Interview with Jonah Kirkhart

I was able to speak with Jonah Kirkhart, author of Return to Abandoned about life after K-State, his thoughts on the show, and his process of writing the play. Here is the result!

1. What have you been doing since you graduated from K-State?
I’ve moved to Salt Lake City, Utah where I work at a tech company as a, for lack of a better term, survival job which, especially in times like these, provides a lot of stability. I’ve also been working with Cody O’Hare, fellow K-State alum, on starting ThreePenny Theatre Company a theatre company combining some civic action with theatre performance; however, with the year so far, we haven’t been able to produce as many theatre pieces as we’d like. Secondarily, I’m also working on a traveling theatre troupe with some local Utah actors. 

2. What experiences led you to writing this play?
This dips a little into inspirations as well, but I’ve had my mind on “The American West” a lot since moving to Utah (being the classical desolate landscape and shooting location for many classic Western films), and I think I’ve always been a little curious and critical about Western expansion and Manifest Destiny for most of my adult life, so I’ve always been thinking about the West, and the cowboy era, and that wild time in American history. Secondarily, I was thinking about some of my great fears, and one of those fears is that everybody around me knows some truth about my life that I don’t know, so I tried to capture just a little bit of the fear: that maybe we don’t want to know the truth and maybe we can’t live with that truth if we were to discover it. It’s a little bit of an irrational fear, but I think it’s very American. The West is where we can attain the American Dream, but there is something sinister behind being in love with that dream. My question, I suppose if there is one: could we live with that dream if we knew the sinister thing behind it? 

3. What were your inspirations in writing this play?
There are a ton of inspirations and I doubt that I could list them all. Primary, I was watching quite a few Western films. Criterion Channel, a streaming service hosted by the Criterion Collection, curated a collection of gritty Western films and I found them very interesting and inspiring at the time. I’ve also been getting into the tabletop RPG “Boothill”, created by the same team that created Dungeons and Dragons, which is all about Western settings and characters. The major horror influence/ inspiration is probably not at all too surprising. H.P. Lovercraft’s brand of horror that uses a big fear of the unknown element which I pulled from as a source. I also listen to a lot of audio plays from the podcast The Truth which gave some structures for working in the audio format. 

4. How does writing for a strictly audio medium differ from writing for a live audience? 
I think maybe the biggest change for me was spatial freedom. The audioplay takes place in about four or five locations depending on your interpretation and doing a short play like that on stage simply would not work. I was also a lot more focused on the aural atmosphere of the play as opposed to the physical one. You also have to ensure clarity. When the actions are being imagined by a listener instead of seen, you have to craft scenes around them being understood and followed. If there is too much going on noise-wise, I think things can get quite confusing. 

5.  What are some stumbling blocks that you came across in the process and how did you overcome them?
I would say one major issue is that horror is not a genre I write in a lot. I love horror stories and we are in a cinematic horror renaissance right now, but it’s not a genre I have a lot of experience writing. Because of that, I had to keep the emotional reaction as a forefront in my mind and cut out anything that didn’t feel particularly useful for setting up or paying off a feeling of tension or horror. Also, writing something this short requires a lot of time to cut down all of your ideas. I try to outline plots on notecards and move them around and play with them before I actually write dialog or anything and I realized my first outline would have probably been about thirty to forty minutes long (but also a lot more boring), so I had to cut it down to the most efficacious bits. 

6. This play is being released as a part of our halloween special. Were you inspired by any horror tropes? 
There are quite a few horror tropes I was thinking about while writing this play. I mentioned in my inspirations anwer that H.P. Lovecraft’s ideas inspired me a lot. I knew from the beginning that I wanted some type of eldritch horror, “the thing beneath the town”, sort of mentality. There idea of being the stranger in town and having the rest of the town be part of this cult was also a trope that I pulled from to flesh out some other aspects of the story. 

7.  Along those lines, what are your personal favorite horror tropes? 
My favorite thing in horror storytelling is when you can hit a very real human experience with your story. Fear is a thing that everyone has felt and it can be a powerful tool. Looking at Ari Aster’s films (Hereditary, Midsommar), he tells very important human stories about grief and healing and hatred, but they are also very terrifying and unsettling film experiences. Another aspect that I find very important is tone and atmosphere. If I can find a story that leverages it’s atmosphere to give me more than an intellectual feeling of dread but one that invades every sense, that’s a story I want to watch and rewatch (one great example of this is Annie Baker’s John which also has some Lovecraft elements to it as well). 

8. As you are aware, K-state theatre moved to an audio medium in response to the pandemic.  As a theatre practitioner yourself, what are ways that you have been able to continue working in the field and what changes have you made? 
I’ll admit that I haven’t adapted a whole lot. I’ve continued to do some writing as I’m working on a full length play at the moment. I’ve also been preparing for a theatre season for ThreePenny Theatre Company. If going into next year there are still concerns with live performance, we will probably make some transformation to ThreePenny’s plans, but we haven’t done so yet.

9. Is there anything about Return to Abandoned that you would like the audience to know?
Nothing to specific. I hope audiences find it entertaining and that it makes them think. 

