Interview with IRON KISSES playwright James Still


Playwright James Still, then and now.

Theatre Above the Law’s ensemble member Bailey Castle (Barbara in the upcoming production of Iron Kisses) had the opportunity to email playwright James Still about family intricacies, artistic inspiration, and ice cream. Continue reading for the full interview!

Theatre Above the Law: Hi James! Where are you originally from? How long did you live there before moving away? 

James Still: I grew up in small towns in Kansas.  My dad was a high school basketball coach and American History teacher… so we moved a few times (depending on whether or not the basketball team was winning or losing…) — but from second grade onward we lived in a tiny town of 800 people -- Pomona, Kansas.

I moved away right after high school graduation.  But all of my family is in Kansas and I try to go back 2-3 times a year to see so many people I love.  

TATL: How many siblings (if any) do you have? If you'd like to share, how was your relationship with them when you were younger? How has it changed over the years?

JS: I’m the oldest of three. [I have a] sister who is 3 years younger, brother who is 10 years younger

Relationship with my sister, probably typical:  we fought a lot, I was probably mean to her too often, but we got through all of that and remain very close.  She was the first person in my family I came out to.  I’m close to her kids.  I think my sister is amazing. My brother:  he was so much younger so he was like my little baby, and I moved out when he was 8… but we are also close in a different way, and I’m very close to his three daughters.  I think my brother is amazing.

As siblings, we are very different from one another.  

My sister has had a career working in the V.A. hospital system and is an advocate and fighter for children who are able-challenged.

My brother was an All-State basketball player, a college player, and has had a career as a foreman working with trees and power lines in urban communities.  He also coaches multiple teams at all times -- all in girl's sports (his three daughters).

I admire both of my siblings for their parenting of their children as well.

TATL: Are there any other artists/playwrights in your family? 

JS: Nope.  I used to think about that a lot (as in, “How the hell did this happen? Who am I?”).  but two things I can share that has broadened my understanding of who I am as an artist.  I’ve come to think about what we do in the theater is more about invention and making meaning, listening to and telling stories.

One of my grandmas was a prize-winning quilter.  I understand now that in her way my grandma was an artist — her quilts told story, they had structure and design, she was making meaning out of scraps of fabric.  I own one of her quilts -- made up of scraps from my dad's baby clothes.  I treasure her quilt like the piece of art that is is (and have hung it on walls like a painting at various houses I've lived in).

And I’ve just learned that my great-great grandpa was a shoemaker in the rural village in Norway where he lived before coming to the U.S. in the 1880s.  So he was an artist too.  He made things — and shoes tell a story their own kinds of stories. 

Like many in the Midwest, my family had its roots in farming.   When my grandpas both had to get out of farming for financial reasons, they both went to work at the same factory on an assembly line.  My grandmothers were mothers and farmers and did other part-time work.  My parents were the first generation to leave the farm; dad was a coach/teacher, my mom was a banker. 

TATL: Would you say that you look more like your father or your mother?

JS: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question by the press.  Hmmm.  When I was growing up people said I looked like my dad.  As I’ve grown older I’ve come to think I look very much like a combination of my mom and dad.  

TATL: Is there a gesture or speech cadence you've inherited from the elders in your family? 

JS: Probably when I was younger and living at home or close to home — I probably had more gestures and vocal rhythms that mirrored the people I grew up with.  But once I left Kansas I lived in Chicago for a couple of wonderful years, then New York for many years, and now I’ve been in Los Angeles for even more many years (with a couple of years in Seattle, and lots of time in Italy)… so I’m probably a big buffet of gestures and dialect now.  

I do think about some of my elders’ expressions, the ways they used language, the poetry of the Midwest — all of those things have had a deep impact on me as a writer.

TATL: I read that each scene has it's own title. Why did you decide to name the entire piece Iron Kisses and not one of the other titles/something completely different? 

JS: When I started writing IRON KISSES, it was supposed to be a 10-minute monologue.  I had been commissioned by People’s Light & Theatre Company in Philadelphia to write this short piece for a festival they were doing… I had this idea about a guy playing both his mom and dad dealing with their gay son's wedding announcement .. halfway through writing what would eventually become the first scene in a longer play, I knew there was a second piece (a companion piece) that would be the same parents but from the sister’s POV… and then as I was writing that, I realized there was yet another piece that would make this a full-length play.  I knew after spending time with two actors playing their own parents, that I was going to be hungry to then see the two actors play themselves as brother/sister and I wondered what would be the occasion of that scene… I didn’t have a clue (consciously) though I think subconsciously I must have known all along I was writing toward what would become IRON KISSES.

