Monday, September 14, 2009

Michael Kimball: A guy with a thousand stories

Michael Kimball has real-life stories that are every bit as unlikely as the stuff he writes for the stage, like the Richard Cycle, where a disembodied penis starts hassling the guy in the sexual driver’s seat because he doesn’t get out much any more — and the star of one of Kimball’s collection of dirty plays that will be staged next week at the Firehouse Center ... Okay, maybe not quite that unlikely. But stories? Yeah, he’s got ’em. Like the one about a depressed, down Maine middle school music teacher who becomes a successful novelist after Steven King, the king of creep, cracked up over an article about, um, farting that he had written for CoEvolutionary Quarterly, the grandchild of the Whole Earth Catalog, he had casually dropped in with the draft of what would become his first published novel he had sent to King. Completely true. Or the one about the teacher-slash-novelist who turns his back on a gig that people around the world dream about — being a big-shot writer, not teaching scales to snot-nosed monsters in middle school — because he likes hanging out and drinking with actors. Also completely true. Well, sort of. It’s a long story. With Kimball, in town to chat about “I Fall For You,” the new production, but, sadly, not long enough to tie one on with the cast, it usually is. The conversation bounces from one thing to the next, with plenty of colorful diversions that will wind round and round before circling back to the point. Which is that it’s fun hanging out with actors: They’re colorful people and, like the playwright, know how to tell a story, and he does enjoy tipping the occasional glass with them — something he learned after turning the page on his thriller-writing years, after his publisher dropped him, not long after the firm "misplaced" the entire print run of his new novel. Yup, true. He started writing plays six years ago, mostly as a way to get a director friend of his off his back and discovered he loved it.

Yeah, he’s got literary game, and lots of unlikely-but-true stories of his own, or from his pals, that provide the starting points, at least, for the seven sex-themed plays that make up “I Fall for You,” which opens Sept. 18 at the Firehouse. Like the one about his buddy, a gynecologist, who runs into a patient in a singles bar. Uncomfortable! Or the playwright's uncle, who used the occasion of a family reunion to announce — to everybody — that he was the most sexually frustrated man on earth. “The silence that followed was devastating,” says Kimball, “Complete silence. No one knew what to say.” That story ended up morphing into “Say No More,” the play that closes "I Fall for You." And he’s got stories about dirty plays that aren’t especially dirty, where the filth is in someone else’s mind, or religious/political positions earn you the label “banned author.” Which happened last June, when the new guy at the Utah State Theatre decided he didn’t like the incest themes in Kimball’s “Ghosts of Ocean House” and replaced it at the last minute with “An Inspector Calls,” a tired, sixty-year-old British farce. Problem is, the play isn’t “about incest.” It's about a haunted house. Well, actually it’s about a guy who uses religion as a weapon to browbeat someone much weaker than he is. Hmmmm, interesting. He was angry when the play was banned, and even more so when they asked him to “do the right thing” and return the advance. Which he did, even though it probably really wasn’t the right thing, and decided to wear the banning as a “a mark of distinction.” You’ve got to wonder how they would have reacted to the Richard cycle — especially if they saw him in full plumage, or even the head-hat he will be wearing in the Firehouse production.

He's not "from here," as people from here like to say, but he's got deep, historic roots in the region. Yes, he's one of "those" Kimballs, one of the first families to climb out of the boats in the 17th century, and a guy with, his words, some pretty horrible ancestors, who, for better or worse, owned stuff (like Plum Island, for a while) or ran things (like the trial against Susanna Martin, the Amesbury woman twice accused and once executed during the Salem witch hysteria.) And while he may not be "from here," he's certainly been around here. His 20-minute play "Good Golly Miss Molly at Recess," about three adolescents burying a beloved pet in the schoolyard, premiered at the 2005 New Works Festival. And while the current production of "Say No More" is getting its official premiere this weekend, it grew up in workshops at the Actors Studio and was staged, in a different form, at the North Shore Readers Theatre Collaborative — And, word of warning, if you know he's going to be "around here," look both ways before crossing the street — guy says he can make it from York, Maine, to Newburyport in a half hour. He lives in York, which used to be part of Massachusetts, even though the ingrates declined the Bay State’s invitation, which was kindly delivered at the end of a Puritan gun. That’s another story, one that Kimball tells in “Submit,” which, given the content of his recent plays, sounds like it could be a little kinky, but actually gets right to the point — something it took the playwright a while to do. Again, a long story. So back it up a little bit, back to the Reagan years.

