An Interview with Kyle Berlin of Rhizome Theater Company

Kyle Berlin is an independent theater-maker, writer, and social-practice artist. He is the co-founder of Rhizome Theater Company, which makes socially-engaged documentary theater in communities around the nation. Rhizome’s signature work is a play entitled “Nice Town, Normal People,” which is comprised entirely of pieced-together interviews Kyle and his collaborators conducted in their hometown of Arroyo Grande, California, about the idea of “home.” The play, featuring original live music, aims to be a conduit for community discussion and healing in fractured times.

How did you first get involved with creative writing/theater?

You know, I really just stumbled into both. Something I’m always wondering is if it’s ever possible to pinpoint an exact moment when something—anything—began. If only we could get to the origin of things, we might better understand them. And yet this seems nearly impossible to do! Even with something as simple and personal as this question. With that being said, however, I think my love of both began with my love of reading. As a kindergartner in Mrs. Dechert’s class, I remember reading book after book after book—and also being read books aloud, and reading them aloud to others, during story time. Looking back, perhaps this was the genesis of my love for the written word as an art in itself—and always a performative art. To this day, anything I write I hear read aloud as I write it—or often do read it aloud, literally, to hear how it sounds. (This is probably also a product of growing up listening to Selected Shorts, the public radio program that features actors reading short stories out loud live on stage.) It’s only in retrospect that I realize that creative writing and theater were always central to what I was doing and loved most. Even in college, I really only studied them by accident, taking a class with a professor in each department who told me, “oh, you should probably do this” and I was like, “oh, yeah I guess that would make sense.”

Program cover from the “Nice Town, Normal People” production, 2017.

Program cover from the “Nice Town, Normal People” production, 2017.

What inspired you to write “Nice Town, Normal People” people?

My best friend/artistic collaborator and I were disturbed, like many, by the deep divisions and animosities the 2016 election laid bare—divisions and animosities that have, of course, long existed but had been perhaps less obvious to the undiscerning eye. And we were wondering what it was we could possibly do in response, to get a better gauge of what was going on, and to hopefully enact some positive social influence. It seemed to us that one of the central questions of that election—and, really, our moment—is the question of “home”: what it looks like, who belongs, who doesn’t. The concept of “home” encompasses such era-defining issues as the international immigration and refugee crisis, as well as more personal, intimate stories, feelings, and histories. And so “home” is something at once incredibly broad and very specific, incredibly different and surprisingly similar across populations. Wanting to probe these questions, it seemed to us the most sensible thing would be to return to our own hometown and try to figure out what was going on there. So we got a Davis Projects for Peace grant to sponsor us and were able to do just that. We interviewed nearly 100 people in our town, from recent immigrants to multi-generation farming families, talking with them in-depth about their own stories of our town and feelings about “home.” These interviews yielded a truly surprising wealth of material that cried out to be made into a piece of theater, to be shared with other community members, to try to get at some of the “big picture” problems underlying the utopian image of our “nice town” with “normal people.”

In “Nice Town, Normal People,” you use your hometown as inspiration. Why do you think so many playwrights utilize self-reflexivity?

Some people say, “write what you know.” Others say, “write what you don’t know.” On the one hand, there is the fear of something ringing false, a fiction too unreal; on the other, the fear of dull complacency and navel-gazing. As always, I think the answer is not either-or, but somewhere in the middle. (Write from what you know towards what you don’t?)

It’s interesting to note that memoirs are among the best-selling writing out there—far above short stories, poems, plays, and even most “literary” novels. Why? I think there are a lot of reasons, chief among them that people read because they want to catch a glimpse of a different life from which they can learn, at once connecting with and being transported from their own life. And a memoir is a very direct, digestible way of doing that. It is ostensibly “real” in a way that a piece of “pure fiction” (if such a thing were to exist) is not. Of course, I maintain that often truth-with-a-capital-T can be better achieved through making things up and the artistic freedom that allows, but it is unavoidable that the bedrock of any creative output must be one’s own experiences. How else are we to know what we know, to feel what we feel? There is also an ethical dimension, as writing from self-reflexivity is generally less risky than trying to tell a story of a person or a place vastly different from oneself, which may lend itself to cooptation or misrepresentation or all those other dangerous pitfalls. But that doesn’t mean we should stop with our own experiences. That would be terribly limiting, insular, and divisive; we would be caught within the tiny and tenuous borders of our own silly self.

