The rehearsal room for The Babylon Line simulates the production’s set in the Mitzi E. Newhouse: a large desk for the teacher and smaller ones for the students. Settling into this configuration after a rehearsal the other day, Terry Kinney, the director, explained the expectations set up by the furniture. “Even in the absence of assigned seating, most people in a classroom take the same desk for every class. This can make the audience, by extension, think that there will be a sameness to what they’re watching – that this play will be a tight form.”
In fact, Kinney continued, the play explodes such confines. “The story opens out. It seems to be a love story taking place within an adult-education class, but Rich” – the playwright Richard Greenberg – “gives us not only a narrative but digressions within the narrative.”
Kinney, who made his New York directorial debut in the Newhouse in 1983, with C. P. Taylor’s And a Nightingale Sang…, said that Greenberg also upends expectations of place and time. “The play happens in the suburbs of Long Island, in Levittown, but it isn’t a typical middle-class tale of alcohol and adultery. Rich isn’t slamming the suburbs, even though Levittown had racial boundaries and codes of conduct.” Instead, the play gives us group of people who are blocked when they begin a writing class, and, Kinney explained, “learn how to unblock themselves and create a small community.”
As for the timeframe of Babylon, Kinney said, “We are in 1967, but this isn’t the swinging, psychedelic Sixties.” As for the element most defining of that era – rock ‘n’ roll – that was never a question. “Rich said: ‘There’s no music.’ But the script reads like music, so we’re concentrating on finding the rhythms within it.”
Finding rhythms is the type of challenge Kinney enjoys. “I love doing plays where I have to solve difficult staging issues,” he said. It would be hard to locate too many other overriding commonalities in Kinney’s work as a director. “I’ve chosen a variety of projects, as both a director and and as an actor,” he said. Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which Kinney co-founded in 1974, forged its considerable reputation with muscular, high-energy work, but it has gone on to showcase a diversity of talents. One of Kinney’s productions for Steppenwolf was of Greenberg’s The Violet Hour, in 2003. Kinney has also directed Greenberg’s Well Appointed Room.
Last year, Kinney and Rebecca Habel, a general manager of numerous Broadway and off-Broadway productions, founded Mix Tape Productions. Kicking off with Reconfiguration: An Evening with Other Lives, an immersive evening with the Portland-based indie group Other Lives, Mix Tape is dedicated to creating collaborations between musicians and theater artists. “I am passionately interested in using music as part of a storytelling experience,” Kinney said.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.