It’s Clubbed Thumb’s 20th Summerworks, the annual June play fest at the core of this downtown theater company that’s all about the “funny, strange, and provocative.”
Playwright Kate E. Ryan’s Card and Gift, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, is the middle child of this year’s three works—which is not to say there’s any Jan Brady syndrome here. Ryan is an affiliated playwright with Clubbed Thumb, which produced her twice before: Dot in Summerworks 2010, and her professional debut, Design Your Kitchen (2003).
Funny, strange, provocative—Kate Ryan is. In Dot, the title character is an elderly woman at a 1980s-era Florida retirement home; her sister Linda is an aging nightclub singer, who gets Dot crooning, “Your butt gets bony / It’s not sexy at all.” Ryan’s earlier play Mark Smith (2006), also developed with and directed by Ken Schmoll, consists almost entirely of monologues about, well, Mark Smith, a washed-up rock star, delivered by citizens of Greenetown Township to an unseen, inept documentarian.
“Kate has this wonderfully odd voice. It’s filled with compassion, but is also hilarious,” says Clubbed Thumb’s Producing Artistic Director Maria Striar. “Her writing reminds me of the best short stories. Or Japanese ink drawing—she makes strong brush strokes.”
In her current Card and Gift, Ryan turns to her native New Hampshire, to a mom-and-pop gift shop (mom and pop are now dead) in a sagging northern resort town. It’s presidential primary time, and candidate Diana Boss wants to solve our country’s troubles by baking cookies. And yet, in Ryan’s script, we can’t entirely dismiss Boss’s message, or the unlikely trio of women keeping the gift shop afloat.
I caught up with Ryan while she was in rehearsal for Card and Gift, which runs June 4 – 14 at the East Village’s Wild Project.
Kathryn Walat (Rail): It seems that many playwrights now are working in a realistic, even ultra-realistic mode. And while Card and Gift does have a kind of slice-of-life quality, it feels like this oddball, maybe even magical, world. Was that setting the beginning of the play for you?
Kate Ryan: I began with the character of Annette, a woman in middle age who, because of the experiences she’s had, has been pretty removed from dialogue surrounding the empowerment of women. I became interested in her changing her life radically, from that of a mother/housewife/teacher to the devotee of a female political candidate.
From there I developed Annette’s childhood friend, Lila, with whom she’s reunited when she starts working at Lila’s parents’ old gift shop. Lila has left this small town for many years, but she too hasn’t found happiness. I like juxtaposing her crossroads moment with Annette’s: Lila is coming back, and Annette is venturing out. And the idea of high stakes for these women in their 50s. Their lives do matter. Their fulfillment is important, and they fight for it.
From Card and Gift:
Teaching is the worst job in the world. You’re underpaid, you’re overworked. And who appreciates you? (She gets distracted by some figurines.) Bunnies! Are these new?
What I was going to say is that earlier today we had Jerry Sacks come in...and you told him that we don’t sell gift tags but that’s not true. They’re right here.
Gosh! I’m sorry...
Things will pick up later in the summer. While we have downtime can you please get to know—
I’m a sucker for the figurines, you know that. I have 84 Christmas elves now, did I tell you? My niece just sent one up from Virginia, a tiny little guy—(She stops herself.) I’ll try to do better. I’m still learning...
I am glad, you know, that you’re here. My parents left this place in quite a state.
Rail: And then there’s Shana, just out of college, who comes to work at the shop for the summer. She’s at a crossroads too.
Ryan: I think Shana tries to learn something from Annette and Lila, but because of how they all relate to one another, that’s hard. I wanted to write about women trying to pass along life wisdom to one another. But every time I tried to write scenes in which Annette and Lila do that, it felt forced, so the play involves a lot of attempts and missed moments, which feels more truthful.
I also wanted to write about the choice and benefits of living in a small town, away from the perceived center of things. And how remote areas have their own centers. The director, Ken Schmoll, sometimes talks about how the play has layers of exposure. There’s the capsule of the gift shop, then the town, then New Hampshire, then America, then the world.
Snow globes come up a lot in the play. They capture places, and serve as souvenirs of experience, but they’re so limited by their form—they’re literally enclosed worlds. I think plays are like that, too.
Rail: You quote Sarah Palin on the character page of your script (along with Drew Barrymore and William Shakespeare). Was Palin a model for Diana Boss, the politician in the play?
Ryan: Early on I was interested in writing about a “regular woman” who becomes a major political figure, like Palin did. Diana Boss is more informed than Sarah Palin, and her political message is wildly different, but what they share are those “regular person” or maternal characteristics. I appreciate the idea of someone coming from outside the system and entering the political ring, using their folksy wisdom to purify politics. How noble but naïve that is.
