Hollis James. author of the new play Kyle, is a comedy writer born and raised in Queens, NY. A good example of his humor is the first sentence of the bio he proffered to the CFR: “After a five-year stint at a four-year college, Hollis worked a series of dead-end jobs, including child entertainer and janitor in a mental hospital before he began performing stand-up comedy.” Why stop there? “He then worked for years in publishing as a ghostwriter at a religious mag and Editor-in-Chief of a porn rag, before quitting to become a full-time DJ.” He not only stars nowadays on the Web series Teachers Lounge, which he co-wrote and created, but he “currently writes children’s books for Penguin Random House.” Because, yes, one could organically see that coming.
Then again, in the case of Kyle, maybe you could: the source of his inspiration is clear and personal. It is subtitled “A Cocaine Comedy,” and, according to the press materials, it’s all about his “knock-down-drag-out battle with drug addiction”:
It’s about a guy named Jack, his friend Kyle, and Kyle’s friend cocaine. Thanks to his new friends, Jack’s life quickly begins to spiral out of control. He loses his job, his girlfriend, his health, and all sense of personal hygiene. Will Jack find the strength to get his life back on track or will Kyle ultimately win?
Kyle‘s cast features Tricia Alexandro, Nat Cassidy, Christine Renee Miller and Christian Polanco — as well as James himself. It runs through March 23 at Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks) in NYC’s East Village. Just to keep things familial and familiar, the director is James’s wife, Emily Owens, a well-regarded publicist for independent theater. In fact, James and Owens formed Hot Tramp Productions to mount the show — and you have to dig it’s mission: a “pre-apocalyptic theatre for a post-Bowie world… dedicated to blending the seriously funny and the hysterically serious to provide NYC with the Viking funeral it deserves.” Anyone need a bump after that?
For tickets to Kyle, click here.
And now, 5 questions that Hollis James and Emily Owens have never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
Hollis James: It might just be “Did you copyright this?” I’m pretty good at applying myself creatively, but I’m notoriously bad at taking care of the practical aspects of writing.
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
HJ: That would probably be “Then what happened?” I used to be in love with elliptical endings. To this day, I don’t like storylines being tied up in a nice, neat bow. Some of my favorite movies, plays and books had ambiguous endings — like Franz Kafka short stories. Kafka could present all sides of an argument without actually choosing a side. So for awhile a lot of my short stories and screenplays had these inexplicit conclusions. Inevitably I’d hear, “Then what happened?” Gee, I dunno… Maybe you pay me to write a sequel? Maybe that?
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
HJ: “If you weren’t a writer, what else would you be?” As if it’s fast-food job. It might sound odd or even pompous, but I don’t really view “writer” as I do other regular professions. For those lucky few that make money at it, that’s a great bonus, but I don’t think being a writer is a choice. Writers are born. It’s a sort of birth defect! If I haven’t written all day, I feel like a cow that hasn’t been milked. On many nights my mind races so badly I can’t go to bed until I scribble down whatever inane things are running through my head. If I’m lucky, the next day I find at least a line or two is actually useful.
Writers are always advised to write what they know, but we wonder if writing a play about your drug addiction while acting in it poses emotional hazards.
HJ: It might have been more difficult if I was playing Jack, which Emily and I initially were thinking I might do. We quickly decided there was no way I could bring anything to that character; I’ve been on that ride already. Playing Kyle, however, allowed me to poke fun at my inner demons. It allowed me to turn the page on that point of my life in a way I couldn’t if I was just writing and not acting. Luckily I had all my déjà-vu moments in rehearsals already so I should be good for the run!
EO: Hollis is so far removed from that time period in his life that there is no risk of him falling into old habits. I don’t think he would have been able to write this play if the person he was during that time period wasn’t so far in the rear view.
Is cocaine an actual character in Kyle — like a human being? Which qualities does an actor need to portray a mound of powder. Must the actor be a cut-up? Or crack you up? Is there a heroine in this play?
EO: Kyle is Jack’s inner addict. He’s the part of Jack that wants to do all the coke, drink all the whiskey. He wants to turn everything Jack does into an unhealthy habit or obsession. Kyle is ultimately about how Jack comes to terms with his addictive personality and Jack figuring out how to live with that side of himself in a healthy way. The heroine of the story is Jack’s girlfriend, Crystal. Hollis and I didn’t start dating until years after his battle with drug addiction so the Crystal character is not based on me, but she certainly has elements of my personality in her.
HJ: Wow, if cocaine were a character, he’d be the most confident character ever! But Kyle definitely shares some qualities with the benefits of cocaine: he’s tireless, always up for anything (no matter how dangerous), is never short of ideas and only lives in the moment. Unfortunately those benefits can turn on you in an instant.
When a journalist relies on terrible, offensive puns to ask you questions about Kyle, what do each of you want, uh, him to understand about the play more than anything else?
EO: Kyle is a comedy about drug addiction. It deals with a serious issue with a lot of humor, tons of pop culture references, and a kickin’ punk-rock soundtrack. We’ve been telling people it’s Fight Club meets Harvey.
HJ: You’ll be happy to know you’re the first Kyle punster I’ve encountered so far! I guess I’d like people to understand that this is not a play that wears its message on its sleeve. It’s a comedy, and you’re going to have a fun time. If Emily and I did our jobs correctly, Jack’s descent into drug addiction is so subtle that you should forget it’s happening. Cocaine isn’t dangerous because it walks in and destroys you. It’s fun, it makes you feel great about yourself, then it runs out. Cocaine knows how to play the long game.
Emily, with Hollis having fought addiction and (presumably) “won,” what is his greatest ongoing challenge? How do you, as a spouse, partner with him to face it? Can you bring those insights and skills to your work as a director?
EO: Its sometimes hard for me to associate the Hollis I know and love with the man I know he used to be. I’m never in fear of him backsliding into drugs and alcohol. He doesn’t currently drink, but if he did I know one drink isn’t going to send him off on a bender. I think my job as his life partner (and director) is just to do everything I can to help him be the happiest and healthiest version of himself!