Friday, September 9, 2016

My Digital Couch: A Conversation with Playwright James Parenti

Photo by Trish Phelps.
Playwright, actor, songwriter, and producer James Parenti has a story to tell. His play, May Violets Spring, "a new story for a new Ophelia," will be presented later this month by Turn To Flesh Productions, a company with the motto "Modern Themes. Classic Style." James and I had a seat on my digital couch this past week to chat about the play's journey and when it's okay to futz with Shakespeare. The following is a slightly edited version of our conversation.

Z: Let's start at the beginning - what prompted you to write May Violets Spring?
JP: About six years ago, I was involved with the theater company The Other Mirror. Their artistic director - the incredibly talented Katherine M. Carter - and I had known each other for years, and we were discussing doing a production of Hamlet, bouncing around ideas. I'd somehow gotten it into my head that it would be cool to have Ophelia onstage during Hamlet's first few soliloquies. In my mind, this would help solidify their relationship, and deepen the tragedy of them losing each other (I learned years later that Sir Derek Jacobi had done something similar in his touring Hamlet in the '70s). But then, what self-respecting person would sit silently while the one they love agonizes? Why wouldn't she speak up, try to help? It was really exciting to see these soliloquies as scenes rather than speeches. Ophelia's already an incredibly interesting character in Hamlet proper, but to see her bouncing around ideas with one of the most brilliant characters in the English-speaking theater was extremely satisfying.

I was also interested in a particular interpretation of Ophelia's mad scene. One of the flowers she distributes is rue, which historically was used as an abortifacient: i.e., could be used to induce a miscarriage to rid oneself of an unwanted pregnancy. Therefore: was Ophelia pregnant? Did she have a more sexual relationship with Hamlet than we had explicitly seen onstage? I don't think this is the only interpretation, but it's one I believe is supported by the text. So I took it upon myself to write a few lines in blank verse to add to the play. I thought that if they were written in such a way, they might sound enough like Shakespeare than an audience might not realize the lines hadn't always been there.

And when I brought these ideas to Katherine, she pointed out what I hadn't realized: changes like these weren't just modifications to Hamlet; they were changing something fundamental about it. This was the beginning of an adaptation, a new play. She was the first person to encourage me to not write only a few lines, but to see how far this rabbit hole would take me. Turns out, it's a pretty deep hole.

Z: I was lucky enough to see (and review) the subsequent Dare Lab production two years ago. Is that where you first met Emily C. A. Snyder, the director of this new production? How did that relationship start?
JP: A few years [after workshopping the play with The Other Mirror], I was a part of Dare Lab, a theatrical playground for artistic development. Reesa Graham, Dare Lab's founder and a great friend, took an interest in this new Hamlet adaptation (which by now had a title, May Violets Spring). Reesa helped me continue to develop the play, and proved an incredible dramaturge and advocate. There's no way Violets would have developed the way it did if it weren't for Reesa. Dare Lab is also where I first met Emily C. A. Snyder, an incredible playwright and director. Emily was the first person I met who was also writing blank verse. I didn't realize anybody else was crazy enough to try it!

Once the play was in a suitable place, we cast the show for production under Reesa's direction. As a first-time playwright, I was floored by the amount of incredibly talented people who were interested in being a part of the cast. We had an extra few months at the beginning of the rehearsal process to get the cast involved in the final rewrites, and major credit has to go to that original cast: Gwen Sisco, Monique St. Cyr, Sarah Eismann, Mat Leonard, David Bodenschatz, and Michel Griffin.

Z: I know you've made some rewrites since that production. What was your aim in these rewrites? How has the focus changed, how have the characters developed?
JP: Since there are things you can only learn from a production and a few years of space, I've spent time further developing it, and I think it's the strongest it's ever been. The new rewrites are based primarily on lessons I learned during that production. There were a few characters' arcs I thought could have been a bit clearer last time, so I'm working to strengthen and clarify them. Also, last time, it was important to me to do the play in as close to ninety minutes as possible, as I was strongly against the play having an intermission. But this time around we've made the decision that there will be an intermission, so there's the opportunity for some moments to open up and breathe a bit more without asking too much of an audience.

That gives me the opportunity to expand the focus to include some details about the other characters. What does it mean for Gertrude to be a woman in power in this world? For Horatio to have none? But Ophelia very much still is, and always will be, the focus of this play.

Z: Obviously Shakespeare is a writing influence. What other writers have helped shape your voice?
JP: I've been very interested in the work and style of Sarah Ruhl: the way her language sounds more or less contemporary, but is still strengthened and focused by verse-style line endings, and is thereby heightened beyond other contemporary fare. It feels musical, and mysterious, in a way that I really admire.

I've also been reading a lot of Helen Phillips recently. Her collection of short stories, Some Possible Solutions, is wonderful and illuminated some of the relationships between the tactile and emotional aspects of motherhood and pregnancy in ways that I've found very helpful. Some elements of Violets are related to The Bell Jar, particularly some of the earthen imagery Ophelia explores when she's at her lowest points.

And a lot of the songs on Aimee Mann's Lost in Space are really pertinent, dealing with the links between abusive relationships and addiction. Getting stuck in destructive cycles because they're so familiar they start to feel right, when they're really anything but.

Z: You're also a songwriter. Do you find that writing music influences your voice as a playwright?
JP: I think I would write very differently if I weren't also a musician. As I'm writing a play like this, I'm usually very attuned to rhythm, and melody, and tempo. Once, in rehearsal for a reading of my play Our Hanging-Ropes (new Antony and Cleopatra, also in blank verse, blah blah blah), an actor asked me why the ending of one chunk of a scene ended with her saying only, "Ah." And the only way I could think to articulate it was musically: Cleopatra and Fulvia have this big fugue moment where their lines are overlapping, building on each other, and as it decrescendos it ends with this final minor chord: "ah." Then Cleopatra comes in starting this new song, this military march, after that. And it wasn't until I was describing it to this actor that I realized I had been thinking about it that way!

