The PAD Podcast Episode 1: Carolyn Kras

On this FIRST episode of the PAD Podcast, our featured guest is a proud WashU and PAD alum, Fulbright award winner, TV writer, screenwriter, and playwright.

Robert Mark Morgan · 01: Carolyn Kras


Listen on SpotifyListen on Amazon MusicListen on PocketCastsListen on YouTube Music

Carolyn talks to Rob all about her start at WashU in playwriting and continuing into a stellar career of work both on-screen and onstage. She also speaks about her work finding community with other WashU creatives based in the LA area via HollyWU LA. Very excited that Carolyn said 'yes' to being featured in our first PAD pod. Check it out. And check out this Howlround article about one of Carolyn's pieces we mention on the pod called Acting Against Sexual Assault.



Carolyn Kras (guest): Hi my name is Carolyn Kras and the PAD taught me creativity and collaboration.

Rob Morgan (host): Hello and welcome to the brand new PAD podcast. My name is Rob Morgan. I am a teaching professor in the area of Scenic Design in the Performing Arts Department at WashU. I'm usually never allowed anywhere near audio editing software but here I am don't tell anyone. This is a brand new podcast as I said uh we mean to sort of elevate and celebrate the amazing careers of our alumni from the Performing Arts Department over the years uh and that's exactly what this podcast is meant to do. Today's guest - our first guest - is no exception to that. It is Carolyn Kras. Carolyn is an amazing screen and stage writer, she's a Fulbright Award winner, Hotchner Award winner she has had pieces done all over the globe and I'm very very excited to share her story with you all. We'll get into her background how she came to WashU but also her incredible career so with that please enjoy the first PAD podcast episode: Carolyn Kras.

I'm very excited to have Carolyn join us on the PAD podcast the very new PAD podcast. I don't even know how many listeners we will have by this point but I'm so excited that that you're with us Carolyn. So I've been looking forward to talking to you pretty much all day since I started reading some of your work, reading some interviews and things like that. You are I assume proud I'm gonna fill in the word ‘proud’ I'm assuming proud Alum of WashU and specifically the Performing Arts Department. Can you just talk to us a little bit about how you how you came to WashU how you found out about us and a little bit of your origin story?

CK: Sure so thank you so much for having me today. I'm very excited to do this. So I grew up in the Chicagoland area Cicero Berwin and Range Highlands and I always loved writing and when I was looking at colleges I remember going to the library and looking through all sorts of college materials and I remember WashU was one of the only schools to have undergraduate playwriting and so I thought I have to go to WashU because I really want to do playwriting and so I applied early decision and I got in and I had done drama in high school. I had done Illinois State Theater Festival Productions and Community Theater Productions and high school productions and I planned to be pre-law at WashU but the Freshman Focus program at WashU just made my theater bug even stronger and so I ended up being a theater major. Because of that - so that was the Freshman Focus program there was Jeffery Matthew’s acting class and Henry (Schvey)’s Theater and the Politics of War class and I remember we went on a field trip to Chicago and saw Loves Labors Lost at Chicago Shakespeare and a bunch of Indie theaters and I thought I have to be a theatre major so I changed my major from political science to Drama.

RM: Wow wow so that was like a full - The Freshman Focus was like a full year of like a full suite of like you said classes but also excursions.

CK: Yeah and it was really nice because you are with the same cohort of people for two classes so that really gives you kind of a rooting freshman year where you get to know this group of people very well and you get to know the professors very well because it's a small class so I thought that was a wonderful freshman program that WashU offered.

RM: Nice nice and so from there you just were hooked by the theatre bug. Did you dabble in other areas like minor in polysci or did you just fully major in Drama?

CK: Yeah so I ended up getting a polysci minor and also a writing minor so I was also in the Howard Nemerov Program which is a writing program at WashU. So every semester in your freshman year you take a seminar and that got me interested in different mediums. In that seminar, you had to write poetry and essays and short stories and that just really kind of opened the door to many different types of writing. So even though I specialize now in script writing it was really nice to have that cross-training. And then because of the Howard Nemerov Program, I got to take playwriting my freshman year in my spring semester and got to take Carter Lewis's playwriting class. He was a hugely influential teacher for me and when I took that class I thought - yes - playwriting is what I want to do and I ended up taking his upper-level playwriting class and through all of those experiences ended up getting my MFA from Carnegie Mellon in Dramatic Writing which is kind of a combination of playwriting, screenwriting, and TV writing. So that opportunity at WashU really opened the door to my future careers.

