’t have much so she sent him the play she wrote to get into Yale.

“That was the one he was most interested in,” she says.

And her agent sent Tigers Be Still to the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York. The theater offered her a stage reading.

“I was still so nervous….If I hadn’t had an agent, I probably wouldn’t have sent that play anywhere,” she says. “Tigers would have been languishing in a folder on my desktop still. That’s why agents can be good because they are braver than us, and more confident than us. All I expected was to have a great reading at RTC with some great fancy casting because they can get big names because they’re a fancy theater. And I had this amazing reading with  fancy names like Natasha Lyonne. And I was like, this was such a great day! And Sam Gold was the director of the reading, and I love Sam and I got to work with him, and I was like, this is great! And to me, I was like, what a great day! And I went back [to school].”

And then the theater sent her agent an official offer to produce it, for real, as part of their Underground series, dedicated to giving playwrights their first full New York production.

“For some reason, getting a production of the play at Roundabout in New York right after graduating, just seemed like it was too good to be true,” she says. “And anything that seems too good to be true in my experience is too good to be true. Anyway, then, an announcement came out in the New York Times, and Roundabout’s like announcing their season, and it’s there. And then all these people started calling me, being like, why didn’t you tell me this was happening? And I was like, well, I guess it’s happening! And then I started getting very excited.”

But this was her application play, “her young play,” as Rosenstock put it. It still spoke to her, but in a different way.

“It felt kind of like opening up a photo album,” she says. “I wrote it at a very specific point in my life…it’s kind of like looking at a portrait of your brain from a certain part of your life. And it was stuff I was a few steps removed from at that point, but opening it up it all came back to me. But the really tricky thing I had to learn on that first production, and doing that first round of rewrites that I did, was honoring the play, honoring the intention and the impulse I had when I originally sat down to write the play. And not making it…you know, I could have made it…I could have structured it more. It could have had a more formal structure, I could have gone through and made it more dramaturgically sound. It’s a messy play, on purpose, but I…I had gone past the point where I was writing exactly like that.”

I happened to be at Roundabout during the time Tigers went up, down in their basement theater in the Laura Pels. Natasha Lyonne, who was in the staged reading, reprised her role and established herself as one of the funniest folks to grace to stage in recent memory. Sam Gold directed. Rosenstock says that depending on the night I went, I either saw a really great play or a really weird play. The first few performances were rough, with small audiences or just audiences full of family and friends. But I thought I’d seen something wonderful. Charles Isherwood, of the Times, agreed. People wholly unconnected to the cast and crew bought tickets. Other theaters, not in New York, came calling, wanting to do the show. One was the Dallas Theater Center.

“That’s still sort of the amazing thing about now, seeing it being done and seeing all these different people responding to it and enjoying it and realizing that…I can picture right now, when I first sat down to write it…it did seem like a dark time in my life, when I was sort of despairing about a lot of things. And  realizing that that was actually the beginning of this amazing journey with this play. And at the time I had no idea,” Rosenstock says. “I thought that was probably the beginning middle and end of the whole thing, just me sitting down in my dark apartment with the curtains drawn and like, crying and typing.”

And now she’s in Dallas for the second time, not really sure what address to write on her tax forms because she’s not positive about where she lives, splitting her time between New York, her home, where her fiancé and her cat and all her books are, and Century City, where New Girl is filmed and she’s reunited with Meriweather.

“I basically got a call on a Thursday, and I had to be there on a Monday. I didn’t really have enough time to figure out what that would do to my life,” she says.

And then I have to ask about True American, a made-up sort of guerrilla drinking game for reasonably well-adjusted and learned adults, because everyone and their mom with a blog is trying desperately to come up with the actual rules after the episode, Normal, aired.

“Luvh [the episode writer] might know the rules to it….up here,” Rosenstock says, tapping her head. “And I wonder… And actually, I’ll bet you anything that those actors know the rules to it. Because it looked like they were playing a game. That they understood. They were definitely playing an actual game. Would you like to see True American be a game? Because I would. I would like to play. I’m not ready to say that there aren’t rules. I‘m just saying that I don’t know the rules. I bet Zooey knows the rules. We should call Zooey. But all I know is that thing that you’re talking about, those people that published that, Liz Meriweather the next day wrote the whole staff and there was a link to it and she was just like, ‘They got it all wrong.’ But that person may have created a great game. And who’s to say that that game is not True American?”

Tigers Be Still runs until May 12 at the Wyly Studio Theatre. The Dallas Theater Center will produce another of Rosenstock’s works, Fly By Night, next season.

Photo:  Kim Rosenstock on the set of Tigers Be Still at the Wyly Theatre (Credit: Micah Nunley)


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