Featured Faces: K. Frithjof Peterson
Interview & photo by Gina Myers

There are things that can be done on stage that can’t be done on screen. Playwright K. Frithjof Peterson explains, "Plays rely on the audience’s imagination, and on the communal aspect." He uses a recent student production of Tracy Letts's Bug as a good example: "I'm sitting there in this tiny 90 seat black box theater. There are these imaginary bugs that the characters are dealing with, and they’re itching and they’re scratching, and suddenly you’re scratching your elbow, and you’re looking around, and somebody is scratching their arm, and you realize three-quarters through the play, there isn’t anybody sitting still in their seat. There are 90 of us, sitting there and scratching and wanting to get the hell out of there to go take a shower. And you’re going as insane as the characters in the play."

He adds, “It couldn’t have gone to those levels if I popped in the DVD of the film adaptation sitting at home. You don’t have that community that escalates it. I mean, I was taking my hat off, I was pulling my hair. That’s what that play can do—the kind of experience the play can give you that you can’t get if people aren’t there.” And though Peterson started out with dreams of writing movies, he has found himself at home on the stage.

Many people recognize Peterson simply as Kris, the man behind the bar serving up drinks and chatting up regulars at Steamers Pub in Old Town Saginaw. Not many of the patrons are aware of his other role as an acclaimed playwright. And though this summer has just gotten underway, it has already been a busy one for Peterson, who just returned from two weeks at the prestigious WordBRIDGE Playwrights Laboratory, and who will soon be heading to New York City to see his play Gun Metal Blue Bar performed in the Sam French Off Off Broadway Festival. As a young playwright his successes have been many: In addition to having his plays performed throughout Michigan, they have also been performed in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York, and Albuquerque. He’s received numerous awards and scholarships, he received the FUSION Theatre Company’s 2009 Jury Prize, and his plays have been finalists for The Kennedy Center’s National Ten-Minute Play Award and the 2010 Heideman Award.

Peterson, born in California, moved to Saginaw with his parents and graduated from Michigan Lutheran Seminary High School. Following graduation, he attended college for one year in Minnesota and then spent another year back in Saginaw before heading to Los Angeles to pursue dreams of screenwriting. He spent three-and-a-half years in Los Angeles, and though he found work as a writer for a production company, it wasn’t really the work he wanted to be doing. But it was in L.A. where he began writing plays and working with actors. After returning to Michigan, Peterson completed college at Saginaw Valley State University, and then went on to do a Master of Fine Arts degree at Western Michigan, which he has just completed.

It was at Western Michigan where Peterson had his first formal playwriting class, and it was there that he fell under the mentorship of Steve Feffer, a relationship that would be very important to Peterson. Feffer’s advice is to go for the ragged and righteous: "Let it be ragged and righteous, let it be a little bit sloppy, a little bit messy, and let it have some heart.” Peterson draws further influence from contemporary playwrights Sarah Ruhl, Conor McPherson, and Jose Rivera, and it is Rivera’s “36 Assumptions About Playwriting” that have been essential in informing Peterson’s work. He explains, “A lot of times writers that are new to writing for the stage will look at the stage in terms of its limitations, so they’ll look at the stage and think, okay, I’m stuck with this space, what story can I tell in one place? Or, what idea do I have that we can talk about? Because there is going to be a lot of talking. And I was that way when I started out too. But what I have been able to learn is to not do that, to emphasize what the stage can do. [Rivera says] in every one of your plays, write something impossible and don’t let the director talk you out of it.”

Peterson was first turned onto Rivera’s References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot, which opens with a coyote trying to seduce a house cat, when someone suggested he check it out. “If someone told me to check out a play where a coyote is trying to seduce a house cat, I would probably have not picked the play up. But instead, they just said, ‘Read this play.’ It only took two to three lines of dialogue for me to get it, and it worked so well. And then there’s Gabriela flirting with the moon who’s sitting on top of her refrigerator. That was probably the most clear example on the page of things that plays can do that films have trouble doing…On stage there can be so many layers of metaphor happening that you’re into it. And you have the audience’s imagination too. If you don’t have the audience’s imagination, forget it.”

One practice that has been essential to Peterson’s development is to write every day. He generally works on two long plays at a time—one play is near finished but needs some tinkering, and the other is in earlier stages of development. He’ll often write short, one act and ten-minute plays between finishing one long play and starting a new one. The important thing he has learned from all of this writing is to throw work away. He asks in sincerity, “If you don’t write everyday, how can you throw things away?” He’s had ninety page plays cut down to ten pages, and then written a new ninety page play with those ten pages as the basis. For his current play, Where the Whangdoodle Sings, Peterson estimates that he has written over 500 pages to get to the 80-page play he now has.

There’s constant revision to be done. And this process of fine-tuning continues when the play gets into the hands of actors, which is an extremely important part of the process. You have to get your words heard. Peterson says, “As a playwright, you don’t know who is going to come through the door—it could be someone who was dragged along, or someone who had a miserable day before coming in the door that night.” His advice for young writers is to find people to read their work out loud to. “You need to get your stuff out there and have it heard by a wide range of people to see how your words fall on the world.”

With having just completed his Masters degree, Peterson is ready to move on to something new. And though he loves being in Saginaw and considers it home, he knows he most likely has to move elsewhere to further his career. Not only are there more opportunities to work with actors in big cities, but the future of theater is already happening in the cultural epicenters of the U.S. “In cities like San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, they’re attracting young audiences, and they’re doing that in big ways." They’re able to put on plays that are funny and tragic, which appeals to a younger theater-going crowd. "The tragic comedy, more so in our generation, has become tonally acceptable. Like, we want to be doing both—we want to laugh and we want you to yank our souls at the same time.”

© Gina Myers, 2010