David Kranes writes about magicians, gamblers, hit men, painters, casino workers. His characters are frequently displaced seekers with volatile emotions—but always human. He writes about the West. And his characters struggle and love in its surreal landscapes of Las Vegas casinos, Utah deserts, and Montana towns. He exposes the magic in the mundane, the surreal in the simple, and the bizarre in the banal.
As artistic director of Robert Redford’s Sundance Playwright's Lab for 14 years, David Kranes served as dramaturg and mentor for many now celebrated works in American theatre, including Pulitzer Prize winners Angels In America (Tony Kushner) and The Kentucky Cycle (Robert Schenkkan). He also worked with other renowned playwrights including Donald Marguiles, Milcha Sanchez Scott, and Philip Gotanda, and actors Kathy Bates, John Malkovich, J.T. Walsh, and theatre artist Julie Taymor.
With many stories anthologized, David Kranes is a Pushcart Prize nominee for “Blue Motel”; Pushcart winner for “Cordials” (1996)—this story appearing also in Best of Pushcart Anthology (2004); recipient of the Utah Governor’s Award in the Arts, CBS Playwrights Award, National Repertory Play Contest, and Wrangler Award for “Best Short Story Collection” for Low Tide In The Desert.
I have known David for seven years now. Nathan and I worked with him on two separate projects, he is an inspiring mentor to us and a dear friend!
Tell us a little bit about your background; when did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I grew up in a Boston suburb, surrounded by my parents' high-powered group of intellectuals: physicians, lawyers, economists, physicists....some of the Nobel winners. Many of these folk--on the side--painted, concertized, wrote. The message was: You do something SIGNIFICANT and, if you're anything, do some sort of art on the side. But you never do art to call attention to yourself. It was a pretty amazing but intimidating circle. To say that I was intimidated doesn't touch what I felt. So I acted out. And, in doing so, discovered writing. A teacher encouraged me. So that's where it started. It wasn't until senior year in high-school that I got at all serious. Which led to some good college acceptances. I was pre-med in college, took a left turn, went to Columbia Law School, had a breakdown and decided--for better or worse, with my parents blessing or not--I'd better do what I feel the fire of: write. So--
What books inspired you growing up and why?
You are such a prolific and diverse writer: doing screen plays, theatre plays, novels, short stories – which format do you prefer and do you feel that moving between formats makes you a better writer?
In America, writers--as in so many professions--tend to be specialists. In Europe, a writer is a person-of-language. Beckett wrote novels, plays, a film entitled "Film." Philosophers write novels and poetry.
If words are one's raw materials for expression, the European model makes more sense to me.
Can you talk a little bit about your creative process as a writer? Do you have specific rituals when you write?
I drink coffee. Later in the day, I drink wine. I write every day (and did, even when I was teaching) for at least 2 hours. I "work out." Sometimes it's just the exercise of arranging and rearranging words. Sometimes something-I-can't-name ignites. I have a general objective when I begin, but I give myself permission to "stray." Sometimes I do what I thought I'd do when I began. Sometimes I end up in South Dakota.
Who are some of the people who have inspired you in your work and why?
The list is too long. Some have inspired me through the work they've done. Others have inspired me in their dedication. I'm drawn to people with a gentle ferocity. I believe that art forgives....which is another way of wording Mr. Hemingway's, "Good writers aren't always good scoutmasters." Unfortunately there are too many whose art doesn't merit forgiveness. I'm inspired by artists who give almost as much of their energy attempting to be good people--good citizens in the world--as in being good artists.
You are an incredibly intuitive teacher and mentor to many - what is it you get out of teaching and do you think teaching informs your writing?
I had many, many bad teachers -- mostly in secondary school but some in college as well. Always, when I was being "taught," I'd find myself thinking (of my teacher), "Don't you get it?! Don't you see that this is the way you should be teaching? Why doesn't the teaching profession have the "Do no harm" ethic? What's the opposite of "harm?" Mentors should be aiming to do that. When I teach well, I feel clean. It's good to write from that feeling, because I know I'm going to get awfully dirty in the writing.
You were the artistic director of Robert Redford’s Sundance Playwrights Lab
for 14 years, serving as dramaturg and mentor for many now celebrated works in American theatre. Can you talk a little bit about how that came about and what you felt your contribution was to the Lab?
I'm trying to write a book about what's asked in this question. I had a film project in the very first Sundance film Lab. I complimented Mr. Redford on his structuring of that Lab. I said he'd done a lot to create "planned accident." Perhaps he liked what I said, because the following year I was asked to create the Playwright's Lab. My designing of the Lab followed two principles: (1) that it was a Lab--thus, what was worked on had no predictable or assured outcome. There would be informed work trying to make a promising thing exceptional....but without a deadline or assurances; (2) I shaped a process which was what I would want a play of my own--in the most ideal of circumstances--to be subject to.
Why is it important for new playwrights to be able to work through their material in that kind of context – what tools do you think it provides them with that they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten?
The Sundance Process (1) removes any deadline for "opening" and (2) provides contact with thinkers and resource artists (dancers, painters, historians, etc, etc) that a traditional "rehearsal" process wouldn't provide.
Can you share some of the highlights from your period of time at Sundance?
First: Robert Schenkaan and Donald Marguiles returned to Sundance at points when they were deeply discouraged and wondered if they could ever finish another play. Both went on, after that, to win Pulitzers.
Second: Tony Kushner arrived at Sundance with the 1st 40 pp. of Angels In America. He wasn't sure he could get beyond those pages. They were worked on again and again for 2 weeks. On the second-to-last day, Tony said, "I think I can write now," and left the actors to keep rehearsing the 40 pp. On the night of his final reading, he came down the mountain at dinner time with the whole first draft of the first half of Angels.
We read it that night. Wow!
You have a side career, as a leading expert in the US on new directions in casino design - which is brilliant! How did you develop this interest and does it inspire your writing?
The world of casinos is a world of craziness and improbability. That appeals to me. Also I have a very strong sense of design space.
What moves you?
Who do you consider to be three of the most significant
writers (dead or alive) in the world?
Shakespeare, Cervantes, Samuel Beckett.
Are there important qualities that you believe an artistically successful writer has to have?
The "artistically successful writer" should be unafraid that s/he will be judged mad.
What outside of literature, theatre and film inspires you and why?
You mean, besides visual art, photography, dance, music, the ocean, the air, the rainforest?
What is your favorite quote?
"The gift travels."
If you hadn't become a writer what profession do you think you would have excelled in/at?
According to a battery of tests I took at the age of 14, I should have been an architect.
Looking towards the future – where do you want to be and what do you want to be doing in 25 years?
In 25 years? C'mon, Charlotte: Get serious!