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John Kishline, co-founder of the world-renowned (and now defunct) Theatre X theater troupe, has never been one to sit on his heels. Along with playing a bit part on the new original Hulu series Battleground, touring India, and appearing in MPTV’s Rising Wing: The Lady Elgin Story (which he co-authored), Kishline is hard at work rehearsing another original play entitled Success, which opens at Next Act Theatre March 9. With this much happening in the local jack-of-all-theater-trades’ life, The A.V. Club felt it necessary to sit down and play catch up.
The A.V. Club: What is Battleground all about?
John Kishline: It’s a 375-page shooting script, which is essentially three feature-length movies. J.D. Walsh, who was born and raised in Madison, wrote this episodic story—totally fictional—about Wisconsin politics. I play a three-term senator running for a fourth term, and he’s just lapsed into dementia. So he has some problems. [Laughs.] It was kind of fun. I mean, I didn’t have all that many words to say in the script, but then [Walsh] started shoveling things at me, like improvisation on camera. There was a scene involving a debate between the candidates, and on the page, the moderator asks me one question and I have maybe three or four sentences in response. So I start out, and [Walsh] says, “Great, John! I’m gonna roll the camera. You just start improvising, and I want you to get to a point where you go ‘What was I talking about?’ Okay, education. Go!”
So I do about 40 seconds on education. Then he says “Defense. Go!” So I do 45 to 50 seconds on defense. And then he says, “NAFTA! Carrots!” So I do a long riff about Mexican truckers who can’t get the carrot crop from Sonora across the border in time for those people in Toronto who need their carrots. This lasted probably 25 or 30 minutes. I was amazed at the end. Everyone just started applauding. Having been such a geek about politics and history for 40 years, I had a lot of background to string crap out.
AVC: So what were you doing in India?
JK: An old friend of ours who went to school with Deborah, my wife, and who was on Theatre X’s board in the early ’90s before joining the state department called in February and said, “Look, you guys. Every year, the U.S. sponsors an American theater presentation for the Hindu Metro Plus Theatre Festival in Chennai. We had one lined up for this year and it fell through. Have you guys got anything?” Deborah looked at me and said, “What about Success?” and I said, “Yeah!” It’s a play I wrote in 1990. It’s 70 minutes, real time, in the life of an advertising executive. We played it in six cities with seven performances.
AVC: What is it like doing theatre in India?
JK: It’s great. They’re sharp. They were finding laughs in it that I didn’t know were there, which was kind of fun. There’s a line in the play where my son calls, and I’m pissed off, and I say, “Is there a genetic law about repeating the sins of our fathers?” And it got a laugh in India—a formidable laugh—and I didn’t know why. So after about two or three performances, I went to Kriti [Pant, an Indian actress in the play] and asked, “Do you have any idea why this is getting a laugh?” She said, “Well, it might be because of the Hindu tradition. When the father dies, it’s the oldest son’s duty to take care of all the funeral arrangements and light the pyre, and once it has burned down, to take a rock and crack open his father’s skull.” And I went, “Okay! That helps!” [Laughs.]
AVC: What’s this about an unearthed review for one of your old plays?
JK: A huge biography was just published about George Kennan [George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis], who was born and raised in Milwaukee, and who was the first professionally trained diplomat in the state department’s history. We had made a play out of his book Sketches From A Life, which followed him from the ’20s all the way up to 1989. We did this in 1990, and all we did was edit his words and put it on stage. Two years after we had done it here, we got $25,000 from the Bradley Foundation to do the play in the Smithsonian in Washington so George could see it.
I recently sent the story to Gaddis, because I didn’t know if he knew about it. Two days later, he sent me a PDF of George’s diary from those days. There are two entries preceding the day in Washington, and they are about four lines each. Then he comes to the day he goes to Washington to see our play, and that’s five pages. It’s extraordinary. He recounts his experience from his end, which we had never heard. It’s an amazing thing, and really wonderful and strange to hear his side of it.
Battleground begins Feb. 14 on Hulu Plus. Success opens March 9 at Next Act Theatre.