Leah Nanako Winkler Talks on Kentucky, Weddings, Collaboration, & Representation

We asked Youngblood playwright Leah Nanako Winkler about KENTUCKY, and she's given us some insight into her process and how the play has grown at EST over the years.

Can you tell us briefly about the history of KENTUCKY? 

Although many of the events, behaviors, and dramatic content of the play are fictional, I had the idea for this play when I was in three weddings in a row: my two Kentucky best friend's from high school and my little sister's. All three weddings naturally made me think about the theatricality of weddings- and the mixed emotional impact they have on everyone involved. I was also  struck by how much the ritual of a wedding is similar to the ritual of theater. Like a play, we rehearse weddings. We wear costumes. We memorize lines. We put so much of ourselves in these events to the point of beautiful absurdity and  I wanted to toy with putting one on stage. 

What is KENTUCKY about for you?

Aside from the literal plot of a 30ish NYC woman going back to her childhood home in Kentucky to stop her born-again little sister's wedding and therefore reuniting with her family and hometown friends after seven years apart - Kentucky is a story about the different paths we all take to escape and hopefully fix our pain- and accepting those paths different from your own. 

There are certain autobiographical elements in Kentucky; do you find yourself writing plays about your own experiences often?

You know, I get asked this question a lot because my work seems personal and of course I filter and process a lot of my life experiences and feelings through writing, but when I start shaping a play- all of that becomes morphed and molded into something simultaneously uglier and more beautiful. My actual life is not interesting enough to base an entire body of work on and there is a lot of crafting involved I promise!  For example, a lot of of people think "Hiro" is an avatar for "Leah" probably because she is biracial and from Kentucky but I'd argue there are more bits of my life in Da'Ran and Sophie- even though I'm not a born-again Christian. So in short- yes there are pieces of me in the play but like any writer- they are scattered and unrecognizable to me at this point. I never set out to write about my experience, but rather -initially my process involves drawing from experiences that have caused me extreme pain or happiness so that I can write from an honest place. Authenticity and honesty are very important to me. 

 What's amazing about theatre though, is that every project inevitably extends into something so far beyond yourself after collaboration. This production wouldn't exist without feedback from EST/Youngblood/ Page 73 and the script itself wouldn't exist without the amazing, wonderful, beautiful director who sat with me many late nights, summer afternoons and sleepovers  figuring out what the play was doing with me- Morgan Gould. It also wouldn't exist without the actors who have been working on it with me since the first readings and workshops. I'm highly collaborative in the rehearsal room and I always pay attention to what actors say and do. As a matter of fact, when I first wrote the script Lynette Freeman's character "Amy" had three lines and one song. Now she is a major player in Act II because she was so free and creative in rehearsal. She had a major part in creating the role with Morgan and I.  Mikumari improvises different kind of "cheese" he likes every night as Ernest (I've NEVER heard him say the same cheese EVER- after over a year!) and Amir Wachterman who plays Sylvie, improvises his "big scene" every single night as well. 

So a lot of my plays- and especially this one- is really a reflection of not myself- but this giant family I've found in my chosen home in the theatre. 

Trying to change the theatrical norms for race and gender is an ongoing struggle, if you could give any advice to young writers and artists about how to help combat this inequality, what would it be?

If you're perspective is underrepresented write it unceasingly.  Trust that your audiences will accept an Asian American ingenue and a blonde white side-kick. Cast actors of color even if the role doesn't specifically call for it- everyone deserves to play a human being regardless of race.  Get rid of the idea that "white" is the most relatable and truly choose the best person for the role. If you're an actor of color work with Page 73 and EST. Look at the bodies they've put on stage!

What current productions or theatre companies get you the most excited?

I'm so excited by so many of my fellow Youngblooders and alums- Rob Askins, Josh Conkel (and his collective with Megan Hill and Amy Staats DODO), Obie Award winner Clare Barron, Chiara Atik, Mariah Maccarthy, Alex Borinsky, Charly Evon Simpson, Jahna Feron Smith, Zhu Yi, Breandan Hill, Paul Cameron Hardy, Cory Finely, Will Snider, Eric Dufault, Ming Peiffer, Chris Sullivan, Amanda Keating, Martyna Majok. TOO MANY TO LIST.  I love Susan Stanton's writing. Morgan Gould and Friends. Young Jean Lee's Theatre Company. Thomas Bradshaw. Miranda Huba. Nick Mwaluko. Teddy Nicholas. Eliza Bent. Erin Courtney, Mallery Avidon. Very excited by Page 73's next production by Caroline Mcgraw- who I'm in the Dorothy Streslin Playwrighting Group with at Primary Stages and I just think she's great. Everyone is great. I love seeing new work!

KENTUCKY is playing through May 22nd, if you haven't seen it yet, make sure to get your tickets now! This is a show you don't want to miss.