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Interview: Playwright Peter Gray's Ever-So-Timely Take on THE KARENS

The Muse Collective will stream the world premiere of Peter Gray’s THE KARENS beginning August 13, 2021

Interview: Playwright Peter Gray's Ever-So-Timely Take on THE KARENS

The Muse Collective will stream the world premiere of Peter Gray's THE KARENS beginning August 13, 2021. Muse Collective's founder and artistic director Michael Alvarez directs the cast of Morgan Danielle Day, Felicia Santiago and LaurenSage Browning.

Got the chance to chat with Peter on his KARENS and his creatively productive relationship with Michael and his Muse Collective.

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

Did a personal experience with a Karen inspire you to write THE KARENS? Or was it the sudden frequency of Karen stories that got you started?

I'm a little obsessed with The Heathers. It's one of my favorite movies with its distinctively dark, twisted sense of humor. Maybe I'm just always trying to find excuses to write about high school mean girls, but as soon as I became aware of the Karen meme, I immediately associated it with The Heathers. In both, you see an individual subsumed into a collective identity - in wildly different contexts, but that's precisely what intrigued me. I wondered what would happen if The Heathers grew up to be THE KARENS. And, I mean... who doesn't want to see a show about that?

When did you start writing THE KARENS?

Going into 2021, I was very unsure what projects I wanted to work on. Both so much and so little happened over the last year, and I'm still processing a lot of it, personally. I reflected a great deal and absorbed an enormous amount of information which I am only now really able to put into action, allowing me to both uncover unknown pockets of understanding and to face practical wrinkles I couldn't have foreseen. What kind of theater would the world need in 2021 - and what would even be possible?

So I put together a packet of about twenty wildly different project ideas and sent it to Michael. Of those, THE KARENS was the one Michael couldn't stop talking about. It also felt like an ideal fit for a virtual piece, since it inherently deals with the power of something captured on camera. I believe I started it in February with very little idea what would come out once I set pen to paper. Luckily, it flowed quickly and very organically - I wish I could tell you what inspired some of the wackier plot developments, because I'd love to know myself! A year's worth of pent-up creative energy run amuck, maybe?

I've always had moments of comedy and absurdity in my pieces, but THE KARENS, by far, is the most solidly comedic work I've done to date. It was exactly what I needed to work on for my own mental health this year, and my guess is viewers will welcome a breath of comedic ridiculousness too!

What's your three-line pitch for THE KARENS?

In high school, this clique of Karens ruled their school (or at least in their own minds). Now, in 2020, they're grown up, Insta-(sorta)-famous and determined to reclaim the good Karen name from the privileged white women making headlines. As they tackle the privilege of others with style and flair, will our fabulous trio face their own shortcomings, or sacrifice everything to keep their online personas as flawless as their makeup?

THE KARENS is not the first work The Muse Collective has produced. They've presented LOVE, MEDEA, SALEM: POST MORTEM and BROADWAY GLASSES. What first connected you and The Muse Collective to work together?

The Muse Collective is Michael's baby. He's been dreaming up his own collective since he was in diapers, basically, and when he finally launched it, I was only too happy to join!

What cosmic forces first brought you and THE KARENS' director Michael Alvarez to collaborate together years ago?

Cosmic is actually the perfect word for our meeting! Michael got a hold of a play I'd written in college, fell in love with it, and reached out to me. I was living in Minneapolis at the time, and wasn't actively seeking out theater work. We scheduled a Skype call (that was pre-Zoom, if you can imagine such a time!), and it felt like I'd known this person all my life. We just naturally got each other.

He'd been looking for somebody to do a reimagining of the Medea myth with, and I've always been drawn to the "anti-heroes." I'm always trying to unravel the mystery of why people do the things they do. In fairy tales, there's not usually much mystery in the hero or heroine. We might ask why Cinderella duets with mice, but for the most part, she exists to lose her shoe and find her prince. It's always been the villains who spark my curiosity, got me asking questions. I think so many people are scared of trying to understand objectionable people because they're afraid of investigating their own darker aspects.

I've always been drawn to examining those darker unknowns, and so is Michael. We were on the same page immediately!

Do you and Michael have a shorthand in communication now?

Interview: Playwright Peter Gray's Ever-So-Timely Take on THE KARENS I think we really understand how each other operates and what gets both of us jazzed about a project. Michael loves having room to move in a script, morsels that allow him to interpret and bring his distinct point of view. When writing, I don't worry so much about the practicalities of staging. I generally use minimal stage directions and abstractions, leaving room for things to blossom in a multitude of ways. Michael takes those seeds and runs with them.

Part of Michael's brilliance is that he is always finding new, unexpected angles to bring added dimension to a work. Often, he'll throw out a suggestion I never would have thought of but, as soon as I hear it, I understand intuitively the path he's thinking of and get mega excited. We truly trust each other, and that's the greatest gift of a creative partnership. From trust, almost anything can grow!

How hands-on are you in the pre-production processes of your plays' premieres? Input in casting, technical designers, director?

