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Playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks Probes the Anxiety of Youth

Michelle Kholos Brooks

During the pandemic, when the world slowed down, playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks somehow speeded up. Even while agonizing over the state of the world past and present, she researched and interviewed, planned and wrote.

In works increasingly dedicated to exploring lives marked by forces of oppression, Brooks gives voice to the unheard. She does not shy away from exposing the impact of war, fascism, school shootings or feelings of hopelessness.

Brooks’ play Hitler’s Tasters had its Los Angeles run cut short in March 2020 (see the Buzz review here); it returns via Rogue Machine next week. She developed War Words, based on interviews with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, throughout the pandemic; it had a world premiere in November 2023. Two new plays, also based on extensive interviews, are set to premiere this year: Project Fear (And All the Feels) at Santa Monica College this week (see below) and Room 1214 about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in New York in November.

Before fully committing to playwriting, Brooks worked as a journalist. She brings those skills to her latest plays, noting, “A mic is a shield that gives the ability to ask whatever you want. Just asking people to tell their stories is powerful.”

The Buzz interviewed Brooks about her three upcoming 2024 productions and what drives her.

You’re not afraid to go deep and make a statement through your writing.

Clearly, I’m trying to make sense of humanity and things that happen in our world. Going down these dark paths in some ways helps me work through it. There are all kinds of activism: protesting, giving money…To me, this feels like a visceral form of activism. And whenever it resonates, or someone says something I wrote made them think, I feel so much gratitude. I get prickly when any writer says, “‘”This is how it is.”‘” I don’t know how it is, I just know how I feel. And that’s what I’m exploring.

When I started, I didn’t think about writing plays in that way. But after a while, I realized that these things were screaming inside of me. I go down some dark paths in my work and it’s definitely not for fun. I don’t delude myself into thinking that I’m going to change any minds or that people who come to my plays will have an epiphany. It’s just a way of saying, “‘”Please pay attention to this.” Maybe if it’s done in an artful way, people can take it in differently than they do with the news.

Caitlin Zambito, Paige Simunovich, Olivia Gill, Ali Axelrad rehearsing for Htlers Tasters. Photo by Guillermo Cienfuegos.

When I saw Hitler’s Tasters in 2020, at first the modern touches were jarring. But over the course of the play, they had the effect of humanizing characters we otherwise might have seen only as Hitler-lovers. This was sort of a genius move that reinforced that the characters are teen girls, not unlike those we might know today. What led you down that path?

When I first heard this story, that young German women were willing to be poisoned in service to Hitler, I couldn’t shake it. Young women have been used since the beginning of time. Later, I was out somewhere and there was a group of young women taking selfies. They were so invested in it, posing and getting just the right angle, and I was thinking, they’re all so beautiful and micro-judging themselves, while also having fun. The Hitler’s Tasters girls would have been doing this.

It was important for me that it didn’t feel like the girls were sepia-toned. So much of what they were dealing with is what we’re dealing with today. As Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. I was seeing a lot of rhyming as I was doing research on World War II. So I had no choice, I had to make it feel contemporary. Over the last few years, I’ve been updating it with references and Easter eggs. Not everyone would know them, but they are my form of protest, my form of screaming.

You’ve won awards both for comedy and drama, and Hitler’s Tasters walks the line between both. Do you have a favorite genre, or even believe in genres?

I don’t set out to do one or the other. Most of my work crosses over. That’s because even though I go down the rabbit hole into the darkness, I need a break. And if I need one, the audience really does. So much humor comes out of truth and real situations. [In Hitler’s Tasters] young women are shoved into a room, not knowing if they’re going to die, and fed three times a day with what might be poison. If you can’t find comedy in that…

Young women are hilarious. You couldn’t pay me to go back to that time. Humor comes from recognizing the truth and putting people in a pressurized situation, then watching what they do to fight their way out.

How did Hitler’s Tasters end up at Rogue Machine?

I see a lot of Rogue Machine shows and know a lot of people there, as well as Pacific Resident Theatre. The community’s pretty small. A lot of them have followed the Hitler’s Tasters trajectory. [Rogue Machine Artistic Director and co-producer] Guillermo Cienfuegos was at my very first reading at PRT. Rogue Machine is an edgy company that takes a lot of chances and always has something happening. They’ve really leaned into it, with a great poster, with the pink.

They wanted to bring in director Sarah Norris, who has helped shape this play as much as I have at this point. They saw what a wonderful job she did, starting with the very first production at Centenary Stage in New Jersey. Other than my husband, the best match I’ve ever had. She brought the play to New York with her theater company, then Edinburgh, then Chicago, North Carolina and Kentucky.

Chryssa Gilmer, Naanay Berhanu, Samuel Franke, Justin Young, and Emi Hamiti of Project Fear (And All the Feels). Photo by Aric Martin.

I’m curious about your latest work, Project Fear (and All the Feels) and Room 1214. They’re both about teens and the difficult world they’ve found themselves in. Can you talk a little about the process of creating Project Fear, with input from more than 50 teens, and Room 1214, sparked by the 2018 Parkland shooting?

Room 1214 was really rough for me. I interviewed Ivy Schamis, a teacher in a Holocaust history class where they were giving reports on hate crimes when a shooter with swastikas etched into his boots came in. [Two students in her classroom were killed.] She was able to hold onto her humanity.

We’re certainly not laughing at anything in the classroom. But to hold onto humor is to hold onto humanity. Humor humanizes us. Also, humor is a gateway emotion. If you can laugh, you can open yourself up to other things. If you can make someone laugh, they might be able to hear something they otherwise couldn’t.

And Project Fear?

At some point, pre-COVID, I was thinking about what a shitty time it is to be a young person because of social media and school shootings. I couldn’t have imagined COVID or January 6. I just thought it would be cool to write a play about teens, for teens. Most of the time in a high school play, students are playing older people. How cool would it be if they could play kids their own age?

I put out a few feelers, and then lockdown happened. I ended up interviewing 50 teenagers, about the fears of their generation, to make a docu-play. I was shocked by the things kids would tell me, how much they wanted to talk. Then I made a play with way too many characters. I don’t suggest it as a general rule. It’s being done by Santa Monica College’s fantastic theater department.

I’m not in the room as much as I have been with Hitler’s Tasters, but I’m in awe of what they’re doing with it and curious to see it. It will have a lot of heart, and some of it will be a little shocking.

What do you feel is the role of the playwright, as opposed to the screenwriter? Or is there any difference?

I may be the only playwright not writing screenplays. I’m just not moved that way. To me screenwriting is so much about pictures and images and I’m more about the words. I get to figure out how to use words through characters who can say things I wouldn’t have the nerve or wherewithal in the moment to say in real life. I get to plan out my words and find the way to say it. That’s very appealing to me.

I think one of the bummers of being a screenwriter is that it’s so hard to get your work done. So often movies get optioned and then never produced. I’m fortunate that I’m having a very good year. It’s very hard to get something staged. But I can have actor friends over and hear my play read around the table and get some kind of emotional satisfaction.

Hitler’s Tasters runs from April 27 to June 3 at Rogue Machine at the Matrix, 7657 Melrose Ave. Tickets are $45 and can be purchased here. Project Fear (And All the Feels), produced by the Santa Monica College Theatre Arts Department, runs April 19-28 at the Theatre Arts Studio Stage on the main SMC campus, 1900 Pico Blvd. Performances on April 19 and April 21 include audience talkbacks. Tickets are $18-20 in advance, $3 more purchased onsite, and parking is free. Room 1214 will be produced in New York in November 2024.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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