Documentary theatre playwright and director KJ Sanchez has spent nine years working on Cincinnati King and Need Your Love, two plays about a Cincinnati music label, King Records. Both plays were produced at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati King in 2018 and Need Your Love in 2021. After nearly a decade of commitment on these works, Michael DeWhatley, a student of KJ’s and a playwright interested in plays about real events, wanted to speak with her about how she balances sense of place and representation in plays based on the lives of real people. What particular responsibility does a documentary theatremaker have to the subjects they investigate and represent onstage?
Michael DeWhatley: How do you negotiate the relationships that you have with the people that you're interviewing?
KJ Sanchez: It helps to be a compassionate, nonjudgmental listener. A friend of mine is a therapist, and we talk about that occupational hazard, setting aside your responses and your own opinions and just trying to be compassionate. Let the other person go wherever they want to take you. Not having an agenda is everything.
Michael: Why do you think it's important not to have an agenda?
KJ: Because it determines what they're going to tell you. So, for example, yesterday I was rereading one of these interviews that I conducted with somebody who led the invasion into Iraq. If I had immediately come in with an agenda of prepared questions, the interview would have been jagged and clunky and tense because it would be clear that I was trying to pull something out of him. Because I had no agenda, he immediately just shared hours of his combat experience before we got to him talking about coming home. Even though we didn't use a lot of that material, that builds the bonds of trust and confidence that allowed for the really great material that he then shared with me about coming home. I don’t think he would have been as candid, as trusting, if I hadn’t let him lead that conversation.
I think there are two different approaches to interview-based playmaking. We can be amplifiers or we can be takers. If it's a one-to-one transaction, and if I come in with an agenda, I'm a taker. I am here to take your story and put it in my play. Or we can amplify a voice or an underserved community. We can provide a bridge to an experience for people who don't know of that experience, and maybe they'll get more invested and connect these disparate communities through amplification. That's what we're trying to do. And if we're going to be takers, then we have to give back something.
I usually don't pay interviewees because I feel like it is a conflict of interest, but with Philip Paul—who was the King Records studio drummer whose interviews were the foundation for Cincinnati King—I was a taker in that transaction. He gave me all these stories and all of this information, and I transcribed it and those transcriptions went into the play. However, he's telling me stories of being a studio drummer in an industry that didn't pay him royalties on all those millions and millions of dollars. Now I make a play about that exploitation, and it felt exploitive to me if I didn't pay him. So, I gave him a percentage of the royalties. It's a situation where I am hopefully amplifying, because this story is not really known very well. I'm recognizing that, particularly because I'm not from a Black or an African-American community, I am a taker, big time, in this process.
Michael: How much of your work would you say is developed in the rehearsal part of the process?
KJ: 70 percent. Leading up to it, I'm doing tons of drafts. But those drafts are really just building blocks. Then, in rehearsal, I have note cards of every moment in the play. I go back and chop up all my current drafts into little pieces, and then they're tacked on my walls, and they're on the floor. And any given day, I will move the pieces of the puzzle around, and we'll try it and have a conversation. Somebody will bring in something that'll blow my mind. Then, I'll go back and rewrite that night.
Michael: So, it sounds like your work is an ongoing process.
KJ: Yeah, it keeps… for instance, with ReEntry, the play I wrote with Emily Ackerman about Marines returning from combat deployment, we did a lot of revisions from its premiere at Two River Theater to its New York run. I think we revised probably 35-40 percent of the text. In New York, we started to understand what it was. And when it was going to military bases, there was another revision of it. But other pieces have had much longer processes. Highway 47 gets rewritten every time I do it, every single time.
This idea of writing something universally is like, the audience becomes just like a blank canvas. And it’s harder for me to write for them.
Michael: When you're making something for a specific place and time, do you find yourself thinking about ways to make it more universal?
KJ: I just give in to my love for writing a piece for the moment.
Michael: Do you think the Cincinnati version of Cincinnati King could have done a tour and it would have been fine as it was?
KJ: I think it would be a perfectly good night of theatre, but for me that spark of joy is writing the one little line that only the audience in Cincinnati is going to get and appreciate. That makes me so happy. And maybe my problem with writing things that will get done by everybody is when I'm writing, I'm envisioning a very specific audience member listening to it. This idea of writing something universally is like, the audience becomes just like a blank canvas. And it’s harder for me to write for them.
And then we’re living in a moment where rightfully we’re all asking, “Who has the right to tell the story?” Where are you sitting with that?
Michael: One of the questions that I’ve been asking myself is, “how much of myself am I putting into this work?” Because as I was writing this play about the five nights of sanctuary in First Unitarian in Louisville during the Breonna Taylor protests in 2020, I found myself feeling that part of me was very much in this play. It spoke to my religious tradition, where and when I lived in Louisville, my relationships with some of the people whom I interviewed. I was like, “I don't know if it is appropriate for there to be so much of me in this piece when I wasn't there.” And while I interviewed a diverse group of people, this was a protest about Black lives. So I tried to emphasize the parts of the story that were surprising and startling and contrary to my experience, and to take out some of the stuff that felt familiar and more about me than about the event that I was describing.