"I DON'T KNOW ANYTHING about politics or about acting but I do know a lot about students," says student playwright P.J. Kenney '85 about the inspiration for his new production, Common Knowledge, now playing at the Agassiz Theater.
Already the author of three produced plays by the time he graduated from high school (including one written in the sixth grade), Kenney entered his fourth set at a California health club in a young playwright's competition. One of the judges wrote back and suggested that he do his next play about something he was more familiar with.
So Kenney began his freshman year at Harvard looking for subject matter. As it turned out, Kenney had to search no further than the Union. "It bothered me that I knew people on all sides of the political arena from the radicals to members of the Conservative Club who got involved in political groups for the wrong reasons."
Once he had the idea Kenney said that play practically wrote itself. "Once you start writing the characters take over you realize that this character must react in a certain way or that a speech doesn't go with a certain character."
But seeing the characters created from his encounters at the Union come to life on stage at the Agassiz was a year and a half long process for the Eliot House resident. After writing the play the summer after his freshman year, Kenney spent the fall of his sophomore year rewriting before applying to the Office for the Arts for a slot at the Agassiz for the following fall. Last summer the play went through a third draft with the fourth and final draft being hammered out between author director John Hawkins and actors at rehearsals this fall.
But aside from organizing the play the Weymouth, Mass native recalls the biggest thrill was seeing the characters speak his words. "I became worried that what I was thinking and what I was writing were not coming together," he says, explaining that his play satirizing the inability of a radical group to get off the ground is not intended to come down hard on idealism of students or on the left. He points out that no politics are discussed on stage. Rather Kenney is criticizing the leaders inability to express these ideals and their tendency to "view bureaucracy as a Saviour."
"P.J. is a serious playwright with serious ideas," says Myra Mayman, director of Office for the Arts, which named Kenney's play the Louis B. Mayer Memorial Production at the Agassiz. Mayman points out that the Agassiz has traditionally been user as forum for original plays including Eugene O'Neill's early works. "P.J. Kenney is in that great tradition," she adds.
HE ADMITS THAT his lack of knowledge about directing made the transition from typewriter to stage more difficult. But by opening night, all nervousness subsided. "I was too busy with the lighting," says Kenney, who began his interest in the theater through his high school involvement in lighting and technical design and who designed the lighting for his own show.
Ever since he started writing plays, Kenney says he's always thinking about the next one and this time is no exception. A Slavic Studies major Kenney is planning to move far away from the campus for his next venture. Following that judge's advice, Kenney plans to spend next semester studying at the University of Moscow and writing his next work a comedy about the decision of 10th Century rulers of Kiev as to which religion to adopt. "I picture a bunch of religious salesman sitting around in a waiting room," a scene which he denies is Hasty Pudding material.
This project together with his involvement in lighting for the upcoming Loeb Ex show, Six Characters in Search of an Author should keep him from feeling the letdown he expects when his first Harvard produced play closes. "It's a let down that a play can just disappear I know it won't be the old chestnut type of play that will make people say Let's do Common Knowledge again."
But for Kenney it was enough that the play existed outside his mind even for a short period of time. "I compare it to lighting where the colors and lights are ephemeral. The next day all that work is nothing but a list of cue sheets or in this case a script in a desk drawer."