Stage Fright: Plays from San Francisco Poets Theater

BY Kevin Killian


ISBN: 9780999719824 (2019)

Here are the selected plays of Kevin Killian, who has for decades won laurels for his novels, his poetry, and his work in the poets theater of the San Francisco Bay Area. Drawing from the late 1980s to the early 2010s, this is the first representative selection of Killian’s plays. Once describing his productions as a form of “blanket permission,” Killian added, “I think people might come away thinking, I could do that! Isn’t that the best kind of work, something generative? Action painting was sort of like that…” This is a book to read, where reading means catching some action.

Kevin Killian is the author of more than forty plays. His collaborative poets theater works include Stone Marmalade (1996, with Leslie Scalapino), The American Objectivists (2001, with Brian Kim Stefans), and, with Barbara Guest, Often (published in a limited edition by Kenning Editions in 2001). Killian and David Brazil are coeditors of The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater: 1945-1985 (2010).

Killian’s poetry collections include Argento Series (2001), Action Kylie (2008) and Tweaky Village (2014). In 2017 appeared two new volumes, Tony Greene Era and Les éléments, followed by the memoirs collected under the title of Fascination in 2018. He is also the author of three volumes of Selected Amazon Reviews (2006-17), the novels Shy (1989), Arctic Summer (1997), and Spreadeagle (2012) the short-story collections Little Men (1996), which won the PEN Oakland award, I Cry Like a Baby (2001), and the Lambda Literary Award–winner Impossible Princess (2009).

With Lewis Ellingham, Killian coedited Jack Spicer’s posthumously published detective novels The Train of Thought: (Chapter III of a Detective Novel) (1994) and The Tower of Babel (1994) and cowrote the biography Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (1998). With Peter Gizzi, Killian coedited My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (2008), which won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. With Dodie Bellamy, he edited the anthology Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977-1997 (2017).


Lynne Tillman:

Kevin Killian’s plays remind me of Preston Sturges’s movies, with their fast repartee, hilarious ripostes, and crazy situations. Killian lets readers listen in on imagined conversations with literary greats, film-makers, celebs, actors—the Bowleses, Sheena Easton, Lars Von Trier, Kim Basinger, Lauren Bacall, and many more. He invites readers to their smart parties, where wit and scandal run riot, where everyone snipes, conspires, pontificates, and gossips about pop and literary arcana—and each other. Killian’s humor is sophisticated, his sensibility wry, and he knows just about everything. Kevin Killian’s plays are pure, or impure, pleasure.

Arnold Kemp:

Killian is an irreplaceable novelist, poet, critic, biographer, and theater artist who takes art and film-fandom, Hollywood and art world gossip seriously. He also takes it by the private parts and constructs performative social sculpture that reveals language as a material of who we could be. In the aftershocks of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, in the afterglow of the 1991 Oakland Hills fires, and in a San Francisco community united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis emerges this brilliant, rebellious, and at times hilarious investment in the medium of Poets Theater. In these plays Killian moves his work into a field where language and performance act upon one another through a complex interplay of topics: sex, gender, fame, art, urban legend and community morals.

Where else besides here do pederasts, beggars, addicts, and unemployed pop stars face off against the rich, the enforcers of law, the landlords and the dead? Is this a city that once elected a Black mayor and will this happen again? Everything is possible in Killian’s mythic, visionary and speculative plays.

Things happen here — through attention to language as play, as performance, as poetry, as politics — that challenge the expectations of theater, plot, narrative, and social critique. A staple, along with New Narrative and Language poetry, of the Bay Area’s avant-garde literary scene, Killian’s plays want to let us in on the secret. The subtext of Stage Fright is the history of a community of artists and writers (including myself and some people I may never speak to again). Stage Fright brings our community to life again and again and again, and I’m all ears!

Charles O'Malley, LAMBDA:

The plays in Stage Fright argue for a theater that can respond to the moment as quickly and efficiently as a poem, a sketch, a song, or a slap-dash piece of cultural criticism. In elapsing the time needed for writing, revision, and production, these plays speak vibrantly of their moment of creation.

Killian’s style is caustic and wonderfully bizarre. His writing flings about a queerness that lands somewhere between Charles Ludlam and Robert Chesley, with a dash of Nora Ephron along the structuring styles of Thornton Wilder.

And how lovely it is to escape to Killian’s San Francisco, and to imagine ourselves his audience, his collaborator, his friend.

Trisha Low, SPS staff picks:

I think that people tend to have a lot of preconceived notions when it comes to Poet’s Theater – poets themselves especially because poets are Judgmental and there’s something about the sense of amateurism that people balk at. I always find this funny because there’s literally no other genre in which someone is allowed to make a mistake and then smooth it over by being like ‘well that’s what i meant to do, I mean I found the mistake interesting…’ – only in Poetry, I guess.

But Poetry aside, when all is said and done, STAGE FRIGHT demonstrates, at its core, that Poet’s Theater is far from a theater of miscommuniques, mistakes, or infelicitous acts of speech. Rather, it demonstrates the limitations of genre itself, which is also to say, that in its expansive acts of unreality, its practice of exceeding its form, Poet’s Theater is about inhabiting new worlds, new situations – as a different act of being. Not simply for the purposes of political gain, or bettering the world, but simply for the pure enjoyment of it.

Joy is something that is especially difficult to figure in moments like ours, but how can you not feel it when you put those persons most prone to absurdity and imagination in the same physical space just simply to have fun? How can you not feel it when you find some version of Isabella Rossellini rubbing up against Tippi Hedrun and Melanie Griffith? How can you not feel it when we, as Kevin writes, “act too, inhabit other realities than [our] own… as if the magical hills of San Francisco didn’t already give us all the permission we needed, to become someone else, even just for one night.’

Kevin himself, with the sparkle in his eye and his Chloe Sevigny photo face was the master of this – a ringleader of mischief, and radical instigator of the joy we most need in order to find the strength to do the real work, the important political work – the joy itself, of being. This collection is a beautiful testament to the radical possibilities of this joy. So drink a beer, put on a record, and go crazy. Sometimes, it feels as though there’s little we can do, but this, we can do together, on the collapsing stage of our degenerate world. Let’s do it.