Lesbian Pirates & Other Histories

Catching up with Barbara Kahn on the eve of another New City venture

Barbara Kahn isn’t exactly the writer-in-residence at the Theater for the New City, but she might as well be. This prolific playwright, director, and actor has had 18 plays produced, most of them at the New City venue since 1994—one a year—and has written 10 other short works which have been produced around the country and in Europe.

Her theme tends to be justice, and she works in landscapes like the imaginary future as well as the historical past.

Her current offering, “Long Time Passing,” is an anti-war fable set in the ruins of what we might guess is Central Park. Her work always includes gay and lesbian characters but her canvas is much larger.

“Most of my plays are not about coming out,” she said in a recent interview. “I try to write plays that are about our lives. I try to provide that basic reality of who we are in situations that we all find ourselves in.”

“Long Time Passing,” which features two lesbian combatants—a rookie and a veteran—who fall in love, is not about the politics of war, but of war as a way of life and what it does to people. In the play you never find out what the war is about, how it started, or even who the sides are.

“I don’t think about a theme when I write a play but if I had to come up with one for all my work it would be ‘justice,” Kahn said.

Kahn’s oeuvre includes plays about historical characters. One is Charlotte Cushman, a world famous American actress who worked primarily in London, but is now largely forgotten. She was a lesbian and the title of the play is “The Lady Was a Gentleman” because she was most famous for playing Romeo in Shakespeare’ play. Cushman, whose long career spanned the 19th century, took as a lover for 40 years—Emma Stebbins who designed the Angel of the Waters at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

“I research my plays thoroughly before I start, “ Kahn said. “There’s something thrilling about holding Charlotte Cushman’s prompt books in your hand that provides inspiration.”

Kahn said she is never blocked as a writer because by the time she sits down in front of the yellow pads on which she hand-writes her first draft she has the play mapped out in her head and the rest is like an improvisation.

“I do a lot of walking when working out my plays,” she explained.

Kahn works in a variety of genres—the historical play, dramas, comedies, even musicals. One of the works she is most enthusiastic about is a musical she wrote with composer Jay Kerr called “Pyrates: the Courtship Chronicles,” about a pair of lesbian pirates in love or at least in heat. She said friends told her there was no such thing as a lesbian pirate, but when she googled the topic she found hundreds of citations. She even got her hands on transcripts of women who were brought to trial.

Kahn is conscious of her privileged position as a playwright—let alone a lesbian playwright—who has no trouble being produced.

“I’m one of the few who get produced in New York City and I feel a responsibility for my good fortune and I think it’s important to illuminate our lives,” she said. “So many theater companies deny access to playwrights. Some of the companies have taken to charging a $250-fee just to read a script and that outrages me. There are so many talented people out there. And it’s so different here than it is in Europe. Here people say ‘Why don’t you get a job?’ Over there it’s ‘What can we do so you don’t have to get a job?’”

The Theater For the New City, which Kahn considers her muse produces 30 to 40 plays by new and established playwrights every year.

They are a community-based theater in every sense of the word,” she said. “They really encourage everyone to participate.”

New City also has a number of free programs for the community—a festival of the arts, which is a huge event that takes over the parks in all the boroughs. Some of the actors who have passed through the events are Tim Robbins as a young boy 12, Vin Diesel, and Adrian Brody. In addition, New City has four theaters and a large space for a lobby, dressing room, and a prop department. In fact, our interview took place in a large prop room surrounded by artifacts like a huge, white horse from a carousel and a dun-colored dusty old motorcycle of indeterminate age that will be used in “Long Time Passing.”

Kahn always directs her plays.

Kahn allows the actors full reign to use their instincts on their characters and then after watching them move around the stage on their own she blocks the action.

“One of the things I miss most because I direct my plays is directing other people’s work which I don’t get a chance to do,” she said.

She has had productions of hers directed by others outside of New York and has generally been pleased by the result.

“I don’t write for the audience,” she said. “I write what I want to see.”

Kahn was recently named best playwright for last summer’s revival of her first play produced at New City in 1994 called “Pen Pals” which was about the religious right, and was shown as part of the Fresh Fruit International Festival of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Arts and Culture. That award will be presented in April.

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