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Interview: Sibyl Kempson

June 1, 2012

Hometown: Stockholm, N.J.

Place of Residence: New York and Tannersville, Pa.

Website: and

Education: BA in drama from Bennington College, Vermont; MFA in playwriting from Brooklyn College, 2007.

Selected Titles: Bad Girls, Good Writers; Crime or Emergency; Potatoes of August

Selected Honors: Resident playwright at New Dramatists; New Dramatists/FullStage USA commission 2011; MacDowell Colony Fellow, 2010; Dixon Place Mondo Cane! Commissions, 2002, 2007, 2009, 2011

Sibyl Kempson doesn’t believe in writing her plays in a straight line.  They have been described as experimental and nontraditional in terms of plot.  She believes this has to do with the emphasis she puts on detail over structure and the “ambivalence toward linearity and continuity.”

“I don’t sit down and decide beforehand what is going to happen in the plays I write, or even what they are going to be ‘about.’  I try to let my plays tell me what they need to be, and oftentimes what emerges is a plot that suggests that time is more cyclical than it is linear,” she says.

The New Jersey native isn’t certain why her natural impulse is to play with form, but perhaps it has something to do with life’s not measuring up to expectations or that no soundtrack accompanies one’s experiences.  “I’m always left with a lot of questions, and my adventures don’t proceed with any sense of predictable formula or resolve neatly at the end—if there even is an end!  So I guess what I am doing is navigating, and possibly aggravating, that rift.”

Her hope is that audiences have a lot of questions after watching one of her pieces.  “I want to engender more curiosity in people about themselves and the world they live in, and in the worlds they imagine.”

She studied for her MFA atBrooklynCollegewith Mac Wellman, a playwright known for his experimental works.  “Mac vindicated me as a writer. I would never be a playwright in any serious sense without Mac.  He showed me and all my fellow students that focusing on the details instead of the structure is in fact the way to writing a more compelling and authentically creative play.  He also helped me cement the relationship between reading and writing.”

Kempson wrote her first play, titled “Ponce DeLeon and the Fountain of Youth,” as a child, and it received a full production at theHardystonTownshipElementary   SchoolinFranklin,N.J.  “It was a musical. I actually had boys dressed up in long Doric gowns twirling golden ropes and singing ‘We are the faeries of the Fountain of Youth.’  And they did it!  Albeit somewhat reluctantly.  They seemed to think they had to, that it was a mandatory requirement of some kind.  I couldn’t believe that this was allowed to go on, that no one stepped in to stop it,” she says.

As a current member of New Dramatists, she is collaborating on a new piece with delegates from various theater groups in Austin, Texas, including Rude Mechs, Salvage Vanguard Theater, Rubber Rep and Physical Plant.  “It’s in association with Austin Scriptworks and the Fusebox Festival.  I go down three times a year and work on it.  The piece is working-titled River of Gruel: The Requirement(s) of Narrow Approach(es).  It’s so far a very sprawling and unwieldy piece through which we are beginning to draw connections.  It was a lot of seemingly unrelated imagery and text and we are seeing a sort of mythology of civilizations emerge.  It’s very, very crazy and indecipherable so far.  We will present a finished version next year at the Fusebox Festival.”

For new playwrights or MFA candidates, Kempson offers one piece of advice: “Beware of the word ‘should,’ and if you hear it, think of it as a dare and not an imperative.”


This profile is an excerpt of an article that appeared in the June 2012 issue of InSight for Playwrights. Visit for information.


Sandra Hosking, M.F.A., is a Spokane-area journalist and teacher. She is editor of InSight for Playwrights, a national publication, and Co-playwright-in-residence at Spokane Civic Theatre.


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