Being a Working Playwright at 100: An Interview with Playwright Paul Manuel Kane

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  • Anthony J. Piccione

It’s often said that it’s never too late, and that you’re never too old, to pursue your goals and make your dreams come true. However, as many artists find, it doesn’t get any easier as you get older, as it always seems that producers are consistently looking for the next “big thing”. Yet if there’s any living playwright who seems to defy that notion today, it’s Paul Manuel Kane, whose full-length play My Name is Sam recently premiered at Manhattan Repertory Theatre in February 2019, and is still hard at work on writing new plays to this day…just after turning 100 years old!

I will confess, when I normally interview artists, it’s not every day that I agree to go to interview the subjects of these articles in-person. Usually, the interview process is done entirely over the Internet. However, when I first heard about this story from Ken Wolf – the Artistic Director at Manhattan Rep – I was immediately fascinated and inspired, and was hard-pressed to turn down the opportunity to interview him, by any means necessary.

When I arrived at his Greenwich Village apartment – which he says is rather close to the one that Alec Baldwin currently resides in, within the same building – on a late Wednesday night, I admit I was a bit nervous about how I would start the interview. After all, it’s not every day I have to prepare for an in-person interview for my work with this website. Yet luckily for me, when I arrived, Mr. Kane was kind enough to let me sit down, and before I could begin finishing my first question, he stated “Let me guess? You want to know a little about my background.”

“You read my mind,” I said, as he immediately started telling me about his story that led to his current life as a writer.

Throughout the conversation, Kane entertained me with stories of past life, ranging from his service in World War II after being drafted as a young man to how he met Barbra Streisand before she became famous, as well as a time where he met and partied with Tennessee Williams in his prime, recalling a specific humorous incident with a woman who once came up to Mr. Williams after the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire.  “A woman once came up to him who had just seen the play, and asked what it was about,” he said, “and [Williams] simply replied ‘it was about a streetcar named desire.’”

However, his true passion during his early life – the memories of which he clearly remains most fond of – is his work as a high school English teacher in the Brooklyn school district. “I loved it. I was a good teacher because I was crazy!” he said, recalling a specific time where he came into class with a dress on the hanger and an “A” for adultery, while preparing to discuss The Scarlet Letter. Yet around 1975, when the drug epidemic took hold of his students, he became disillusioned with teaching. “Teaching meant nothing anyone,” he said. “When [one kid] came to class, I asked ‘What’s wrong with him?’ and [another student] said ‘He’s flying.’ I had no idea what they meant, but I knew then, that I had to get out of teaching.”

It was then when he retired from teaching, and embarked on the chapter in his life I was most eager to discuss with him: His post-retirement career as a writer, which was his initial plan prior to going into teaching, going back to when he studied writing at the University of Wisconsin with help from the G.I. Bill. Since his retirement from teaching English in the late 1970s, he’s written no shortage of other plays – both one-acts and full-lengths, such as the Off-Broadway production of Dancing on Nails – and he is also the author of a wide-ranging catalog of short stories, some of which have been published.

Then of course, just last month, he had a new full-length play produced the same month of his 100th birthday. My Name is Sam, which was produced at Manhattan Rep earlier this year, and received a fair amount of press at the time. “I can’t travel much, because of my illness”, he said, “but I did go to the last rehearsal.” Judging by my overall conversation with him, he sounded pleased with the end result and with the process of working with Artistic Director Ken Wolf. “I would work with him again,” Kane said.

Clearly, Kane isn’t oblivious to the fact that one particular aspect of his story is one that should be of interest to the press. “I’m 100 years old and still working as a playwright”, he says, adding that “[y]ou would think that’d be of some interest to a publicist or manager.” Yet like nearly any American playwright alive today, however, he has no shortage of frustrations about the difficulty of advancing into more commercial theatre, some of which are related to his age, while others are clearly relatable to any playwright in New York.

“You’ve got to know people to even get your foot in the door”, he says of the struggles of getting an agent, before going on to say “if you’re over 40 or 50 [as a playwright], forget about it.“ He recalls a time when the Public Theatre was far more inclusive of new writers, recalling how after Joseph Papp passed away, groups that were inclusive of new playwrights – of which he regrets not joining at the time – began to fade out.

Still, despite his comments, that isn’t stopping him from trying to get past the challenges he speaks of. By the end of the interview, Kane hinted to me at his ambitious hopes for his next play, which he says deals with issues of sexual assault and race relations. “The play that I’m working on now demands professional attention,” he said, as he described his hopes for his latest full-length play, which he is currently working on, before going on to further discuss the difficulty of getting an agent or manager in New York. “I’m trying to overcome that,” he says of those obstacles.

From my end of things, it was certainly an interesting and thought-provoking conversation, lasting well over an hour with plenty of bits in there that couldn’t be fit into this article. As I descended in the elevator and left the building that night, with over an hour’s worth of conversation to consider including in the article, what most stood out to me is how – even at his advanced age – he is still hard at work on writing, and continuously working hard – in some cases, working harder than many younger playwrights close to my age – to ensure that his work his staged and seen by the entire world. As a playwright myself, the idea of living to be his age and still writing is alone inspiring, and I would think it would be to anyone else – regardless of their age – who is passionate about their craft. While even he is well aware of the challenges that exist for emerging playwrights across various generations, there’s plenty to admire about someone who still persists – and still succeeds – even at 100.

           

For more information on “My Name is Sam” and on Manhattan Rep’s additional programming, please visit www.manhattanrep.com.

 

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About the Author

Anthony J. Piccione is an award-winning playwright and producer based in New York City. His full-length drama “A Therapy Session with Myself” premiered in January 2019 at the Hudson Guild Theatre before transferring to the Kraine Theater for an ongoing series of monthly performances. His short drama “What I Left Behind” was named the NYWinterfest's Best Short Play of 2018, and he was also nominated for Planet Connections Theatre Festivity's Outstanding Playwright award for his avant-garde one-act “4 $tages”. His work as a playwright has been published at JAC Publishing and Promotions, Heuer Publishing & Off The Wall Plays, and his articles and reviews are frequently published at OnStage Blog. Visit www.anthonyjpiccione.com to learn more.