Salvation Road at PTNJ

 

On March 15, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey will feature a reading of Salvation Road as part of its ‘Forum Soundings’ series, focused on youth-centered theatre. This is the latest step in an ongoing development process for the play, which originated as a one-act at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2009, was workshopped at New York University and the Utah University Youth Theatre, produced at NYU in October and at Walden Theatre in November and is due for another production at Seton Hill University in April.

I sat down with  Jennifer DeWitt of PTNJ for a brief interview. The interview and more details about the series  can be found at PTNJ’s blog.

 

1.       What inspired you to write “Salvation Road?”

Originally a friend of mine who was active in what was then known as the Cult Awareness Network commissioned a play about the cult experience. I agreed to write the play, which I had intended as an “issue” play for theatres that tour to schools. But I didn’t really like the results; it was didactic and a bit predictable. So I tossed it in a drawer and did other things. Then in 2008 the successor organization to CAN–now called the International Cultic Studies Association–was holding a conference in Philadelphia and my friend wanted to present the play there. I went into a panic because I just did not like the script, but by then I had decided to take a different attack on the subject matter–which was to write about the people who are left behind, trying to make sense of what is going on. I had some experience with that–my sister was involved briefly in the Unification Church a number of years ago–and so I drew on a few details that I remembered from that time. So for me the play is really about the brother who is confused by his sister’s rejection of the family and trying to make sense of her need for an organization like the Disciples.

 

2.       You write in a variety of styles and genres. Do you let the subject matter dictate this or do you wake-up and say “today I plan to write a historical drama therefore I must find a subject?”

Plays for me are about wrestling with a question or an observation. The inspiration comes from all sorts of places–something I read in a newspaper or online, a book I’m reading, a photograph or an anecdote–even a painting or sketch I see in a gallery. I come across something that triggers a question. With Radium Girls, the immediate trigger was a chapter in a book on mass media that I came across online. I read the story of the New Jersey case and thought “How could this happen? Why does it keep on happening?” And I developed an obsession with the story. I knew starting out that the play was going to deal with the uses of denial in some way. But then I set out to do my research and in the process realized that I also wanted to tell the story from two points of view—the women in the factory and the men who owned the company.  It was a long struggle to come to a structure that worked, because it was an early play and I was not really confident in myself to do the story justice. But really I borrowed from Brecht, working in presentational scenes with more naturalistic scenes—and advancing the action in an almost cinematic way. So Radium Girls is really Epic Theatre.

 

Most of the other plays I’ve written are historical in nature–period pieces–though I am starting to write contemporary stories. And while in many cases the exchanges between characters are naturalistic—the structure usually isn’t; there is usually some element to the construction of the play that departs from 20th Century Realism. One artistic director described me as an “impressionist.” And I think that is largely true–certainly was true of The Good Daughter. There, the idea was to approach the scenes like photographs in a family album–that as you flip through the pages and through the years–a story emerges–and there are great leaps in time between the photographs, but you ultimately get a sense of an arc and a resolution.

 

I am drawn to period pieces because, like Shakespeare, I think audiences needs to look backward in order to look at themselves. You put some distance between the experience of contemporary audiences and the story you are telling them—and they can receive it better, especially if you are delivering a fairly harsh critique wrapped in the form of entertainment.

 

But I’m also interested in finding a shape or an approach that suits the material—and how this comes about is a bit of mystery. I sit with the idea or the characters for a while sometimes before the answer comes. Salvation Road is essentially a buddy movie on stage–two guys hit the road looking for a girl. And the structure is cinematic because the audience I am aiming at is used to receiving information in short bits; they are used to film and video and online entertainment and gaming–and that informs the way the play is put together. The newest piece I am working on now is a mash-up between a social satire and a murder mystery–with no solution to the mystery, which I am sure will really infuriate the audience. So it starts out as a comedy and gets darker as it goes. More and more I guess I am interested in bending forms—taking very familiar forms and working in that framework to force the audience to adopt a point of view it might not otherwise adopt. So I think the work is subtle in that respect—and I like to think it’s subversive. That’s what I tell myself.

 

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The Importance of Multiple Productions

Having seen the second production of  Salvation Road—third if you count the original one-act at the Philly Fringe in 2009—I have now received the kind of vindication every playwright craves: I know my script stands up.

 

 

With two different casts in two radically different incarnations—David Montgomery’s production at New York University featured original music, a rich sound design and a modular set, while Alec Volz’s production at Walden Theatre in Louisville was performed in the round with minimal sound and only four barstools as set pieces—the story of a young man in search of a lost sister is the same from one production to another.  Now having worked the play through several readings and workshops, I already knew that the script was fairly well constructed and I had a lot of confidence in it. But seeing it in a second incarnation showed me that the play was really there.  It lived on stage in a different way, but the fundamentals were the same.

