Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Ken Urban: Sense Of An Ending

By | Published on Thursday 7 May 2015

This month sees the first UK outing of work from acclaimed US writer Ken Urban, when his award winning play ‘Sense Of An Ending’ begins a run at London’s Theatre503. The piece, which touches on events that took place during the Rwandan genocide of the mid-nineties, explores the matters of morality and truth in journalism.


Keen to find out more about the play, and what motivated him to tackle this project, I sent some questions over to playwright ahead of next week’s opening night.

CM: Can you start by telling us what the show is about? What happens in it?
KU: The play follows Charles, a disgraced New York Times journalist, who arrives in Rwanda five years after the genocide. He is there for an exclusive interview with two Hutu nuns. Charged
with homicide, the nuns must convince the world of their innocence during the 1994 genocide or face a lifetime in prison. When an unknown survivor contradicts their story, Charles must choose which version of the truth to tell the world. It is a thriller, inspired by the actual cases of the so-called “killer nuns of Rwanda.”

CM: What themes does the play explore?
KU: I would say it is a play about forgiveness and truth. Is it possible to forgive to unforgivable? Is it ever possible to know the truth, or does memory always change those events? These are the questions I think about when I am in rehearsal. I can’t say I set out to write a play about these questions. I write a play to tell a story; the bigger themes always come later.

CM: Why this subject matter? What made you want to focus on the Rwandan genocide?
KU: I started the play because I had read Philip Gourevitch’s book ‘We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families’. I knew the basic details of the 1994 genocide, but reading that book haunted me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the details of the massacres that took place in Catholic churches. Shortly after finishing the book – this was, Christ, 2001 or so – I started following the stories of two nuns who were being tried in Belgium for their role in a church massacre. I was raised Catholic and had attended twelve years of Catholic school. I had long since abandoned my faith and I have little use for religion. But there was something about seeing the faces of those nuns. Again, the only word I can think of is haunted. They haunted me. I was pretty firm in my belief that I would never write a play about Catholicism, but I couldn’t resist. If I told other writers that they should write the very play they didn’t think they could or should, I must take the same advice.

CM: How did you go about researching the play? And how difficult is it to approach this kind of painful subject matter?
KU: I am not going to lie: it’s been pretty difficult. It took me a long time to get a solid draft of the play. I felt overwhelmed by the research that I had done, and it was a few years into the project that I realized why. I was too beholden to the research, to the actual biographies of the nuns. The play only really took off after I started imagining my nuns as totally removed from what I had read about in the newspapers. Again, I looked at my Catholic education, and found inspiration in the Stations of the Cross, the graphic depiction of the death of Jesus. The goal when you meditate on the images in the Stations of the Cross is to imagine his suffering; you put yourself in his place and experience empathy for him. That is, of course, what theatre asks of us: to identify radically with the characters in the play. It was that realisation that cracked open the play for me. Before I would write, I would watch interviews with genocide survivors, their eyes so empty because of what they had seen; they lived through, but never recovered from what they had experienced. I would watch until I was physically ill and then begin work on the play. It was my way to honour them.

CM: Does the play have a political agenda?
KU: No.

CM: You’ve had lots of plays produced in the US but this is the first time one has come to the UK, isn’t it? Why is this particular play set for a London run?
KU: I was in London doing a residency at the Donmar Warehouse back in 2011. It was a great experience and they set up meetings with a number of theatres that they felt might respond to my work. I met with the people at Theatre503 and we connected. Steve Harper had read ‘Sense of an Ending’ and said 503 would find a way to make this play happen. It took some time, but now it’s happening in the best possible way. Director Jonathan O’Boyle and our fearless cast are doing the play with such honesty and strength. I am eternally grateful to our producers and everyone at 503 for believing in this play.

CM: You’ve written screenplays as well as plays, haven’t you? Is there a big difference in writing for the two media?
KU: I wrote a feature length film adaptation of my play ‘The Happy Sad’. It is really hard to adapt a play. With a screenplay, it feels as if you have endless options, and that’s initially exciting and overwhelming. But then you realize there’s a pretty clear structure to a screenplay and that became a comfort. With film, it’s rewarding what a large audience even a small indie film can have. My boyfriend and I realised on our second date that he had seen the movie thanks to Netflix. That was nice.

CM: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new at the moment?
KU: ‘Sense of an Ending’ will have a production in New York at 59E59 in late summer, so it will be interesting to see this production and then go into rehearsal for another production straight away. I am developing a new play, ‘Guide for the Homesick’, at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. It is about two men who meet in a hotel bar. The play came out of interviews I did with volunteers in Doctors without Borders (MSF) and the experience of homecoming following traumatic experiences in Africa. I also finished a novel for the stage called ‘Inappropriate Sexual Relations’ about three couples. Ideally, the play will be performed on someone else’s set. No rest for the wicked.

‘Sense Of An Ending’ is on at Theatre503 from 12 May – 6 June. See the venue website here for more info and tickets.

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