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Author: Becca Vaclavik

Q&A with ‘Burning the Old Man’ Playwright Kelly McAllister and Director Chip Persons

On Oct. 10, CU Theatre & Dance opens “Burning the Old Man,” a serious comedy about two brothers who can’t stand each other, tasked with fulfilling their father’s dying wish to have his ashes scattered at Burning Man. CU Presents sat down with playwright Kelly McAllister and Director Chip Persons to talk about the play’s upcoming regional premiere at CU’s Loft Theatre.

What are you working on right now?

Kelly McAllister: Currently, I am working on the development of a limited series for premium cable; working title “Lunatics and A##holes.” It’s a dark comedy with paranormal themes. I’m also working on a screen adaptation of “Burning the Old Man.” Have been doing more film and TV writing of late, although I still work on plays, run First Mondays at the DCPA, and I also teach playwriting there.

Chip Persons: We have just cast “Burning the Old Man,” and I can’t wait to bring these actors together with the rest of our creative team. This semester, I’m teaching our newly-admitted class of BFA Acting students, and I’m also co-teaching a class with Geoff Marslett that combines our Theatre and Cinema students to tell stories through the camera.

What is your dream project?

KA: I pretty much feel like everything I write is, to some extent, a dream project. But if I could find a home for “Lunatics and A##holes,” that would be rather amazing.

CP: This is it!

What/who is inspiring you right now?

KA: Meow Wolf; Sleep No More; The Mountain Goats; Welcome to Nightvale; our current political situation (perhaps aggravates as opposed to inspires); climate change; Bigfoot; and The Ferryman which I had the good fortune of seeing in NYC and totally blew me away.

CP: The Nevada desert. Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Divadlo Na Zabradli. Sunsets over water. Interstate 1. Eight-millimeter home movies. The order of Escher, vitality of Mucha, design of Hundertwasser, color of Gaugin, and abstract joy of Rothko.

Tell us about the inspiration behind “Burning the Old Man.”

KA: I wrote this play shortly after my father died. We had a complicated relationship. While not autobiographical, this play has a lot of me in it.

Why this play? Why now?

CP: I first encountered Kelly’s play at Divadlo Na Zabradli, Vaclav Havel’s theatre, in Prague. This play has been translated into Czech and Portuguese. This level of international interest in the play speaks to its universality. It’s is a misadventure rooted in the families that we’re born into and adopt, and the ways that those relationships evolve without us realizing it. The characters are grappling with feelings of present doom and unresolved pasts that continue to haunt them. That makes a cogent comparison to our country’s current climate.

Without giving too much away, tell us about your favorite moment (so far!) in the play.

KA: The vespers section; Love is evil spelled backwards and wrong; and also the beginning, middle, and end.

CP: The sacred, secular, improvised Vespers service near the end of Act One!

What do you want audience members to know before they enter the theatre this fall?

KA: That it’s good manners to turn off your phone in a theatre.

CP: The Loft Theatre is a wonderfully intimate space that demonstrates the notion of listeners going along willingly with a storyteller. There are no pretenses that this live theatre is happening separately from the audience. Whatever the individual opinions of the audience may be, they are active participants in the ritual of theatre as time and space are transformed before their eyes. (To that end, please turn off your phone so that everyone isn’t distracted by a different time and space!)

Why are the arts important (either to you or to humanity as a whole)?

KA: Because they help define ourselves, ask questions of ourselves, hold up a mirror and all that. I think the evolution of our collective soul takes a lot of time, and the arts helps us be a little better at things like empathy.

CP: To quote Katherine Anne Porter, the arts “are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away.” I grew up in San Diego Junior Theatre and the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, and witnessed kids who struggled to find themselves elsewhere be saved by the arts such that they non only survived but thrived. The arts are humanity’s cathartic, nourishing balm. They inspire me, calm me, and take me to places I never dreamed existed.

“Burning the Old Man” runs Oct. 10-13, in the Loft Theatre. Tickets start at $16.