A Sense of Play – Kathleen Warnock ’80, INDS

Published: Jun 1, 2013
(Kathleen headshot)

Kathleen Warnock ’80, interdisciplinary studies, has pursued a successful career as a playwright – including a production of one of her newest plays, Grieving for Genevieve, at Venus Theatre in Laurel this summer. She’s taken many roads to get there – sports journalist, travel editor, game show contestant – and profited greatly from her passions for rock’n’roll, classical literature and lesbian erotica.

Warnock says there is a method to her mercurial ways: “I constantly re-evaluate my priorities by asking, ‘Is it worth it to me to continue to do this?’ and I am constantly shifting my load.”

Take Grieving for Genevieve, which won the John Golden Award for Excellence in Playwriting in 2005 and was selected by Deborah Randall ’94, theatre, artistic director at Venus Theatre and a 2012 recipient of UMBC’s Alumna of the Year Award, for the theatre’s 2013 season. The play grew out of a writing exercise given to the playwright by her mentor, American Academy of Arts and Letters Award-winning playwright Tina Howe, and Warnock produced the play herself at New York’s Midtown International Theatre Festival with part of her $50,000 winnings from the game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire. (Warnock has also appeared on Jeopardy and Cash Cab, and quips that game shows are “the new arts funding.”)

The play explores a reunion of three sisters (a guitar tech, a rock singer/seamstress, and a nun) with their mother, a chain-smoking, retired nurse, in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood. It’s a situation Warnock dubs “loosely autobiographical,” observing that her mother is a chain smoker, her sister worked her way through nursing school making costumes for strippers, and her wife, Donna Bungo, is a former nun.

“There’s something incredibly ‘Baltimore’ about this play which drew me in,” says Randall, who also appears as an actor in the play. “It treats siblinghood and motherhood with voice that has an extreme sense of honesty and out of this sense comes something unapologetically funny.”

Warnock’s path as a writer began in high school, covering sports for the school newspaper. “When I arrived at UMBC,” she continues, “I went straight to the The Retriever to find out if they had any openings.” She ended up as The Retriever’s sports editor for two years and its editor-in-chief for a year, while also taking an internship on the sports copy desk at the now-defunct Baltimore News American. “I got the roots of what I do at UMBC,” she says.

Warnock also studied ancient Greek for four years at UMBC as well, and she credits a trip to Europe with ancient studies professors Jay Freyman and Walter K. Sherwin for opening her eyes to the world and to words: “I had learned so much about structure and language from them and this was my first trip abroad. It whetted my appetite for more.”

Warnock also caught the theatre bug during her time in Baltimore. “Back in those days,” she reminisces, “CENTERSTAGE gave away tickets at a significant discount for anyone willing to watch the shows from the aisle steps… It was great. I saw F. Murray Abraham as Cyrano sitting on those steps!”

Warnock moved to New York City in 1984 and quickly found her way to acting classes and a job working for the off-Broadway Mirror Repertory Company. She also wrote her first play, To The Top, in New York, taking a scandal involving a women’s basketball team that erupted during her first post-graduation job as a sportswriter in South Carolina as inspiration.

Warnock recalls that the hoops controversy she covered “contained the traditional arc of classic tragedy” and To the Top won South Carolina’s Trustus Theatre Annual Playwrights’ Festival – a national contest culminating in the professional world premiere of the winning play. (The play also eventually appeared under the imprint of theatrical publisher Samuel French.)

New York was also where Warnock met Tina Howe (who became a longtime friend and “guardian angel”) while working at the West Side YMCA Writer’s Voice writing programs, and it was during her time in Howe’s playwriting workshop at Hunter College that Warnock started the “En Avant” playwrights’ group.

With Howe’s assistance, En Avant secured funding and space at Hunter to produce three nights of one-act plays – and eventually morphed into the influential “En Avant Playwrights” online message board, which maintains a constantly updated listing of submission opportunities and has helped many playwrights find homes and awards for their work. Warnock adds that over the eleven years she has run En Avant, the list has prodded her to circulate her own work to the many festivals where it has appeared.

Warnock and Randall also have bonded over their love of rocker Joan Jett, and the playwright is a self-confessed “Jetthead” who’s followed the legendary rocker around the world. Another one of her plays, Rock the Line, was inspired by her fellow Joan Jett fans and produced by New York’s Emerging Artists Theatre in 2006 – and won the Robert Chesley Award for Lesbian and Gay Playwriting.

That “10 years of following Joan Jett” to various global locales also helped Warnock land her “day job” editing travel guides, first for IDG/Hungry Minds, then for John Wiley & Sons (publishers of Frommer’s travel guides) and now for web information giant Google, where she is a senior editor.

And when playwriting and the day job don’t have call on Warnock’s attention, she also hosts a monthly reading series, Drunken! Careening! Writers! at the New York literary bar KGB and edits the annual Best Lesbian Erotica series published by Cleis Press. It is no wonder she has titled her blog Too Many Hats!

– Sara Barker

Kathleen Warnock’s Grieving for Genevieve will play at Venus Theatre in Laurel from June 6 to 30. For more details, go to www.venustheatre.org

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