Coming Together Out Of ‘Desperation,' Kansas City Playwrights Confront Fear Of Failure

Jul 29, 2016

It all started with Death of a Salesman.

When up-and-coming Kansas City playwrights Sarah Aptilon, Victor Wishna and Inbar Kahnsat sat down and thought about how they might collaborate on a project for the Kansas City Fringe Festival, they understood it would be a challenge to combine three separate plays into a production that made sense.

But they each were inspired by the themes of disillusionment in Arthur Miller’s classic.

“The notion of confronting failure, and confronting the probability of failure, confronting desperation, rather it’s real or imagined, is a really powerful thing,” says Sarah Aptilon.

The result is Desperate Acts, a trio of plays united not only by their themes but also by an ensemble of four actors who carry the action throughout the production.

“They’re three completely independent short plays that hopefully are thematically linked," says Wishna. "All of them feature what we hope are interesting characters that have been put in difficult situations.”

Kahn, who took on director duties, is an Israeli playwright who moved to Kansas City two years ago. She says the Fringe platform allows writers and producers to experiment, and the three collaborators took advantage of that.

“I think that Fringe kind of let us test the boundaries, which is nice,” says Kahn. “And, it gives us much more freedom as writers and as a directors.”

The writers brought their own experiences to the writing process.

Aptilon has spent time in Japan and Mexico, and she says her play, Acapulco, revisits the chaos and tension that can be part of life there. Wishna, in his play Written Off, takes a comedic view of the desperation felt by an actor hearing from TV execs that his character is being killed in the upcoming season. And Kahn, in After the Rain, draws from her experiences as a writer trying to master the cultural codes of a new country.

Aptilon says the result is far from anything Arthur Miller might come up with, but the theme of disillusion is there. And together, the three stories explore the artistic process.

“Just confronting failure, and having to keep going,” Aptilon says.

Kahn says as an Israeli director coming from a different culture, interpreting the layered meanings in the plays has been personally challenging.

Also, her autobiographical story as an artist in a new country comes at a time when immigration is part of a national discussion.

“In Israel, which is very much an immigrant country, I was working in community theater and have been exposed a lot to immigration stories,” Kahn says. “So I feel that there is always a good time talk about it, to put it on the table, and just to see what they’re going through and … just to hear other voices.”

All three playwrights say the alchemy that is live theater — allowing the actors to create something new out of what the writers started — is the best part of writing plays.

“Just that living moment, of being in the room with the audience, it’s so magical and it’s spiritual for me,” says Aptilon. “So just to create that living moment and let it take off on its own is really magical for me.”

Which doesn't sound like a failure, especially for a project inspired by the idea of disillusion.

'Desperate Acts,' July 22 - July 30, Just Off Broadway, 3051 Central in Penn Valley Park, Kansas City, Missouri. The production is one of more than 400 performances and exhibits in this year's Kansas City Fringe Festival, which runs through July 31. 

Janet Saidi is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @theradiogirl.