I recently got to see the play Ramifications of a Particular Crash at GO Studios in Vancouver (you can find the review here) and afterward I had the opportunity to interview the writer, Kris Elgstrand. He’s a lifelong resident of Vancouver with a wife and kid, and he turns 40 this year. “I’m hoping that experience is like turning 30 where I discovered that turning 29 was worse.” Check out the interview below.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Kris Elgstrand: I sometimes play piano and when I was a kid I would retain the screening times, running times and parental warnings of all the movies that played in the Vancouver area. In my younger years, I had an uncanny ability to meet artists, writers and musicians I greatly admired, usually by chance. Some of those people include Woody Allen, Wynton Marsalis and many members of his band, Harrison Ford, David Lynch, William H. Macy, Robertson Davies, etc.
How did you get into writing?
KE: It started with acting. For most of my youth, I wanted to be a performer but I also loved sitting at typewriters. I got my first typewriter of my own in Grade 8. The kids at school thought it weird that I didn’t find it upsetting. I was very happy with my Smith Corona, even though it was no IBM Selectric. So writing was always something I did throughout school. Even though I still intended to be an actor, I wrote my first play as part of a 24 hour playwriting contest. I got an honourable mention and got good feedback when I produced the play later that year. Finally, a year after that I attended the Atlantic Theater Company’s Practical Aesthetics Workshop. I really enjoyed the technique but found myself thinking my h more about writing than acting. That David Mamet was one of our teachers probably encouraged me even more to think about writing. Then I realized that most of my heroes were writers and composers rather than actors and soloists. So then I started writing all the time and producing as much of my own work as I could which set the scene for everything that came after.
What is your writing process like? How do you normally get inspiration and how do you form an 80 minute play like Ramifications?
KE: I don’t follow one specific technique or formula for writing. I often try different things out on different projects. The most important thing is to write all the time, which I try to do. Recently I’ve been concentrating on film scripts. I do find its important to do a lot of reading and get out to see a movie or hear some live music once in a while. As for Ramifications, I had the great privilege of working on the script with Martin Kinch at Playwrights Theatre and the Banff PlayRites Colony.
What is your favourite part of the creative process in creating a stage show?
KE: The best part of the process for me is when I’m pleasantly surprised by the choices and discoveries made by the director and the actors. The worst part is when you’re unpleasantly surprised by the same. Lately, though, I’ve mostly been extremely happy with the people I’ve worked with. In particular, working with Martin Kinch, who directed Ramifications, is always great. Brad Dryborough, who appears in Ramifications, also directed a production of my first full-length play in Whitehorse and I was quite delighted by what he and the actors did with it. That’s always exciting.
How did you come up with the idea for Ramifications?
KE: The idea was inspired by a series of events I’d read about but not directly based on any one of them. Then imagination takes over.
With the Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes drama of recent years, how do you feel this fits with or mirrors your play?
KE: Well, when I wrote the first draft Britney Spears was much more in the news for her breakdown. I think there is something about the media machine that can eat people alive and I was taken by that idea. Lindsay Lohan’s troubles started around the time I was writing revising the script so that definitely played into it as well. Ultimately the play is really about a lot of lost people and how they try to seize an opportunity to find their way out.
You have also written for filmed pieces, what do you find are some of the differences between writing for stage and film?
KE: One difference is that in a play, you’re encouraged to have your characters talk a lot in one location. In film, they generally want to shoot you in the face for doing that. Aside from that and other obvious differences, you’re always just trying to tell a story as well and entertainingly as you can. When I started writing film scripts I did have to work a lot to keep things moving and cinematic but now I feel like I can jump from one to the other. Having said that, I don’t think anyone who has read a film script of mine would be surprised to find out I started out writing plays. I always have to cut back my dialogue. A lot.
What advice would you give to those that want to get into the writing business?
KE: I kind of feel like I’m just starting out. I’ve been writing in some form or another since elementary school so it’s always something I’ve done. So my first piece of advice would be that if you want to write you should write. If you don’t want to write, you shouldn’t. There’s no value in pretending to be a writer. Nobody really likes writers much anyway. Many of us are weird and antisocial. If you are writing, write more, read more, see more. Find your voice as a writer. Actors have to go through voice class to develop their vocal instrument, writers have to do much the same thing but often on our own. I started out by trying to write just like David Mamet. I read the writers that influenced and inspired him. Its a great way to expose yourself to work, new and old, you might not otherwise discover. Once you’ve written something, get it out there, show it to someone, produce it whether it’s a play or short film. Developing producer skills is never a bad thing. You have to get your work out there to learn and grow. Once you’ve developed the habit of writing and getting it out there, it’s just a question of not letting up.
You have also created these Social Anxiety Hour events, what are those about?
KE: The Social Anxiety Hour is a music and comedy variety show that grew out of another theatre piece I’d been working on for a long time called Songs of the Sad Sack. After years of working on a play about a fake variety show that seemed to go nowhere, I recorded some of the music I’d written for it and put out a CD called Songs of the Sad Sack, Volume 1: I’m so disappointed. Having recorded the CD, I had to try to figure out how to get people to buy or listen to it so I did a round of apartment concerts I called my Intimate and Awkward Tour. From there it was just a hop, skip and a jump back to theatre and the Social Anxiety Hour. It’s just a fun show. Feedback has been great and I’m hoping to do more with it in the not-too-distant future. It’s opened up an area of performing that I gave up so long ago. It’s probably the most fun project I’ve ever worked on. In a way, I’m more proud of it than any of my other work, which is strange because it’s a silly, ramshackle show but t really is fun.
How did you come up with the idea for those?
KE: As I mentioned, it started with the theatre piece and the music. Then I was inspired a lot by the old variety and music shows one can find on DVD these days, like the Judy Garland Show or the Dean Martin Show. That kind of entertainment – that was in its last days when I was a kid, really just living on in the Jerry Lewis Telethon, for example – has all but disappeared. I love watching those old shows. I don’t even pretend to aspire to their quality, though. That’s the gift of Songs of the Sad Sack and the modern gifts of anxiety and depression. We do our best in spite of our terrible failure.
What is next for you?
KE: The return of the Social Anxiety Hour this fall as well as a podcast version are next up. I have a feature in the early stages of production (also known as the “find the money” stage) that I hope to direct later this year or early next year. Dylan Akio Smith, with whom I’ve made several shorts and feature films, and I are hoping to get going on a new film as well. I’ll write and he’ll direct. Martin and I are hoping to work on more things together soon. I haven’t been writing much theatre lately but Ramifications has inspired me to get back at that. I’m not exactly sure what will come of it yet but I’m looking forward to finding out. And, finally, I acted in a film called Naked Night Bike last summer and fall. I’m no actor but you’ll be able to see me in that sometime soon, too.
You can find more about Kris Elgstrand on his website legstand.com and on Twitter @leg_stand