Fresh Off the Page

Local playwright Gavin Kayner melds traditional theater with the absurd in 'Hokey Pokey'

What if the hokey pokey is what it's all about?"

When Tucson playwright Gavin Kayner saw this question posed on a bumper sticker, it intrigued and, as it turns out, inspired him.

The outcome is Hokey Pokey, a play that will take the stage for the first time this weekend. It's publicized as a joint venture between Old Pueblo Playwrights, a writers' group Kayner has participated in for years, and Piquant Plays Productions, a loosely configured entity organizing the effort to get the play staged.

"We've only done one other play of mine—Thumbs. It's not really a formal organization, but we trot it out when my wife, Norma, and a couple of other close compadres want to put a show up," Kayner says.

So up goes Hokey Pokey. Kayner describes it as an experiment in melding traditional narrative theater with elements of absurdist theater. Its setting is an institution, and it involves four characters: a clown who isn't funny, a writer who doesn't write, a black magician who wants his magic to transform him into a white person, and a con artist selling an elixir that cures everything from "hemorrhoids to headaches." Each resident is assigned a day on which it is his job to turn on the television. On this particular day, the designated resident has not fulfilled his duty, so in the world of these four, the TV cannot be turned on. There are no distractions; the four must interact with each other.

"I knew it was going to address the point of view that life exists simply because it can, and is therefore essentially absurd," Kayner says. "The characters needed to be larger than life, in conflict with themselves and those in their world, and trapped in dire circumstances."

And how is that melding thing going? "In some ways, (the narrative and the absurd) are not that far apart. But I think we've had to tamp down the absurd aspect," Kayner says. "That can really run away with you."

Kayner says Hokey Pokey has been embraced by the cast. "The actors are totally excited and invested and working really hard."

Says Nicholas Salyer, who plays Roget, the writer, "A brand-new play fresh off the page ... is an incredibly fulfilling experience for all participants of live theater. It's simply never been done. Designers, director and players all have this one-of-a-kind opportunity to create a brave new universe."

Otto, the not-so-funny clown, is played by Jacob Brown, who is proud to be a part of something "both original and thought-provoking. ... I love working with Gavin, because I know what he wants, and I try to give him more than what he expects."

Kayner has had a respectable degree of success as a playwright, which is his second career. He was an elementary-school teacher for years, and was named a Fulbright teacher twice.

"The day after I retired, I was writing my first play," he says. That was Thumbs, in which a despairing young man cuts off one of his thumbs "in protest against the ability to ask questions to which there are no answers," Kayner says. It was a finalist for the Long Beach Playhouse new-play prize, a finalist for a National Arts Club Award and a semifinalist for the Julie Harris Playwright Awards. Piquant Plays Productions staged it here in 2005.

Not a bad start. Kayner has had numerous plays recognized in national playwriting contests. Noche de los Muertos was honored by several groups and won third place in the Latino/Chicano Literary Prize contest at the University of California at Irvine. It was given a full production by Beowulf Alley Theatre here in 2008.

More recently, The Language of Flowers, which had been workshopped as a part of Beowulf Alley's Page on the Stage program, was a finalist in the Long Beach Playhouse new play prize in 2010, and it was given a full production there in 2011.

That experience was one of the most exhilarating for Kayner. Several reviewers offered effusive praise. Said Long Beach drama critic Cecilia Fannon: "Clearly, Kayner ... can write beautifully and limn characters with complexity." And Eric Marchese, theater critic for the Orange County Register and Backstage, said, "The Language of Flowers is an eminently satisfying work from both an intellectual and an emotional point of view." Invited reviewers also provided three- to four-page written critiques, which Kayner has found invaluable.

So what constitutes success for Kayner?

"I believe success, at bottom, is beginning with a blank computer screen—with the cursor blinking away—and finishing 98 pages later with a fully developed script that is cogent, cohesive and comprehensible. Everything else—praise, prizes, productions—are icing on the proverbial cake. Of course, the icing is what holds the cake together and makes it especially delectable. Since I have written, apparently, several plays that work on the stage, now I'm looking forward to more of the icing. Dark chocolate."

Kayner is pretty sure he and the Hokey Pokey gang are serving up some tasty cake. "I really think that this is a new, different kind of experience," Kayner says. "I think it's a type of theater we haven't seen in a while. It's rich, visceral. When theater is right, there's nothing like it."