Getting ’Salty’ with John Kuntz
John Kuntz’s new one-man play The Salt Girl unfolds before a wall in images: clips from 1950s commercials and oddments from nature documentaries play on a bank of televisions that line an immense stack of shelves at the back of the performance space at The Boston Playwrights’ Theatre.
Among those TVs are other items--mostly lamps and canisters of Morton’s brand salt, whose iconic logo provides the "Salt Girl" of the play’s title. Like Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods, the salt girl leaves a trail behind her; but given that it’s raining out, will she be able to use the trail she’s putting down to find her way home again?
For Quint, the narrator of Kuntz’s one-man show, the idea of a vanished home and a literally lost family (tragedy has taken his parents and his sister, one by one) forms one central thread of the play’s multiple strands. Lost innocence figures into the mix too, as does the possibility that Quint--who prefers to go by his last name only--might be losing his mind.
The play is a rich and layered work, full of mysteries that only gradually unfold as Quint slowly warms to the task of explaining his suicidal impulses. Quint is a gay man whose sexuality has been exploited by strangers and alienated what little surviving family he has; as the play continues, even the hope of reconciliation fades away.
Writer and star John Kuntz, a leading light of the city’s theatrical scene, talked with EDGE about his new work, which plays through Nov. 22 at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.
EDGE: The Salt Girl is not a happy play--starting out with a suicide attempt and then dealing with family fracture, sexual trauma, tragedy, and--my interpretation--mental illness, but it is a powerful work. What was behind your choice of thematic material?
John Kuntz: I go by instinct quite a bit. Since I was playing the character here, I just start talking as them, and then wrote down what they said. The character tells me things: how they speak, what they say (and don’t), what sort of brain they have, and I try to transcribe it as best I can.
I always tend to write too much, it seems, and then I need to edit it down. The original draft of The Salt Girl was over 3 hours long! I would try to keep what seemed to fit inside Quint’s world: cereal, and candy and celery and panda bears and rain and different sorts of breathing. And salt, of course.
There is much here about lonliness, and being disconnected, and trying to communicate difficult messages, so I would try to use those ideas as questions when trying to edit the script down as well.
EDGE: One highly effective aspect of The Salt Girl is how various threads keep recurring and entwining, to create a non-linear (and yet emotionally complete and organic) experience. As a writer, do you find that writing from the heart has more to do with knowing when to set aside strictly linear storytelling?
John Kuntz: It’s strange, sometimes a structure just immediately presents itself, and sometimes it comes later. I never really intended the structure of The Salt Girl to be non-linear when I first began writing; it emerged as I went along.
At some point in the process, it became important to understand why certain events happened before or after others. So it became a bit of a collage, where the images and text could only seem to occur at certain moments and would bounce into the next event. Like dominoes.
EDGE: The Salt Girl strips away layer after layer of your character... and in the process, involves you stripping off your clothes. Did you have any qualms about the play’s inclusion of nudity?
John Kuntz: No qualms. We explored that moment in so many different ways in rehearsal (fully clothed, naked, in underwear, etc.), but that just seemed to be the most honest and truthful way to portray what this man was going through at that particular moment in his life.
It’s a very private, vunerable moment, and I try to stay focused on that, on Quint’s reality at that point. It’s just the next thing that happens for him. He needs that moment in order to get to the next one.
EDGE: Your audience is bound to wonder--because of your narrator’s claim that some of the things in the play really happened, others did not, and yet everything in the play is true--which elements are autobiographical. Do you care to address that, or are you content to let the play remain intact and un-deconstructed by sorting out what’s "fact" versus "fiction?"
John Kuntz: I am content to let things be.
EDGE: That set! That amazing array of repeated material motifs with its TVs and lamps and canisters of salt! Was this something that you envisioned for a one-man show, or did the set designer simply have an uncanny resonance with the play’s structure and method?
John Kuntz: I feel truly blessed to be working with David Gammons (who directed and designed the set), Adam Stone (who designed the video and sound landscape) and Jeff Adelberg (who designed the lighting).
I don’t generally say too much about the set, lights, etc. in the script. I like to see how a director and designer might envision the world, what they might come up with. But I was astounded by the world these three men created. It is simply incredible and breathtaking to me. It’s what I love about theatre the most: that it’s a group of people coming together to make something. No one element is more or less important than another. It’s a real symbiotic relationship. The Salt Girl was a true collaboration in every respect: we kept being inspired by one another, bouncing off each other, and that’s a truly wonderful and rare thing.