But having specific ideas about how certain moments ought to sound can present its own set of problems, sometimes. It's possible for an actor to be making perfectly valid acting choices in a scene, but I'll still be bothered if it sounds "off" to me. Emily Snyder calls this "doing the scene out of tune." All the words are right, the intention is right, but the music is off. By that same token, though, if an actor is playing a moment "out of tune," it likely means we're not on the same page as to what's actually going on in a given moment!

Z: What other projects are you working on?
JP: I'm currently working on an album of new material, which will be my third. I'm really excited about these new songs, they're moving away from more conventional pop song structure and starting to take on weird, jazzy, impressionistic shapes. In the past I've been a fairly slow-moving songwriter, but last year I kind of put myself through the ringer co-writing the songs for Poptart!, and I'm happy to find that they're coming more quickly and readily now. (A songwriter friend of mine calls this the "keep the tap running for a while to get hot water" effect.)

I'm also writing another new verse play called Our Hanging-Ropes which is a very loose adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra. Like I was with Ophelia, I became really interested in an under-served character from that play: Fulvia, Antony's late wife, who never even appears onstage in Shakespeare's play. I was drawn to the idea of these two women who never actually meet, tied together by competition, ambition, and the man they both love. What relationship do we have to someone we've never met but still somehow know intimately?

And whatever I write after that will probably be completely different. Maybe a sci-fi love story in outer space. With robots. yeah, that sounds good.

Z: Tom Stoppard lifted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern out of mediocrity and gave them their own existential journey. You've liberated Ophelia from her puppet show and given her agency and strength. Who's next? The Gravediggers might be too obvious, but what about Osric or Fortinbras?
JP: A good friend of mine has suggested that I write a play from the point of view of the Jailer's Daughter in Two Noble Kinsmen. If I were going to stick to the world of Shakespeare's minor characters, that would most likely be what I'd dive into next. But I do think I'll need a bit of a break from verse after Violets and Hanging-Ropes!


Poster design by Emily C. A. Snyder.

Turn to Flesh Productions' May Violets Spring
runs September 30th - October 22nd
at The WorkShop Theater
312 W 36th St, 4th Floor East
(between 8th and 9th Avenues)
$20 tickets are available here.

Cristina Madero as Ophelia
Louis Sallan as Hamlet
Gabrielle Adkins as Horatio
Chris Rivera as Laertes
Al Choy as Polonius
Joe Conway as Claudius
Sandra Williams as Gertrude.

Production Team:
Directed by Emily C.A. Snyder
Costume Design by Emily Parman
Set Design by Samantha Turlington
Light Design by Chelsie McPhilimy
Graphic Design by Emily C. A. Snyder



Z: A question I've been pondering lately with revivals is respect to authorial intent (I'm thinking specifically of Ivo Van Hove's Broadway production of The Crucible or The Public's recent Troilus and Cressida, both of which made alterations that may have added interesting complications, but flew in stark contrast to the author's original intention). Your adaptation proudly announces that it's not Hamlet, but an exploration thereof, which releases a lot of limitations that a straight-up production might have, as you explained. Outside of this, what are your thoughts on the classics? Are they sacrosanct or meant to be played with? When does it become a different play?
JP: I think authorial intent is paramount. This might be because I'm primarily an actor, and most of our job is to interpret the playwright's intention at every step. Whenever you're in doubt, go to the text. So I find the idea of an "interpretation" which contradicts the author's intent pretty bothersome. I haven't seen Troilus, but a change like the one you're describing sounds to me like someone (director? producer?) was going to do the play but didn't actually like it very much. If you think the play works, leave it alone. If you think it doesn't work, do another play! I've worked with some directors who try to "fix" Shakespeare. They'll say things like "There's a story beat missing here," and introduce silent-movie type scenes to fill in what they see as gaps. For example. But it's my opinion that if you think something's missing, you're probably missing the point. I'll bet Shakespeare gave you everything you need to make the play do what he wanted. (With the exception of a play like Pericles, which is probably just beyond saving. Pick another play!)

I had a pretty hard time with Van Hove's Crucible. It's an understatement to say that it's an extremely well-crafted play. I don't see how it would be possible to do that play poorly unless you choose to ignore what Miller wants you to do - which is exactly what Van Hove did. By putting the focus on cinematic trickery and explicitly staging moments of magic, you've gone in direct opposition to what the playwright wants! To be fair, I can't read Arthur Miller's mind, so this is subjective. But if Miller wanted us to experience magic onstage, he would have said so. What I believe really works about the play is that the people of Salem are acting on what they've been told:they, like us, are forced to make their own decisions based on the little information they have. If they're responding to Abigail controlling the weather instead, that's a very different play. (and it's a shame, because they had a world-class cast. Some of the performances were truly excellent. I was disappointed to see the extremely good work of Miller and the cast distorted by the direction.)

Wit that said, I obviously don't think the classics are sacrosanct. Otherwise I wouldn't have used a good amount of material from Shakespeare's canon as tools to build a new play. But May Violets Spring doesn't claim to have the same goals as Hamlet! I mean yes, it does deal with mortality and the nature of free will vs determinism, but still. Different play. But also, Shakespeare's been around significantly longer than Miller. The Crucible still has plenty to offer a modern audience - even alarmingly so. In a few hundred years, if we're lucky enough to live in a world where The Crucible isn't particularly pertinent, I see no problem scrapping it for parts to make a new play. Just don't call it The Crucible. (Have I gone off on a tangent?)

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