I’m also interested in how the aggressive, insensitive behavior that’s often successful in business environments can have negative effects when brought into our homes. The Diana Boss message is a reversal of that: how nurturing behavior that contributes to happy families works in a leadership role. Why is it embarrassing to hear a politician say the things Diana Boss does?
If a candidate talked about peace, love, and understanding as the focus of their platform, would they be admired? How—or why—do we have to harden ourselves, in order to be successful leaders?
From Gift and Card:
How many times have you heard a politician talk about love? Not many, I bet.
(Softly laughing.) No.
And yet I feel it’s exactly what’s been missing from our political discourse. We need to start being open about what’s missing and we need to start that right now: it’s love.
(Out loud, again.) Yes.
Love that, frankly, women have been giving to their families and their communities for ages. We just need to expand that to include all the people within our nation, other countries, the world. Our experience is extremely valuable in this culture of violence, of corruption—
But I’m still curious, how would your message of love translate to a situation involving, say, ISIS?
It’s all a case-by-case basis. With a terrorist organization, sure. You need to be a bit tougher. But in general, you need to show, you know, kindness, and caring. And maybe—you bring cookies. I’m not joking.
(ANNETTE is tickled.)
Rail: Card and Gift looks at something so huge—national politics—in such a sidelong way, from the perspective of the characters at this gift shop. Looking at something, while not looking directly at it, reminds me of your play Mark Smith (produced by 13P in 2006), where we hear about the title character but don’t see him until late in the play, in an anticlimactic way.
Ryan: Whenever I’ve tried to write directly about an issue or idea, it feels boring to me, like I’m missing out on all kinds of details and don’t really know what I’m talking about. Very rarely in life do we understand a situation fully. I like the point of view of an eavesdropper, exploring a situation from points of view that aren’t all-knowing. It’s a bit like the unreliable narrator in fiction.
In Mark Smith I was exploring the idea that the documentarian hired to make this piece about a former rock star isn’t actually so interested in the subject at hand. She’s more interested in the people she interviews who knew Mark when he was a kid, used to date him, taught him music—and the details of their lives.
That reflects my own interests, but also expressed my frustration at that time with mass culture’s rejection of more personal, idiosyncratic art forms. That’s actually changed in the last 10 years with the Internet and all the ways it offers for people to be creative.
Rail: Tell me about the two moments you have in the play—where we see Lila and Annette as suddenly very old, and in the other moment, Shana as very young. What was your impulse for those?
Ryan: Right—those are maybe the most theatrical moments in this play. And I like how you said earlier that this world might be magical. I think that within the confines of the gift shop walls, Lila, Annette, and Shana are in a sort of suspended reality. Customers aren’t coming in. They’re trying to make sense of objects that are from the past. And they’re trying to communicate, but I’m not sure how much they can really connect.
In that moment, Shana suddenly sees Lila and Annette as very elderly women, which, for her, feels like a frightening future view of herself. But it also cracks something open that makes her more compassionate. In rehearsal, we talked about how when Shana first comes to work at the shop, she sees Lila and Annette as “old ladies.” Then she gets to know them, and that idea becomes more complicated.
Lila is grieving the loss of her parents, who used to own the shop, and trying to figure out how she can make this place—which was her world as a kid—into a place that’s viable in the future. In the second moment, when Shana suddenly becomes a mean little girl like the customers who bothered Lila when she was a child, Lila has to deal with some real emotions from the past.
Rail: I enjoy the dark and serious discussion of snow globes in the play. Do you have a favorite gift shop item?
Ryan: In gift shops I like reading greeting cards. I’m interested in the sometimes awkward, sometimes hackneyed, sometimes eloquent expressions of feeling that somebody sat down and wrote so other people wouldn’t have to express their feelings through their own words. And if you’re buying a greeting card you have to choose your expression of real feeling for someone from a limited selection. Maybe they don’t have one that’s the right fit, but you’re expected to choose one anyway.
Rail: Good thing plays aren’t that way; at least your plays aren’t. With Gift and Card you’ve managed to capture these characters’ feelings with such specificity and nuance. The fit is right.
Card and Gift by Kate E. Ryan, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, runs June 4 – 14 at the East Village’s Wild Project. For tickets and further info visit: www.clubbedthumb.org.
KATHRYN WALAT is a playwright whose latest work is Small Town Values, inspired by Wilder's Our Town.