Tuesday, February 23, 2016

an interview with David Davalos, the writer of WITTENBERG, which opens this Friday from Southwest Shakespeare Company

David Davalos
by Gil Benbrook

Southwest Shakespeare Company prides themselves on presenting contemporary and traditional productions of the classic tragedies and comedies of William Shakespeare. Yet they also present other classic dramas, like last season's Uncle Vanya, and newer works, like their stellar production of Equivocation two seasons ago.

For this season, and opening on Friday, Southwest Shakespeare Company presents the Arizona premiere of David Davalos' Wittenberg. When asked to explain the plot of his play, Davalos said, "Essentially, Wittenberg is a comedic prequel to Doctor Faustus, Hamlet and Luther’s Reformation, telling a story of how the lives of these three figures tangle together to launch them into the stories we already know of them." and the NY Times stated, ”…a crackling good bit of entertainment…Hilarity, thy name is Wittenberg.”

Davalos' play premiered in 2008 and has been produced across the US and even in the UK. The playwright has attended many of these productions and he will be present in Mesa for the opening weekend of performances at the Mesa Arts Center. There will be two talkbacks with Davalos and the cast on opening weekend - after the Friday night performance as well as after the Saturday evening show.

While Davalos was preparing for his upcoming trip to Arizona he answered some questions about the play including how he got the idea to write it.

Allison Sell, David Dickinson, William Wilson, and Marshall Glass
photo: Kent Burnham
How did you get the idea to write a play that combines the real life and fictional characters of Hamlet, Faustus and Martin Luther?

"Working on Hamlet at the Utah Shakespearean Festival years ago, I had a summer of closely listening to the play, and certain details jumped out at me. One was Shakespeare’s emphasis early on in specifying Hamlet as a student at the University of Wittenberg. I wanted to know what Shakespeare was communicating to his audience about the prince with that particular detail -- what does that tell us about Hamlet, what associations would an Elizabethan audience make upon hearing that? One is that Wittenberg had a reputation of being a place of radical questioning and intellectual foment, thanks to it being the center of Protestant thinking at the time, Martin Luther’s home base for teaching and preaching. Another is that, related to this context, Wittenberg is where Marlowe’s Faustus encounters the Devil and all his supernatural associates, and responds to the question of the redemptive power of faith in the exact opposite way as Luther did there. So with one detail, Shakespeare suggests that Hamlet is a questioner of orthodoxy and that encounters with the supernatural are within the realm of possibility for him. In a nutshell, Shakespeare puts Hamlet at Wittenberg because Faustus was there, and Marlowe puts Faustus there because Luther was there. From that insight, I started thinking about the “what-if” possibilities of these three famous Wittenbergers all being there at the same time and interacting."

 David Dickinson
photo: Kent Burnham
I imagine there was a lot of research involved in the writing of the play. What did it involve and how long did it take to write?

"I felt like I already had a pretty good grasp on the Hamlet angle, so I re-read Marlowe’s take on the Faustus story (along with Marlowe’s source material, an English translation of the German Faustbuch) and read Goethe’s as well. But the bulk of my research had to do with Luther’s life and the early years of his Reformation. I wanted to make sure I gave him a fair shake in the telling of the story, and was true to his character (within the limits of dramatic license), so that was about a year of reading and studying, including a visit to Wittenberg itself. Researching for me is like charging a sponge – eventually it gets so full, it has to be wrung out on paper, and that usually happens fairly quickly. The writing of the first draft took about a month or so. As the story is a trifold prequel, I was fortunate in outlining the plot that I knew exactly where each character had to end up!"

The play premiered in Philadelphia in 2008 at the Arden Theatre Company. How did that production come about? Were you commissioned by them to write it?

"The Arden had produced my previous play, about Leonardo da Vinci, and had asked for first crack at my next project. I was fortunate that some of the actors and creative team I had worked with before came back to play again, as we already had great rapport and they were already in tune with my sensibility."

Marshall Glass
photo: Kent Burnham
Wittenberg has been produced dozens of times, across the country as well as in the UK, since then. Have you made any changes to the play since its premiere?

"From that Philly staging on, I’ve endeavored to attend as many productions of the play as I can, to see how it plays out in different forms before different audiences. So during that first year of following the play around the country I made tweaks and cuts based on what I saw, specified some stage directions for clarity, and basically kept nipping and tucking in minor ways until the play was published in 2010."

I know you'll be attending the opening weekend of the Southwest Shakespeare production here in Mesa. You've also seen many of the other productions of the play. Were there any new things you learned from your own play in seeing these productions?

"Every production I see surprises me at some point in some way. Sometimes it’s a bit of direction or
design, sometimes it’s the spin an actor will put on a line, sometimes it’s in the way an audience responds -- I never know what it will be exactly, but I always look forward to seeing how each staging allows me to discover something new and unexpected about what I wrote. That’s the fun of theatre as a collaborative art form: I provide them with the Lego Cathedral kit, but they all build it in different ways."

The play has been presented by several theatre companies that specialize, like SSC, in presenting the works of Shakespeare. Have you noticed any specific differences when the play is presented by a Shakespeare focused theatre company?

"If anything, I think the difference is in how the audiences at Shakespeare-centric venues are already
tuned into the frequency of the play, listening closely to the text and easily making the associations the play invites you to make, especially regarding Hamlet. I like to think that Wittenberg might be entertaining and rewarding to any audience, regardless of their familiarity to the source material – but I also think that the more you know about the world of the play going in, the more you’ll get out of it. Generally speaking, that has in fact been the case with audiences at Shakespeare-focused institutions, I find."

William Wilson
photo: Kent Burnham
Besides being a playwright you are also an actor and director, and you've even appeared in Hamlet, where you played Rosencrantz. Have you had the chance to act in or direct a production of Wittenberg yet? If not, do you have a desire to? And if so, which part or parts would you like to play?

"I actually have had the good fortune to play my Faustus twice, both times opposite dear old actor friends of mine, one of whom was actually a big part of how I put together Luther – we share the same kind of friendly antagonism and one-upmanship. I’d love to take a crack at playing Luther sometime."

While Wittenberg has been described as a witty, black comedy are there any serious messages or thoughts you hope audiences will take away from it?

"I like the play to speak for itself, and the audiences to take from it what they will, but the theme throughout of how we are defined by the choices we make is one worth considering, I believe."

Are you currently working on any other plays, or do you have any other new works premiering soon?

"Recently I’ve been doing some rewriting of my Leonardo play, which had a developmental workshop in Ft. Worth last November and another one scheduled for this summer in NYC. The big ongoing project is a modern American take on Dante’s Divine Comedy."

CLICK HERE to order tickets for Wittenberg, playing February 26th to March 12th at the Mesa Arts Center

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