When playwright, novelist and screenwriter Ayad Akhtar started spinning words, his aspirations were humble: that people would actually pay attention.
Now a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, he looks back on his early days in New York City with 20/20 hindsight.
“I used to have this weird premonition when I would walk through Times Square in my 20s. I had this weird feeling that I was going to be there,” he said, “but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, God, I want to be there.’ It was just the weird sense that it was going to happen.”
And it certainly did.
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Akhtar, whose play “Disgraced” nabbed him the Pulitzer Prize for drama and an Obie Award in 2013, saw his work grace a Broadway stage in 2014 and earn a Tony nomination for best play. At the same time, he had two other theatrical works in progress: “The Who & the What,” which played at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre last May, and “The Invisible Hand,” which opens at the Rep on Friday, Oct. 14.
So, why is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright seeing so many of his shows produced in Kansas City? It all goes back to a friendship between Akhtar and KC Rep artistic director Eric Rosen, who met at a Rep party a couple of years ago. Rosen supported early productions of “Disgraced” and “The Who & the What,” so when he approached Akhtar about producing “The Invisible Hand,” it was a no-brainer.
“Anything Eric wants to do, I’m happy to do,” Akhtar said.
Akhtar visited Kansas City recently to sit in on a rehearsal and to talk up the show, which made its premiere at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2012. Back then, it was just a one-act show; the show mounting in Kansas City is a two-act, completely reworked draft from the show’s London staging this summer.
(The trailer from the London production includes mature language.)
“The Invisible Hand” (the title is a nod to Adam Smith’s theory of economics) follows the plight of Nick, a futures trader kidnapped and held for ransom in Pakistan by an organization aiming to help the nation’s citizens. Using his economic knowledge, he teaches his captors how to raise money for their organization through the stock market and side trading, eventually raising his own ransom.
Akhtar, a Pakistani-American from Milwaukee, said he had always wanted to write a story that put capitalism on trial — a story about the crossroads of finance, extremist policies and morals. But, although he knew what his elements were, he’s not the kind of writer to know how a story ends until he gets there. In fact, the first version of the show and the new version have completely different endings.
Don’t expect a clear moral right-and-wrong from this play; Akhtar said there’s no overarching message.
“I don’t write a play to have folks take something away,” Akhtar said. “I write a play because I want to absorb an audience in the experience of the story. It’s like if we’re talking about sports, I’m that player who actually doesn’t play because he wants to win; I’m the player who plays because he loves the game.
“I want the audience to be absorbed and lost, emotionally and intellectually and narratively, in the world of the story, because if they’re lost, it means I got lost in the making of it.”
And Akhtar, who works on several projects at once, finds himself lost a great deal of the time. His writing style could be described as chaotic: He wrote first drafts of his novel, “American Dervish,” and plays “Disgraced” and “The Invisible Hand” before he went back to write the second drafts of each. The first professional productions of “Disgraced” and “The Invisible Hand” opened within a month of each other. And then he won the Pulitzer — and took a break from writing.
“I had seven works all mapped out, which I got through four, and then my life became something else because of the great good fortune of that award,” he said.
But the Pulitzer is a double-edged sword for Akhtar. “Nothing good can come from this,” he thought, for he said the prize might have convinced him he’s a better writer than he really is, or it might have led him to be defensive, thinking he’s not as great of a writer as he thought. So he had to find a way out of that — a huge artistic risk in “Junk,” a 23-character, three-act play that just completed a run at the La Jolla Playhouse in California.
Because of his Pulitzer he also says there’s less freedom to write original stories from his own mind. Instead, he finds people approaching him with stories to write.
“You end up taking on projects that are not necessarily projects that you would be writing if no one was paying attention,” he said. “I’m still trying to find a way to get back to that space.”
Some of the projects he’s working on now? His new play “Junk,” a screenplay for “Disgraced” and a potential TV show with a major network. But he thinks he’ll always return to theater.
“The first girl I ever fell in love with, I saw her in a play,” he said. “And I remember when I was younger, I had dreams about theater. … I’d be dreaming about sitting in the house, looking at the stage, or looking out at the house.
“I remember in college sitting in a theater at Brown University, looking around and thinking to myself, ‘Oh, this is where I’m going to make my home. I feel right here.’ ”
▪ “The African Company Presents Richard III,” Oct. 14-30 at the Fishtank Performance Studio, 1715 Wyandotte St. The Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City presents its debut show, which tells the story of the first black theatrical group in downtown Manhattan and its production of “Richard III.” See BRTKC.org/seasons.
▪ “O Beautiful,” Oct. 14-23 at the Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St. UMKC Theatre opens its season with a satirical play about the lives of high school students, teachers and families. See UMKCTheatre.org.
▪ “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type,” Oct. 15-Nov. 3 at the Regnier Extreme Screen Theatre in Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Road. Adapted from the popular book by Doreen Cronin, the musical comedy presented by Theatre for Young America follows disgruntled farm animals who want to improve their accommodations and eventually take over their farm. See TYA.org.