In an ideal theatrical world, playwrights and actors have the same goals. Both want a transition from page to stage that has integrity and honesty. Both seek a kind of dimension and indelibility that will make a play and its ideas linger with an audience beyond the curtain call. And both hope their characters will be greater in performance than the sum of the individual talents that created them. Same destination, yes. But the roads taken can be very different and littered with potholes, detours and other obstacles. When a playwright and an actor find themselves reading the same map, the journey—if not always easy—is a more satisfying one.
Aditi Brennan Kapil and Nathaniel Fuller are finding a rhythm in their aesthetic travels. Kapil is a Minneapolis actor whose career as a playwright blossomed into a coast-to-coast endeavor in recent years—she’s currently working on commissions for both Yale Repertory Theatre in Connecticut and La Jolla Playhouse in California. Fuller is a stalwart on the Twin Cities performance scene, with a quarter-century’s worth of roles at the Guthrie and other theatres.
Their kinship has its roots in shared stage time. Though the precise circumstances of their first meeting are lost in the slough of auditions, staged readings and industrial films that busy theatre artists accumulate over the years, the first time either can remember actually working together was in 2005. It was at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, in a workshop production of Lonnie Carter’s Organizing Abraham Lincoln, a play about efforts to unionize university teaching assistants.
“I was playing one of the organizers. She was playing a Christiane Amanpour type of character,” Fuller remembers, referencing the correspondent for the CNN network. “She nailed it. It was hysterical.”
A couple of years later, Kapil cast Fuller in Buck the Rider. She wrote the short play for Thirst Theatre, a performance experiment that produced new plays in Twin Cities bars and restaurants.
The role was that of an old man with dementia—not too much of a stretch from the “fathers, priests and dead people” roles that represent a lot of the kind of work for which Fuller gets called.
But Kapil saw Fuller’s work ethic in that short script…and saw the potential for Fuller to stretch beyond his avuncular comfort zone. So when she was casting about for a brusque Bulgarian subway operator in Mixed Blood Theatre’s production of her new script, Agnes Under the Big Top, she asked Fuller to read for the role. “I remember coming in and reading,” Fuller recalls, “and Aditi said, ‘That was very nice. Could you be more of an asshole?’”
Evidently, he could.
Fuller was cast in a role that required an accent and an attitude of a decidedly darker hue. It’s a performance he now identifies as “one of the more significant events of my career”—one that was made possible by his own willingness to stretch, and by a playwright with firsthand familiarity of the rhythms of the stage.
“There’s a difference in the writing of people who’ve been actors,” Fuller posits. “Aditi has a better sense of what is sayable. I’ve done a lot of dialogue in my time written by people who don’t write for the words to be spoken out loud. Then there are writers who are very literate, but when they write plays, the words sound literate. The timing isn’t right, or the punch lines don’t hit.”
Sharing coffee on the sunny patio of an Uptown Minneapolis restaurant, Kapil accepts the compliment gracefully and agrees that her stage work gives her insight into what tools are most useful for actors to help them take an audience for a ride. “As a writer, I care how I’m affecting the internal rhythm of an actor,” Kapil says. “It’s not like I won’t make him say a load of words. I’ll just make sure they’re bumping and moving in a way that’s going to affect him emotionally. I ask myself: How can I empower this actor to affect the audience?”
But those tools have to be placed in the correct hands. “The reason Nat’s such a valuable resource as an actor is that he’s willing to let me zap his brain over and over and over again in search of something, even if that ‘something’ is not at all in his comfort zone,” Kapil continues. “He’s willing to let me not just tinker with what comes out of his mouth—he’s willing to let me tinker with his soul, over the course of a month, and find someone who might be completely distant from his own personality, and then give that to an audience consistently over the course of a run.”
The give-and-take between playwright and actor can carry some tension, and Kapil and Fuller agree that tension—properly channeled—is good for the process and for the product. When a playwright isn’t clear in her intent, or when an actor starts reaching too often into his familiar bag of mannerisms, a play can all too easily become earthbound and refuse to blossom during performance. Misunderstandings and miscommunications can exacerbate the situation.
Kapil and Fuller, however, continue to build a way of communicating sometimes conflicting ideas in a way that paves a path toward synthesis.
“On the page, Aditi’s plays aren’t always accessible,” Fuller allows. “They’re meant to be acted. If you follow it and figure out how it works, they’re very strong. But as an actor, you’ve got to feel something, and Aditi is willing to go along with the process to get me to feel what she’s trying to convey.”
Reaching the common destination takes a great deal of trust, especially for a playwright as iterative as Kapil. During the coffee date, the pair discusses the evolution of Shiv, one of a trilogy of Kapil’s plays that will be staged Oct. 5–29 at Mixed Blood under the title Displaced Hindu Gods. Fuller, who will be playing some version of the Hindu god Shiva (but as of this conversation has not yet seen the play’s most recent draft), listens with a mix of interest and bemusement as Kapil tries to explain the changes.
Finally, she smiles at Fuller in a kind of unspoken communication that fellow travelers share.
“A big part of the reason I work with Nat,” she explains, “is that, when we were casting, this play wasn’t done, and this character’s place in the play was in flux. But I figured I can send Nat in any direction and completely trust him to go there. He’s a precision machine. He will stick with it, not till you say ‘that’s good,’ but till he feels it, too.”
Dominic P. Papatola is a critic based in Minneapolis.