In pre-production, Michael shares pretty much everything with me, and his taste is almost always spot-on. I very seldom disagree with him at the pre-production stage. My philosophy is that making good theater is largely finding the right humans and allowing them to do their thing. Michael and I are drawn to the same kind of artists: those who are always looking to grow and constantly seeking new artistic challenges. I'm particularly thrilled when I can write parts with specific actors in mind. It allows me to write to the actor's strengths but also hopefully to give them something they haven't done before, something that excites them. We try to find people who are as excited to work on these pieces as we are!

At what point does your word become set in stone? After a dress rehearsal? After the first performance?

Here's where Michael and I differ:

I prefer to go away, write something, share it, get feedback, digest the feedback for a while, then go away again and return with a new draft.

Michael likes a lot of back and forth, and he loves to change stuff on the fly.

I work very hard to have a script that I'm proud of before going into production and usually, by then, it's Michael who's asking for tweaks and I'm the one saying, "I like it the way it is!"

Now that we've had practice and articulated our ideal processes, we're better at finding middle ground. It's very useful to recognize when you're ultimately disagreeing about the process, not about the piece itself.

Your artistic statement on your website states:

"I see myself as an equal cross of Oscar Wilde, Henry David Thoreau, and the entire cast of The Muppets.

I live and breathe stories. Stories connect us to the earth: they tell us how we came to be and teach appreciation for each element of the world around us. They connect us to ourselves: what we choose to believe and with whom we choose to share it. They connect us to our communities: the tales our ancestors told and the people who've shaped both our dreams and nightmares.

Over the years, I've written plays, musicals, poems, children's books, and more. I create words that delve deep into both the joy and pain of being human. I write worlds that embrace the fantastical and outlandish, while never compromising the integrity of their characters. I write to understand and grow. I'm inspired by dreamers, by the beauty of gentle snowfalls and the mischief of sunlight. I write what I love, and (if all goes according to plan) love what I write."

How much of your earlier spiritual studies are still influencing your work?

I think the plays which stand the test of time are those which ask the same questions religions do: Why are we here? What do we owe each other? How do I make my existence matter? To be a spiritually fulfilled being in most traditions means recognizing your place within a greater community. Theater is an inherently communal artform, reminding us of our neighbor's hidden longings, both onstage and (pandemic-willing) in the stranger sitting beside us. Its medium is live, human vitality. The dangers of both writing and religion is a solipsism which cuts us away from one another. In my spiritual and artistic work, I try to lead through listening - both to myself and the world around me.

To do work that matters requires tapping into your "spiritual side," I think.

You've studied with a lot of esteemed playwrights (Marsha Norman, Donald Margulies, Dan O'Brien, Naomi Iizuka, Deb Margolin, Paul Lazar, Joe Roach and Christopher Bayes, among others). Any particular lesson or advice you try to adhere to to this day?

My favorite course from college was probably a clowning course. The ability to laugh at yourself requires a startling amount of courage and vulnerability. As a society, we often discount the light-hearted and joyful, but at the end of the day, those are the aspects that get us through life and make it worth living.

Surprisingly, I've found some of the most "prestigious" people to be the most generous with their time and support. They have genuine love for their craft, and that's what they lead with. They are hungry to share their passions and insights, and their sense of humanity is probably part of what ultimately takes their work to the next level. From them, I've learned the thing to take seriously is what brings you authentic joy in your art. Taking the rest of it too seriously gets in the way of realizing the organic impulse of your vision.

Interview: Playwright Peter Gray's Ever-So-Timely Take on THE KARENS How is SALOME the show you're writing with Roger Q. Mason (that Michael is directing) going?

There was supposed to be a reading of SALOME in June 2020 at A Noise Within, but, alas, COVID meant those plans had to be put on hold. We've been prioritizing projects that actively engage with social distance structures, and, unfortunately, this, along with other scheduling complications, has pushed the musical spectacular that SALOME should be to the backburner.

I know it's a passion project for Michael, so I'm sure you'll be seeing some form of it soon. The music (by Ella Grace) is exquisite, and I'm thrilled to be working with Roger Q. Mason, who's a playwright dripping in intelligence and style. Stay tuned!

What else is in the near future for Peter Gray?

With The Muse Collective, I've been working on a modern-day version of ANTIGONE, staged outside beneath the stars, which follows teenagers on a star-gazing road trip across the United States following a school shooting. Hopefully, we'll do something with that next summer at the latest.

I also have a fellowship in Germany that got pushed to 2022 because of COVID, working on a piece about The Brothers Grimm and Nazi Germany.

I was working on a project that follows an anarchist dog walking collective in DC from the Obama administration through the Trump administration, but I had to put that aside when things in the country got truly wild, with the idea that I would return when I had a better sense what kind of arc I'd be working with. I think, maybe, enough distance may have passed at this point to pick that back up.

There's also kind of a sci-fi idea about the future of theater that's been rattling around my brain!

The reality is we're all working on a lot of different projects, and, ultimately, the deciding factor on what gets seen is usually what producers and audiences will support. So, make what excites you known! What are you hungry for?

Thank you again, Peter! I look forward to streaming your KARENS!

For streaming tickets for THE KARENS August 13th through the 27th, log onto

From This Author - Gil Kaan

      Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas of film, television, and stage in... (read more about this author)

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