RM: Yeah you have an amazing career in screen and stage which I definitely want to get into but before we leave WashU in this sort of I guess chronological arc, you were a Hotchner play finalist or we produced one of your plays while you were still a student. Is that correct?

CK: Yeah so I got to participate in the Hotchner Festival twice so first is a staged reading of my 10-minute play Reticence which is about two people who are married who have kind of lost the spark of their relationship and they're finding that their dinner conversation has kind of lulled and then kind of finding their way back to each other. So that was the first Hotchner Festival that was a staged reading and then the second one was Highness which is a play about the mentoring relationship between Katherine Parr who was married to King Henry VIII and then her stepdaughter Elizabeth who becomes Queen Elizabeth. So those were just magical experiences for me being able to partake in a very professionally structured Play Festival with the PAD faculty serving as directors and then the PAD bringing in a professional dramaturg to give you notes on your play and then going through a series of rewrites and then putting it up on its feet as a staged reading in front of an audience and then I was lucky enough to have the production selected in the case of Highness and so a year after I graduated I got to come back to campus and see the full production that Anna Pileggi directed and that was so wonderful and very helpful in terms of my journey as a playwright because I got to see the work on its feet and it's really hard to learn from your own work unless you see it fully produced at times. So I was so grateful for that experience.

Those were just magical experiences for me being able to partake in a very professionally structured Play Festival with the PAD faculty serving as directors and then the PAD bringing in a professional dramaturg.

RM: Yes, yes, yes I think that's so wonderful and it's one of the strengths I think of our program is allowing and I've been involved as a designer on a lot of these to see it go from literally the page to the stage and to see a young writer's work produced and have them see their work produced is just so satisfying. It's just you know it's so exciting because it's just it's the first time it's ever sort of - as you said - get was up on its feet or it ever gets on its feet and it's just sometimes it's just electric. You're like this is yes this is your play that you wrote what two years ago maybe a year ago and here it is on stage. It's just a great great opportunity. We have I think some of the best writers. We've launched a lot of writers’ careers including yours. Elizabeth Birkenmeier was actually in that show and she has come back to us. She not only has a great sort of career of her own as a writer but she's been helping us bridge the gap you might say since the retirement of Carter Lewis, who you talked about, bridging the gap from him to whoever the successor will be and full-time faculty member will be but it's been great to have her. To see that she was a young actor on in that same play and see her career take off. And my good friend Liz Kramer was your lighting designer for that show and I've been a Liz Kramer fan for a long time.

CK: Yes they're both wonderful and Liza actually ended up going to Carnegie Mellon which is where I got my MFA so our years didn't overlap there but she went through the same MFA program so yeah

RM: You're a trailblazer she's literally following your footsteps. That's fantastic! So after let's say after WashU you went to grad school at Carnegie Mellon in creative writing. Is that right? And got an MFA there?

CK: Yeah I got an MFA in dramatic writing which is in the School of Drama there.

RM: Got it, got it. Yeah it's a fine School of Drama there. And then what happened? Where did Carolyn go then? As I talk about you in the third person, where did Carolyn go?

CK: Yes then after that I moved to LA. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to go to LA or New York but I decided to go to LA and eventually applied to the NBC page program so I was an NBC page. So I was the real-life Kenneth from 30 Rock and I got to work on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and I did audience ticketing and crowd control so I got to see the production every day of Jay Leno putting on a show and that was great just to see the professional context of how you kind of translate your live theatre training to seeing how that works in a live show that's taped every day for TV.

RM: Wow that's incredible and so you you kind of set down roots in LA and you've been there ever since right?

CK: Yeah I've been in and out of the city so I I've also spent some time in Chicago - doing theatre in Chicago. During the Fulbright Program I was in London for almost a year and then after that I came back to LA so I've kind of been in and out of the city for various things.

RM: Nice and you've been back and forth lately to Chicago. As you said before we started taping that you're an adjunct teaching writing at DePaul?

CK: Yeah so I just started last Autumn. So I was teaching and I really enjoyed it a lot so I'm going back for the spring quarter as well and so I teach screenwriting there and adaptation and a genre class about different genres of screenwriting so I am really enjoying that.

