This season Forward Theater Company is working with local playwright David Schanker on a staged reading of his play, Kiritsis, which was a finalist in the 2009 Wisconsin Wrights competition. The play centers on a small-time real estate developer who abducted the mortgage broker foreclosing on his property. Tony Kiritsis held his hostage for three days, venting his frustration on both radio and television before the shocking denouement that changed the American legal system. In preparation for the reading, we’d like to take you behind-the-scenes to learn more about David, and his inspiration for writing the play.
About the Author
Prior to writing his winning Kiritsis script, David Schanker’s fiction had already appeared in numerous literary magazines, in newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, and on radio in NPR’s “The Sound of Writing” series. Schanker served as playwright-in-residence at the off-Broadway theater company ReCherChez for two years, and his plays have been produced in New York City and Indianapolis. A novelist as well as a playwright, he holds an MFA from Columbia University and a law degree from Indiana University. Mr. Schanker currently uses his writing skills and his legal background as Clerk of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
What was your favorite experience in theater?
DS: Performing as an actor and musician in the Boston production of the play Lenny, about the comedian Lenny Bruce, when I was 19. We had a tumultuous run of six months at the Charles Playhouse downtown, complete with protests against the play and a sexual harassment lawsuit against the star, and it hooked me on theater for life.
Who is your favorite playwright?
DS: I most admire playwrights whose work is spare in style and complex in ideas, like Yasmina Reza’s Art, Margaret Edson’s Wit, and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. I’m particularly fond of plays with one-word titles.
Do you have a favorite actor?
DS: I love watching a great actor or actress immersed in a difficult, unsympathetic role – like Chloe Sevigny in Big Love, Helen Mirren in The Queen, and Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast.
What’s your favorite place to write?
DS: I write best alone in an absolutely quiet room with few distractions.
What’s your favorite thing about Madison?
DS: Its diverse community of smart, progressive misfits. And then there are the terrific public schools, the gorgeous lakes, the fabulous theater people, the superb UW Hospital, the variety of great restaurants.
About the Play
In your play Kiritsis you’ve blended historical fact with characters from your own imagination. How much research did you do about the incident? How did that research inform your writing?
DS: I did a great deal of research about the Kiritsis incident – reading contemporary news accounts of the hostage crisis as it unfolded, examining court records from Kiritsis’s numerous lawsuits, viewing news video, and reading transcripts of Kiritsis’s radio interviews. The research provided the factual framework for my imagination to work on the details of what might have happened in Kiritsis’s apartment during the three days he held his hostage
There is no account of what happened when the two men were alone. Kiritsis died several years ago, and his hostage, whose name has been changed in the play, has refused to make any comment about his experience. There was an offhand comment in a news story – something to the effect that “the men discussed religion” during the crisis – that gave me the jumping-off point for exploring how the characters’ religious differences might inform their actions.
You've written novels as well as plays. Why did you want to tell this story as a play?
DS: Novels are a wonderful medium for telling stories and expressing ideas, but the beauty of the theater is that it is immediate. It is happening in front of you, not on a page or a screen, but with live actors whose talent alone, without the aid of cinematic elements like camera angles and editing, entices the audience into a suspension of disbelief and involvement in the drama. I wanted to bring an audience quite literally into the room where the hostage drama takes place.
Kiritsis received a staged reading last year as part of the Wisconsin Wrights festival. What was that experience like?
DS: Wisconsin Wrights was a wonderful experience, mostly because of the quality of the artists with whom I was working. The director, Jen Gray, was perceptive and insightful – she had obviously given the play a great deal of thought on both the micro and macro levels, looking at dramatic structure and character as well as the rhythms of particular speeches and how they might best be expressed by the actors. The actors, too, were all smart, seasoned professionals who dedicated themselves for that week to bringing out the best in the play. Their level of commitment was far greater than one would expect in a reading – their energy and emotional engagement was at a very high level. The remarkable flow of ideas among the participants inspired me to do my best work in rewriting and rethinking the play.
The public reading that ended the festival was great fun. Hearing the actors perform my words and experiencing the audience’s reactions was exhilarating and instructional, in terms of understanding what worked and what didn’t.
Did you make any significant changes to the script prior to your second reading, with Forward Theater Company?
DS: Yes. In addition to adjusting bits of dialogue that didn’t work and making cuts and rearranging scenes for the sake of pacing, I fleshed out ideas only hinted at in earlier versions of the play, about business ethics and practices and the personal histories underlying the characters’ behavior.
What kind of feedback are you looking for from the audience who attends the reading of Kiritsis?
DS: I hope to get a sense of what the audience takes away from the play, which will help me understand how I might need to change the play to express my intentions more clearly and how I might make the play a more moving, immediate, and involving experience.
Forward Theater Company’s staged reading of Kiritsis will be performed in the Rotunda Studio at the Overture Center March 20th at 7:30 p.m. A suggested donation of $12 will be collected at the door. Join us at this reading to support a local artist and an exciting new play!