2011-2012 Season, Boom Artists, First Flight

Three Questions with Jeffrey James Keyes

Jeffrey James Keyes is the playwright of 17,which kicks of the FIRST FLIGHT New Play Festival on November 16th.

1) What was your inspiration for writing 17?

In the summer of 1998, just before I moved to New York City to go to Fordham University I took a life changing backpacking trip to Isle Royale, a tiny island in Lake Superior, off the coast of the upper peninsula of Michigan. I brought a copy of Jak Kerouac’s On the Road and a collection of Stephen King’s short stories which included “The Body”. A friend and I took a week hiking the entirety of the island, which is covere in dense forest and dangerous paths through wilderness. Isle Royale is rich in iron and mineral deposits and people heavily mined the island before it became a National Park under Roosevelt. The remains of ancient mines still exist deep in the woods. On one particular day of my expedition, I slipped and fell through some leaves and into a small pit. In this moment, I quickly realized my own mortality in a visceral way. I’ve thought about my trek to Isle Royale over the years. The landscape is vivid in my memory. While I was a graduate student at Columbia University, playwright Frank Pugliese gave us a writing assignment and I started writing the beginning of the story that would eventually become Isle Royale. I work as a travel writer and photojournalist, and in the middle of Frank’s workshop I was on a trip with my boyfriend to Curaçao. We went on a tour of their caves. When I was inside of the Hato caves, the story of four boys exploring an island came to me. I imagined what would happen were someone to fall through the ground and land in one of these enormous caves. I started dreaming about Isle Royale and the four boys who would eventually be in my play. I picked up the idea again last year in a workshop and a fall writing challenge another playwright friend and I do each year where we send each other ten weekly pages of a new play. I’m obsessed with rigorous deadlines and finished the first draft of this play, originally called Isle Royale, in a few months.

2) Your play is set in Isle Royale, did you grow up in this part of the country?

I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and there was a large forest between my childhood home and Lake Michigan. My family has always been inspired by the outdoors. My father frequently took us camping in the summer and used to rent a cottage in the North Woods. My mother’s family owned a farm up near Ashland, and we used to go up to the Apostle Islands together. I’ve lived in New York since 1998 and I long for my childhood accessibility and rich connection to nature and the outdoors. It’s easy enough to get in a car and explore New England, but there’s something really special about the Midwest. I try to capture an elemental quality of this in my play, the landscape is essentially another character in the piece.

3) When do you like to write? Early morning or late at night? And what do you always have to have with you when you are working?

I’m a night writer. I was pretty much an insomniac as a child and used to write short ghost stories and weird surrealist poetry late at night. I fell into the nightlife scene as soon as I moved to New York and continued writing until the sun came up through college and it just stuck with me. I like the city when it’s quiet. I love to write with classical or ambient chill out music in the background, with my Shiba Inu pup on my side and my boyfriend sleeping in the next room. I try to work on many things at once, an break up my night between playwriting, travel essays, and photo editing.

The reading of 17 takes place on Wednesday November 16th at 7:30pm at ART/NY, 520 Eighth Avenue, 3rd floor. For reservations, please email literary@boomerangtheatre.org

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