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Front And Center: Our Q&A with Playwright & Musician Jim Knable

So…I met Jim Knable a rather long time ago (I’m not sure exactly when, but it was over ten years back); we were both taking the Metro-North train up to Connecticut and fell to talking, the way people sometimes do, and ended up chatting for an hour or so, about books and music and such. He gave me a copy of his band’s latest CD and in exchange, I gifted him with the paperback copy of the Iris Murdoch novel I’d finished reading. I don’t remember all that much of our conversation except that I thought he was interesting and kind. I played the CD a few times, years back, and had just about entirely forgotten meeting him…until the other morning, when was listening to music in my kitchen while getting my kids breakfast (I’d finally uploaded all of my CDs onto itunes and had it on shuffle). What was that? Oh, I remember meeting Jim. I wonder if he’s still making music?

Well, thanks to Google and social media, he was pretty easy to find. I got back in touch, assured him that I wasn’t a stalker (if I were, I’d be the world’s most inefficient one), learned that he’s keeping quite active in the arts, and suggested that we meet up again, this time for an interview. Good sport that he is, he agreed to meet me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (close to his day job), and after I explored the John Singer Sargent special exhibit, and visited the impressionists, he showed up at the museum, and we shared a snack and some white wine over at the American Wing Café. Here’s what he had to say.

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Jim Knable

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Date: September 17, 2015
Hometown: Sacramento, California
Current town: Brooklyn–the edge of Park Slope. (The edgy part of Park Slope.)
Occupation: playwright, songwriter, musician, novelist, teacher, man about town

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You have been doing many different creative pursuits over the years; what is the best example of your work for people unfamiliar with it?

That’s a really hard question. Something that’s practical and easy to get ahold of and representative enough: I’d say it’s my three-play collection, published by Samuel French. They’re older plays of mine. Collectively, they’re called the Imaginary Plays. And as for music, my band’s recent-ish CD (from 2009), Golden Arrow. It’s well produced and it’s similar to the kind of music I’m still writing.

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What kind of work do you enjoy doing the most?

The most enjoyable thing is to play songs with other people in front of an audience.

How often do you do that?

Not enough. Lately I’ve been doing solo gigs and they’re not as fun.

I also really like writing the plays; production of plays is sometimes a good experience, but the playwright is a bit powerless sitting in the audience.

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So do you act or work in the theater in any way (besides writing plays)? Theater has got to be one of the most collaborative types of creative work there is. Has anyone taken your work in a direction that surprised you?

I acted in high school and college. I was a Theater Studies major. Earlier, when I was in high school, I wrote a one-act play, and gave it to an actress for a festival. The director took some liberties in my absence. I realized after that, that I need to be involved in the production whenever possible. Especially if it’s the first production.

What play of yours has been produced the most often?

Spain (which is one of the Imaginary Plays); along with being produced in New York at MCC Theater and regionally at places like Woolly Mammoth Theatre, it’s had various college and graduate school productions. It’s also been anthologized, so more people find it. I’d like to get the other two plays in that collection to be as well known, not to mention the couple of dozen or so other plays I’ve written. My play Green Man just had a very nice production at a theater in the LA area called STAGEStheatre, so I have high hopes.

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Green-Man-with-Guitar-playing-Genice-from-STAGEStheatre-2015
STAGEStheater Production of Green Man with Guitar, 2015

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What do you find inspiring when creating art?

Probably, other forms of art that exist. Historical characters I find fascinating. Elevating a character to a godlike status, making his or her dialogue worthy of being ritualized night after night. Worthy of being repeated and examined.

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What’s next? What are you currently working on?

On October 4, there are a couple of public performances in Forest Hills, Queens of the children’s opera my composer brother Sunny Knable and I wrote. It’s called The Magic Fish. It’s performed by professional opera singers for kids and it’s very funny with some beautiful music. My next writing project is a creative adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play called Man of Destiny. It’s about Napoleon at age 27. I’m doing a new take on it; removing extra baggage, exploring the character’s brutal and ridiculous nature, adding some emotion and sexiness to it.

Is Man of Destiny in the public domain, then?

Yes, it’s from 1898. There is a George Bernard Shaw estate; I plan to get in touch with them. I think they’ll like what I’m doing with the play.

Tell us more about it…I’m familiar with Major Barbara and Man and Superman and Pygmalion, and so on, but I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of this one.

There are only four characters: Napoleon, his lieutenant (who is kind of stupid), the Italian innkeeper at the inn where Napoleon is waiting for the lieutenant to show up, and a mysterious lady, whose motivations are unclear. It’s about ambition and how a character like Napoleon is willing to go whole hog with it where most of the rest of us just dip our toes in.

When is this one going to be done?

I was commissioned to do this by an up and coming independent producer, and we’re going to put it in on in January of 2016 at  a small kombucha factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. First there will be a kombucha tasting, then the play, and then there’s going to be a rave.

That sounds very Brooklyn. And very weird. Then again, it could be great.

The producer is trying to bring theater to unusual places: hotels, vineyards, retail establishments; there’s all this space that isn’t being used all the time.

I think I’m too old to go to a rave, though.

