Next Act’s Provocative Holiday Piece
A conversation with playwright John Kishline
In time for the holidays, Next Act Theatre presents the world premiere of John Kishline and Edward Morgan’s historical fiction play UnSilent Night. Set in a Milwaukee radio station on Christmas Eve, 1953, the story follows DJ, Frank, his producer, Liz, an unhappy station manager and a Korean War veteran who enters the studio desperately seeking help. Off the Cuff sat down with Kishline to discuss the play’s plot, relevance and style.
What was the genesis of the idea for UnSilent Night?
David [Cecsarini, producing artistic director of Next Act Theatre] sent me this [pitch sheet] about 18 months ago and we had a conversation. I have been working with David since 1986 off and on and he asked me if I wanted to do this and said, “Digest it, play with it and have at it.” So I was doing that. David and Edward Morgan, who I’ve collaborated with on 11 or 12 projects now, was brought in as the director so they were both giving me feedback on what I had sent them. It started out as all my writing but that’s changed. Morgan has gotten more into writing stuff these last six months so we’re sharing the writing credit on this. This project has three legs and David is certainly one of them.
Do you have a background in local historic pieces?
I was a founding member of Theatre X and worked in it for 30 years and we did theatrical anthropology where you take whatever you wanted out of the culture and you go after it. It’s a theater technique used to talk about the ideas in it and demonstrate whatever it was that interested you, whatever your passion was for that particular thing. Sometimes it was history and sometimes it wasn’t. For example, we did the history of the Potawatomi and we started 10,000 years ago right after the glaciers receded and the first Native Americans appeared. We learned how to go through the archives up in Madison. And I’ve been doing this 44 years and it’s one of the things I’ve always loved about it. It’s always new.
From a theatrical perspective, how do you see the artistic potential of the radio format?
In this case, I think it works because you’re working on two levels of reality: the level of the station itself, personal conversation, and the on-air portion of it, what you’re putting out there for the public that falls within the FCC guidelines and could get you shut down. So you have those different realities and the possibilities for visual information are pretty strong which you would never get on the radio but you would see in a radio studio.
Is the show depicted a call-in show?
Frank invents call-in radio during this program—in the sense that it had only been done once before in this time. Frank gets frustrated with just reading the letters and taking telephone calls and not being able to have that conversation on the air, so he invents it on the spot and that has a lot to do with what happens.
What do you most hope audiences will draw from their experience watching and discussing UnSilent Night? What do you hope to accomplish?
To move your heart and provoke your brain. That’s what I usually try to do because that’s what I want when I go to the theater. I want somebody to poke at my constructed reality and make me feel something in the process.
UnSilent Night runs Nov. 17-Dec. 11. For tickets, call 414-278-0765 or visit nextact.org.