Talking to Kris Saknussemm, 51, one gets a sense of insatiability. This American who has lived half his life abroad, been on the receiving end of near-fatal brutalities and harrowing personal disasters and worked jobs from the mundane to the adventurous has a seemingly constant desire to expand and experiment with his life and work.
The Humble Assessment, making its North American debut at this year’s Vegas Fringe Festival, is his first play. It’s just one example of how he is attempting to shake up his art and, albeit in a very small way, shift away from being characterized as a “cult novelist” and toward becoming more broadly accessible.
Anthropology, grand history and the contortions of philosophy that populate his five novels can make them difficult for many readers. In the beginning, he says, “I was trying to create a new, hybrid genre and that is a big ask,” both of the writer and the reader. With Humble, he is trying to step away from his “personal mythology” and move toward a more universal experience: the job interview.
But don’t expect The Office. “The play has a metaphysical resolution, and I wouldn’t think anyone will call it a piece of social realism. On the other hand, it is very relevant. The dreamlike symbolic side works with something that everyone can understand. I hope the live audience response is that this is a bridge between those two.”
Saknussemm came to reside in Las Vegas in September after commuting between rural Australia and UNLV as a 2011-2012 Black Mountain Institute Gallagher Fellow. After the isolation of Australia, he finds collaboration refreshing and is excited to see Humble performed.
“I wrote this very fast almost as a kind of riff,” he says. “There is a crispness of dialogue I’m proud of, but it’s still very exciting to have actors and a director engage with it. They’ve found levels I honestly didn’t see. The director is ex-Cirque du Soleil, and his wife is a visualist for them. They’ve brought a filmic level integrated with live action that I haven’t seen in a theater production of this scale.”
He explains that a rear-projection screen will “loom over the audience,” and in the first and third acts, the protagonist will be alone onstage interacting with “the technological ghosts” of two pre-recorded and projected interviewers. The screen will also project “fragmentary images” of company management, Humble’s memories and, toward the end, images of the audience, thus breaking the fourth wall.
In much of his work, Humble included, Saknussemm seems to seek intimacy with the reader: something profound and perhaps mutually didactic that has been frustrated by his status as a “cult novelist.” He admits that he brought much of it on himself. “At one point I had an entire eight-to-10 person dining room table piled 3 to 4 feet high with background material [for the setting of my first novel].” As a result, his earlier prose is often so thick with imagery it sticks, miring the reader in something both intriguing and inscrutable.
Saknussemm agrees, and says that while he hasn’t lowered his artistic ambitions, he is interested in maturing in the marketplace, making his work easier to absorb, although not just from a sales perspective. “I don’t think of it in purely commercial terms, but I want to challenge readers in a different way,” he says. He hopes the play, along with the recent release of his complete collection of nonfiction essays and a “graphic novel and movie pitch with a much more straight-up popular adventure feel” will allow him to move into wider acceptance and make more of those connections.
How long he will be pursuing that maturation process in Las Vegas is a different story. The sense of something creeping up behind or waiting just ahead seems to itch. He feels a “real sense of crisis” in America and has been considering alternatives. He explains that he tried marriage twice, and the “whole nuclear family just didn’t seem to work.” After doing a reading for a community in San Francisco’s Mission District, he started thinking about the possibility of founding an art colony.
Recently, Saknussemm noticed a boat for sale in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, which could house and transport 40 art colonists. “If nothing else, it would be a fabulous experiment,” he says.
“Part of me wants to dig in here because there are aspects of Vegas that I think are really fantastic. I’ve met some interesting people and there is a possibility of being able to have an ongoing theater. On that level I am very excited about staying.
“On another level, I’m thinking about the boat.”
Vegas Fringe Festival
May 31-June 9 at Las Vegas Little Theatre, $12 per show/$120 for a 12-show pass, performance schedule at LVLT.org, 362-7996.