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LAist Interview: Playwright Kyle T. Wilson, Writer of "Walking Into Traffic"

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Ever wonder how your local news anchor could read the horrifying details of the latest terrorist attack, natural disaster or political scandal without breaking down and screaming their head off? Playwright, Kyle T. Wilson did, and penned a very funny play in the process, “Walking Into Traffic.”Directed by Chris Covics who was recently named one of the top ten artists to watch in Los Angeles by L.A. Stage Magazine, “Walking into Traffic” is a humorous look at the media and the effect it has on our culture.

Kyle took some time to speak with LAist about this fast paced comedy that can be seen at the Unknown Theater and stars Unknown Theaterensemble members Ed Dyer, Todd Gallahan, Sasha Harris, Kyle Ingleman, Shelby Janes, Craig Johnson, Joe Nicchi, and Goreti da Silva.

What was the inspiration for "Walking Into Traffic"?
I guess the most specific inspiration would be last year's news cycle. The Israeli, Hezbollah, bombing campaign really impacted me for some reason. I listen to the radio everyday, that's where I get the bulk of my news. While listening I just had this idea of this woman breaking down while reading the news. It really is amazing me to how stoic and monotone newsreaders can be while reading such horrific news. From there I had to come up with who would be on the other end listening to this, and I came up with the Bart (played by Dyer) character

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Do you feel that Los Angeles is the perfect setting for this story?
Yes actually. I think Los Angeles is particularly interesting. You have traffic, the weather, bad cell phone reception. These are all things that are central to LA that frustrate these characters. These things plus living in LA in general allows ourselves to be held back from communicating and relating with other people. I think all cities have those predicaments, but I live in LA so I experience this first hand everyday. In particular, we have a bit about losing cell phone reception. Chris the director and I were having a phone conversation about the direction of the play and we were both consistently losing cell phone reception. Chris jokingly said, “This would make for a good bit for the play,” I say jokingly because that exact bit was already written into the play. One of the things that drives this play is the intersection of political and personal, and the ways people try to connect, and that’s what drives LA.

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Much of the play focuses on the media. One of the protagonists, Sophie (played by Janes), is a member of the media and then we see the way the media covers the action. What are your feelings on the current state of the media? Do you think the mainstream media is failing at its job?
I guess it always fails the public to some degree. One of the things I find frustrating is the way people are shielded by the media in a way that they weren’t shielded by it before. One of the things that is problematic is the 24/7 news cycle that feeds this culture and society, the complete histrionics. I get mad seeing the way people have followed everything, like the Lohan and Hilton stories which like a lot of people I could care less about and the harder news like the Virgina Tech shooting. I remember I heard the first report on the radio on my way into work then I read it online on CNN.comand then I watched the news every night and found myself TiVoing the news. But while watching it, I was thinking “How much do we really need to know about all of this?” I can walk away from it all and lead my own life, but I don’t know if that’s the case with everyone. So much of what we are seeing and reading is hyperbole and lies which we touch on in the play.

Do you think the media can inspire someone, like the Bart character who is down on his luck to want to get out there and do something?
Absolutely, that is one of the messages of the play. Sophie's character returns to the notion that a career in broadcasting can connect with people and can be an expression of the human experience. Actually one of the nice things about the Bart character is that he is able to push aside all of the specifics about the news that she is reading, all of the histrionics and just hear the sound of a voice of a woman who is in a dark place. He sees past that and wants to provide comfort to that voice. What I hope to do is show that this is how media can have positive effect on people. Chris and I talk about this all the time, the politics involved in the play, how we’ve become a culture of active organized movements and Sophie's interest in organizing a movement but isn’t quite sure what that movement is. We’re the products of passive political activism sort of like what moveon.orgdid and all of the other online activism sites. I signed up for all of that stuff in the early part of the decade, and all of that is really easy, you are just clicking your mouse, but how many people are getting out there and getting away from the computer and signing up voters and going to the battleground states helping to campaign? I am really interested in communicating in the play, this manifestation of the culture and society we live in and how can we change the lives of the people around us. What can we do and where can we do it and what’s the fastest way to do that, I feel it’s the people closest to us, that’s where we should start.

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How much of yourself and your own life is apart of Walking in Traffic? Is there a particular character you relate to the most?
It is a very personal play, but it’s also a play that I have taken a lot more risks with. I identify with all four main characters, but I relate the most to Bart, Sophie and Rock (played by Nicchi). Bart is tired with life, and he just feels like nothing he does will work out and is just looking for something, anything to turn things around. Sophie is funny to me, I have always wanted to be more political and more active in my community and her character is sort of a satire of that. She is confronted throughout the play with what it is she wants to change and every time she just spits out some sort of rhetoric and vague general answers. Bart looks at the big picture while Sophie is frustrated by the big picture so she tries to see the immediate in-person conflicts. Rock is a character I am really fond of, he has it all, he has no problems in life but he is so unsatisfied with his life that he is looking for an opportunity to differentiate himself even if it means pretending to be gay.

What do you think has been the biggest challenge in your career thus far as a playwright?
Writing, I guess. It’s not just writing though. I have been in LA for five years and I have been out of grad school for five years and this is my first production. It is a really difficult vocation, the rewards unless you're Tony Kushner or someone who is doing really well aren’t there. Like every other career there are benchmarks for success, and it’s taken me a while to make some headway. Unknown Theater has been a great opportunity, I have been with their project since 2006, and they are a talented group that does amazing work and best of all are interested in doing the work of local playwrights. I came to LA torn between NY and LA and I have made a lot of encouraging headway here thanks to a large part to the Unknown Theater. I was looking for a theatrical home, and I found it and felt great. This program has been a good positive boost of support for me. Playwrights with day jobs and social lives are like aspiring actors and directors - we just want to do the work and work alongside other talented artists but we are spending a lot of energy doing other things. It can be really frustrating. Another thing that has very helpful to me is building a network of writers, I am a part of a group of writers called Fell Swoop that provides the nurturing needed. We can’t always be in rehearsal.

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Unknown has given several opportunities to me in the past that I am very thankful for. Chris read a very rough draft of this play, and said get me a draft in a week, I want to start this play August 24 and that deadline was exactly what I needed to drive me, just like Bart needed something to get him started. Sophie needed to be reminded why she got into radio and I have to remind myself why I do this. Unknown has given that to me in a really great way.

What do you think of the current state of theater here in LA?
I’m encouraged by it, Unknown Play Project is a really good project, an investment in local playwrights and local projects. I read the theater blogs and trade magazines, and there seems to be a lot frustration with current state of theater. Playwrights write plays that get workshops, and they get encouraging feedback but are never given a commitment to produce. There are lots of great plays out there that a lot of people know about that have never been produced, and that’s really a shame. Plays should be staged, let them succeed or fail based on the writing, acting, directing. I think here in LA there are some great writers who are doing well like Erik Paterson who is a really smart playwright, EM Lewis, has a play called “Heads” that is doing really well here in LA, she is really smart and she is local. I am seeing names I recognize from workshops and people I have met but I want to see more of that. If LA wants to be a destination for the arts and artists, it really needs to do a better job of fostering its local talent.

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Photos courtesy of Unknown Theater