 

 

Nan Elpers, Courtney Doyle, and Elese Whiting in Walden Theatre’s production of Salvation Road. Photo by Harlan Taylor.

 

Most playwrights, though, don’t get to this discovery, for the simple reason that most plays never get past the initial production, if they are produced at all. As we know, theatre in the United States has been peculiarly obsessed with world premieres—and this obsession works to the detriment of the form. Not only is it frustrating to labor so over a play that will never see more than a single production, it precludes a playwright from experiencing the essential next step in a play’s development. Because it is only the second production that will make clear to us exactly how well—or how poorly–constructed our play really is.  Simply put, if if what we deem essential to our play falls out of it when a different director and cast takes over—then we know that there are problems with the script.

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Salvation Road Redux

Salvation Road‘s run at the Steinhardt School of New York University ended abruptly with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29. Compared to the loss of life, injury, damage to property, chaos and disruption visited upon the good people of Manhattan–one friend I know of is still without heat two weeks later–curtailing the run of a play on a college campus is really no loss at all.  Disappointed as I am not to have a full run, I feel worse for the students who worked so hard to bring the play to life; they threw themselves into the project with such enthusiasm, I know they must have been deeply disappointed that they could not restage the play at a later time. But alas, the Pless Black Box was booked with the next show coming in, and there was simply no space to perform.

 

Salvation Road at Walden Theatre, directed by Alec Volz

For me, the play moves on now to another production, this time at Walden Theatre in Louisville, Ky., where a cast of younger actors tackles the story of two guys in search of a girl who does not want to be separated from her guru. The production is Walden’s entry into Louisville’s Slant Culture Theatre Festival, described as “a laboratory for uncommon works” and hosted by Walden. Salvation Road will run in rep with The Debate Over Courtney O’Connell by Mat Smart, produced by Theatre [502] of Louisville; The Man With the Flower in His Mouth, by Luigi Pirandello, produced by Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company, and 5 Things, a devised piece by Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble, among other works.

 

Like NYU, the Walden Theatre is producing a large-cast version of the play. But this time, instead of college students playing high school age characters, the actors are area high school students who study in Walden’s conservatory program. This is a terrific opportunity for me to see how the play works as a youth theatre piece—and how well it is received by audiences of that age.

 

When I first wrote the play, I thought the biggest barrier to production by schools would be the subject matter–religion. But I was advised by a  high school drama teacher that cast size, more than subject matter, would be the bigger concern. Thus, I expanded what I had intended as a five-actor piece to a 90-minute play for 12 to 16 performers. However, the five-actor — actually now a six-actor — version still lives. During a workshop at NYU in the spring, I worked on that smaller cast version–simultaneously developing it with the 16-actor play, though we ultimately presented the six-actor version in public staged readings in June.

 

The differences? The larger piece creates a stronger sense of place; the atmosphere is richer. But the smaller cast play, requiring the cast to double into nine speaking parts, is a spare, stark telling of the story that for me, draws the focus more sharply. These are two different experiences of the story, and for schools that are interested in the issues raised by the play, involving more students in the telling makes a great deal of sense. But I still believe Salvation Road can find an audience in mainstream theatres and for that reason, I look forward to the production of the small cast version at Seton Hill University in April.

 

Salvation Road at NYU

Salvation Road opens at New York University’s Black Box Theatre on Oct. 26. Tickets are now on sale and can be obtained online at www.nyu.edu/ticketcentral/calendar, or by calling 212-352-3101. Admission is $15 for general admission and $5 for students and seniors.

The show runs from Oct. 26 through the following weekend with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.

 

More details can be found here.

Membership in a Lie

In the summer of 1974, over the objections of my parents, my sister G. and her friend D. set off on a long bicycle trip to New England.  Their ambition was adventure and a much needed change of scenery from the dead-end job she had been working in central Pennsylvania.

 

My parents feared for two 19-year-old girls out on the road alone, and with more reason than any of us could imagine at the time. Of course the obvious danger for any young women traveling alone was to encounter a man with ill intentions; this was probably what my father feared most. He could not have imagined the real dangers that waited for them at a festival in a park in Amherst, Mass., one sunny summer day.

 

The Celebration of Life seemed like a hippie fest—free food, free drink, and a message of love and acceptance for anyone who cared to stay and hear. D., the worldly skeptic, had no great attraction to the raggedy kids who preached the gospel of love and peace that day; G. was a different story.

 

“They all seemed so happy,” G. told me later. “I had to find out why.”

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