Ken Urban: An Empathetic Ear

Covering topics ranging from genocide in Rwanda to the breakup of one of the first same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, Ken Urban’s writing explores the complex nexus of emotion, personal choices, and relationships—a nexus which exerts pressure on his characters and informs profound interactions in plays set far and wide. Complementing the breadth of his subjects is Urban’s extensive scope of dramatic styles, from abstract, dream-like expressions to more naturalistic renderings. What unites Urban’s diverse oeuvre, however, is his dialogue’s musicality and a sustained attention to emotional truths.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Urban studied English Literature, graduating with a BA from Bucknell University before earning his MA and PhD in English at Rutgers University. Since then, he has taught writing and dramatic literature at Harvard University, Tufts University, Bucknell, and Rutgers. Urban is currently the Senior Lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Playwriting in Music and Theater Arts Program.

Urban has proved to be a renaissance man—balancing the demands of a career in academia with writing and producing plays, as well as creating original music with his band Occurrence. Indeed, Urban blends these discrete experiences by incorporating each into the others. Whether lending his knowledge of academe’s ins and outs to the professorial characters in The Remains or composing songs for plays like The Awake, Urban’s multiple and complementary talents seem to surface in his ability to tailor the form of each play to match its individual plot, theme, and interest.

In particular, Urban’s background as a musician has had a clear and definitive influence on his plays. From his days in a high school band, to designing sound for his earliest shows in New York City by necessity, Urban has tuned his ear to the melodies of everyday speech. “I hear my plays before I see them,” he says, and looks to create plays that “sing as well as just being spoken,” revealing characters and their underlying emotions “from the music of how they speak.” Urban’s rhythmic and melodic tools include overlapping dialogue, interruptions and speech that trails off, unique linguistic rhythms and patterns, and even measured silences, which create a sonic landscape against which we familiarize ourselves with his characters and their inner lives.

Urban was the Founding Artistic Director of The Committee, a theatre company based in New York City that premiered some of his earlier original plays, including The Private Lives of Eskimos (2007), which follows a grieving man tracking down a stolen cell phone, a journey which leads him to cross paths with international criminals. Other works include more realistic pieces like The Happy Sad, which debuted at The Public Theater in 2009, and which Urban adapted into a film that has played internationally and domestically at more than 25 festivals. In this work, Urban analyzes how couples come together and configure themselves in a world with “too many options,” and his script was lauded by the Village Voice as “filled with wonderfully raw, discomfiting conversations between each of the couples as they grapple with love that won’t conveniently dissipate when someone calls it quits.” Urban investigates themes of aging and finding life’s path in A Future Perfect (2015), which considers a group of friends facing impending parenthood, and wondering where they stand as formerly rebellious indie rock kids entering into adulthood—a play the Boston Globe heralded as a “prescient look at the present.”

Urban has not limited himself stylistically to realism. Believing that “the story determines the structure,” Urban envisions signposts for his stories’ beginnings and endings, and crafts a uniquely appropriate vehicle to take the audience from the initial image to the ending. This discipline has led to an appreciable range in the form his plays take and the genres with which they intersect. Plays like The Correspondent (2014), detailing a bereaved husband’s communications with his late wife through a terminally ill messenger, and The Awake (2013), a triangulated exploration of three people whose lives are each impacted by a corporation conducting extrajudicial interrogations, follow the logic of dreams. Yet within these sometimes surreal configurations, Urban’s work continues to expose realistic and very human truths about the nature of fear, family, death, and home.

History has also informed several of Urban’s other works, like The Absence of Weather (2014), which tells the story of US Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, who struggled with the demons of war when forced out of office and committed to Bethesda Naval Hospital in 1949. Urban also explored the aftermath of armed conflict in his play Sense of An Ending (2015), which details a journalist covering two Hutu nuns charged with homicide for their role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. For this play—which the New York Times has praised as “fast-paced, fluid, and taut”—Urban won the L. Arnold Weissberger Playwriting Award.

Recent works include Nibbler, which premiered in February 2017 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and whose 1992 suburban New Jersey setting drew inspiration from Urban’s teenage years. Currently in development is A Guide for the Homesick, about two Americans sharing an Amsterdam hotel room where they hash out their pasts, which will premiere at the Huntington Theatre as a part of their 2017-18 season. Informed in part by a personal breakup, The Remains, debuting at Studio this season, details the breakdown of Theo and Kevin’s groundbreaking marriage within the context of Theo’s parents’ unsteady union and Kevin’s sister’s splintered relationships, ultimately proving that even a romance meant for the history books can falter for quotidian reasons.

Set against a broad historical backdrop or centered on the smaller, more intimate scenes of family homes and hotels, Urban’s work—though ranging in style and subject—illuminates the depth of his characters’ emotional life. Urban never fails to lend an empathetic ear in his creation of groundbreaking and poignant theatre, fulfilling his own mission as a playwright; as he puts it:

“The ability to see the world in a new way

           To have an experience in a room with others

           To feel like your brain has been re-wired.

           That’s why we go to the theater. That’s why I write plays.”

-Alexandra Kennedy