You can just come to the kombucha tasting and the play and skip the end of it if you have to. Or hang out for a little while and talk about the play and the kombucha while listening to music. The beverage company is called Mombucha because it’s inspired by the founder’s hippie mother’s kombucha obsession, so that should inspire you to feel young!

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Half Moon Theater Production of The Magic Fish, 2012

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What’s a book everyone should read?

Hamlet.

Should everyone read Hamlet or should they see Hamlet?

Well, part of seeing it should be reading it, and vice versa. It’s a play that almost everyone can get something out of, from the ideas that come out of it to tracing inspiration that other writers have found in it. And it dates from the early 1600s! There’s such value to Shakespeare. He’s the most produced playwright ever. Playwrights love him and we hate him, but we have to deal with him. The way that songwriters have to deal with Bob Dylan.

Even today, after naturalism and with movies, we still tolerate a lot of strangeness in theater. Why?

Theater is a center for exploration. In plays by Shakespeare, the actors are aware that there’s an audience to see them and the audience is aware that they’re watching actors. Naturalism in the theater didn’t come about until Ibsen and Chekhov and Strindberg invented it. That was new, revolutionary: attempting to create something realistic on stage, without any theatrical artificialities.

People start singing and dancing and acting larger than life, and we know we’re watching a play, and at the same time we’re really emotionally caught up in the story. I guess I have a problem with the idea of “suspension of disbelief”: either way, at a play, or at a movie, whether it’s a fantastic story or realistic, the audience knows what they’re doing. They’re watching a performance.

I am thinking to the early days of cinema, there is a claim made that an old movie, which showed a train coming head on to the audience, caused people to panic. But I’d say they were scared the same way that a modern audience is afraid of a horror film. No one thinks Freddy Krueger is really going to come after them.

Right, the audience isn’t stupid!

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What’s a movie you’d recommend?

The Breakfast Club. Because it manages to remain timeless. It should be dated.

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Traveling: what has been your best travel experience?

This summer I took an epic European family vacation.

Like Chevy Chase?

Not like Chevy Chase.   Well, maybe like Vacation, not like European Vacation. We stayed with family and friends. We mostly stayed in Innsbruck, Austria, where my sister-in-law lives, and took day trips from there. The highlight was an amusement park in Vienna— the Prater, which has this gigantic Ferris wheel (which was featured in the movie The Third Man) and a great locals-only Biergarten.   And we also spent time in London and Dusseldorf, visiting very close friends and their children.

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If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?

Well, I wouldn’t want to go back now…it’s the time traveler’s dilemma: I have kids who I love and I had to get them by going through everything else! But maybe grad school right after undergrad wasn’t the best idea.

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What’s something most people don’t know about you?

How excited I am that Daniel Craig is James Bond. What I enjoyed about the books (as a 6th and 7th grader) wasn’t the gadgets; it was the damaged human being behind them. I’d love if they remade The Spy Who Loved Me and actually followed Ian Fleming’s original story; it’s written from a woman’s perspective and James Bond only really comes in at the end, in a hotel room gunfight after the protagonist has had several other lovers.

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What’s your strangest phobia or superstition?

I do “knock on wood.” I don’t know why. It can’t hurt.

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Do you have a favorite celebrity?

Dick Cavett. I saw him at the 92nd Street Y. He just happened to be there for a lecture in the audience, and then he stood up and asked the most insightful question.

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What’s the funniest or worst thing that happened to you this week?

Today I was doing a community service project with my tenth grade students at a senior center, and we met the guy who was the agent for Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, and Chris Rock, and he was awesome.

That’s really cool! Did the students know who those comedians were?

They did! They’re all from the Upper East or Upper West Side.

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What recommendations do you have for young musicians and writers today?

It’s simple advice, but be open to being inspired by everything outside of your medium. Playwriting can be inspired by architecture, not just reading plays. Look for subject matter for songs outside of songwriting.

Have you done songs about playwriting? Or plays about songwriting?

To some extent, yes, and yes, in that I’ve had plays that feature songwriters and songs that reference what it’s like to be a playwright.

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Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?

Yes! Check out my website. Come check out The Magic Fish if you have kids or just plain like fun opera productions. Come see my crazy adaptation of George Bernard Shaw in Brooklyn this January. And buy and produce my Imaginary Plays and all the other plays I’ve ever written! Oh, and give me a great excuse to put The Randy Bandits back together for a new album and reunion concert! I’m also open to and very interested in discussing your life.

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Jim had to run home to relieve the babysitter, but I had a little more time on my hands, so I wandered over to the Temple of Dendur and checked out the Egyptian art, making sure to pay a visit to William the hippopotamus. And now Jim and I are Facebook friends, so we can make sure it won’t be another decade before getting together and talking about art again…

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Images Courtesy of Jim Knable

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Other Q&As By Laura LaVelle

Alexi Auld, author

* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council

* Eric Bennett, author

Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts

* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist

* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa

Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter

* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur

* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum

* Camilla Huey, artist, designer

* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor

Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor

* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department

* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51

* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator

* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate

* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library

* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York

* Jibrail Nor, drummer

* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America

* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes

* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program

* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer

* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator

* Patrick Smith, author and pilot

* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app

* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher

* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion

* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino