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In 2015, Saint Mary’s had the honor of presenting the West Coast premiere of Chaste, by playwright Ken Prestininzi. Prestininzi's plays have been professionally produced across the country and beyond, from Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, to Mexico City and Prague. This spring, Saint Mary's presents the first full production of his award-winning new play Impure Thoughts (without apology.)

Also a dramaturg and director, Prestininzi has worked on new scripts and revivals by Quiara Alegría Hudes, Sarah Ruhl and Paula Vogel, among others.  He also maintains collaborative relationships with several Bay Area artists and companies, including: playwright Peter Sinn Nacthrieb, the Bay Area Playwright's Festival, Z Space, and Playground at Berkeley Rep.  Now on the theatre faculty of Connecticut College, Prestininzi is the former Artistic Director of the Brown/Trinity Playwrights Repertory Theatre; from 2008-13, he was Associate Chair of Playwriting at the Yale School of Drama. Prestininzi holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is a member of New Dramatists.

Ken Prestininzi talks about his play "Chaste," in an interview conducted by production dramaturg Jordan Lampi: 

Why did you choose to write about three historical figures: the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, his friend Paul Ree, and Lu Salome, the woman they both loved?

KP: I was attracted to the story when I discovered who Lu Salome was, in that she aspired to control her destiny in a new way, a way that had never been invented before. The fact that Nietzsche proposed marriage to her (I could never imagine Nietzsche proposing marriage to anyone) really drew me into the story. The more I found out about this ménage a trois between two older men and the young virginal woman the more deeply I was drawn into the story. Once I was thrown into the story, there was no getting out except by following it to its awful end.

 There’s always, in theatre, the relationship of the ideal to the material reality of our lives; the extreme of the ideals held by this young woman and Nietzsche, and the actual reality of being in a house together and trying to live the ideal - this extreme position that they got into was very exciting for me to explore.

Did Nietzsche, Salome and Ree actually agree to a “chaste” arrangement in their real lives?

KP: It was proposed. The play goes further than fact. It goes past the proposal and puts it into an imagined experience. There’s no record of many of the things that happen in the play: those are imagined things, and there’s a bit of a fever dream that all of the characters enter. But the fact that these people wanted to entertain such a dream is what inspired the play. We as human beings believe we can make the impossible happen by the will of the mind: we think we can change nature itself.

So Chaste is not a history play?

KP: No. As a playwright, what I find when I read history is that I am attracted to the thing that is not said or the thing that is not quite explained - the “gap” or “hole” in the story. I find that there is something very powerful and potent in that, and I call that the footnotes. Trying to enter that is the way I look at history.

The actual studio image of the trio where they have Lu stand with a whip and the two men, Paul and Nietzsche, are standing below her… I tried to figure out what the dynamic of such a trio would be that would set up this photo. That’s something that inspires and perplexes me as a playwright and gets me writing.

I wonder where is the human emotion and questioning that goes on before, when history is just a thought? Because in the theatre, we all know that characters are choosing among many options before they choose the action that drives the story to the next place. Looking at history for me is trying to look at “what were the options not chosen before they chose the thing that got into the history book?” Those are the ways that history informs me.

Why subtitle your play an “awful comedy?”

KP: I think the play in many ways is about a crisis of faith for all of the characters. The relationship that this young woman has to God, the creative mind and the ego is something she is trying to work out. She chooses Nietzsche of all men to work it out with. The idea that one can live in a sublime or a “chaste” state of the mind when we inhabit these very human bodies that have various desires, appetites and befuddlements is what makes an awful comedy out of us. We think that we can live on the mountaintop of sublime thought, but we are also awkward and bound to our humanity, to our bodies and to our own deceptions. That’s a part of what makes it so awful, but it’s a thing that we try to surpass.

Lu, this young woman, dreams herself into an elevated position in the world amid a canon of great minds and in her relationship to a God, who - she imagines - perhaps prizes men over women. Also, the fact that a great mind like Nietzsche can be tossed to the storms by losing his shoes in a brothel is part of the awful comedy of being born into this world and being born with an ego.

What themes do you think will be engaging and exciting for a college-age audience?

KP: All college students are where Lu is in this sense of asking the question “Can I be a part of all thought? All love? All experience? All sexual experience that has happened before me? Where is my place in that? Can I be a part of it? Can I surpass it? Can I transcend it?”

I also think Lu is like a college student who is trying to design her own major as well as find a mentor to bring out her best self. How do you not get swallowed up by your mentor? Do you have to destroy your mentor to surpass him or her? How do you find that healthy and generative power in it? At any moment you can get thrown off balance and someone might try to control or dominate or train you. These are all questions that many students at that age dive into. That’s the time period in which you are opening up the space in which you will live in as an adult. Lu is doing this and she wants to do it to the nth degree - not to the second or fourth degree - but to the nth degree. It’s dangerous to have a mind and to be realizing your sexual power, but it’s exciting and why you want to be alive.

Your play includes quite a few references to Grimm’s Fairytales, especially Little Red Riding Hood. What is the significance of these stories to the play?

KP Grimm’s Fairytales are German, and it’s a German speaking world of the play (even though Lu is from Russia, she’s living in a German world). Red Riding Hood is about a young girl who is told never to go off the path because it is too dangerous. There’s an idea that there are wolves out there that will destroy or devour you, but Red chooses to go off the path. Part of that story is that Red chooses to meet a wolf. Perhaps Red wants to be a wolf. I think it’s unfair that Red has to be the little girl because she would be much better at being one of the wolves who have all the power and freedom. So there’s this idea that in Lu exists both Red Riding Hood and the wolf, or that she has the desire to be both.

“How could the wolf be the roommate to Little Red Riding Hood?” is the question that the play puts forward. When we look at the story we know that the wolf could never be her roommate. But Lu insists that Friedrich will be that, or she insists that she get the chance to be the wolf. These are things we learn before we can articulate or educate them away. The Grimm’s fairytales are there to tell us about the things we can’t control in our nature, but that we have to find a way to either manage, live with or trick if we are to get back to a home or a place of safety. The Gustave Doré image is a beautiful image for the play because Lu is not frightened by the wolf. She wants have equal power with him. For her, it is worth the risk.

Is there anything else you want your audience to know?

KP: This woman - who engaged the minds of Rilke, Nietzsche and Freud - has been dropped from history. But those three men found her to be both a match and a muse, so I’m interested in why was she dropped from history. In a very different way, she was a whole new woman problem because she didn’t confirm, or conform to, the male expectations of her. At that time you had the triangle of “virgin, mother, whore” that Lu refused to be caught within. Her awareness of breaking the rules is where her great sense of humor comes. Her awareness and humor is very much a part of the play and it’s not defeated by expectations, but it is what allows the awful comedy from turning into a tragedy.