by Douglas Langworthy
Lauren Feldman loves taking chances. Mastering the sport of rock climbing was a way to challenge herself physically and has led to her newfound interest in acrobatics (she’s currently enrolled in classes at a circus school). In her plays she eschews traditional linear structures, preferring the freedom of fluid or fractured forms. She also has developed a passion for “devised” work, theatrical pieces created collectively in which the playwright’s voice is just one of many. When she teaches playwriting, she encourages her students to explore the territory outside the edges of dramatic convention. I recently caught up with this thoughtful writer to talk about her play, her love of the unconventional and, of course, the art of climbing.
DL: When did you decide you wanted to become a playwright?
LF: In college I knew I was excited by the theatre, particularly as an actor. I was also interested in becoming a writer of fiction or essays. And then I took a playwriting class, and I remember sort of falling in love with it. I took that class and concurrently applied for a really cool program at the Royal Court Theatre in London—a several-month online project called “Crossing the Borders.”
There were around 12 of us in the program from all over the world. We would all log onto The Royal Court’s website at a designated time and have facilitated online conversations about the many kinds of borders that exist between people—gender, race, class, etc. Then each week we would have some kind of playwriting assignment based on whichever sort of borders we’d been talking about, which you’d post on the website for everyone to read and respond to before the next week’s session. At the end of the program, the facilitator took one piece from each of the playwrights and a few segments of our recorded online conversations and created a collage performance piece. Most of us ended up going to London to see the performance. It was the first time I’d seen my work performed and I think that was pretty formative.
DL: You have collaborated on several devised pieces. Can you talk about what your role is in creating with a group?
LF: I’m sure that devised work has had a huge impact on the sort of solo playwriting I do. I love doing it. I’ve been a part of many kinds of processes, and every time it feels different depending on the group of people and the project. Some have had multiple playwrights, sometimes it’s just been me; sometimes the text that emerges is an adaptation of found source material, other times it’s all original material, and sometimes it’s based on some form of preexisting story or myth.
I find devised work feels nourishing and balancing with solo playwriting, partly because of collaboration entering the process much sooner. Also, I find myself stretched and inspired by my collaborators’ creative impulses, and challenged to find a way to weave together everyone’s different inputs into one cohesive or semi-cohesive journey. And when I come out of that and sit down to write my next solo play, I feel cross-pollinated.
DL: Could you talk about your own personal connection to climbing?
LF: The first time I saw a climbing wall I was I think 13, in summer camp, and I remember hating all the athletics they made us do. I was a very non-physical child. One day they took us out to the middle of a field and there was this very old-school climbing wall. Like a giant three-paneled science project display board, but with all these holds screwed on. And two at a time they put us in harnesses, clipped us in, and told us to climb it.
I was really not coordinated or physically agile, but there was something I guess in the inherent metaphor of ascending something, and I remember climbing one of the panels surprisingly easily. On our next turn they put us on a harder panel, and I’d watched everyone before me trying and giving up. So when it was my turn, suddenly there was this young tenacious Lauren who was unprecedentedly driven to reach the top. And she did. I remember it being a profound experience, because I’d never succeeded at something physical before.
When I got to college, there was the option of taking a rock-climbing course, and I fell in love with the act of climbing all over again. Climbing ignites my willpower in a way that no other sport or activity had. And the more I did it, the more I found I had an affinity for it. My body likes the grace of it, likes the rhythm of it, likes the “elementalness” of it—the rock in hand. Also the meditative, solo aspect of it. It doesn’t feel competitive, and it’s not a team sport where everyone is relying on you to be awesome. And it’s supportive, because there’s always someone spotting you or belaying you.
I feel like climbing has been one of the three most formative events of my life. It completely changed my sense of self. I started to live in my body differently. And I’ve noticed my plays over the past decade and a half have gotten increasingly physically aware and muscular. I feel like my plays went from being talking heads to being characters with bodies that interact.