10. Also, what was your inspiration for the ending of the play?
I don’t necessarily think I fully polished the idea that inspires the ending, but this summarizes more or less what was in my head. The reoccuring concept of “home” for Richard and where home is and what home means gets complicated by several things particularly this group of people that hijack other peoples bodies for “spare parts” and all of these directions come from this sinister, unknowable entity beneath the town. Richard comes face to face with this entity that could destroy him whether that be capitalism, or colonialism, or racism, or a pandemic, or just plain evil, and Richard finds a place that is home, it’s comforting for him for some reason. So I guess that’s the inspiration for the ending. An answer to the question I asked earlier ” could we live with [it] if we knew the sinister thing behind it?”. For Richard, that answer seems to be yes. 

Return to Abandoned – POA

Okay, so here is my current plan of attack for the dramaturgy of Return to Abandoned.

Speaking with the director and playwright:
I have already spoken with Chuck several times about what he wanted from me throughout this process – as well as what questions surrounding the script he wanted answered. These things have some overlap with what I was curious about myself, such as how towns become ghost towns in short periods and also the ending of the play, but he was also curious about some other things I hadn’t thought about, like Stepford wives, Laveian Satanism in the 1800s, and also the flashback effect mentioned in the script. I plan to continue my conversations with the director as we move forward.

I also have reached out and spoken a little with the playwright, Jonah Kirkhart, about the possibility of doing an interview with me that can be a part of the extra resources on the KTW website in addition to the podcast.

In terms of research, I have done a bit, but it has mostly been searching for images to help get my mind around the feeling of the piece. I think that the next step is to really dive into some of these topics and questions.

I think I will start with researching ghost towns – I already have a couple of promising sources lined up. I had done some preliminary research on the topic to see if there were any towns with the name Abandoned, but I couldn’t find any as of yet.

After the ghost towns, I would like to look more into the ending of the play, Satanism, Stepford Wives, and also Southern/American Gothic, which is a genre of literature that really kind of fits Return to Abandoned.

Return To Abandoned Images

Here is a link to the Pinterest board of images related to aspects and themes of the play:

Because Return To Abandoned is a radio play, I think gathering collection of images is a really interesting approach. Often we see directors and designers creating Pinterest boards, but I don’t know if they are as common coming from a dramaturgical perspective.

All of these images (and more) were originally found on Pinterest, but these were my favorite and also kinda show the thought process that I went through as I was researching.

Most exclusive secret societies in history
DOOMSDAY by Mark Hall

These first two images really fit with the Man/Woman in Black vibe that is in the play – also giving a really eire and supernatural element to it.

These next two pictures are related to Satanism – something Chuck Leonard, the director of Return To Abandoned asked me to look further into as I move further in the dramaturgical process.

Christian Church - the town was abandoned due to cave-in risk of the buildings as well as groundwater contamination by toxic metals, both caused by over a century of unrestricted mining activity beneath the town - Picher (ghost town), Oklahoma, USA

These next three pictures are of actual abandoned buildings – one a small house much like the one our main character, Richard, might have lived in with Darlene, and the others abandoned churches that might have looked similar to the church where the majority of the action takes place.

Abandoned Church. #IncredibleInteriors

These two images I really, really enjoy. They are the interior of churches that have been abandoned. There is just something elegant yet haunting about seeing these spaces where some elements remain intact enough to recognize – the chairs, the cross, the stained glass.

These two images really give off a southern/midwestern/American gothic vibe – much like the play itself. I plan on researching the topic more, but according to the Oxford research encyclopedia, “Southern Gothic includes the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation.” Which seems pretty fitting in the context of Return to Abandoned.

Perfect loving 50s housewife has had enough of this shit!!!
Before MAD MEN or The Stepford Wives | Art Jobs

These next three images were inspired by Darlene herself – an old-fashioned housewife who definitely is hiding something (and not just the bodies). They also are reminiscent of the 1972 satirical thriller, The Stepford Wives.

[Highest Rank: #719 In Fanfiction] (M/N) (L/N). He was unknown to thi… #fanfiction # Fanfiction # amreading # books # wattpad

These two pictures of hands made me immediately think of how Richard focuses on Darlene’s hands – covered in blood or shadow.

These final three pictures are very heavily shadow-based, much like the ending of the play. Richard reaches into a shadow to find Darlene and emerges to find the man/woman in black.

Return To Abandoned

Return to Abandoned is a 10 minute radio play written by K-State Alum Jonah Kirkhart. It also makes up one of five short plays in Tales of the Weird and Unusual directed by Chuck Leonard for Kansas State Theatre Works – the podcast created by Kansas State Theatre Department in wake of the Corona Virus.

When reading Return to Abandoned, I was very much intrigued. I haven’t read a whole lot of radio plays up to this point, and it was interesting to see how the playwright incorporated sound in place of visuals.

I also was interested in the plot itself. There are eerie, supernatural, thriller elements throughout. There are also many things that are left up to the director, actors, and audience to determine – such as what is going on with the wife and the man/woman in black, why are they in a church, what kind of supernatural abilities does the man/woman in black have, what exactly happens at the end of the play? All of these questions help to create an air of mystery and also add elements of horror to the script.

There were also some things that I was reminded of as I read this script that I might look into further as I progress in the dramaturgy process. For example, I am interested in learning more about how towns become abandoned in such a short time. I also would like to learn more about the secret society/cult aspect of the play. The ending reminds me a bit of some eldritch horror things – is Richard an unknowing sacrifice walking to his death in that labyrinth of bones and darkness? If that is the case, what happened to the people of Abandoned?

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