Kiss and Tell
Playwright Laura Schellhardt shares the mystery behind The K of D and other stories
By Joanna Horowitz, Seattle Rep Associate Communications Director

The K of D, an urban legend Playwright Laura Schellhardt

The K of D, an urban legend, began with a mystery of its own. In 2005, playwright Laura Schellhardt returned to St. Marys, Ohio, the small town that was her summer childhood haunt and is now a professional harbor. She was at a cottage near the lake working on another project, and she was up early one morning...

"I was looking out the front door of the cabin, and I saw this little girl by herself down at the lake, wading into the water," Schellhardt said. "I thought that was unusual for a kid to be down there that early in the morning, and I usually take a walk, so I went and got my coat, and by the time I got my coat and got out the door, she wasn’t there anymore."

That image of the vanishing girl was the spark, and The K of D was born there at the lake.

Schellhardt had always wanted to set a play in St. Marys, a down-and-out sort of Anytown USA where summer days were spent "telling stories, and trying to trick each other and playing pranks; coming up with ways to scare each other and building forts," Schellhardt said.

And she wanted to tell a ghost story.

"I’m interested in fear in the theater and if it’s even possible to have a creepy story in the theater anymore—it’s easier on film," Schellhardt said. "So that collided with the idea of an urban legend, which is sort of our version of ghost stories; those are the stories that fly around the country so quickly."

After the play’s first reading right here in Seattle at ACT in 2006, The K of D has also bounced around the country, its relatable sense of small-town life and characters resonating in Washington D.C. (Wooly Mammoth), Chicago, and New York for the New York International Fringe Festival. Four of those performances—two in Seattle, one in Port Townsend, and the New York run—have featured Seattle actress Renata Friedman in the center of the play’s whirlwind 16 characters.

"There are not a lot of actresses who can perform it," Schellhardt said. "That’s the trick: finding an actress who can move through the characters so effortlessly that for them it’s a marathon, but for us in the audience, we can forget that we are watching one actress."

It’s rare enough to be able to find someone to handle the chameleon-like demands of the play that some productions have actually cast multiple actors. In that case "it becomes much more about a community of kids," Schellhardt said. "But when you see it done with one actor, it becomes a psychological journey through one person’s past. It’s more painful when one actress has to go through all of the hard parts herself, as well as confront her demons, literally by becoming them."

Friedman looks forward to revisiting the demons of the play, now that a year and half has past since she last visited the world of The K of D. In between, she’s taken on a host of other challenging, albeit similarly youthful, parts, including roles in The Scarlet Letter and A Doctor Inspire of Himself (Intiman) and The Female of the Species (ACT). (This is her first role at Seattle Rep.)

"I’m most looking forward to finding out what has changed about me and how that changes how I do it," Friedman said. "Our process on the fringe [at the New York International Fringe Festival] was so fast and furious. Because it demands so much in terms of the staging to tell the story with just one person, a lot of our time has gone into that aspect of it. There are a couple of characters that I feel like I’ve never quite gotten where I want them to be."

Likewise, director Braden Abraham gets the unique experience of returning to the play—also for the third time. "It’s the kind of play you can revisit and always find different colors moment to moment, and different things to explore," he said. "We have more technical ability in the Leo K. than we ever have, so we’ll be able to refine the lights and sound in a way that we’ve never been able to before. Even though Renata is out there on her own, you really do feel like there is this unseen force behind her that pushes and supports her."

Creating the world of St. Marys—from defining the oddball characters to working with sound designer Matt Starritt on the rich soundscape—Friedman and Abraham found they could draw on their own experiences growing up in small towns.

"I really hook into that pack of kids running around together—exploring the terrain, making up stories, making up adventures, and feeling like they understand the secrets of the neighborhood," Abraham said.

And the act of storytelling—bonding over your own urban (or perhaps rural) legend—is at the core of The K of D.

"What I loved about it growing up was that we became each other’s television," Schellhardt said about her group of friends—kids whose quirks and personalities became channeled into the teens in The K of D. "Year after year, you would come back and someone would say, ‘Remember the time,’ and you would just pull out whatever story you wanted to tell for whatever moment, and that story instantly united you again."