Kev Berry is a playwright and solo performance artist participating in Art House's INKubator, a year-long generative new play program.
What was the first play or production you saw? What do you still remember about the experience?
Oh man. When I was a kid, I remember seeing Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. I am fairly certain I saw it twice, once with just me and my parents, and then again once my sister was old enough to start going to the theatre. I remember being wowed by the spectacle that Disney shows are known for, particularly by the magic involved with the Beast's transformation into the Prince at the end of the show. I don't know whether or not this is something I remember affecting me as a child or if this is a memory I have imprinted on that production as an adult but any time I think about BATB I think about the automation of the set, how seamlessly everything flowed, how clear the movement between sets delineated exactly where the audience was supposed to look at all times. In a play of mine, Babytalk, an adaptation of a notebook my mom kept of the funny things my sister and I said as we discovered language and the world around us, my mom writes that the first time I saw BATB was during a crazy thunderstorm. I like to think that the weather on my first Broadway outing affected how stormy my work would become later in life.
What play or production have you seen the most?
I saw SpongeBob SquarePants on Broadway 6 times. A queer, forward-thinking liberal musical with biceps and calves for days checks all the boxes for me. Further, I have a deep emotional connection to the cartoon, which helped my family get through the mourning process for my mom, who passed away when I was 7. I was lucky enough to be at the second preview for the Broadway adaptation, and then saw it over and over and over again and attended the final performance after one too many margaritas (almost 9 months on the wagon now, though!) and cried the entire time. I can't listen to the music without tearing up. The show was, is, and will always be church to me. Other shows: When I was abroad in London in 2014 I saw Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man 10 times in 6 months, and Simon Stephens' Birdland (starring Andrew Scott! so hot.) 11 times in 3 weeks.
Why are the arts important to you?
I want to make one person feel seen. If a single person over the course of a reading or run of one of my plays can identify some part of themselves in my work, point to a specific thing I wrote in one of my pieces and say "That's me" then I've done my job. While the academic side of me considers myself a bouffon-documentarian here to highlight how truly heinous gay men are to one another so that future generations might not be, I really like to think I'm here to make people feel less alone.
What is inspiring you right now? Who are you following?
My fav thing to talk about! Artists: my best friend Sarah Dinkelacker
is an incredible painter and her work moves me to tears, the pastry and dessert chefs at Balthazar never fail to stun me with their creations, I've been thinking a lot about Edward Hopper's paintings, and by nature of the project I'm making at Art House I've been wondering what the hell Vincent van Gogh would make of all of this. I've been watching Golden Girls
for the first time, which shocks a lot of people because I'm a professional fag and Sophia, Blanche, Dorothy, and Rose are prophets. I frequently rewatch Disney-Pixar movies and old SpongeBob
episodes. Greta Gerwig. Dolly Parton. Saeed Jones. Judith Butler. Edmund White. Elena Ferrante. Forster. Armistead Maupin.
Helen Shaw. bell hooks. Jordan Tannahill. ABBA. Max Richter. Jia Toletino. Billy Joel. That Nat Geo documentary-meets-absolute-
horror-movie Free Solo
. The Bon Appetit Test Kitchen. Heidi Schreck. Taylor Mac. Lucas Hnath. The list goes on and on.
What's the elevator pitch for the play you're working on in INKubator?
Vincent van Gogh is a disco remix of a history that's been swept under the rug. The play tells a version of the story of the 9 weeks that van Gogh spent living in the south of France with his lover/mentor Paul Gauguin, and those 9 weeks ended with Vincent cutting his own ear off. It's about queer legacy and what gets erased for the comfort of straight folks. It's fucking gay, and the music is all Sylvester and everyone talks like a 21st Century faggot. It's great. Hopefully.
What inspired you to write Vincent van Gogh?
Julie Orringer's beautiful novel The Flight Portfolio. It's about a little known WWII hero named Varian Fry whose queerness was also erased into the annals of history.
Where are you in the writing process for the play?
We're almost done with the first draft. There's a lot of anxiety for me at this point in the process. I'm in the 3rd quarter of a distance run of about 10 miles or so. After a strong start, miles 6 to 8 are always insanely hard because the finish line isn't quite in sight, but I know it's just around the next bend. So I know what I'm writing towards and aiming at, and it's just a matter of pushing through and pushing through the ribbon to finish the first draft.
What's your writing process like?
I never start a writing a full-length play without the following: a title, the music scheme for the play, and the last moment of the play. I consider myself a pretty adept giver-of-titles, so while I consider them working titles til a draft is done, they rarely change. I like my titles to let the audience know what they should be expecting going in. For Vincent van Gogh, I want them to think they're getting a standard biography so that when we subvert that expectation during the preshow and first moments of the play, it forces them to drop all preconceived notions of what they think might happen and more willfully come along on the bonkers ride with us. I never start without having music in mind, typically a combination of artists. In my play Peter I use Nico Muhly to provide tone, and weave Dolly Parton music in diagetically and use some of her lyrics to establish story. In Vincent van Gogh, we start with queer icon Sylvester's disco discography and slowly weave in French house DJ Gesaffelstein as Vincent's mental condition deteriorates. And as for the final moment: I always know what the last thing the audience sees before the lights go out is, so I have something to work towards and earn for myself. Typically, this involves the music and the lights and the set coming together for a big bombastic reveal, but in van Gogh, I'm aiming for something quieter.
Kev Berry is a New York-based playwright, solo performance artist, and creator of Gay mythologies. His work, both as a writer and performer, has been seen at The Tank, Joe's Pub, Feinstein’s/54 Below, 3-Legged Dog, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Judson Memorial Church, HERE Arts Center, New York Live Arts, the New Ohio Theatre, The Duplex, the Dramatists Guild Foundation, Dixon Place, The Brick Theater, Access Theater, Littlefield, The 9 Studios, Otto's Shrunken Head, The Cobra Club, Skidmore College, and across the harsh North Country of upstate New York. Kev is an Associate Artist at The Tank, a Full Access Resident Artist at Access Theater, the September 2018 Artist-in-Residence at Judson Memorial Church, a 2017 Artist-in-Residence with Fresh Ground Pepper, a January 2019 resident with Hot Bread, and the former Artistic Associate at 3LD. He serves as the curator and producer of Fast and Furious: Rapid Responses to Current Events at The Tank. His play Peter was a Semi-Finalist for the Princess Grace Award in 2019. His performance in Nadja Leonhard-Hooper and Dan Nuxoll’s Eat the Devil was recently hailed by the New York Times as “vehemently campy.” B.Sci. Theater, B.A. Gender Studies, Skidmore College.