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Joshua Conkel interview

Recently we caught up with Joshua Conkel, the playwright from Washington State, whose 2009 hit play MilkMilkLemonade is now being performed at London’s Ovalhouse.

MilkMilkLemonade, quickly achieved cult status after its debut in New York. It is a bitterly funny tale of gender, sexuality, life, death, and growing up a bit weird.

We found out a bit about where the ideas for the play came from, about Conkel’s working relationship with director Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, and why he thinks his work translates well to UK audience.

Joshua, there’s an unusual premise to MilkMilkLemonade. Where did the story come from?

I wanted to write something from my gut and allow myself to go to weird, unfiltered, strange places. I was interested in work that was less intellectual and more instinctive, almost dada, so I began to cull my childhood memories for images and themes.

You stipulate that casting should be gender and ethnicity neutral. Do you think the same should apply to your other plays, and in fact for casting plays in general?

Yes, but not so extremely as this play. Productions that cast MilkMilkLemonade more “naturalistically” always fail. The entire style and structure of this play is built around actors that are “miscast”.

It’s from a funny vulgar nursery rhyme, but why did you choose MilkMilkLemonade as the title?

I mostly thought it was cheeky and sly- not everybody knows that nursery rhyme- so I thought it was a fun in-joke. It also matched how dumb and gross the play is. The play challenges people’s taste levels a bit, so I wanted the title to do the same.

Were you surprised by any of the critical reaction when it first played in New York?

I was surprised that it was a hit and that critics universally liked it. I thought I’d be run out of town if it were reviewed. It was very scary to write and very difficult for me to sit through night after night. The one outlier was The Village Voice who gave it a “C” and said it was “too cutesy”. I thought, “Cutesy? This person has a demented idea of what’s cute.”

Joshua Conkel
Playwright Joshua Conkel.

Since then it’s played in other countries, and now in London. Do you think this is a show that would work anywhere?

The play is so, so American but I think the UK and the States have a special relationship. We trade cultural artifacts and media so much, that I think Brits have a keen sense of Americana that same way that Americans “get” Monty Python. It was well-received in Australia and New Zealand as well and now there’s a hit production in Israel (all in Hebrew) so I think it translates pretty well.

Are any of the characters based on people you know?

I suppose Emory is a cartoon version of me as a child. My Granny was a lovely woman, not at all like Nanna, but the character probably comes from the nightmare of living through my Granny dying from lung cancer as a boy.

Will you be crossing the pond to see the Ovalhouse’s version of the show?

Unfortunately not, but I’m working with Rebecca Atkinson-Lord [the director] on a new play and I’ll be coming to London for that in the near future.

The same director has put on The Sluts of Sutton Drive, another play of yours. How do you feel UK audiences have reacted to your work?

The reaction has been pretty positive. The Sluts of Sutton Drive is a much, much darker play than MilkMilkLemonade and deals in more difficult-to-swallow themes. One British agent said it was the nastiest play he’d ever seen, which I thought was strange considering London produced and celebrated Sarah Kane. As a whole, British audiences are quieter than American audiences and because I write comedies, that makes me nervous sometimes.

One of the main characters is Emory, an 11-year old gay boy. What moved you to address the idea of sexuality in childhood?

I was a gay 11-year-old. The experience is strange and frightening. I think people like to pretend that children aren’t sexual creatures, but 11 years old you’re coming into that part of yourself. To be honest, my interest was more in writing about the human body, how it changes and how it traps you depending on your age, gender, sexual orientation, species etc. than I was in writing about queerness. It was only after other people saw the play that the discussion began to center around childhood queerness. That element, to me, was taken for granted.

Joshua Conkel
Daniel Francis-Swaby stars in Joshua Conkel’s MilkMilkLemonade at the Ovalhouse.

What is it about theatre that attracts you to write for the medium?

Because there’s no money in theater you have more license to do whatever you want. That said, the older I get, though, the less bold and more introverted I become, which makes me sad. I could never write this play now. I’m too structured and trained and afraid of what people think. The act of sitting in the house and watching what I wrote gets harder and harder so I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to do this. Maybe I’ll just write books.

Do you have any projects in development at the moment?

I’m working on a project with Rebecca now, a modern adaptation of The Birds set in a nursing home. I’m also writing a play about depressed lady astronauts and a TV pilot about pregnant teenagers on a spaceship.

You can see Joshua Conkel’s MilkMilkLemonade at the Ovalhouse from 8th – 25th October. Tickets are available from www.ovalhouse.com or by calling 020 7582 7680.

Greg Jameson
Greg Jameson
Book editor, with an interest in cult TV.
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