DL: How did you get the idea to write a play about a woman who climbs?
LF: Well I’m a woman and I climb, so I’m sure that’s part of it. But more than that really, I think it sprung from a hunger to see physical quest stories with female protagonists. There’s such a large, old, rich canon of boy questers venturing forth and being strong, brave and tenacious, their physical limits tested as we get to bear witness to (and delight vicariously in) the ardor and muscularity of their trials. They’re stand-ins for the universal quester, but they’re usually male and at some point I started yearning to see myself reflected in the body, the adventures, and the physical rigor of these protagonists. It’s hard to find stories that feature the muscularity of women.
DL: At various moments in Grace, we aren’t sure whether we’re watching memory, fantasy or real life. Are we experiencing the play from the perspective of Emm, your central character?
LF: Yes. Emm is deliberately avoiding things, whether on purpose or not, and so she’s closed the door on things that are closed for us too. And then, either as she starts to open the door or other people demand entrance, that’s when we get to learn things; we are dealing with things at the same rate as she is. The idea of the revelation of information—portioning it out throughout the story—was very important to me. We don’t know everything at the beginning, but that’s OK, it’s going to be a great journey. We’ll learn another little piece here, and we’ll learn another little piece there so that we get to experience a kind of hunger, we want to know, and that is a more fulfilling ride and engaging journey.
DL: Grace, or The Art of Climbing has a very fluid use of time and memory. Are you particularly interested in non-linear dramatic forms?
LF: I am drawn to things that fall outside the mainstream in general. I’m pretty sure if being a playwright were as popular a profession as being a doctor or a lawyer I probably wouldn’t have become one. Linear structures in theatre feel like the dominant form, and certainly historically they’re the canonical form, so I feel drawn toward things that feel wildly theatrical, stories that are told in ways that are uncommon. I don’t feel drawn to creating reality that looks like our reality. I feel drawn to creating other realities that don’t have a one-to-one relationship with ours, that resonate as true but aren’t stand-ins for life as we perceive it. There’s something in that latitude of playfulness and imagination and impossibility that excites me about theatre fundamentally. I love the way that it engages audiences, it causes us to sit up a little, lean forward. It invites an imaginative participation, a leap of faith.
Moving Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers to the stage is all about choices. The first one is about those pesky horses.
No hobby horses, no horse puppets, no I’ll-take-the-head-and-you-take-the-rear horses and of course no live horses. This was one of the first decisions my co-adapters, Linda Alper and Penny Metropulos, and I agreed upon when we sat down to envision our stage version of Alexandre Dumas’ thrilling adventure novel, The Three Musketeers. The many daring trips on horseback would simply have to be left to the many Musketeers films where they rightly belong.
Transporting a novel to the stage involves a smorgasbord of similar choices that, taken cumulatively, give an adaptation its shape and feel. These choices fall into four basic categories: what gets kept, what gets jettisoned, what gets added and what gets transformed. And when, as in this case, you’re trying to squeeze a 700-page novel into a two-and-a-half-hour play, there’s a heavy emphasis on what gets left out.
This adaptation was originally created for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to be performed on their 2,000-seat outdoor Elizabethan Stage. One of the givens was to think big; this was no time for minimalism. So in addition to calling for a large cast and multiple swordfights, we committed ourselves to telling the entire plot of the novel, from d’Artagnan’s arrival in Paris to his receiving a lieutenancy from Cardinal Richelieu.
The novel divides roughly into two halves that could be titled “The Affair of the Diamond Studs,” in which d’Artagnan saves the Queen’s honor, and “Milady’s Revenge,” which speaks for itself. Both parts are needed to tell d’Artangan’s story fully. If the 1948 Gene Kelly-June Allison film version was able to condense the whole novel to two hours of screen time, then we could surely do it on stage in two-and-a-half. (We certainly didn’t want to follow the lead of Richard Lester who in 1973 made two separate films out of the material.)
The three of us saw the novel as a classic hero’s journey, in which a brave but inexperienced young man (here, d’Artagnan) is put through a series of tests, some of which he fails, to emerge older and wiser by story’s end. This meant keeping our eyes on d’Artagnan at all times. What is he doing, what is he learning and how are his three mentors—Athos, Porthos and Aramis—helping him? Where does he succeed and where does he stumble? How does this scene or that character relate to d’Artagnan’s journey?
In terms of overall approach to the material, we wanted our version to honor Dumas’ tone, which is both lighthearted and romantic. The Three Musketeers is first and foremost an adventure, and we wanted the plot to gallop apace (but without horses!). That said, it was equally important to try to carve out enough stage time to flesh out all of the major characters as much as possible. For example, each of the musketeers has or had a love interest, and each man’s approach to love reveals aspects of his true colors.
Although we couldn’t retain each of the musketeers’ serving men, we kept d’Artagnan’s man Planchet, because he not only plays a critical role in one of the plot lines, he also provides our hero with a humorous sidekick, much as Sancho Panza does for Don Quixote.
We wanted to embrace the novel’s unabashed romanticism and avoid imposing a contemporary spin. This affected our use of language; we strove to give the dialogue a certain heroic swagger, taking our lead from Dumas’ own elevated yet breathless style.
To economize narratively, we decided to start the story in Paris, even though the book begins with d’Artagnan bidding farewell to his parents in Gascony in southern France. In that scene his mother gives him a special salve to cure wounds and his father gives him his sword and an odd-looking yellow horse (which we conveniently didn’t have to show). We also left out the second scene in which d’Artagnan catches a glimpse of the Cardinal’s associates, Rochefort and Milady. In that scene d’Artagnan is taunted about his yellow horse, so again, by skipping this scene, we again sidestepped the dreaded horse conundrum.
One of the book’s themes that appealed to me was a larger, geo-political one. Many of the characters in the play are historical: King Louis XIII was just eight-and-a-half when his father, Henry IV, was assassinated and Louis had the crown foisted upon him. His mother, Marie de Medicis, became the Regent of France and later, as King Louis grew into his role as king, he began to lean heavily on master politician Cardinal Richelieu, who famously ushered in the modern nation state.
At the beginning of the book and our play, the injured Athos, who’s just been handed d’Artagnan’s mother’s salve, says to the youth: “By my faith, this is the proposition of a perfect knight. In the days of Charlemagne, every man of honor spoke as you do. Unfortunately, young man, we do not live in the times of that great emperor, but in those of Cardinal Richelieu.” The Age of Chivalry, embodied by the musketeers, was being replaced by the Age of Politics.
A side note: why are characters so associated with the sword called musket-eers? Muskets, we found out, were developed to pierce armor and were used at this time side by side with the sword. (The term “lock, stock and barrel” refers to the main parts of a musket.) So to give the musket its due, we included the laborious step-by-step instructions on loading and firing the gun.
Another important decision we made after some trial and error was not to use a narrator. This device, adopted by many adaptors of fiction to drama, just seemed to slow the story down for us. Why not keep the action moving forward by absorbing any needed exposition into the dialogue itself?
“Show, not tell” became our watchword.
And then there were the scene transitions. Shakespeare’s convention when changing scenes was to have each new scene start with new characters, which left open the possibility for change of place or time between the exit of one group and entrance of another. Because of our focus on d’Artagnan, he often appeared at the end of one scene and at the start of another. That fact, along with our desire to keep the story flowing while resetting the stage, led us to one of our biggest inventions—what we came to call “the nugget.”
We decided to find bits of authentic period text to insert in these junctures—text that related thematically to the scene we were moving in or out of. Inserted as a buffer between the scenes, the “nuggets,” through a sort of dramatic sleight of hand, give the illusion that the play is advancing full steam ahead even though set pieces might be coming or going.
Of course we relied on the counsel of experts wherever we could find them. There is one moment at the end of the play, silent but powerful, that was inspired by the ten-year-old son of one my collaborators. At the conclusion of the first big sword fight, d’Artagnan is stripped of his father’s sword by the Cardinal’s men. Leaping ahead to the end of the play, d’Artagnan, as written in the book, receives a lieutenancy from the Cardinal and leaves his office. Our budding dramaturg asked us why he didn’t get his father’s sword back, now that he had made peace with the Cardinal. So, thanks to one boy’s narrative instincts, that is now exactly what happens.
Speaking of my collaborators, it seemed only fitting that there were three of us. We each brought our own unique perspective to the table: Linda, the actress, had a particular gift for writing dialogue; Penny, the director, kept her eye on the big picture and staging issues; I, as the dramaturg, concerned myself with structure and editing. In practice, our roles were more fluid than this, but our three-pronged partnership provided a stable footing and a built-in critical sounding board for the project.
So, if you feel so inspired, pick up Dumas’ novel and give it a go. The book may be long, but it’s a fast and fun read. Close your eyes and dream up your own personal adaptation. What would you keep, toss, add or change? How would you cast it? And perhaps most importantly, how would you handle the horses?
Douglas Langworthyis the Literary Manager of the Denver Center Theatre Company — and, of course, one of this play’s adaptors. This article originally appeared in Applause magazine.
by Doug Langworthy, Literary Manager for the Denver Center Theatre Company, for Applause magazine
In 1894 Denver was in the middle of a severe economic depression. The Silver Panic engulfed the city when the bottom fell out of the silver market. Unemployment was high and many banks had failed. Middle class families had to give up newly purchased homes. Angry citizens coalesced around the Populist Party, which cast the blame for the economic crisis on the fat cats—the banks, the stockbrokers and the wealthy elite. A group of unemployed men known as Coxey’s Army, having marched on Washington to demand jobs, was camping in tents along the shore of the South Platte River.
By 1899, the year that Lloyd Suh’s GREAT WALL STORY takes place, things were looking up. Denver’s coffers were shored up by huge gold deposits found at Cripple Creek, Colorado, and efforts were underway to diversify the economy into new areas. People were confident that the boom times of the 1880s were just around the corner. The turn of the century was sure to usher in a prosperous future.
But in many ways Denver had yet to shed its mining-camp origins and become fully civilized. According to local historian Tom Noel, “It was a city ugly. Mayor Speer was yet to come into office in 1904 and transform the city, so it was smoky and smelly and filled with saloons. It was politically quite corrupt.”
Newspapers were king then, the only source of information for the man on the street. The Rocky Mountain News had been the leader ever since 1859. The Denver Post favored sensational headlines. The papers played a critical role in rooting out local corruption.
Against this backdrop, the Great Wall hoax played itself out. Here are the facts: On June 24, 1899 reporters from Denver’s four major papers (Rocky Mountain News, Denver Post, Denver Times and The Republican) were hanging around Union Station on a slow news day, hoping to spot a newsworthy celebrity. Retiring to the bar at the adjacent Oxford Hotel, they hatched a scheme to plant a splashy yet fictitious story in each of their papers.
They had to concoct something that was high-profile yet difficult to trace. They landed on China, as it was halfway around the world and politically isolationist. From there the hoax seemed almost obvious: the Great Wall of China was coming down! Needing a local hook, they invented a Chicago engineer, Frank C. Lewis, who was stopping over in Denver on his way to China. Lewis’ plan was to win for his firm the job of tearing down the Wall.
The reporters dashed off to their desks to make sure the story got in the next day’s papers. Each of the reporters embellished the story slightly differently, but the basic “facts” remained the same.
Over the next few days, the story was picked up by newspapers in Chicago, New York and abroad. A few follow-up stories ran, but eventually the hoax ran out of steam and was forgotten. Years later, one of the reporters or one of the reporters’ wives let the cat out of the bag. Over time an urban legend grew that suggested the hoax had actually caused the Boxer Rebellion in China, a fact that, although disproved, has had irresistible dramatic value in Great Wall Story.
One hundred years later, enter playwright Lloyd Suh, who was captivated by the story when he came across it in a book of hoaxes: “I was immediately interested in the unexpected ramifications of something like that.” He quickly drafted the play’s first two scenes. Then, three years ago, he discovered the famous investigative journalist Nellie Bly, who would put on disguises and immerse herself in the milieu of her story. Most notably she faked insanity in order to report on an insane asylum from the inside. So he created his own Nellie Bly in the form of Harriet Sparrow, assistant to publishing giant Joseph Pulitzer, who sends her to Denver to get to the root of the Great Wall story.
“And so my way in was the character of Harriet who ultimately creates a sort of engine for the unfolding of the story,” Suh asserts. “That was great because it also brought to the fore themes that I found really interesting: truth and lie, myth, and the interesting connection between lying and wishing and mythologizing.
“I think that what’s most exciting about the notion of Denver in 1899,” he continues, “is the spirit of newness. It’s the West and it’s the verge of a new century, the feeling that things are constantly new. Denver had been growing and growing and on the other side of the century it kept growing and growing. I found that progression really exciting. What it means to push further West and what it means to push into a new century.”
Suh is thrilled to be completing his play in Denver, surrounded by the history of the city and the resources available here. “Doing the play in Denver,” he concludes, “makes the play better.”
For more information on the play or to purchase tickets, please visit www.denvercenter.org/greatwallstory
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by Douglas Langworthy for Applause magazine
Weighing in at 600 lbs, Charlie’s health is failing fast. He refuses to go to the hospital because he has no insurance and doesn’t want to lose the substantial nest egg he has squirreled away for Ellie, his daughter, with whom he desperately wants to reconcile. But Ellie’s a bitter, angry girl who blames Charlie for abandoning the family 15 years earlier. From this fraught set of given circumstances the stakes keep getting higher in The Whale, Samuel D. Hunter’s gripping new play now playing at the Denver Center Theatre Company’s Ricketson Theatre.
There is nothing faint-hearted about Hunter’s writing—his taut, deeply human dramas present sharply etched portraits of struggling individuals who often get swept along in strong cultural currents. But although issues such as international terrorism, genocide, suicide, the Rapture figure into his plays, they are never about these issues. Take Charlie, for instance. While obesity presents a major obstacle for him (he may die before making peace with his daughter), The Whale is not a power point presentation about America’s obsession with food, but rather one man’s personal struggle to find greater meaning in his life before it’s too late.
Another topic Hunter is not afraid to confront is religion, which is folded into many of his plays. In The Whale Elder Thomas, a young Mormon missionary struggling with his own troubled past, tries to share his faith with Charlie.
“Most of my plays are about seeking hope and meaning,” says Hunter, “and [religion] is the eternal well of hope and meaning for most Americans. It so shaped my childhood growing up in Idaho and going to a religious school, and so I see it in the larger cultural dialogue a lot. Mostly I write about it because people don’t seem to want to talk about it.”
When Sam graduated from his fundamentalist Christian high school, he assumed he would go to the University of Idaho like all those ancestors before him. But on a lark he sent in an application to NYU and was accepted into the playwriting program. After NYU, he went straight into a Masters program at the Iowa playwrights program and from there he entered Juilliard’s graduate playwriting program. While in Iowa he was mentored by playwright Sherry Kramer, who helped him look at plays in unconventional ways: “Sherry had a way of talking about how plays move, the way plays are organized other than plot. How plays are organized by image and metaphor—deeper organizational tools that really allowed me to start thinking about plays not as plots but as structured time.”
Certainly one of the organizing metaphors in The Whale is that of the whale itself, with its strong biblical and literary resonances. But Hunter did not start writing with that image in mind, it came to him organically. He initially included Moby Dick in the play because he needed Charlie’s students to be writing essays about a novel: “I picked Moby Dick because I like the book and the essential conflict in the novel related to the central conflict in the play—going after this thing that you can never get.”