RM: Nice. I would love to - if we have time - to talk a little bit about your work and just how - I don't know - not to say that and I as a designer I kind of feel this sometimes that I don't want to be pigeonholed. I had a director tell me once “I like how you do Americana” and I'm like “I do other things”. I don't want to be just the ‘Americana designer’ but you have a specific talent and a richness in your work from what I can tell and I've talked to Anna Pileggi who directed the aforementioned Highness that you wrote. She said that your plays are firmly rooted in research as a foundation upon which to creatively explore the what-ifs of these historical figure’s lives. She says this is where Carolyn's work really soared - this is while you were a student here - that through a rich and nuanced fictional exploration Carolyn created fascinating characters and relationships that went far beyond what history tells us. So do you have a specific - I guess - is this your milieu so to speak? Like is this what you like to do is sort of explore what-ifs of historical characters?

CK: I do love that yeah. So I grew up watching a lot of Masterpiece Theatre on TV because we didn't have cable and so I love sort of literary and historical things. So that's definitely something that I've explored both in Highness and in a lot of my other future projects. Like we might talk about the subject later as well which is about the daughters of King George III and a sexual assault coverup that happened in their family and then I've also been working on various projects now. So I have one project Magnetic which is a screenplay that I wrote as a student at Carnegie Mellon and that is also about Queen Elizabeth and her relationship with her physician William Gilbert as he tries to save her at the end of her life. And then I also have a Jane Austin biopic screenplay and a there's this other project that I have called The Second City which is about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. So there's lots of different projects that I draw history from but yeah I'm really interested in seeing how history relates to today in some ways so with every historical piece I think about what are the connections between the past and present and how far have we come or how far have we not come since then. And then some of my other projects also explore social issues. Like I have contemporary pieces about the foreclosure crisis and then I also have a pilot script about the clerks of the Supreme Court who work for the justices and wield a lot of power behind the scenes. That was kind of inspired by my time as a paralegal right after I graduated WashU. I was a paralegal for two years and learned…

RM: In St Louis?

CK: No that was actually in Pittsburgh. I also worked at the law library at WashU. So I had that grounding from there so yeah a lot of my work is either historical or some sort of social issue exploration.

RM: Got it. The law library: my daughter, oldest stepdaughter, went to WashU and when she was an undergrad she was in the law library a lot. I was like “I'm not sure you're supposed to be there…” but she's like “I know”. It's just so quiet she just loved that space. But yeah so it sounds like - and I don't know if Elizabeth and the Royals really fit into this - but it sounds like maybe your Political Science background has had some influence on what you write about you know like politics has existed forever right and so there's maybe a little bit of a blend in your work of what was your minor and major at WashU. Is that fair to say?

CK: Yeah absolutely. Like I remember taking a class from Lee Epstein about defendants’ rights in the political science department and learning about all sorts of legal cases and that was really helpful when I went to go write about the clerks of the Supreme Court because my characters had to be able to deal with legal precedence and legal research and so knowing that background was very informative in terms of writing characters who also work in that vein. So there's been so many instances in which my WashU education has really primed me for something within my scripts like the William Gilbert script is about a doctor and there was so much medicine on campus and my roommate was a pre-med so I think WashU is just such a holistic education in so many ways.

RM: I, like you, was heavily influenced by PBS growing up because we also didn't have cable. In fact - this is dating myself - we didn't have color TV and so I would watch Bob Ross paint on a black-and-white television. He would say things like “I'm gonna use a little blue here” and I'd be like “okay blue I guess he's using blue”. Like I can't tell - it's black and white- it looks like a shade of gray to me but whatever but anyway yeah I kind of grew up on all of those great PBS shows. So I want to talk a little bit about the subject if I'm not mistaken - you wrote a Howlround essay which I can link actually when we publish this podcast in 2016 and you - if I'm not mistaken - it was about that play and … well I'll let you tell the story but I there's a quote from that where you lamented that many people were upset about was this the Brock Turner case am I am I blending plays in my head…?

CK: No that's correct yes.

RM: Okay and people were obviously upset but you decided to I guess channel what you learned in an acting class and that was “don't focus on feelings perform an action”. I thought that was just beautiful. Can you talk a little bit more about the sort of origin story of that piece and how you've kind of put it out there in the world?

