Red Eye produces another Sibyl Kempson work, Potatoes of August

Billy Mullaney 

Billy Mullaney 

Red Eye continues its 30th anniversary season with a new play by New York-based playwright Sibyl Kempson, whose work Ich, Kürbisgeist was presented last fall at the theater. This weekend, Potatoes of August, which was originally produced at Dixon Place in New York City, opens in a production directed by Red Eye's artistic director, Steve Busa, with music by Mike Iveson Jr. and a cast that includes Kirby Bennett, Chuck Deeter, Ben Kreilkamp, Miriam Must, Kevin McLaughin, and Billy Mullaney. 
Kempson -- whose work has been produced in New York, Austin, Texas, and Germany, as well as locally at the Walker Art Center -- is a 2013 McKnight National Residency and Commission Recipient. During a showcase in October with all the McKnight Fellows at the Playwright's Center, Kempson shared an excerpt from Potatoes of August. After the show, Busa approached her with an interest in reading the entire piece. "I get along with Steve very well," she says. "We see eye to eye on a lot of things."

In her work, Kempson says, she tends to "jump all over the place." When meeting with Busa, she has never felt the need to ask forgiveness for that. "He works that way as well, with a lot of different influences," she says. "It's very intuitive."

Last year, when Red Eye produced Ich, Kürbisgeist, they presented it as written, without a lot of extra production elements to make the work more entertaining or palatable. "He didn't apologize for it," she says. "It was great. It felt very brave." 

Kempson wrote Potatoes of August in August 2008, and she considers it her favorite play. The script involves four retirees who, while peeling potatoes for dinner, make the disconcerting discovery that one of the potatoes contains a brain. 

Eventually, it turns out that the potatoes can talk. Not only that, they are actually hyper intelligent, and "end up coercing the retirees into a new way of looking at the world," Kempson says.

At the time Kempson wrote the script, she was reading a lot of science texts. The story explores hive behavior, and how hive intelligence at times can be much greater than the intelligence of an individual. "The thinking is that a sack of potatoes has a potential of a hive," Kempson says. 

Potatoes of August has a tighter structure than her more recent work. "I like how the dialogue is so clear. I don't write like that anymore, and I wish that I still could. I feel way more nebulous now," she says. 

Many of Kempson's plays involve farm imagery, though she says it's not necessarily a conscious choice. "I've always wanted to farm and to have a farm," she says. "It's really hard to get it together for yourself. You have to have a lot of money, but it remains a goal of mine." 

"There's something about stuff that grows in the ground that seems really important to me. Important and overlooked," she says. "I'm making my life's work about that. I think there is something deeper than what we acknowledge about food that grows from the ground. Everybody needs to stop and take a minute to think about what a miracle that is." 

It's that longing that drove Potatoes of August -- at least in part. When she wrote it, she was spending more time at home, and she had a little garden where she grew potatoes. "I filmed them," she says. "I studied them. They are beautifully contemplative videos, how mysterious they are. It grows underground. If you ever dig them out of ground, it's an exciting experience. You don't know what anything is going to look like down there."

Meanwhile, Kempson continues to work on her McKnight commission, titled The Securely Conferred, Vouchsafed Keepsakes of Maery S. The piece is a mash-up of excess text from Fondly, Collette Richland, which was given a workshop production at the Walker in 2013, and From the Pig Pile: The Requisite Gesture(s) of Narrow Approach. "I thought that I could still make something out of that stuff," she says. For the presentation at the Playwrights' Center this summer, she'll be bringing in collaborators Graham Reynolds, composer, and director Shawn Sides of the Rude Mechanicals. 


Potatoes of August

April 11 through April 27

8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; 7 p.m. on Sunday and Monday


Tickets may be purchased at or reserved by calling 612.870.0309

Red Eye

15 W. 14th St., Minneapolis