Prize catch: paul Kruce and “EelPout” at the Fresh Fruit Festival

Paul Kruse Interview by Jen Bush

The Fresh Fruit Festival is offering some fruit with a side of fish!  Eelpout is a fast-paced, surreal farce about the traps of midwestern masculinity, where friends are lovers, fish can talk, and life’s mysteries beckon from the bottom of a frozen lake..

We went fishing for answers when we chatted with the talented playwright Paul Kruse.  This playwright, videographer and documentarian hails from the Midwest.  He is a cohort member of Audible’s third Emerging Playwright’s Fund and his audio play Once Removed was an official selection at the 2022 Tribeca Festival.  Mr. Kruse’s plays have been produced all over the country.

     Mr. Kruse has many definitions of the words Queer and love which inform the stories that he writes.  “I like to say that I tell Queer love stories, which I think about in bunch of different ways. Certainly, I adore stories about LGBTQ folks and romantic love. But Queerness can also mean strangeness, beautiful difference—a way to reimagine what is possible. And I think about love, not just as romance, but also the bonds within a chosen or given family, love as the hard choices we make to care for each other, love as a way to know ourselves. I hope that all this shows up in my writing.”

     “As a playwright I work in two primary ways. First, I write fictional plays like Eelpout. Very often they are silly, intensely sincere, and include talking animals. Second, I work as a documentarian. My creative background includes years as a videographer—which still often pays the rent. That has led me to create work about the Queer history of my own family. Right now, I’m engaged in a long-term audio-based project interviewing LGBTQ folks in the upper Midwest about family.”

     We all have friends and colleagues who inspire us.  Mr. Kruse also found inspiration in his catholic roots and some heavy hitters of the Science Fiction world.  “A big part of my life has been my relationship with Roman Catholicism, which is currently one of healthy distance. Even so, most of my formative experiences of theater were in Church—the songs, the stories, the public ritual. That still forms the backbone of what I make as an artist. In addition, I am a big ‘ol sci-fi / fantasy nerd. There’s something about imagining worlds outside of our own that has always captivated me. Of course, I read a bunch of Lewis and Tolkien growing up, but the writers who really captured my imagination were Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Philip Pullman. I think all three of them are interested in worlds and stories that are deeply critical of power, while still embracing the thrill and pleasure of their work.”

     “I am embarrassed to admit that it took until my early 20’s for me finally understand that playwrights were still alive and writing plays. At that point, I was lucky to have two mentors who taught this lesson beautifully, setting me on the path to become a playwright. They were Mia McCullough and Rebecca Gilman. Since then, I feel like I have been playing catch-up, learning as much about contemporary performance as I can. I am especially inspired by the work of my friends and collaborators Adil Mansoor, Nicole Shero, Maree ReMalia, and Jenny Johnson—and the plays of Toshiki Okada, Ike Holter, Emily Feldman, Will Arbery, Caryl Churchill, and so many more. I also watch a TON of television, which I won’t get into here, so this doesn’t turn into an essay.”

     Though Mr. Kruse’s creative process varies depending on the work, revisions are a big part of the development.  “My creative process is different for every project. In general, for fictional writing, I get the spark of an idea—usually an image or a moment—and build an outline from that. I rarely lead with character. Most often it’s event or place that draws me in. Next, I fill out the outline with actual pages and learn how completely wrong I was about what the story is. That’s the point when I begin to understand characters, when they start to speak. Usually, I move through a first draft quickly, which can be a few days or a few weeks. Then I go back and revise, revise, revise, sometimes for years, often with the help of others.”

     Mr. Kruse took a wild turn into a rare piece of the LGBTQ landscape coupled with some good old fashioned sci-fi.  It was interesting to learn how this play came about.  “I wrote the first draft of Eelpout in the fall of 2019 as part of a workshop with Kirk Lynn at UT Austin where I was studying for my MFA. I had been watching the TV show Letterkenny (which I HIGHLY recommend), and I was curious if I could write something at that same pace, similarly about rural men, but also Queer. That first draft was fast and fun but didn’t run all that deep. I finished that grad program in the spring of 2020, just in time for the pandemic. Faced with the world in a unique state of chaos and no in-person theater to be found, I felt a strong pull to move back to the Midwest, where I grew up. I wanted to be close to my family of origin—my parents, three brothers and sisters-in-law, and (now) seven niblings. So, I moved to Minneapolis, where I now live in an apartment above my younger brother Joe’s family. It’s been great to be back in this part of the country and it has me considering all the structures that I grew up in. With that in mind, I returned to Eelpout, working through the latest drafts.”

     “That’s interesting it struck you as sci-fi. While I am a lover of the genre, I wouldn’t consider Eelpout to be part of it. Certainly, it has elements that are outside normal reality, like a talking fish, heightened speech, and a dream ballet. But the play isn’t interested in the mechanics of that otherworldliness in the way that I think sci-fi would be. Instead, I think of Eelpout as absurd, surreal, and maybe a little expressionist, the way old musicals sometimes are. It does sit to the left of our world, which is more about style and emotional expression than world-building.”

     Mr. Kruse is hoping the audiences enjoy the play but also give some thought to the concepts presented in the material.  “I really hope the audience has a blast. Recently, I have been drawn to theatrical experiences that center pleasure and joy, even while they carry some weight. I hope Eelpout gives folks that kind of experience.  Beyond that, I hope it’s a way for people to consider masculinity in many different forms. In certain (often urban) contexts, cis, gay men (often white) like me enjoy lives that are insulated from other marginalized experiences. I worry that we have lost track of the revolutionary and disruptive Queerness that made our lives possible. Of course, others have written about this more effectively than I can here. But I want to continue to invite a Queer masculinity into being that is more than just straight existence recast with same-sex spouses. For me, Eelpout invites us to explore the strange and beautiful possibilities that Queerness reveals.”

    The pandemic changed every aspect of life as we know it.  “I am not sure that the pandemic changed the lives of gay artists in a unique way. I think for all artists—and all people—the pandemic was super hard. All the regular things that are hard in life, like not having a lot of money, not being white, not being cis, not being a man, etc. were just made harder with that disruption to the world. Maybe one thing that is different is that our collective awareness of those true things is greater now, especially after the summer of 2020 and the uprisings here in Minneapolis and around the world against racist police violence. That moment continues to have effects that I hope continue to hold us accountable.  As artists, I also wonder if we’re more comfortable creating over distance. Sometimes, I think that’s an amazing gift. And sometimes, I want to burn my laptop, so I never have to look at zoom again.  For me personally, I really fell in love with making audio content during the pandemic. That became a way for me to stay creatively active and create art that I genuinely wanted to share and engage with.”

     Mr. Kruse will be working hard on a project that’s personal to him.  He’s eager to expand the market for Eelpout starting with his hometown.  “I’ll be continuing work on Once Removed my audio project about LGBTQ folks and their families in the Upper Midwest.  I would love to bring Eelpout back to the Twin Cities, doing a production here. I’m so curious how folks in the Midwest will react to it.”  Here’s hoping audiences will fall for Eelpout hook, line and sinker!

“Catch” Eelpout at the 2023 Fresh Fruit Festival

Tue 4/25 at 7:00, Sat 4/29 at 5:30, Sun 4/30 at 5:15 

 The Wild Project, 195 E 3rd St, New York City

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