CK: Sure. So I applied for the Fulbright which is a wonderful program for people to either get a master's in a subject or to do an independent arts project so I chose to do an independent arts project. Since I already had my MFA and I proposed to write a play about the daughters of King George III and specifically an incident where her brother allegedly raped her and then the family covered it up and I thought that this was very relevant because at the time there were a lot of sexual assault coverups going on at college campuses and so it was very much in the zeitgeist and I thought I really want to write a play about this and so I applied for the Fulbright and luckily I got it. And so I was playwright-in-residence at a theater called Selladoor Theater Company in London for 10 months and I just adored my time in London. Like I got to go to the archives at the Bodleian Library at Oxford and really dig through these archives and read the letters that the sisters wrote each other and read their diaries. And so through that research, I wrote a play about it and I got to workshop it at Selladoor Theater Company and then do a reading of it at the Arts Theater in London and that was a wonderful experience. And then when the Brock Turner case happened like you said there was all of this outrage about it and I really wanted to use my play as some sort of protest vehicle so I put it out there on Facebook and various social media sites that if you want to do a reading of this play as a way to protest the Brock Turner case please join this DIY theater movement called the Subject Project and so a bunch of theaters signed up to do readings. And the Fall when I got back, we did a number of coordinated readings on the same day but then there were a lot of other theaters that kind of trickled on later as well so it was really nice to use art as a way to try to influence political change and that's kind of been one of my focuses as an artist.

RM: Right. I find it's so fascinating that first of all - Bravo to you for for doing that - and like you said DIY-ing your own movement that you put your work out there I assume you know for anyone that wanted to do it could do it as a reaction as something to sort of sway perhaps sway public opinion. I also think - and and correct me if I'm wrong here - but I find that artists great artists like yourself are finding shall I say common things about not so common things. Like you decided to - you saw - a similarity between the Royals cover up and the and - sadly what still happens on campuses today - coverups of sexual assaults among students on campus and you decided to kind of I don't know tie those together in an artistic work which I think is so so extraordinary.

CK: Oh thanks yeah. I really like the Emily Dickinson quotation that says “tell the truth but tell it slant”and so I think that telling it through a historical lens kind of is a way to add something to the current conversation that I like exploring.

RM: Nice, nice. This is so cool. So yeah I found another quote I kind of liked someone wrote that you enjoy telling stories of ambitious people in high stakes conflicts if that's not speaking for you I don't know what is.

CK: That's absolutely true and that's definitely the case in my pilot script about the clerks of the Supreme Court.

RM: Can you tell us a little about what the name of that one is and when will it perhaps be produced if you if you know?

CK: Sure. So that was a project called In Chambers and I developed that project for Academy award-winning producer Cathy Schulman who produced Crash and it's not currently in active development anymore but hopefully you never know - it might go into development again. You kind of have these cycles in this business where something is in development and then it no longer is but then it can come around again three years later so I think resilience is definitely something the PAD teaches you as well because inevitably there's ups and downs in this business and so that's a good lesson to learn.

RM: I love it. I love it. Yeah it's happened in my life too there's some things I'm like I guess that's on the back burner now until it's moved to the front burner again but I often advise students that that you kind of have to - and this is probably true of writers as well like yourself - is you have to keep multiple things cooking on the stove at the same time otherwise you you'll have - you know - you'll be just sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring and - not that that anyone does that anymore - but that you know there's things on the back burner maybe for a long time they're on the back burner. Is that true in in your line of work as well?

CK: Absolutely and you're always adding more irons to the fire and some irons go cold and some irons that you thought were cold get hot again so it's always a a juggling act for sure.

RM: Talk a little bit about HollyWu and as I'm saying this I'm pretty sure anyone listening doesn't know what that is so would you please first of all say what it is and how you be how you've been so involved in it?

CK: Sure so HollyWu is the Hollywood Entertainment Alumni network and it was founded a number of years ago by Laura Bensick and Merigan Mulhern and a few others. And then when they stepped down I was one of the co-chairs who kind of continued it and it's been a really wonderful opportunity that the alumni office has fostered where they sponsor various events for us so we usually have an event in late June called Biz and Brews which is basically beer and appetizers and welcoming the new interns and the new graduates from WashU into the LA fold and then we also have various panel events throughout the year so we just had an event on February 22nd which was titled ‘Women TV Creators’ and it showcased a bunch of WashU alums who are now creating TV shows including the PAD alum Laura Bensick formerly Laura Alexander and Noga Landau who is now the co-showrunner of Star Trek Star Fleet Academy as well as the past show Nancy Drew on the CW. And so it was a really great way to celebrate women's voices in the industry especially in television. Sometimes it can be harder to get women’s shows on the air and so it was an evening celebrating their voices and it was sold out and it was really a wonderful night that brought together so many WashU alums and friends.

