From playwriting to TV scripting

The Baltimore Sun

Cumberland native Kia Corthron is known for stirring up trouble with words. As a political playwright, she has tackled complex and controversial subjects ranging from corporate exploitation in Liberia to the failures of the U.S. mainstream media to the struggles of girl gangs in the Bronx.

A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, the 46-year-old Corthron has had her work shown in theaters around the country, including Center Stage and the Yale Repertory Theatre, and in London.

She has also written for the HBO series The Wire and the Fox series The Jury, which was produced by HBO. Her play Breath, Boom, a coming-of-age story about a girl gang leader in the Bronx, was produced by several theaters, including the Studio Theatre in Washington a few months ago.

Corthron spoke about her latest play, The Wire and her plans. Tell me a little bit about the play Breath, Boom.

It premiered in 2000 at the Royal Court in London. In the U.S., it opened in 2001 at Playwrights Horizons in New York. [It is about] the leader of a girl gang in the Bronx. It is just her life process of being a teenager to being 30 years old over the course of the play.

There is one particular scene that takes place in a counseling room, and a lot of what takes place there was inspired by a playwright class I did on Rikers Island, the New York City jail, at the high school for girls there. They had selected seven or eight girls who they thought would do really well [at writing a play], and they did do really well. So it was for one week, all day every day. So it was this really intense program. On the last day, we did a reading for the entire women's prison.

The interesting thing for me [was that] it almost felt like the more violent a girl had been on the outside, the more she would write a play that would show her as a good girl. Which to me says a lot about society and the choices people are given. This is the person she wanted to be, but she didn't have that choice. How did you end up going from plays to television?

When I was an undergrad at the University of Maryland, I was interested in film, and there was a department in radio, television and film. It was actually my last semester that I took a playwriting class, and I went in that direction. I wrote a pilot for HBO for a show which ultimately they asked me to do. It was called The Jury. So maybe it was because HBO had some of my work and maybe they recommended me to [David Simon, creator of The Wire]. I don't know. I think it was because Breath, Boom really focused so much on young people and [The Wire's] season focused on young people that they asked me to write for it. (Corthron wrote an episode for the 2006 season of The Wire, which examined the Baltimore City school system.) How does writing for television change your writing style?

I don't know how different it is; in some ways it has to do with the producer. Like when I wrote an episode for Tom Fontana [for The Jury], it was a brand-new show, and he basically gave me a vague idea of the subject matter and then I just sort of went off and did it. With David Simon and Ed Burns [of The Wire], it was the fourth season and they had a very specific idea of what they wanted.

When I did this episode for The Jury, I was out in Minneapolis working on a play, and they sent me the idea. I looked it over, got back to New York, wrote it, whereas with The Wire I literally had to come down to Baltimore for a few days in this office, and all of them sort of went through this whole beat for the show.

I left there with 49 scenes to accomplish in 59 minutes. So it was very specific. Surprisingly, it still allowed certain freedoms in how I ordered the scenes. It was actually fun because I liked the subject matter that I was writing and, frankly, I wouldn't do television unless I liked what I was writing.

With cinema, it's so much about the pictures, the visual. With television, it is about the characters and the language, which is very much what playwriting is about. Frankly, I had not watched The Wire before. They gave me a couple of episodes to watch before I got down there or I would not have known what was going on. What did you do to bring the characters to life, especially since you're not based in Baltimore to know the quirks of the language?

Well, I did grow up in Cumberland, and I had a zillion Baltimore relatives so [the language] wasn't completely foreign. What are you working on now?

I have [received a commission from] Playwrights Horizons. [Corthron will be working on it at an artists' residency in Bellagio, Italy.] It's for writers, but mostly scholars, and then they take some artists. So you spend a week in Italy, writing and communing. I am going to work on a project there -- it has to do with water. Water in the world and who has it and who doesn't and the power structure. I have been to Liberia, I have been to Nairobi and I have been to Palestine, and then when I was at the World Social Forum in Nairobi in 2007, I went to a lot of sessions on water. When are you going to Italy?

We are going in the fall. We are still figuring out the exact dates, but somewhere between September and before Christmas. What do you plan to do for the summer?

I actually have a couple of other retreats. There's something called the Hermitage Artists Retreat. That is in the gulf in Florida; it's by invitation only. I had never heard of it before, so I am going down there for a while. And then I got an award for Excellence in the Arts from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts [in Amherst, Va.], so I am going to spend a lot of time there.

For the second year in a row, I am going to spend a lot of time in Alaska. There's something called the Last Frontier Theatre Conference. That's mainly a featured artist, because they bring up some artists to comment on the work. They have a bunch of readings of very-early-career writers, and I am one of the people that goes up to comment on their work. That's in June for an entire week. In Alaska, it's beautiful, stunningly gorgeous.

unisun@baltsun.com

Kia Corthron

Age:

46

Residence:

The Cumberland native lives in Harlem, N.Y.

Marital status:

Single

Her work:

She has written more than 20 plays, including Force Continuum, the story of a black policeman who questions his purpose in life; Snapshot Silhouette, about two 12-year-old girls from different cultures who find common ground; and Sweat, a radio-drama adaptation of the Zora Neale Hurston short story about a brutish husband and his Christian wife's redemption.

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