By the 1980s, Kimball had spent more than a decade teaching music and, well, that was enough. Actually it was way more than enough. “I was having a breakdown, basically,” he says. Unemployment office was a waste of time: What are you qualified to do? Um, be a middle school music teacher? Then the Gipper cut funding for a federal migrant education program, so Kimball found himself without a summer job. Now what? He decided to write a novel. He found an agent, who explored conventional approaches to publishing while Kimball took a different approach: He wrapped up the manuscript, with a serious piece he had written on farting (“Why not? Brooke Shields farts," he says. "Tonto farts, swans fart. In fact, research shows that people fart 5.64 times a day.") and mailed it to Stephen King, Bangor, Maine. ("I didn't know his actual address," he says.) It was the farting article that saved Kimball, because King usually just tosses the stuff into the fireplace. ("Do you know how many idiots send Stephen King unsolicited magazines every year?" Kimball says. "I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know what else to do.") He loved the farting story enough to read the accompanying novel, and he liked the novel enough to get behind what would become the comic novel "Firewater Pond" personally.

Kimball spent the next decade writing original screenplays and adaptations for motion picture companies, including three episodes for "Monsters," then returned to the novel in 1996 with "Undone," a thriller that went on to become a London Times best-seller and earned him the distinction of being the only American to receive the "Fresh Talent Award," given out by W.H. Smith, Great Britain's largest bookstore chain. He followed up "Undone" with the thriller "Mouth to Mouth" and "Green Girls," which actually started out as a script for the "Tales from the Dark Side" television series. ("My agent told me that if I got rid of the zombies, it would be a great thriller," he says. ) Published in 2002, that was also the thriller that "went missing" in William Morrow's network of warehouses — right before the publisher dropped him and pretty much soured Kimball on at least that dark corner of the industry. And that's when Joe Dominguez got ahold of him. Dominguez is, Kimball says, a "pilot who got involved in theater because he wanted access to his emotions." He was also trying to find someone to write a short play about the 350th anniversary of the founding of York — and the Pilgrim thugs who made it possible. Essentially Kimball said "yeah, yeahHe had just been through the wringer emotionally and professionally, and wasn't really in the moment. But he agreed to work on a script with Jennifer Saunders — "and give it a weekend," he says. He wrote a first draft. There were some problems, including the fact that he had written a whopping 47 characters. They eventually worked out all the kinks and came up with a manageable production — another long story — and staged three shows that may have lacked a certain professional quality, but the spirit was there, Kimball says. "And I was hooked."

Since then, he hasn't looked back. It's not the most secure or profitable of careers, necessitating a return to the classroom — not listening to rotten kids with their horrible squawking instruments, but as full-time faculty at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast master's program in creative writing. He says the playwrighting gig is "feast or famine," and that it's almost impossible to get original work staged these days, which may or may not be true, but he seems to be doing all right for himself: "Say No More" will have a short tour after completing its Firehouse run. “Say No More” will also be part of this year's New England Fringe Festival. His "Santa Come Home," which looks at how dysfunctional families celebrate Christmas, will be staged in November at the Players Ring in Portsmouth, N.H. (and which, like "I Fall for You," will be directed by Timothy Diering of Amesbury). An updated version of "Submit" will be staged at the Tavern Museum of Old York at 7 a.m. on Nov. 22, the time and date the deed was done — assuming he can get the actors up at that hour. Then there was the "Ghosts of Ocean House. Okay, score that in the "almost" category.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: "I Fall for You," a co-production of the Society for the Development of the Arts and Humanities and New York Theatre Company, runs Sept. 18 to 20 at the Firehouse, 1 Market Square, Newburyport. Tim Diering directs. The cast features Kathleen Anderson, David Houlden, Jack Rushton and Jennifer Wilson. Tickets are $15, or $13 for students and SDAH members. For information, call 978-462-7332 or click here.

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