EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Wendy Kout, Playwright

Wendy Kout has a vast array of credits, including stage, film, TV, and print. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Skylight Theatre Company in Los Angeles and has co-produced fundraisers for The Nation, People for the American Way, National Women’s Law Center and Acid Survivors Trust International.  She is based in Santa Barbara, California, Wendy considers home to be on the road with her beshert, Dennis Koenig.

You currently reside in Santa Barbara, CA.  Is this your hometown, or did you grow up elsewhere?

I was born in Chicago, and since then I have been a wandering Jew.  The world is my home.   My darling mate and favorite male writer, Dennis Koenig, and I try to spend at least a month at a time in a new place so we can live like locals and delve deeper into the culture and the people. Every destination has been rewarding and enriching.  However, it is most gratifying to go where I have family and friends.  I’m thrilled that many of them from around the country will be joining me in the Twin Cities for this world premiere.

Was there a defining moment when you thought or felt, “I want to be a writer!”

I was blessed with having the world’s most supportive parents and brother.  They saw this imaginative child, and encouraged me to express myself, and not just in writing.  My folks even hung my artwork on the wall as if it were the Louvre… and I am a terrible artist.  I didn’t have that “aha!” moment of wanting to be a writer.  Thanks to my family, I felt I was born a writer.  They honored my gift long before the world did.

Your works tend to be comedic in nature.  Is this your style of writing?

It’s more than my style – it’s who I am and how I see the world.   I was raised in a family where humor was as important as food on the table.  As I began to find my voice as a writer, the humor was already there.   So, the challenge has been the weaving of what is dramatic and tragic into my work.  We Are the Levinsons, like life, is laughter and tears.

How did Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company come to be producing We Are the Levinsons?

I have Ralph Meranto, Artistic Director of JCC CenterStage Theatre in Rochester, NY, to thank for that.  Ralph produced the world premiere of my first solo written play, Naked in Encino, and has been a champion and friend ever since.  When I completed my first draft of We Are the Levinsons, I sent it to Ralph for his feedback and then wrote the next draft – which had a private reading in Los Angeles, thanks to another champion and friend, Tony Abatemarco, Interim Artistic Director of Skylight Theatre Company.  That reading led to another, much closer, draft, which I sent back to Ralph.  Some writers call this "development hell".  For me, it was "development heaven".  I was finding my play with the guidance of very experienced and supportive theater artists.   On June 20, 2016, Ralph sent me an email.  His colleague, Barbara Brooks, the Artistic Director of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, had written to him seeking a play to complete her upcoming season.  Ralph suggested she read We Are the Levinsons.  Barbara read the play, and that very day she expressed interest – that’s how fast things can happen!  (But usually don't.)   The development journey continued with Barbara's guidance.  She brought in dramaturg, Hayley Finn, to work with me, and Kurt Schweickhardt to direct; they have both brought clarity and contribution.  It takes a village to raise a child... and a new play.   Or, in the case of We Are the Levinsons, it takes a shtetl.   My gratitude to all who have brought my “child” home, and to my parents and brother, who encouraged this child to write... and laugh.

What was the inspiration or impetus for We Are the Levinsons?

The inspiration was my parents’ final chapter.  I had moved back to LA to be there and was there when they each took their last breath.   I knew even when living those three challenging years that someday I would write about it – and so did my parents.  An example from my mom:  “Ok, the bad news is I fell and broke my arm.  The good news is it’ll make a great story for you someday.” 

How did you develop the character of Grace, the transgender woman caregiver?

Everyone adored my father.  He was so kind, funny and generous, but he was a flawed mensch.  He was ironically a closet homophobe.  Never mean or hurtful to a soul, but Pop had his prejudices. After my mom died, his first caregiver was a Filipino gay man.   I watched the friendship that ultimately developed between them and how my father, in the final months, was growing.  The capacity for change, even as an elder in the face of death, was something I wanted to share.

What do you hope the MJTC, and future audiences, takes away from We Are the Levinsons?

When we come to any kind of art – we bring our own prism.   In theater, some may relate more to a particular character or resonate with a particular theme.   So future audience members will take away what they each individually experience.   But if there is anything I hope everyone feels after this play, it’s the celebration and preciousness of life… and laughter.

If you could only have one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Veggie pizza and an excellent gin martini, straight up with three olives.  Recommendations for where I can get both in the Twin Cities are greatly appreciated, as is the opportunity to launch this new work at MJTC.

I would like the MJTC audience and supporters to understand how important it is, and how grateful I am, that Barbara took on a new play.  It is much safer to produce an established hit that everyone is excited to see.  To take on a new work is an act of courage and true patronage of the arts.   As a people we honor our past, but we also need our new stories told from our living writers.