THE GUM PLAY by Lucas Kavner launches The 2013-2014 EST/Sloan First Light Festival on December 2

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On Monday, December 2 a reading of THE GUM PLAY by Lucas Kavner kicks off The 2013-2014 EST/Sloan First Light Festival, a two-month program of readings and workshop productions of new plays in progress that have been funded by The EST/Sloan Project.

THE GUM PLAY finds the elderly and disgraced former President of Mexico Antonio López de Santa Anna exiled on Staten Island in the 1870s but scheming a triumphant return to power with the money he will realize from his new invention.

The EST/Sloan blog recently had a chance to chat with Lucas Kavner about his new play.

THE GUM PLAY features a different General Santa Anna than most of us know. Not the young “Victor of Tampico” who repelled the Spanish in 1829, or the general who slaughtered the defenders of the Alamo in 1836 (and was defeated and captured a month later by Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto). Here we have a humiliated ex-president/general in his seventies living as an exile on Staten Island. How did you become interested in this aspect of Santa Anna’s life? 

One of my first day jobs in New York was writing flash cards for a tutoring company, basically putting together easy-to-understand blurbs about random facts for kids. And one of the assignments was "American Inventions," so chewing gum was on the list. I was just writing the initial paragraph, learning about Santa Anna being exiled and bringing the initial shipments of chicle to Staten Island, and then hanging out as an old man with an American in this very bizarre situation, and it all just seemed completely hilarious to me. 

I held onto the story for a long time, always having it in the back of my mind. 

How did he come to live on Staten Island?

He ended up on Staten Island during a long period of exile from Mexico. It was just one of the places that was willing to take him in, when many others weren't. 

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 It’s hard to believe that Santa Anna is responsible for the origin of the product we know today as Chiclets.  What kind of research did you do to write your play?

There are very few concrete, agreed-upon accounts of Santa Anna's Staten Island years, it seems. The only facts everyone agrees on is that he brought chicle to Staten Island, tried to turn a profit with it, and subsequently lived there for a time. But I tried to suss out everything I could about that period in Santa Anna's life and various accounts of chewing gum history in America. I spoke to a few "gum experts" and scientists currently employed by gum companies to learn about the properties of chicle, and their information definitely informed a few of the scenes pretty concretely.

I also spent a day in Staten Island — wandering around the museums and talking to historians — and all I found as evidence of Santa Anna's presence there were his signature in a church guest book and an ad he had published in the New York Times where he basically announced his intent to form a ragtag army to take back to Mexico. This second discovery ended up being a major part of the play.

Much of the action in the play is driven by Santa Anna’s combative and entrepreneurial character. How closely do you think this matches the historical Santa Anna? 

The historical Santa Anna was incredibly crafty and absurdly egotistical, by all accounts, so I tried to imagine what that character would be like towards the end of his life, when he's obviously been knocked down a few pegs and is scrambling to remain marginally relevant. 

All the plays in the First Light Festival somehow engage science. Do you have any background in science? Taken any science courses? 

I worked as a reporter at the Huffington Post for a few years and while I was there one of my beats, ironically, was covering the intersection of science and culture. So I ended up becoming pretty obsessed with that intersection. I wrote a big piece for Huffington Magazine about humanoid robots and the Singularity theories and I've been writing and reading a lot about that on my own time recently. 

I was never great at science in school (I remember a physics professor in college telling me I'd be great in the class "if I didn't have to do any math.") But I remember loving most of my science classes, despite my lack of mathematical talent.

What other plays have you written? 

My first play, FISH EYE, was given a great production at HERE Arts Center by the Colt Coeur company in 2011. My next play, CARNIVAL KIDS, will likely have a production here in the spring but I'm not 100% sure so I'll just go ahead and say “likely.” I'm also an actor and comedy person, most recently performing in the last few incarnations of Stephen King and John Mellencamp's GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY, and I've been performing weekly improv at the Peoples Improv Theater for the last four years.

What would you like the audience to take away from your play?

I'm just excited to be introducing this crazy situation to an audience, in general. I think it's so ridiculous and amazing that it actually happened the way it did, and even though I can't possibly know if I'm close to getting certain details right, I hope they learn something and laugh a good amount. It's a comedy, so laughter would be a great thing.