Adding a new dimension to LCT3 with a series of in-depth conversations.
ABE KOOGLER AND LILA NEUGEBAUER
Author and Director of KILL FLOOR
In conversation with LCT3 Associate, Natasha Sinha
Natasha Sinha (LCT3 Associate): Hello and welcome, Abe and Lila! We’re so excited to have you here for rehearsals of the world premiere of KILL FLOOR starting next week. Abe, I love that you’ll be here at LCT3 next week and also hopping across the street to Juilliard for your second year there. You were a new name to us when we first read the script for KILL FLOOR. Can you tell us about how you got your start in theater?
Abe Koogler (Playwright): Like many playwrights, I started out as an actor—and that’s actually how I first met Lila! I moved to New York with the intention to act professionally, and I think after a couple years of trying to do that, I realized I was really really unhappy, but that I still wanted to do theater. And that writing actually allowed me much more creative control over what I was putting out into the world. I felt free as a writer—I could really take risks as a writer in a way that I was always frightened to as an actor. That was a really liberating realization.
NS: And you were on a political science track for a while at some point, right? Did that affect your playwriting in any way?
AK: I was! I was fascinated by politics, and still am. I really loved political campaigns, particularly. I think there are a lot of similarities to theater, in that you form a close-knit community for a very short period of time, working long hours with a clear end-date. And you never have enough time, and you have a lot of adrenaline, and it feels very high-stakes in a similar way. I loved that, and I cared very deeply about politics. I had a lot of formative experiences as a young person going to protests and working on campaigns. When I was in high school, there was the big World Trade Organization protest in Seattle—it absolutely shut down the city and it was sort of carnival-esque and really frightening because there were riot police everywhere and people scaling buildings to drop banners— it was just a wild scene. So I always had a sense that politics was both really exciting and really theatrical.
Lila Neugebauer (Director): You were at those protests? I can’t believe we’ve never talked about that. That was a landmark event.
AK: Yeah! They actually shut down my school for a week because tear gas was coming in the doors.
NS: Wow, so do you think that your experiences in the world of politics affect what you’re drawn to write about? Or is playwriting a very different way of approaching things that are happening in the world?
AK: No, it’s the same core impulse. I worked very briefly as a political speechwriter. As a speechwriter, I think a lot of times you’re trafficking in dead language—you’re putting together a series of clichés designed to trigger certain emotional responses in your audience. If you listen to any political speech nowadays, that’s what you’re going to get; the total meaning and content is very little. The space for genuinely new ideas within that platform is extremely limited. I was good at being manipulative in the way that you can be manipulative in that discipline. I enjoyed it. But it started to feel kind of corrupt to me, or kind of limiting, even though I was working for people whose values I was pretty much aligned with. I started to feel like I needed to use my life to undermine received ideas rather than reinforcing them. Which is of course a huge challenge even as a playwright. But there’s more space for the undermining in a play than in a political speech. Maybe because playwrights, unlike politicians, are allowed to ask questions that don’t have answers. What was your question again?
NS: I was wondering if you apply that former life in politics to theater in any way.
AK: Oh absolutely, yeah, I think so many of my plays are about people trying to articulate and define their values. And that was a pressure I always felt in that world. Because I’d be working for a candidate who I would see making compromises to get elected, and I would feel myself making ideological compromises to feel okay about working for certain people. And I always felt that the values I thought I had were coming up against the real world. I think a lot of the characters in KILL FLOOR are at that moment where the things they thought they knew are being thrown into question. And they have to sort of articulate and define a new set of values, oftentimes without much help from the people around them or the outside world.
NS: Absolutely. And Lila, how did your theater life begin? I started regularly seeing your developmental work downtown years ago, and it’s so exciting to see more of your full productions now. You bring such clarity and insight to new plays.
LN: I went to this idiosyncratic public high school here in New York, Hunter College High School, which is in a windowless armory—an armory that’s been converted into a high school. Like Abe, and many people in the theater, I too started onstage. The first thing I ever performed in was a 20-minute musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda called Seven Minutes in Heaven.
NS: You were in that? Amazing.
LN: After that grand debut, I mostly played crotchety old ladies and men. Somewhere in there it became clear that this was not my path. But I also directed for the first time in high school, and had a massive discovery about my identity in that experience. I have no formal training in directing; I didn’t study theater in college, but I spent most of my time outside of class directing. Which is how Abe and I met.
AK: Wait, what did you study?
LN: English. Some of my most formative theatrical experiences as a student were at the Yale Playwrights Festival. That’s where I discovered that the director-playwright relationship is for me paramount. But I didn’t know who was writing plays in America past David Mamet—that was sort of where my education stopped—so I thought I would investigate who was alive and writing plays by working in some literary departments. I worked in the literary departments at Steppenwolf in Chicago and Berkeley Rep and then spent a year at Actors Theatre of Louisville as a kind of resident Assistant Director. And then I came back to New York and did a ton of assisting while also doing my own work, then gradually phased out the assisting and have exclusively done my own work since.
NS: And before you two knew each other as director and playwright, you knew each other as director and actor, as undergrads at Yale. Abe, I feel like you told me that you even happened to act in plays with offstage acts of violence in them (similar to KILL FLOOR!)… a Sarah Kane play, maybe?
AK: I have done a lot of plays that have cast me as a rapist, a murderer or some other kind of deviant! I would tend to get cast in plays where I was enacting violence in some way. But yeah, some Sarah Kane… that Neil LaBute play, Bash… and then this beautiful play by Deb Margolin.
LN: Right, we did those three shows together in school. Wow, all in which you were also—
AK: —yeah, also actually a murderer!
LN: It’s funny you say that. I guess I too was preoccupied at that time with certain kinds of cruelty onstage or offstage violence that’s of great import. Yeah, Abe met me when I was obsessed with Sarah Kane; I directed him in her play Phaedra’s Love.
AK: The thing I remember most from my theater education was Artaud, actually—
LN: That was really important to me as well…
AK: Class presentations trying to recreate an Artaudian aesthetic, which I always loved…
LN: Abe, we have never talked about this either…
NS: So many theater conversations to have! So Abe, this is your New York debut, and am I right that this world premiere of KILL FLOOR is also your very first professional production?
AK: First professional production!
NS: That’s so exciting! How has the process been so far here at LCT3 as your first time through it all at this level?
AK: Working at LCT3 has been a dream of mine pretty much since I started writing plays, so to be able to be sitting here talking with you about this and to be having my professional debut here is kind of unimaginable. It’s as good as I could have hoped for. And it’s such a beautiful space. And to have such an amazing cast… We’ve been doing some readings here and we’ve gotten together as a group and the people that are cast are both tremendously talented and also really hard workers. So I just feel really lucky to be with this group of people, and to be working with Lila, whose talent I’ve admired from some distance since I’ve been writing plays.
Read Part 2 of LCT3-D with Abe Koogler and Lila Neugebauer.