Each of the three parts have separate titles because I liked thinking of them as chapter in this bit of family history for the characters.  Naming each part made each part feel legitimate to me as a full and important story to be shared.

TATL: Where were you in your artistic journey when you began writing Iron Kisses ?

JS: Hmmm…. artistic journey.  I don’t think of my life that way — and even though I am not my work, obviously my work is a huge part of my life and identity.  IRON KISSES came at a time when I was writing lots of other projects — I had to put the play down for awhile because I had another big commission with deadlines that needed my attention.  But I kept my iRON KISSES play-in-progress next to me in bed and I invited myself to dream about the play when I’d sleep and in some ways I think the third part wrote itself in my dreams.  For example, I had a dream about that receipt that said “Happiness is what you can bear…”  — that was my dream.  It was just the image of finding a receipt with that hand-written phrase on it… I have no idea why or where the image/phrase came from but I woke up and scribble that down in my notebook and sleepily wondered, “What the fuck does that mean???”  And of course Billy and Barbara wonder the same thing.  But I love the mystery of that little phrase — that happiness sometimes costs something, and that we can only be as happy as we can bear to be.  I like getting lost in what that might mean.

And this gets at another thing about the play — people always want to know if the play is autobiographical.  Yes and no.  There are parts that I definitely drew directly from my own life or my observations about the situation.  But much of it is made possible by the characters themselves — their energies and formidable insistence that I tell their stories.

TATL: What inspires you the most?   

JS: I am inspired and drawn to so many different things big and small.  I don’t look for inspiration — I find that if I stay true to my own curiosity, and that if I’m in pursuit of meaning, that I’ll be inspired.  But honestly, I can be inspired by silence, by another artist’s work, by a beautifully prepared meal, by a kiss on the forehead, by a child’s fearlessness, by a stranger’s attention, by the landscapes of Kansas and the landscapes of Tuscany.  I can be inspired by my hometown, Los Angeles and all of its stories, its history.  I can be inspired by a delicious sentence, by its words and the sounds they make.  I am definitely inspired by beauty, by something that’s beautiful — but then we have to have a conversation about what’s beautiful!  My point is that there is no shortage of inspiration (or beauty) to notice, to be moved by, to be changed by, to want to know more about…

TATL: Do you have a favorite topic or theme to write about? 

JS: Nope.  Not consciously.  The closest thing I can say would be based on what I sense when I look at my body of work — and the plays tell me I’ve almost always written about The Outsider, about The Other… I’m drawn to those stories — probably because I felt like such an outsider when I was growing up (even though I had community and felt loved).  Connected to all that is my interest in social justice, to my own activism — how to write about it and also how to live in ways that actively work to change what I view as injustice.  I've done a lot of community-based work, immersing myself in Listening Projects with various communities and then making a play inspired by that experience of being a listener.  

I've also written a bunch of stuff directly inspired by history -- either particular historic figures, or historical footnotes -- stories that have been lost to us for some reason... and those projects require a deep research immersion before I can write a single line of the play.  But in terms of how I come to write what I finally write:  I don’t choose what I write based on topic or theme — I write what I write because I’ve lived with the idea/feeling for awhile and can’t shake the feeling.  It’s what my plays are so different from one another — I’m driven by my curiosity, not my ambition.

TATL: And finally, I have to ask: Favorite ice cream flavor? toppings? 

JS: Not an ice cream eater.  Gelato, yes.  And there’s a particular place to get gelato in Florence that has Black Sesame gelato and when I’m there I have to have it every day.  Every single day.

I grew up with homemade ice cream — again my grandmothers, and with the old hand-cranked kind of ice cream freezers so the grandkids would get to help make the ice cream.  I don’t eat ice cream much now because I’ve never had anything that tasted as good as my grandma’s home made ice cream.

Iron Kisses runs from April 5th - April 28th

For Tickets Click HERE

A special thank-you to James Still for his openness, and opening our eyes to Black Sesame Gelato.