Theater-Wise: A Very Short Q&A With Niki Selken from Ko Labs


A couple days ago, I saw this short blog post in Publishers’ Weekly that asked whether writers could make more money by putting on literary performances than by selling books (short answer: no.)

This dismissal seemed premature to me. I like to think that the lack of willingness among the general public to attend readings comes from that fact that many writers, probably including myself, don’t think much about how to perform. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that there isn’t much of an audience for our performances. This is a huge problem for reasons besides financial ones. Readings are becoming more and more integral to our growing literary community, and we need our readers (no, our performers),  not to suck.

I was eating dinner with my friend Niki Selken, a playwright and performer, when I brought this up. She agreed with me, and then she proceeded to go on an ingenious rant about how the worlds of theater and literature could learn a lot from each other.  She is the founder of Ko Labs, a theater cooperative here in San Francisco. In this short Q&A, we did our best to recreate her rant.

Rumpus: What got you thinking about readings?

Niki Selken: Over the past couple of years I have been involved in the lit and theater communities. Recently I went to a reading which featured a number of very talented fiction and poetry writers. At the end of it, I was left standing with my twelve dollar hand stamp and six dollar beer thinking, “Was this really worth it?” As I watched them perform, I wondered if they have had any performance training at all. Some managed to pull off heartfelt, moving, or hilarious acts of storytelling, but most fell flat.

I saw everything from monotone readings about female sexuality that unintentionally transformed the serious subject into a Parker Posey-style stand-up routine to poorly timed renditions of more comic poetry that stepped on the audiences laughter space, eventually cutting it out completely. These writers were very gifted at writing, but they needed some performance training and rehearsal to make it a successful performance.

Rumpus: What more do you think writers can learn from the theater community? And vice versa?

Selken: Theater is the act of transforming the written word into a performance, a community gathering that invokes and evokes all the senses: sight, sound, voice, and movement. The old adage, that comedy is just tragedy sped up, is really accurate for a writer reading her poem or short story. A poem about abortion read too fast can become laughable. Controversially, a punchy comic poem will fall flat without the right timing. The most basic theater and actor training skills, text analysis and rehearsal, can transform a reading.

On the other hand, the amount of support and community around writers working on fiction and non-fiction in the Bay Area is truly inspiring. The Theater scene in San Francisco is small and very competitive, due to the nature of jockeying for rehearsal space, auditioning for shows, and limited press. The lit scene has a number of blogs, web zines, and reviewers working to create an exciting community with a large number of readings and opportunities for writers locally. In contrast, while there are of course exceptions to this and many of them, many Bay Area plays are being staged and crafted to highlight spectacle and challenge classical theatrical forms.  Aristotle said, “The effect of fear and pity (catharsis) can arise from theatrical spectacle, but it can also arise from the intrinsic structure of events, and it is this which matters more and is the task of a superior poet.” This task has been all but forgotten some by Bay Area theater makers, who routinely present avant-guard, spectacle filled plays that have lost the plot. In fact, Aristotle believed that plot was the most important part of poetry and drama and spectacle the least important. Local writers could definitely teach the theater community the value or narrative and meaningful plot, which some seem to have forgotten.

Rumpus: What does Ko Labs have to do with all this?

Selken: I started Ko Labs in 2007 as a place to create workshop-developed, collaborative theater projects with a rotating pool of actors, directors, writers, musicians and designers. Most recently I have teamed up theater director Shakina Nayfack and producer and fiction writer Alan Holt, who is bringing in the lit perspective to the process of Ko Labs latest play, The Gods of San Francisco. Ko Labs is premiering the first version of this new one-act musical May 13th and it runs for two weeks. I hope to fuse the community and narrative integrity that I have observed within local lit scene with the performance training and collaborative nature of theater. The biggest challenge with showcasing a new work in development is putting up something more engaging than a staged reading, but without all the resources of a full scale theatrical production. What we’re trying to do here is something between a reading of the text and fully produced spectacle.

Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →