Tuesday, August 30, 2016

a conversation with playwright Liz Duffy Adams, author of OR, premiering in Arizona this weekend at Southwest Shakespeare Company

Liz Duffy Adams
by Gil Benbrook

This weekend Southwest Shakespeare Company presents the Arizona premiere of Liz Duffy Adams' Or. This comedy tells the story of Aphra Behn who was the first professional female playwright as well as a poet and a spy. It also includes an interesting love triangle that features King Charles II. 

The play premiered Off Broadway at Women’s Project Theater and has been produced over forty times across the country. 

Adams will be in town to attend the opening as well as participate in the talk back after the performance this Saturday evening, September 3rd.

She will also be in residence, working on her latest play Asterion for the weekend, that culminates in a world premiere reading of the play co-produced by The Bridge Initiative and Southwest Shakespeare Company on Monday, September 5th. This will be the first time the play has ever been read in public.

Liz took a few minutes before making the journey to Arizona to answer some questions about how Or came to be, the research involved in its creation, Asterion, and her words of advice for fellow female playwrights.

For those who don’t know about the play, what would you say it was about? And how did the idea for Or come to you?

"I first was introduced to Aphra Behn years ago when director Rebecca Patterson asked me to write a verse prologue for her production of The Rover. I didn’t know Behn’s work at all, so I started reading, and couldn’t stop—her plays and poems, her novel. Tremendously exciting. Then I read a biography of her, and thought: she’s fabulous; she could be the subject of a play herself.

Around then I was a member of the Women’s Project playwrights lab in NY, and wrote a 10-minute play for their new work festival as a way of experimenting with the idea. It became a short verse play called Aphra Does Antwerp; if anyone is interested, it’s available at Playscripts.com.

After that it was in the back of my mind for a long time, while I wrote other things and tried to find my entry point for the full-length play. The spark ended up being a combination of 1) reading about almost post-apocalyptic devastation of London after the plague and the Great Fire, a description of grass growing in the city streets—I’m attracted to stories of how people recreate civilization after catastrophe, and this made the setting very real to me—and 2) hearing, in all my reading about the period, a resonance between the 1660s and ‘70s and the same decades in the 20th century.

Just when those ideas were coming together for me, I had the chance as a resident playwright at New Dramatists to take part in a 2-week workshop called PlayTime. It’s usually used to workshop an already-written play, but I used it to actually write it, working each day up in the attic in their old church in the theater district, coming down each afternoon to a group of actors who would read the pages. It was an amazingly intensive and creative atmosphere that allowed me to write very fast—a pace that helped create the pace of the play itself.  So basically, I thought about this play for ten years and wrote it in two weeks.""

Allison Sell and Emily Mohney
in Southwest Shakespeare Company's production of Or
photo: Patrick Walsh
How did you come up with the title?

"I had been thinking about giving it a two-part period title, like Twelfth Night or, What You Will or Behn’s own The Rover or, the Banished Cavaliers. But I didn’t really want a long title. And then the idea occurred of just taking the connective or from the middle… and it felt thematically right, for reasons the play talks about in the prologue at the start. And also funny, though maybe that’s just me. It’s a terrible title for the age of Googling, of course!"

Or, is a fictional comedy but one based on history. How much of the play is historically accurate and what do you think is the biggest liberty you took in stretching the truth?

"I made a lot up but my general idea was to write nothing that couldn’t have happened, even if there’s no evidence that it did. Giving Aphra the king as her secret benefactor is an example – there’s no evidence for it, but it’s not out of character based on what we know about either of them, and they did meet at least once and had friends in common. And Charles and Nell of course were famously lovers, but there’s no reason to think they met at Aphra’s rooms - the usual story is that he went backstage after seeing her in a play – but they could have. And William Scott disappeared from history after his last meeting with Aphra in Antwerp – but his appearance as it happens in my play would not have been impossible. I tried to do justice to what is known of these people and their times, while feeling free – as writers of historical plays always have, back to Shakespeare – to prioritize storytelling over strict facts."

I imagine there was a lot of research involved in the writing of the play. What did it involve?

"A great deal of the research was accidental—that is, I fell for the Restoration since I was an 18-year-old acting student doing a scene from Way of the World, and have read work from and about the period over the years for my own pleasure. Royal Charles by Antonia Fraser, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn by Janet Todd, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin, were some of the inspirations. And I steeped myself for years in plays of the period and Behn’s work in particular. Accidental research for me is the best kind—when I feel I have to read something it starts to feel too much like work."

