slice of life

Associate artistic director of Syracuse Stage discusses inspirations, love of words

Frankie Prijatel | Senior Staff Photographer

Kyle Bass always enjoyed storytelling. He recalls listening to his older sisters talk about their days before going to sleep at night.

Years before he’d ever considered writing plays for a living, a young Kyle Bass wrote stories and read them into a cassette recorder, then listened to his own voice telling the story.

Even without realizing his interest in plays, Bass had created a theater for himself, right in his own house.

Now that Bass is an accomplished playwright and teacher, theater is at the center of everything he does. Even a conversation overheard in the grocery store might inspire a line in one of his plays.

“If you just listen, people say amazing things in the grocery store,” Bass said with a gleam in his eye. “I’m a terrible eavesdrop.”

With Syracuse Stage’s show “Great Expectations” opening Wednesday, Bass is beginning his first season as associate artistic director for the Syracuse Stage. He’s worked in various roles at the Stage for years. He helps develop new productions for the Stage and provide artistic guidance, but first and foremost, Bass is a writer, drawing his inspiration from the beauty of language and the human voice.

Bass said his fascination with words stems all the way back to his early childhood.

“It dawned on me when I was about 4 or 5 that there’s a word for everything,” Bass said with a laugh. “And in some cases, there are all kinds of words for the same thing.”

From a young age, Bass spent as much time listening to people talk as he did poring over books in his house.

“I was aware of language and how it could be nuanced and played with,” he said. “I knew what language could do.”

Bass would lie between his older twin sisters’ beds at night as they swapped stories about their days and about high school, which at the time seemed like another world to him.

He would listen to their voices go back and forth, back and forth across the room.

“Something about dialogue and the human voice began to seep into me there,” Bass said.

He loved words so much that he had a box of vocabulary flashcards he committed to memory. He kept a “book of ideas” where he would jot down thoughts as they crossed his mind.

Instead of playing outdoors, Bass spent his time writing stories, reading and creating poems and playing the piano. One day when his mom brought home a typewriter, he started typing up his poems, watching in amazement as his words appeared on the page.

But his transition into playwriting didn’t occur until he was in graduate school, when a teacher asked him if he’d ever considered it, since his stories tended to be so dramatic.

Since then, Bass has produced many successful works, including two Syracuse Stage projects in collaboration with established playwright Ping Chong, one of which went on to be produced at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York City.

Bass also teaches creative writing and playwriting at several schools, including Syracuse University’s Department of Drama.

When Bass is in the classroom, his advice to students is simple: write about what scares you.

Ryan Travis was in graduate school at SU, working on his master’s thesis and writing a one-man show based on interviews with absent fathers, when he took an independent study course with Bass.

He said Bass has a way of asking questions that cause students to look within themselves and then take their work to a new level.

“Kyle helped me find an artistic lens through which to tell the story,” Travis said.

Travis said that during the creative process, Bass would ask him why exactly he was doing what he was doing, which caused Travis to realize he was writing the one-man play because of his own father.

“He’s able to help other artists — no matter their medium — help them elevate their storytelling in a really eloquent way,” Travis said.

Similar to Travis, Bass said that in the past he has woven the theme of father-son relationships into his writing. He said his father was always mysterious to him, physically present but at the same time “unknowable.”

Bass also writes a lot about death.

“I’m happily pessimistic,” he said with a smile. “It’s gonna end badly for us all, it’s gonna end. That’s kind of funny — it’s terribly sad and kind of scary — but it’s also kind of funny.”

Inspired by the words of writer James Baldwin, Bass said he believes it is because life is so tragic that it is also so beautiful.

“I do feel that,” he said quietly. “I do think about that. And I think it comes into my work. It’s like, oh my god, how awful, how funny.”

When he’s not writing or teaching, Bass helps other playwrights’ creations come to life at the Syracuse Stage.

Bass first came to the Stage in the early ’90s and moved through several roles before becoming the resident dramaturg in 2009.

Bass defined his role as dramaturg broadly: assisting with various projects as well as acting as an interpreter of each play’s script. He also worked closely with Tim Bond, the Stage’s former artistic director, in selecting shows for each season.

Bond said that while he had to consider plays from the angle of what the Stage could accommodate and produce, he looked to Bass for a more artistic perspective, leading to many lively discussions between the two.

“My job was to figure out how to produce these plays, and Kyle’s job was to say, ‘This is a play that excites me or is a well-written script,’” Bond said.

In his new position, Bass is still helping with show selection, but now with an emphasis on a development program for new plays. He said he is excited by the Stage’s goals for producing new work, and wants to plan for a brand new play every season.

While helping on productions, Bass gets to witness the creation of a story from the first day of rehearsal to closing night.

He said he loves to watch a play grow from just a text, to the first read-through, to the first “stumble-through” to all the runs and previews and then, finally, the performances.

Bass added that he finds it remarkable that while the original text of a play remains unchanged throughout the process, everything else is always evolving.

“You could perform the show a thousand times — it will never ever be the same,” he said. “Not one minute of it will ever be the same. And I find that so exciting. So every time an audience sees a performance, they are witnessing something only they will have ever witnessed.”

Bass also said there is a lot that can come from watching an audience react to a play.

He watches them laugh in unison at one exact moment. He watches the house fall silent during a dramatic scene. He watches them inch forward in their seat, each person riveted by what’s happening onstage.

And he especially loves when he can be the writer who orchestrates these moments.

“It’s miraculous that we go from these black marks on the page to that thing onstage under the lights,” he said animatedly. “And it’s glorious and it’s beautiful, and when it’s done well — there’s nothing like it.”

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