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Playwright Will Kern’s first novel inspired by trip home

By Deborah Martin for the San Antonio Express-News, February 4, 2016

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Will Kern is known primarily as a playwright, but the story he tells in his first novel isn’t really stage-friendly.

“It would be too big to do as a play,” Kern said. “You’d have to have an enormous budget. And you’d have to find a really young dancer who could dance really well and also act really well, too. I know they’re out there, but it’d be hard.”

“Ballet for Guys” is built around Billy Jim Hauck, a political conservative and self-described “fat ass with brown teeth and a scraggly Yosemite Sam mustache.” In the opening chapters, he is struggling through a tough divorce and a mid-life crisis that has him considering suicide. He is forced to pull himself together when his teenage daughter is drugged and raped at a party. She falls into a deep depression and even stops taking the ballet classes she always has loved. In an effort to help her recover, Billy Jim starts looking into ballet, studying YouTube videos and reading up on it. He even goes so far as to start taking classes himself.

The book is set in San Antonio, which Kern, 51, considers his hometown. Though he traveled a lot as a kid — his dad was in the Air Force — the family often spent big chunks of time here. These days, Kern returns during holiday breaks from teaching in the English department at Sungshin Women’s University in South Korea, where he has lived for the past 10 years.

Kern said the book was inspired by a visit to San Antonio about two years ago. His son Wilson, who was then 3, had started taking ballet classes. As Kern spent time with his parents and their friends, who tilt to the right politically, he started kicking around the idea of combining ballet — “which some people consider to be feminine” — with a conservative mind set — “which a lot of people considered to be hyper-masculine.”

The book is hard to characterize in terms of genre.

“I was on a website that was asking me to define this book, and the only thing I could think of was urban fiction,” he said. “Urban, because, obviously, we’re in the city and it’s fiction, but urban fiction, when you think of that, you think of black fiction, which it’s not.”

Kern originally planned to write screenplays. He turned his attentions to playwriting while studying at the University of Texas at Austin, then spent about a decade trying to find his voice as a writer. His breakthrough came with “Hellcab,” which sprang from his own experiences driving a taxi in Chicago. It follows one driver through a busy Christmas Eve shift in which he meets all sorts of people.

The play, which debuted in 1992, became one of the longest-running shows in Chicago theater history. Profiles Theatre produces its annually, and productions marking its 25th anniversary next year are being planned.

“The thing has staying power,” Kern said.

The fact that it doesn’t feel at all dated troubles him.

“I was really saddened by the fact that nothing has changed in 25 years,” he said. “We still have racism and we still have brutality to women and we still have all of these problems that have never been corrected.”

The piece got its first San Antonio outing in 2013, when Stacey Connelly directed it for AtticRep. Connelly, who is an associate theatre professor at Trinity University, got to know Kern when she and her husband, David, worked on the Chicago theater scene. She got to see an early staging of “Hellcab” there and has admired it ever since.

“There are some people in the play that seem certifiably crazy and some that are suffering from problems of addiction; some who seem like criminals, but aren’t,” she said. “I think the play is really good at examining our prejudices.”

Connelly often teaches “Hellcab” as an example of a well-structure piece. And Kern’s visits home have sometimes included lectures and workshops for Trinity students. He wasn’t able to see AtticRep’s “Hellcab” staging, but he spoke with the production’s dramaturg and also sent a video greeting to the cast and the rest of the production team.

“He has been incredibly accessible,” Connelly said.

She liked “Ballet for Guys” a lot, too.

“It’s not sentimentalized,” she said. “This character is kind of a jerk and you can kind of see why his wife left him. I think this mid life crisis he goes through is something that actually changes him and makes him a better person.”

Kern doesn’t have any plays in the works currently. He’s devoting some energy to writing and shooting YouTube videos to promote “Ballet for Guys” in which he plays the main character, who shares what he’s learned about dance. The videos are titled “Billy Jim’s Guide to the Ballet.”

“It’s kind of funny,” Kern said. “One of the things that has not been necessarily good for my career is that I haven’t stayed pigeonholed to doing one type of style. When I wrote ‘Hellcab,’ the next thing I wanted to do was write a play about religion, but people didn’t want to do that. They (asked), ‘Where’s your next taxi play?’ And I was like, ‘I kind of did the taxi play, and I don’t really have anything else to say about taxis.’

“I really would like to write another novel, but it wouldn’t be a novel that would be like this.”

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Will Kern is the author of Hellcab, one of the longest-running shows in Chicago theatre history. Originally produced in 1992 by Famous Door Theatre, Hellcab was scheduled for twelve performances as a late show, but its success with audiences and critics soon moved it to the main stage where kept it going … and going. Thirty-three years later Hellcab has earned seasonal classic status and continues to be a Chicago favorite. A 2016 production is scheduled at Profiles Theatre in Chicago.

Some of Will’s other theatre writing credits include Kid Sister, which received its world premiere at Profiles Theatre in 2010; and Mothers and Tigers: True Stories of Korean Women at Chaimoo Theater, in Seoul, South Korea, in 2008. As a screenwriter, Will wrote the film adaptation of Hellcab, the award-winning short film Pain Chain and Lost in Rome. His travel writing and essays have been published in numerous magazines and newspapers around the world. Ballet for Guys is his first novel.

A debate and narrative communication strategies professor at Sungshin Women’s University, Will lives in Seoul, South Korea, with his wife Sophie and son Wilson.

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