Walk us through your creative process. Do you have any routines or rituals? What do you do if you have writer’s block?  

Kyle Berlin (right) pictured at work on “Nice Town, Normal People.”

Kyle Berlin (right) pictured at work on “Nice Town, Normal People.”

Everywhere I go, I am trying to pay as much attention as I can. Awareness and attention, as much consciousness as I can muster, are, for me, aesthetic and ethical commitments—as well as ways of simply enriching my own experience of the everyday. Virtually any environment, from the drabbest, cruelest courtroom to the most resplendent waterfall, is awash with patterns, geometries, emotions, relationships, histories that we can only begin to imagine. Paying attention is a way of starting to access this rich world-beneath-the-world—this world always there but rarely accessed, so often caught in our heads as we are. It’s not so much mining for beauty—this, on its own, would be glib—as it is trying to approach a more complex, more humane, more generous understanding of the worlds we live in, both to ourselves, to others, and to the texture of the world itself.

Awareness is an everyday practice that I think of as part of my creative process, because it is the root of anything I make. (And making, I think, is perhaps nothing more (and nothing less) than a rearrangement of awareness.) I utilize tools to try to develop my own ability to attend to the world, to pay the attention, to develop the awareness: carrying a notebook everywhere I go, writing down what comes to me or what I see or overhear; writing down at the end of the day everything I can remember from the course of the day; meditational practices of sustained attention, to an artwork or a person or anything; breathing exercises; looping the same music; talking with strangers. With all these, I have yet to feel fully blocked, because there is always so much coming in! If anything, the problem then becomes overwhelm: how do you hone in while zooming out?

Who are your creativity heroes/mentors?

Most directly, I am indebted to the many teachers I have encountered along the way. When I say “teachers,” I mean both those whose profession is teaching (talk about heroes!) and those many more whom I have learned from through everyday life

Everywhere I travel, I carry a copy of What the Living Do, Marie Howe’s absolutely illuminating collection of poems. They seem perfect for just about any situation (insofar as any situation is, in fact, what the living do) and I repeat them like an incantation. Her poems contain a deep sorrow that is accompanied—“like a brook that runs alongside a train”—by the fullest, most human of joys. She manages to hold death and life, suffering and pleasure, sorrow and joy in one breath. And that inspires me endlessly, not only as an artist, but as a human being.

What are some of the most important lessons that your mentors have imparted on you?

You don’t know what you don’t know. How you think you sound is not how you sound. Do things, but not too many. See what you’re not looking for. Everything is energy. Courage is most often found in the margins. Your voice is singular and nonsingular. The ego is a nasty invention. Create, don't dictate. Let your work heal.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Still from “Nice Town, Normal People”

Still from “Nice Town, Normal People”

I myself am still an aspiring writer, so I’m not sure how much wisdom I have except one of the biggest life lessons that rears its head in most contexts: Know your audience. My 11th grade English teacher reiterated that as her parting lesson, and she was so right. Whatever field you are writing for, I think it’s important to know the other writers in that field, know what people expect, know the unwritten rules—even so that if you break them, you know what you are doing. Knowing your audience is not about pandering to them, it’s not about manipulation, but it is about (again) paying attention to who you are and who they are, so that whatever you make (and you must make and make and make and write and write and write!) is entering in that space between you and them in a responsible—and, if you’d like, “successful”—way. But at the end of the day, it is you who must stand by your writing, you who it must be meaningful for. And you who must live with yourself.

For more information on Kyle's projects, past and future, and to support Rhizome Theater Company, visit their website by clicking here. You can find them on Facebook by clicking here. Support young local artists!

Interview conducted by Ashlyn Lackey. Edited for clarity by Kat Neis.