Who’s Next: MJ Kaufman, Playwright

Playbill Pride   Who’s Next: MJ Kaufman, Playwright
 
As part of Playbill Pride 2016, we set our sights on the next generation of LGBTQ artists. Meet playwright MJ Kaufman.
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MJ Kaufman Eric McNatt

WHO:
MJ Kaufman

WHY THEY MATTER:
A member of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, trans playwright MJ Kaufman’s work has been developed and produced at the Yale School of Drama, New York Theater Workshop and Clubbed Thumb. Their sensory-filled play Sagittarius Ponderosa, about a trans boy who moves home to care for his dying father, embraces the fluidity of nature, gender, life and the human heart. It will receive its New York premiere this fall at National Asian American Theater Company.

What is your earliest memory of theatre?
Seeing my sister in As You Like It at our summer day camp.

Who has been especially crucial in your creative development?
My mentors Paula Vogel and Sarah Ruhl. Also fellow artists who queer forms such as Taylor Mac, Miguel Gutierrez, Peggy Shaw, Robert O’Hara, Young Jean Lee, Adrienne Kennedy. My family, especially my moms, my aunts, my siblings. My aunt Kathryn, who is also a writer.

Who do you regard as a mentor?
My playwriting teacher Sarah Ruhl, who taught me about Ovidean plot-form and cracked my world open.

Why do you think theatre matters?
It’s a chance for people to be present with each other and tell stories that matter. It’s a collaborative art-form so what you are seeing is always a collective vision, which I think is valuable in our individualistic ego-driven culture. Also spectacle is powerful. You can’t get that live charge of understanding through a screen.

What’s one thing that surprises people about you?
That I have queer parents. I wish that wouldn’t surprise people. I wish they wouldn’t assume a straight family structure.

LGBTQ theatrical moment that most impressed me:
Fully Functional Cabaret. A theatre piece put together by an ensemble of trans women artists, which combined full-scale musical numbers, genius comedy, surreal and absurd theatrical moments and shocking honesty and vulnerability. I saw it at the People’s Arts Collective in New Haven, a small community run arts space. There was minimal set and costumes, I sat next to the lighting designer, who held gels up to the lights to create different cues as the show was going on. I remember thinking that this was the most urgent and powerful work I had seen during my time in New Haven.

What are the stories you want to see LGBTQ people telling on stage?
Stories that take on love, family, home, trauma, spirituality, justice. That weave our trans ancestors with our trans present. That propose futures that change the way we see the present. Magical, sci-fi stories. Stories that acknowledge that dire reality for trans lives in our world but move beyond tragic characters and martyrs. Stories that go beyond coming out and transitioning. Stories that don’t mention surgery or hormones at all.

Who are the fringe/marginalized voices we need to put center stage?
Queer and transpeople especially trans women and trans people of color!

Untapped talent ready to make it big:
Shakina Nayfack, Aneesh Sheth, Ty Defoe, Star Amerasu, Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, Swift Shuker, Maybe Burke, Becca Blackwell, Cecilia Gentili, Deen Mashuq, Azure D. Osborne-Lee.

I wish the theatre had more:
Trans stories, especially ones authored by trans people that subvert traditional forms to make space for our realities.

Favorite artist of all time and why:
Bertolt Brecht. His investigations into form and politics have been invaluable to my work.

The next challenge I want to take on is:
Writing a play set in ancient Greece—about gender non-conforming philosophers at Plato’s academy.

I hope my legacy as an artist will be:
Telling good stories in new ways. And using any institutional access I’m given to clear the way for more trans artists, artists of color, and other marginalized voices.

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