Jesse James Kamps, Emily Mohney and Allison Sell
photo: Matt Chesin
While Or, is a comedy are there any serious messages or thoughts you hope audiences will take away from it?

"Indeed. Though I wouldn’t dream of telling an audience what to think. My plays generally turn out at least a bit funny, but I hope they are plays of ideas at the same time."

The play premiered Off Broadway at Women’s Project Theater. How did that production come about? Were you commissioned by them to write it?

"I wasn’t commissioned. After I wrote the first draft at New Dramatists, I carried on making my revisions, and then had a weeklong workshop at New Georges’ in New York, as an associate artist. I invited Julie Crosby and Megan Carter from the Women’s Project to come hear the final presentation. When it was over and we all stood up and chatted, they asked me where I thought the play was in its process. I said, “Honestly, I think it’s ready for production.” And Julie said, “We think so too. Let’s do it.” I couldn’t believe my ears – it is never that easy! But they meant it, and it went up within months."

Or, has been produced dozens of times since its premiere. Have you made any changes to the play since the original Off Broadway premiere production?

"After that premiere, Loretta Greco of the Magic Theater in San Francisco asked me if I would be willing to have a second production that was like a first – in other words, to be fully involved and take the play even further. I said yes, of course—what a rare and fantastic opportunity! She and I and her dramaturg Jane Ann Crum spent two full days reading and talking through the play, and as a result of that and through the rehearsal process, I made some small but immensely useful changes. That became the final, published version."

I know you'll be attending the opening weekend of the Southwest Shakespeare production here in Mesa. Have you seen many of the other productions of the play? And if you have, were there any new things you learned from your own play in seeing these productions?

"I’ve been fortunate enough to see several of the now over 40 productions; I think this will be the seventh. Very unusual! I love experiencing it with different audiences, and feeling how they respond to it. And I immensely enjoy seeing how different creative teams solve the staging challenges, and all the vastly different ways different actors and directors engage with the same text. One thing in particular I’ve learned about the play is how our ever-changing times shift the focus of its relevance, without—it seems to me—ever erasing it."

What do you think a company like SSC, who specializes in presenting the works of Shakespeare, will be able to add to Or,?

"I love the idea of Or, being produced by a classical company. Classical acting training is extremely useful for the play, for bringing high stakes and style and playing the language. And while I love Shakespeare enormously, I also love the idea of opening the doors to new plays alongside him. We need that, to keep the theater alive. So I’m delighted they’re doing it."

You’ll also be in town to work with the cast and director for a reading of your new play Asterion, a co-production of SSC and The Bridge Initiative. What can you tell us about your new play? How long have you been working on it and what do you hope to gain from this reading?

"Asterion is a very new play. This past January I got to take part in the launch of the New Territories Playwriting Residency in Serenbe, Georgia, in which three playwrights were there for two weeks to be inspired by the landscape and begin a site-specific play. There is a beautiful stone labyrinth in Serenbe, and walking it over and over again every day led me into the idea of Asterion, based on the ancient myth of the minotaur. Most playwrights sooner or later write their “Greek” play. In mine, the protagonist is a monster, which feels like a modern version; we are all monsters now. I wrote the first few pages in Georgia and got to hear actors read that. Then I finished a full draft in New York this spring, which I have not yet even heard read. So I hope to gain some understanding of how it is functioning, and what I want to do next with it."

Aphra Behn was a female playwright, you’re a female playwright, and the past decade has seen an emergence of female playwrights, though clearly plays by women are still in the minority. What advice do you have for women who are looking to become playwrights?

"It’s much the same as for men, except for women I’d add: know it will be even harder. For everyone: don’t expect to earn (much of) a living as a playwright; be ambitious for your work rather than for yourself; create or find a theatrical community that will sustain you. There’s no joy like creating new worlds and collaborating with wonderful theater artists in bringing them to life, and I wish that for you."

CLICK HERE for information on OR at Southwest Shakespeare Company, which runs September 2nd to September 17th.

The reading of Adams' latest work Asterion is free and takes place on Monday, September 5th, 2016, at 7:00 p.m. at Southwest Shakespeare Co.'s rehearsal studio, 55 E. Main Street, Mesa, AZ  85201

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