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A Closer Look: Kimber Lee

Playwrights’ Corner
Kimber Lee

Kimber Lee's to the yellow house, which will receive a Studio Retreat reading at The Lark on June 6th and 7th (get your free tickets here!), tells the story of a failing artist, the now renowned Vincent Van Gogh, in desperate pursuit of a new way of seeing, haunted by his past, and hoping to remake his future in the color and light of the south of France. Andrea Hiebler, The Lark's Director of Scouting & Submissions, longtime friend of the playwright, and frequent stage directions reader for her plays, interviewed Kimber about the impulses and inspirations behind this new work-in-progress.

The biographies of other artists seem to serve as constant sources of inspiration for writers.  Why were you drawn to Van Gogh and this specific two year period in his career that Vincent spent shacking up with his brother Theo in a flat in France?

I was curious about these two years because it's the only period of time where Vincent and Theo lived in the same apartment.  And because of that, we know slightly less about Vincent's day-to-day, because he wasn't writing Theo a letter every day.  So that felt like a tiny wedge of freedom in which to imagine what might have been going on, in and amongst all the events on record. I was also curious because if you look at Vincent's paintings in chronological order, you see they're all sort of dark and gray and somber, and then after the two years in Paris - BOOM.  Color, texture, impasto that just leaps off canvas in this crazy way - so I wondered, what happened to him?  More than just the color, it was him finding his voice, his art, his way of seeing - and then he left Paris for Arles and started to do the work that would become his most famous, most definitive, most expressive of his unique way of looking.  So I wanted to catch him right on that verge, where he didn't quite have the visual language yet, but was finding his way to it.

Something that I've always responded to in your plays is the deeply observed behavior of idiosyncratic characters who inhabit the same richly detailed worlds. How did you free yourself from the need for painstaking historical precision in order to write these characters as people and not historical figures stuck in a stiff period piece?

​Well, the short answer is that ignorance is bliss. HAH! By which I mean, I haven't done ten years of research, so I don't think I would be able to produce exact language and behavior from the time period.  But it's very alive for me in the play, this idea of removing anything that would distance us from the characters emotionally, or that would allow us to hold them at arm's length as an idea.  I wanted real, struggling, messy, human people.  And if I can achieve that intimacy, it's also a good reminder that during these years, Vincent was just this kind of scruffy, bossy, smelly dude.  He wasn't a genius whose works hangs in the most prominent art museums in the world and sell for millions.  I mean at the time, not only did nobody know who Vincent was, when they did meet him they didn't like him, and they really, really didn't like his painting.

I remember you talking about how Vincent had tried his hand at so many other trades and was at a point where he was desperate and really needed to make this painting thing stick.  How does this play address the notions of natural talent, learning and practicing a craft and subjectivity in art?  

​Ehhhmm....does it?  HAH!  No, but, if you are getting those sorts of questions from it, then that is good.  Part of this Studio Retreat process for me is about soul searching the play, feeling whether the human events have enough juice to get us to some of those thoughts you pose. Something connects for me when I think about how completely everyone in the art world rejected Vincent's work, even Theo, who loved him.  Paris at that time was exploding with new ideas, you know - multiple forms of expressionism were bursting out all over and everyone was trying new methods.  But even in the midst of all that innovation, there was still this strong voice of the "institution" judging what was good and what was bad, and guess where they put Vincent's work?  A good reminder that many times when you are doing something that no one has ever seen before, people don't recognize what you're doing, they have no context in which to understand it.  And people don't like that.  And by extension, they don't like you.  I'm awed by Vincent's ability to keep himself going despite the chorus of voices - his brother included - who told him over and over that he was crap.  It's remarkable.

Can you talk about how your own views on process and product informed your writing about the journey of the creative process?  What can living, working artists take from the stories of those who have long been placed on dusty old pedestals?

My so-called "process" is bewilderingly various, which can be super unnerving.  I wish I had a dollar for every time I've found myself at my desk with a panicky knot in my stomach, flailing at my keyboard and wondering how I can have forgotten how to write a play.  Which is maybe why I find myself hungry for stories about other artists - hearing about how things come to be what they are is comforting, just to know that for the most part, things don't spring forth fully formed from the head of Zeus.  It's reassuring to hear about the human dimensions of making work, the struggle, the mess, the despair, and the determination to get through. Someone else has been there, laid low, curled into a weeping pile on the floor trying to make the thing live and failing utterly.  And someone else has found a way to get up the next day and try again.  

What are some of the specific goals you're focusing on for this workshop process?  Other than eating baguettes and perfecting a French accent? 

I feel like the goals are about scenes, and restructuring I want to experiment with - like trying outfits on the play.  Do you want to wear this shirt, Play?  And these shoes?  No?  Okay.  How about a red-striped onesie with matching booties?  Suggestions and watching to see what fits, and where the play wants to go.  And of course it goes without saying that a big goal is to sneak up on you at your desk and startle you several times a day.  I feel like I could win a gold medal if that were an Olympic sport - Startling Andrea Hiebler.  RIO 2016!!