BY JANET ALLEN, EXECUTIVE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
My vantage point for watching writers create new work is a privileged one—and in the case of James Still, a rare one. Of the 15 plays of James’s that we have produced during his 19 years of residency, we have commissioned 7 and premiered 2 more, allowing our staff a close experience of watching a writer create. In many ways, the process is very similar to watching a painter or a sculptor: one is watching an artist embellish and/or chip away, over time, until the true heart of the work is found and the artist’s instincts are satisfied. But there is also a big difference. Because theatre is a public art—one that takes many artists to bring to ultimate fruition on a stage—the act of perfecting involves actors, directors, and dramaturgs. It’s the “rehearing” part of rehearsal: the writer needs to hear the play in various rewrites over and over, in workshops, in rehearsals, and finally in performance, to refine the voice of the new work and its impact.
Time is often a big factor in this process, as most plays take many months or years to create. New plays that involve a lot of research can take even more years. This factor of time can change many things—in the case of Miranda, it has changed entirely how we think of the setting, the small, Saudi peninsula country of Yemen. But before we dive down that hole, let’s continue our focus on play development.
Miranda was developed by our colleagues at the Illusion Theatre in Minneapolis. The Illusion, very much like the Phoenix Theatre here in Indianapolis, focuses almost exclusively on new work. They work-shopped Miranda last summer and produced it just a couple months ago in January and February. (We were pleased to have a contingent of IRT board members, donors, and staff at the premiere). You might wonder why the IRT’s playwright- in-residence has work created at other theatres. That answer is simple and goes back to the public art part of the equation. More professional viewpoints on a work are generally a good thing and help hone the work, particularly when those viewpoints are trusted colleagues—and Illusion has produced five of James’s plays over 25 years. It’s also particularly important with new plays to secure a second production. Many theatres enjoy the excitement of a world premiere, but it can be hard to achieve that second production, which gives the writer an important second hearing/seeing of the play before it gets published.
That’s the role the IRT is playing in Miranda: that elusive second production. And rather than invite the director, designers, or any of the actors from the Illusion production, we’ve chosen a clean creative slate. We did this not because we disagreed with the Illusion production—we did our hiring almost a year before the Illusion production—but because we wanted to see these artists’ “take” on Miranda, knowing that it would be different from the Illusion’s artists’ “take” on Miranda. These different “takes” are all to the benefit to our playwright-in-residence—James has the rare opportunity within a single season to see how his words and characters and ideas work out of the mouths of very different actors, led by very different directors, with completely different designs, produced in very different theatres. One of the goals with any new play is to create within the play itself a sturdy infrastructure of plotting and characters that will withstand many different productions, or “takes” on the text. Giving James two entirely different experiences of his play is a significant advantage to him, and to the play.
We at the IRT also have some great advantages as it relates to this play. Miranda is the third play in a trilogy about an extended family. Each of the plays stands beautifully on its own, but also has tiny tentacles of meaning that relate it to the others. The first play, The House that Jack Built, we premiered (but didn’t commission!) in 2012. In that play, Miranda is called “Teenie,” a family nickname, because she’s the youngest. Teenie is an offstage character in that play: we hear about her but don’t see her. Instead, we meet her older sister, Lulu her sister-in-law Jules, and her mother Helen, who talks with pride about her younger daughter (Teenie, AKA Miranda) traipsing around the world building IKEA stores. In Miranda, it is now Helen who is an offstage character: she is talked about and talked to on the phone, but never seen. If you didn’t happen to see Jack, none of these connectivity moments will lessen your experience of Miranda: but if you did see Jack, now Miranda offers a few gifts of recognition. Jack himself is a very important offstage character in both plays. Next season, on the Mainstage, the IRT will produce the play that James wrote in between Jack and Miranda: Appoggiatura. Its primary focus is on Helen, the matriarch of the family, as she travels to Venice with two other offstage characters—not Miranda—from The House that Jack Built! Think of it like three interlocking Rubik’s cubes, or three voices of a fugue, or three paintings of the same figures from different perspectives. The IRT will be not only the first theatre to produce more than one of the trilogy, but next year, all three! We hope many other theatres follow us.
Also at work in Miranda is James’s desire to try his hand at a genre piece—so Miranda has its structural feet in the thriller/mystery genre. The House that Jack Built is largely a realistic family drama, Appoggiatura is a music-infused, time-traveling fantasy, and Miranda is a political thriller. Such stylistic shifts are part of what’s exciting about experiencing a writer’s work over time: the chance to see the artist experiment with genre and form. With James as our playwright-in-residence: we’ve seen James create one-person shows (Looking over the President’s Shoulder, I Love to Eat), large sprawling canvasses (The Gentleman from Indiana, He Held Me Grand), close-focus issue plays (Amber Waves, April 4, 1968), and many others that defy categorization. So welcome to James Still’s land of the thriller—you will certainly experience a new side of his work.
A brief return to the subject of time and its relationship to new play development: when James started to work on Miranda, several years ago, Yemen was one of the relatively quiet corners of the Arabic world. That is clearly no longer the case. It’s impossible to keep a play like this, that has a swiftly changing geo-political world at its center, entirely up to date. So rather than chase the headlines every day, James decided last summer to fix the play in 2014-15. That allowed him to focus on the things that make a play unique: not its relevance to the daily news cycle, but its invitation, through characters and story, to view the world anew. In Miranda, we get a very detailed and conflicting view of American defense activities and the people who perform them—which changes how we listen to the daily news. That is how art makes its best impact: by putting a human face on our view of the world.
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