"I felt I owed it to the old me not to laugh off just how out of control my life got."
A performer (and his wife) put his sordid past onstage
Welcome to Behind the Scene, TDF Stages' ongoing series where theatre artists write about their creative process.
When writer/comedian/DJ Hollis James sat down to pen his first play, he had no idea how it would turn out or if it would even see the spotlight of day. But when he showed the first 40 pages to his wife, veteran theatre publicist Emily Owens, she immediately said she wanted in, as press rep, producer, and director. By the time the first draft was finished, they had formed their own theatre company, Hot Tramp Productions, "dedicated to blending the seriously funny and the hysterically serious," an apt description considering their inaugural show, KYLE, is a dark comedy inspired by Hollis's battle with cocaine addiction. A few drafts later, they had booked UNDER St. Marks for the run and soon started casting. Although Owens studied acting and directing in college, and James stars in a web series, this is the duo's shared debut as theatre artists, and their first creative collaboration together. It all happened so quickly, they never had a moment to doubt themselves -- which they say is very lucky.
Emily Owens: What made you want to write a play based on your experience with drug addiction?
Hollis James: I didn't intend to write about that period in my life, but when I sat down to write the play it just came out. I think on some cathartic level I needed to get the story out. Plus, as a writer, you always want to make sure whatever story you're telling has high stakes. At that point in my life, the stakes couldn't have been higher. You were invaluable to me, reading so many drafts of the play. Was it easy giving me feedback or did you feel you had to be a little more delicate given the nature of the story -- and our marriage?
Emily: Open and honest communication has always been an important part of our relationship. I respect you enough to tell you the truth. I doubt I was ever all that delicate with my feedback! But really, from the first draft of KYLE, you and I were on the same page and shared the same vision for the play. Was it hard to make drug addiction funny?
Hollis: Not really. From the time I was a little kid I've always used humor to deal with anything that made me scared, nervous, or insecure. So there was never any doubt that KYLE would be a comedy. Honestly, the hardest part was toning down some of the comedy in certain scenes. I felt I owed it to the old me not to laugh off just how out of control and scary my life got. When you and I first cast the show, we saw KYLE a certain way. Now, weeks later into rehearsal, has your vision of the play changed?
Emily: The actors have certainly brought things to the play that I never would have expected and never would have thought of on my own. A lot of my job is just trusting in the play and trusting in the cast, and not getting in either one's way too much! What's it like acting in a play that's so personal?
Emily Owens and Hollis James
Hollis: It's a little odd. Initially, if you recall, we toyed with me playing Jack (who is based on me) and trying to cast another actor as Kyle, who introduces Jack to cocaine. Luckily we came to our senses quickly and decided I was too close to the Jack character. There's no way I could have brought as much to the role as Nat Cassidy does, whereas playing Kyle gave me a bit of distance that made it much easier. My biggest obstacle is that I catch myself watching Nat saying these lines I wrote, and it brings back very distinct memories that make me forget my cues! Was it stressful doing publicity for a show you're also directing?
Emily: It actually has been! Turns out it's really hard to pitch a show you're involved in creatively. When I'm pitching a show for a client, there is a certain level of detachment. I'm an outside voice saying this production is worth someone's time. But pitching your own show doesn't give you that same level of objectivity.
Hollis: From the time I showed you those first few scenes I wrote, you immediately said that KYLE was the perfect show for UNDER St. Marks. Why?
Emily: Most of KYLE takes place in Jack's basement apartment. He loses whole hours and days to drug-induced stupors and rarely seems to know what time of day it is because he can't see outside. UNDER St. Marks is perfect because it's a dirty, gritty, basement theatre in the East Village, and the general aesthetic just matches this play so perfectly. I can't imagine KYLE in any other theatre!
Follow Emily Owens at @emilyowenspr and Hollis James at @hollisjames. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Nat Cassidy and Hollis James in KYLE. Photo by Jody Christopherson.
Tickets to KYLE are available through TDF's Off-Off@$9 Program. The show runs through Saturday, March 25.