David Kranes will tell you he’s driven. Since his arrival in Utah from his home in New England in 1967, he has taught students at the University of Utah Creative Writing Program, directed the Sundance Playwright’s Lab, written 7 novels and now, with his recently released The Legend’s Daughter (Torrey House Press) three volumes of short stories along with dozens of plays. He’s even starred in Salt Lake City’s first independent feature (Down in the Valley, 1977).
Even at age 75, during a recent interview in his Salt Lake home which he shares with his wife Carol and a Hungarian pooli named “Mack,” he appeared far from retired, or retiring. He has two other novels in the works (3 others he’s just “re-discovered,” going through his papers). And then there’s that little casino thing on the side. “Casinos are filled with compressed drama,” he says, sitting comfortably in his Ron Molen-designed home of cedar wood and sunken sitting rooms and occasionally distracted by Mack’s wriggling antics. Kranes is an inveterate card counter at blackjack himself, and has been asked at least twice by casino management to “move along now” from tables where his take was getting a little too much and a little too consistent. A leading expert on new directions in casino design, Kranes is a columnist for Casino Executive Magazine and has consulted with the likes of Rainforest Café and Circus Circus.
In the last five years gambling consultants are less in demand. But as with virtually everything Kranes does from the right side of his brain, his experience with gaming seems to feed into his enduring tales of Western landscape and its people. In his Vegas serio-comedy 1102, 1103, staged by the Salt Lake Acting Company in 1989, the set is side-by-side hotel rooms, while in his fiction, space — especially the wilds of Idaho, as in his latest collection — propels his characters psychically. Shot through much of his oeuvre is Kranes’ perpetual grappling with what the French culturalist Jean Baudrillard referred to as America’s astral plane of “hyperreality.” Indeed, Kranes’ creative work, spanning opera libretto, dance, plays, film and fiction seems to vibrate out in the western landscape between, to quote Baudrillard, the “pompous Mormon symmetry” of Salt Lake streets and Las Vegas, “the great whore across the desert.” In between and far beyond lies a host of characters deftly drawn by, according to Knopf fiction editor Gordon Lish, a “poet of dread, an American who knows America precisely as every American knows it, but never says.” In The Legend’s Daughter, Idaho becomes home to the broken — from a kayaking method actor to fly fishermen, and from a rebellious high school teacher to the founder of the “Church of Idaho.” Here they find their way out of solitude and into newly configured lives.
Despite his high level of production over the years, one could argue that the six-banger engine for Kranes is not the number of his stagings, screenings and publications but the artistic process. A fixture for over thirty years at the UofU, he guided the likes of Ron Carlson, Pam Huston and Jeff Metcalf and became a second-stage mentor for others, including Rolf Yngve, who appears to be successfully merging a 35-year career in the U.S. Navy with literary fiction.
In Act III (or is it now Act IV?) for Kranes, he also found a home for 14 years as Artistic Director of the Sundance Playwrights Lab. With David Chambers, Kranes was able to shape a program that included notables such as Don Dellilo, Donald Marguiles and Jim Lehrer, incubating a variety of Pulitzer- and Tony award-winnings plays, including Tony Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia,” Angels in America, and the epic The Kentucky Cycle.
The temperature in the room rises when Kranes talks about how collaborations, at Sundance and elsewhere, fire his imagination. “The more ways you can impact [the work] and, just let the pieces float around in the solution…the more possibility that it will reconfigure in powerful ways,” he says of play scripts. As lab director he would often convene “resource artists” with playwrights, protected in the mountains from market forces. On one occasion Repertory Dance Theatre-affiliated choreographer/costumer Marina Harris showed up to work with Phillip Gotanda on his The Wash, about a Japanese couple who even after separating maintain their traditional roles, including her doing his laundry. “For ten minutes Marina did a sheet dance, a solo, just [repetitively] folding sheets. It blew Phillip’s mind. Something clicked watching such a simple action [of a] traditional wife folding laundry. The choreography and the spoken word came together. It’s wonderful when your horizons get opened up like that.”
“Maybe it’s not the destination,” concedes Kranes, referring to process over finished product. He just barely got his own website up this year and, at one point, parked a novel manuscript, Making the Ghost Dance, with a local publisher for ten years before they called him with an offer to publish it. Kranes, while prolific, isn’t exactly a rock star in the world of letters, prompting Jon Jory, founder of the Humana New Play Festival to quip that Kranes “is without a doubt the best American playwright you haven’t read yet.” The same might be said of his prose.
Winner of the Pushcart Prize for short fiction, Kranes isn’t necessarily gunning for fame. When his novel The National Tree got scooped up by the Hallmark Channel, he seemed almost bewildered by the attention, perhaps reminiscent of when he first arrived in Utah, crossed the Salt Flats in a surreal blizzard only to find himself in the Stateline Hotel & Casino. But what is distinctly Kranes is how he responds to such a phenomenon: he starts to read architects, ecologists, theologians, phenomenologists like Gaston Bachelard writing about space.
At the end of our interview, Kranes rises out of his chair with some trouble (his health has recently hit a rough patch, though he assures me he’s on the mend) to show me around. Mack, with his dark threaded cords from head to tail, making it difficult to know which end is which, pads along after us. Out back pine trees, more horizontal than vertical, stretch across the deck and into the spacious, terraced yard. Above us the mountain rises sharply. I am reminded of Kranes’ play, Winter of the Deer, in which a Salt Lake home on the bench of the Wasatch Range is invaded by hungry, disoriented deer during the winter. In fact the numerous bird feeders he and Carol have, he explains, are pointless during the cold months because of the deer.
When I mention this play, Kranes pauses. “That’s one project I wish I had done another draft on,” he says, explaining the downside of being so driven, “trying without success to bring all those [disparate] pieces in.” He quotes his storyteller/singer friend Bill Harley: You can’t tell a story until it’s over. “The first 15 years after I arrived in Utah, I wrote all about the East Coast. David in the East was over. There were stories to be told….That story about the deer isn’t over, yet,” he says.
Always in process.