Charlie’s job, teaching writing on-line, came in part from Hunter’s own experience. One year he found himself teaching expository writing at Rutgers in New Jersey, where he discovered that writing a good play and writing a good essay are very similar—they both need honesty and genuine thought. But the students were resistant.
“These kids couldn’t be honest,” Hunter laments. “Their main question was, ‘What do you want me to say?’ It was so deeply frustrating and deeply intriguing that they all-out refused to have a voice.” Throughout the play Charlie uses every trick in the book to get his students and even his daughter to express themselves honestly.
Hunter tends to people his plays with members of the working class—the sales clerks, nurses, on-line instructors and adjunct professors that make up the 99% of this country. There’s no social agenda here, he just finds them more representative of who we are: “I think the prevalence of upper middle class and upper class characters in our plays is surprising, especially given the fact that the majority of America is not these people. When I think about America, [working class people] are the people I think about.”
Writing without an ounce of irony or condescension, Hunter makes us feel his empathy for his characters. He has a way of unearthing their contradictions and creating individuals we at first may think we have very little in common with (the obese gay man, the religious fundamentalist blogger), until we understand them in a deeper way.
While Hunter was at NYU, he wanted to branch out academically so he minored in Middle Eastern Studies, even learning a little Arabic. Then in 2005, the first year of his Masters program in Iowa, he was offered a chance to teach a playwriting workshop in Ramallah. He eagerly seized the opportunity, later teaching in war-torn Hebron as well. “I knew the headlines of the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” Hunter says “but I had no opinions either way, and I became even less on either side after spending a couple of summers there. It was just so deeply complicated. It was terrifying and beautiful.”
As with his own writing, Hunter had to look at it all through a human lens: “So much of my experience in Palestine was not about guns and bombs, it was about learning to live with guns and bombs. How people go to the supermarket even though the checkpoints are closed and there’s gunfire going on.”
At the end of one of Sam’s plays you come away with the feeling you’ve just witnessed something profound. Whether you’ve just seen a wife mourning the loss of her husband or a father trying to reconnect with his estranged child, you’ve had a rare chance to set aside surface impressions and walk in someone else’s shoes. And although the play may have its sad, even tragic side, there is always the counterweight of compassion and hope. Deeply complicated. Terrible and beautiful indeed.
Douglas Langworthy is the Literary Manager of the Denver Center Theatre Company
by Douglas Langworthy for Applause magazine
Dickens had a way with names. They were much more than personal identifiers for him; they were expressions of a character’s personality, often served up with a comic twist: Sloppy, Wopsie, Bumble, Polly Toodle, the Squeers, Uriah Heep, Pumblechook—and on and on. In A Christmas Carol, the name Scrooge, with its initial twisted clump of consonants and long dark vowels, sounds like what the word has come to mean: a miserly, mean-spirited grump.
On the other side of the holiday tale’s name game is Tiny Tim, whose moniker, with those three short syllables, speaks not only of fragility but of hope. But the name that hits the Dickensian jackpot has to be Fezziwig, the family that hosts everyone’s favorite Christmas party—a cornucopia brimming with food, drink, dance and song. Hard to say without smiling, “Fezziwig” suggests champagne bubbles, giddiness, activity, festivity and merriment—in short, the Christmas spirit.
In the Denver Center’s perennial production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, with its humor, fright, spectacle, song, dance and cast of thousands (large cast anyway), the Fezziwig’s party is a highlight of raucous and buoyant fun. Watch the young Scrooge celebrate his engagement with Belle. Enjoy the revelers as they take a spin around the dance floor. Then follow this timeless tale of Yuletide redemption to its happy end, when stingy old Scrooge is finally filled with the generous Fezziwigian spirit of Christmas.
Literary Manager, Denver Center Theatre Company