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Bending the Word / MATRIX 226

Interview with Kevin Killian

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Karla Milosevich and Kevin Killian onstage in the play Celebrity Hospital, 2007.

Beyond the gallery, Bending the Word includes a performance of the ensemble drama Love Can Build a Bridge, masterminded by San Francisco poet, playwright, and novelist Kevin Killian, who co-authored the play with Karla Milosevich. Following are excerpts from a recent conversation with Killian.

Elizabeth Thomas: Love Can Build a Bridge should play well to fans of minimalism, country music, psychological thrillers, and endurance-based performance art, featuring as it does Donald Judd, Naomi Judd, Ashley Judd, and Ulay and Marina Abramovic. Do you think there’s a lot of overlap in that Venn diagram?

Kevin Killian: There is near-total overlap once you put it that way. Country music is notoriously minimal, and for some it is an endurance-based performance art; while in our play we tried to show that Ashley Judd’s addiction to psychological thrillers is probably based on some sort of reaction against her mother’s and sister’s success in another field. Even if something is minimal, it comes with its own opposite, especially in West Texas, where our play is laid.

ET: Can you give us a précis of the action?

KK: Love Can Build a Bridge takes place in Marfa, Texas, as Donald Judd’s kin start arriving from far-flung places on the morning after his death. They descend on their old drinking spot, Roy’s Cotton Club, with its two windows overlooking Donald Judd’s art farm. They are a motley crew—Donald’s estranged wife Naomi Judd and their chubby daughter Wynonna; Ashley Judd, a bitter Hollywood action star battling her addiction to Morgan Freeman; Judd Nelson, Judd’s illegitimate son brought up by Native peoples and practicing secret Indian rainmaking ceremonial rituals; the artists Richard Serra and Ulay and Marina Abramovic, habitués—or prisoners?—of Judd’s legendary art colony; and Ben Gage, his big-city lawyer concealing a terrible secret. In one corner of the bar a mysterious stranger nurses a Roy-jito, Roy’s own twist on the Mojito that involves a twist of cotton floating above the rim of the glass. Who is this wandering stranger and why is she smiling and sobbing?

ET: Do you write your plays with specific artists and other local characters in mind for specific roles?

KK: Yes, that’s half the fun. Many of the poets and artists involved in the San Francisco Poets Theater are wonderful actors, in a specialized sense that doesn’t really involve acting per se. Indeed, when I use regular actors it’s almost always a recipe for disaster. Recently a new face in our plays was overwhelmed when Rex Ray and Cliff Hengst, his co-stars, complimented his acting. “Because wow, they’re such great actors!” he said. I kept thinking, but what they’re doing isn’t acting as such, it’s star acting, which is very different, and very preferable if you are what I am. Otherwise, it’s fun to see artists explore other sides of their personalities.

ET: This is a revival of the play; are there any interesting anecdotes about its initial run in San Francisco?

KK: This was the first play that Karla Milosevich and I wrote together, and we thought of it first of all as a memory play, for Karla is from the sort of small-town West Texas countryside that Robert Caro wrote about in those books about the childhood of Lyndon B. Johnson; and secondarily as a showcase for our leading lady, the poet Norma Cole, who was to play Naomi Judd. But a stroke felled Norma for the moment and the artist and archivist Tanya Hollis dramatically stepped up and went on with the show. So we were all backstage in a prayer circle praying for Norma’s return to health—and prayer works, because she’s fine now! A team of talented artists created a whole Western set of a saloon interior complete with those swinging doors you push open with your drawn pistols—always a crowd-pleasing effect. Karla filmed some video sequences with her former teacher George Kuchar as Donald Judd; you’ll see them in this revival.

Elizabeth Thomas
Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator

The MATRIX Program at the UC Berkeley Art Museum is made possible by a generous endowment gift from Phyllis C. Wattis.

Additional donors to the MATRIX Program include the UAM Council MATRIX Endowment, Jane and Jeffrey Green, Joachim and Nancy Bechtle, Rena Bransten, Maryellen and Frank Herringer, Noel and Penny Nellis, James Pick and Rosalyn Laudati, Barclay and Sharon Simpson, Roselyne C. Swig, Paul L. Wattis III, Penelope Cooper and Rena Rosenwasser, Paul Rickert, and other generous donors.