It was a really great way to celebrate women's voices in the industry, especially in television. Sometimes it can be harder to get women’s shows on the air and so it was an evening celebrating their voices... a wonderful night that brought together so many WashU alums and friends.

RM: That sounds like an empowering and energizing night too.

CK: Absolutely and it's so nice to have the university support in terms of fostering the community of alumni so WashU was not just about what you do as a student at the university - it's also about the alumni communities that you're a part of afterwards which has been really helpful.

RM: I hope that you come back to St Louis sometime.

CK: I hope so too.

RM: We need to produce one of your plays so we have an excuse to bring you back but I'm just so delighted to chat with you. Is there anything else that you want to mention? I have one more - well I guess I have a couple more questions - and if you don't mind one of one of them is what you would tell yourself - let's say that there was a time machine and you can go back in time and whisper in your own ear as an 18-year-old Carolyn Kras - what would you what would you say to yourself like would you give yourself any advice even like you know don't eat that bagel or something? It could be silly like that or it could be more profound but you know looking back is there anything that you wish you'd done differently?

CK: Yeah I think that I would try to tell myself to just enjoy being in the moment more because so much of my perspective has always been about what's next and trying to get the next opportunity or using the current opportunity to get the next opportunity which is something that you really have to plan for as a freelance artist but I think just kind of slowing down and enjoying the current opportunity and where you currently are and not just thinking about the future but also really valuing the present I think that's something I definitely would like to have done over.

RM: Sure. I think perhaps that's true of a lot of students you know they're always shall I say not always living out their own dreams. They're just focused so focused on getting that degree and that major and that minor double major and it's just like you're also you're never going to live college again you know. It's some of the best connections the best friends you make in your life are this journey and if you're too buried in the future and your aspirations that you think you have, you don't really live like you said sort of enjoy the moment. So that's really really wise advice. Anything else you want to talk about? Anything else that that you'd like to sort of I don't know tell current students that you know besides enjoy - it enjoy the ride?

CK: I think studying Drama teaches you so many skills that are very versatile no matter what industry you work in like having to do project management in a production setting that's translatable to so many different corporate settings as well where you're managing a team of people and managing schedules and budgeting and details. I think that having to be a leader on your production teaches you leadership skills that I've now translated into being on the board of the Independent Writers Caucus which is a group of emerging writers in LA as well as being co-chair of HollyWu you learn creativity which is so important now in the age of AI where various things are being automated. The ability to think outside the box and not think like a machine is a huge asset so I think that no matter what you do studying the Arts has lasting value not only for your identity as an artist but also skills that can really benefit you in any industry.

Studying the Arts has lasting value not only for your identity as an artist but also skills that can really benefit you in any industry.

RM: So true. I love it. I love it. Exactly that: AI not replicate creativity. AI can't make the leaps you've done obviously in your work as well. We know blending the Royals and campus community sexual assault - like that's I I think not something AI can do - is make those leaps and tie those knots and really craft a piece out of it. Well Carolyn it's been a pleasure having you on the podcast! I can't wait to to put this together and share it with the world but I I have to say how deeply grateful I am to you for your time. I know you're very busy you've got tons of stuff going on in your life and you're quite successful and we're so so proud of you. Myself my colleagues like Anna Pileggi - I'll leave you with one more thing she said. When she was talking about this particular production Highness she said “we made so many wonderful discoveries throughout a rehearsal process I knew I was dealing with a writer who would go on to do great things beyond her time at WashU … and she has. And so I'm just so so delighted to see that that you've done such great things and you know while we at WashU can't take credit we're also just so proud of you and so so happy for you in your career.

CK: Oh thank you so much. It was lovely to speak with you and I'm so happy to have been invited.

RM: Thank you so much, Carolyn. So that was it. Thank you again to Carolyn Kras for joining us on the very first Pod episode of the PAD podcast. Be sure to check out - it's our website check out all the wonderful things this department is working on and doing. Also: if you're a PAD alumni or simply a friend of the PAD, please request to join our LinkedIn group PAD Alumni and Friends. We'd love to have you join us there and if you'd like to be a guest on the podcast we would very much be interested in talking to you about doing that. So there you go! Hopefully, this is the beginning of a long line of wonderful podcast episodes elevating and celebrating our PAD alumni. Thank you so much!