Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Interview: Playwright John Kolvenbach Encouraging All To STAND UP


Vs. Theatre Company & Circle X Theatre Co. west coast premieres John Kolvenbach’s STAND UP IF YOU’RE HERE TONIGHT, previewing on August 5, 2021

BWW Interview:  Playwright John Kolvenbach Encouraging All To STAND UP

Vs. Theatre Company & Circle X Theatre Co. presents the west coast premiere of John Kolvenbach's STAND UP IF YOU'RE HERE TONIGHT, previewing on August 5, 2021. Ingeniously making lemonade out of lemons, John fashioned STAND UP around his pandemic restrictions. Had the chance to chat with John on STAND UP and highlights of his productive career.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, John!

This is not your first time collaborating with VS. VS presented ON AN AVERAGE DAY at the Elephant Theatre Lab in March of 2008. What cosmic forces brought you and VS together originally?

From what I understand, Ron Klier, who writes and directs for VS, found the play on a shelf. He was browsing for new plays in the Drama Book Shop and came across it, pretty much at random. He thought, I may know someone crazy enough to do this play, and so he brought it to Johnny Clark, who runs VS and was, in fact, crazy enough.

What were the preliminary conversations between you and VS. and Circle X to present the west coast premiere of STAND UP IF YOU'RE HERE TONIGHT?

We did a reading of STAND UP in Los Angeles in May. Johnny came. The play was really new, this was the first public reading of it. I worked with Jim Ortlieb for a day and a half, we staged some of it, and we invited a dozen people in to see it. Johnny liked it and over drinks afterward, we talked him into producing. He brought the Circle X people on board.

You must have kept in contact with Jim Ortieb all these years after he starred in your HALF N' HALF N' HALF at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachuetts in late 2012. Did you have a hand in casting Jim for STAND UP's protagonist?

I did, yes. Jim and I are friends. He called me early this year and said he was looking to do something, 'Did I have anything?' Before he finished asking, I had an idea occur to me, which never happens. Jim is totally singular, as an actor as a person. He has this rare quality that amuses me hugely, which is: he starts talking, begins whatever sentence and you cannot guess how the sentence is going to end. Everything he says, I find suspenseful. He's also a great actor, a great comedian, the audience adores him, and everything he does is terribly, terribly sad.

When did you start writing STAND UP?

Soon after that conversation with Jim. March 2021. I sketched out the idea, then I made the mistake of telling a friend all about it, and he thought I'd gone off the deep end, and so I gave up on it, but I couldn't let it go, so I wrote it.

How did your reading of STAND UP go at the Black Box in Kansas City a couple months ago?

BWW Interview:  Playwright John Kolvenbach Encouraging All To STAND UP It was great. Rusty Sneary is an actor that I love, and so I went down there to do a little workshop with him. The play really is about this moment right now. It's not topical exactly, and I hope it'll play in a year, but it does speak about coming out of a long period of isolation. So I wanted to get it up in as many places as possible, quickly. We're doing the L.A. show, another in Wellfleet, Massachusetts at the Harbor Stage with Bobby Kropf, another of my favorites; and I'm working on getting it up in San Francisco. And hopefully Kansas City, and wherever else they'll have us.

You also had a reading here in Los Angeles a couple of month ago. Were you happy with that one?

Definitely. It was the first time a lot of the audience had been in the same room with other people, people outside their immediate family, so it was a reunion and a revival as well as a play. The play is sort of about the relationship between plays and the audience, and there are moments when Jim's character asks the audience to respond. I was telling Jim before the show, 'Just be ready, they may sit there mute and stare at you.' But then the opposite happened. They were almost too engaged. Everybody had been trapped in their house for fifteen months, they were so happy just to be there.

Have you been tweaking your script along the way to this west coast premiere?

Yes. The audience is a big part of this one, and so gauging audience response has been important, scriptwise.

When are your scripts normally set in stone? After workshop readings? After the premiere's dress rehearsal? After the first full-length performance?

Never? I do like to hear the play first in front of a couple people, then 20, then 50, to find out if it works, and I will further adjust it during rehearsal. Then we lock it down in previews. But if there's a revival, I sometimes take another look at it. I can't resist.

How hands-on are you with the premieres of your scripts?

As hands-on as possible. Writing is a lonely gig. I don't like to miss out on the part that involves other people. And sometimes I can be helpful, I like to think.

Your plays have been produced all around the world. Do you participate in translating your scripts?

I'll talk to the translator about meanings. Sometimes those conversations are useful for the translator, sometimes I suspect they are not. I wrote this play called FABULOSO, they were doing it in San Juan and there's a line in it where one character calls another a "log splitter." As a kind of compliment, a tribute to his virility, but tongue in cheek. I remember a long conversation with the translator about what might be a Spanish language equivalent, but the line has no English language equivalent, which I tried to explain, but I think I may have bogged down the process. I have since tried just to trust translators.

All any of your scripts tweaked/adapted to play in specific countries/cultures?

BWW Interview:  Playwright John Kolvenbach Encouraging All To STAND UP Yes. The odd detail gets changed to make it play to the audience, which I endorse. You want the bigger things to be the same (theme and plot and character, the arc of a scene, the meaning of a line) and sometimes this means you have to change the literal.

Do you make an effort to attend the various premieres of your new plays?

I do, yes, whenever I can.

What was the absolute best audience response for one of your shows that you personally witnessed?

We did SISTER PLAY at The Harbor Stage Company. The play is about a couple of sisters, among other things and there were two actual sisters in the audience one night. They were well into their 80's, I would guess. Their 90's, maybe. They came out of the play holding onto one another. They sat on a couch in the lobby and spoke in whispers. They stayed for a long time, and then they went home.

You've directed a number of your own plays. Is John Kovenbach your first choice to direct your plays?

Ha! Not always. I do love it, but I've been lucky to work with some great directors over the years. I'm happy to give them the wheel.

There's no arguments with yourself when you direct your own play, right? Or are you a different person with your director's hat on than with your writer's cap?

I try to give my writing self a long leash. It can be helpful if the writer isn't quite in his or her right mind when the script is being written, especially the first draft. If you want to find something non-rote, give your behavior-regulator a couple of months off. But a director needs the trust of other people. The actors and the design team and whomever is paying for the show. So when I'm directing, I try to keep it together.

One of your first plays produced right after earning your Masters at Rutgers University (LOVE SONG) was nominated for an Olivier Award as best new comedy. What do you remember of that whole experience?

Oh brother, a lot. We opened LOVE SONG at Steppenwolf, and then there was a new production on the West End. But there were some years before that in NYC when we did scrappy shows, borrowing a couch from a friend, carrying it down the street, using it for the set. We did that for years. This show has some of that feeling. It's been lightning fast, from script to production, so there's a lot of improvisation.

What is the one gem of wisdom you learned from a mentor that you adhere to to this day?

It's the trick of trying to take yourself seriously, and also to not take any of it too seriously. You want to do your best work, which requires discipline and rigor and belief. But on the other hand, it's only a play.

What's in the near future for John Kovenbach?

I'm going to see how many productions of STAND UP I can get staged in the next six months. I'm on a mission. Anyone with a room, anywhere in the world, if you have seats and lights, we'd love to come.

Thank you again, John! I look forward to seeing your STAND UP live.

For tickets for the live performances of STAND UP IF YOU'RE HERE TONIGHT through September 26, 2021; log onto

Related Articles View More Los Angeles Stories

Featured on Stage Door

Shoutouts, Classes & More

From This Author Gil Kaan