When John Steinbeck was writing the book that inspired this play, he wrote down in his journal that it had a chance of becoming a “truly American book.” I tend to agree.
Used to be that I wouldn’t know what that meant. Used to be I didn’t have any sense of an American identity, let along my own American identity. I was sick of the politics on both sides, I felt like our love of the almighty buck taking over and patriotism had turned into flags and catchphrases. I wasn’t proud to be an American. It made me cynical. I felt homeless.
Then four summers back, my wife and I quit our jobs and took to the road with our dog in the spirit of another Steinbeck book--Travels with Charlie. We spent three months traveling the west, and staying mostly in the campgrounds of our country. And the community that we found in these places was inspiring. Folks coming from all over, setting up for the night or more, all in common communion with the land and all looking out for each other. In a vulnerable and seemingly dangerous environment--no doors and no locks--I actually felt safer than I do in my own home. It was July 4th in the Grand Canyon when I began to redefine what America means to me. I’ll let Jim Casy, say it cause he said it best:
I got thinkin’ how there was the moon an’ the stars an’ the hills, an’ there was me lookin’ at ‘em, an’ we wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that one thing was holy…I got thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an’ mankin’ was holy when it was one thing. An’ it on’y got unholy when one mis’able little fella got the bit in his teeth an’ run off his own way, kickin’ and draggin’ and fightin’. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they’re all workin’ together--kind of harnessed to the whole shebang--that’s right, that’s holy.
That’s the American spirit that felt in the campgrounds of this country, that’s the American spirit I feel in this story.
The Dust Bowl was a ten-year plague of biblical proportions that landed right on the heels of the Great Depression. It just doesn’t get much worse than that in our history. And yet here is the story of the Joad family, who get tried, picked apart, thrown down, beaten and ravaged. And yet they move forward together. You all have read Steinbeck’s Harvest Diaries that I passed along. The lives of these folk, the living conditions, the starved children and utter hopelessness. This is the Joad’s reality. And yet, when their help is asked for, whether it’s Jim Casy in the beginning or the little boy in the barn at the end, they do so without blinking. They do so because they know only together will they make it. Yet, I keep asking myself, how does the spirit endure? Together, yes, but how?
I believe that there are two things in particular that can buoy the human spirit on times of desperation. The first is humor. We can’t get along without it and neither can the Joads. In fact, the worse the road gets, the more we need it. Believe it or not, this book and this play are funny. When I first read both, I can tell you that is not the impression that I was left with. Then I was lucky enough to sit down with Frank Galati and he imparted to me the truth of it. The preacher and his pecker. Granma and Grampa. The tomcatting of Al. On down the line. I just drove from Oregon and listened to the novel along the way. There were parts where I was actually laughing out loud. Without those joyful releases, I’m not sure I could make it through this story. Without these joyful releases, I don’t think the Joads could make it through their journey. It is a vital part of Steinbeck’s storytelling and it will be a vital part of ours.
In a section describing the roadside camps, Steinbeck lays out the other crucial element:
And perhaps a man brought out his guitar to the front of his tent. And he sat on a box to play, and everyone in the camp moved slowly in toward him, drawn in toward him. Many men can chord a guitar, but perhaps this man was a picker. There you have something -- the deep chords beating, beating, while the melody runs on the strings like little footsteps. Heavy hard fingers marching on the frets. The man played and the people moved slowly in on him until the circle was closed and tight, and then he sang “Ten-Cent Cotton and Forty-Cent Meal.” And the circle sang softly with him. And he sang “Why Do You Cut Your Hair, Girls?” And the circle sang. He wailed the song, “I’m Leaving Old Texas…
And now the group was welded to one thing, one unit, so that in the dark the eyes of the people were inward, and their minds played in other times, and their sadness was like rest, like sleep.
Their sadness was like rest, like sleep. Frank Galati clearly heard this and inserted live music throughout his adaptation. With his permission, I’ve tinkered with the idea and called upon one of the great Dust Bowl storytellers, Woody Guthrie, to aid us in this journey. Our musicians will be channeling him
Now, one last quote from Steinbeck (for now):
And it came about in the camps along the roads, on the ditch banks beside the streams, under the sycamores, that the storyteller grew into being so that the people gathered in the low firelight to hear the gifted ones. And they listened while the tales were told, and their participation made the stories great.
We will all come together and our stage will become one great campfire, with our audience gathered round. We will tell the story of the American spirit. We will tell it with gut wrenching honesty, humor and with music. And we will remind them (and us) that only together are we holy. No matter the odds, the strife or the loss, if we stick together as one, we’ve got a chance. That is the American spirit that I believe in and that is why I want to tell this story.
by Samuel Beckett
Performed in 2014 at the Right Brain Project in Chicago, IL.
Photos by TCMcG Photography.
Scenic Design by Arnel Sancianco
Costume Design by Elsa Hiltner
Lighting Design by Mike Smith
First Day Address
I have always wanted to tell this story, but today I feel I finally can and, even more so, I must. My daughter was just born. I look at her and come face to face with an inescapable illustration of the circle of life. My grandmother, my last grandparent, is exiting. I’m waiting for that call. One generation in and one out. My folks, still hale and hearty, are nevertheless moving into the twilight. My father will never admit it. He won’t talk about it. He’s quite Hammish in that respect. I look at the reality of dealing with that, of forcing him to face the brutal truth of age while gently easing the pain as much as possible. They gave me a beginning, so I am bound to help them with an end. Then I look at the reality of my daughter dealing with me. I’ll be honest: I don’t know which frightens me more. That is this play. It is about that terrifying last step towards the Great Unknown and it is about about family: the undeniable tie that binds, and the duty we have regardless of reason or circumstance. Hamm and Clov need each other. Clov needs Hamm to end. Hamm needs Clov to continue. This is the collision that will propel us forward in our story.
Something I’ve learned from my grandmother is that life at the endgame is a land of extremes: it is both brutally honest and irreverently hilarious. Privately, you look with horror in the mirror and see your skin hanging off your bones and then publicly, you wryly compare your arm to a wet towel hanging on the line to dry. In the human condition, tears cannot exist without laughter and the further we go with one, the further we must with the other. Beckett understood this balance. He also understood the beautiful, admirable, stubborn quality that lives in us all and that is our fight. When backed into corner, we all have tremendous fight. Hamm and Clov have fight, fueled by love, fear and their desires. The end is not assured and they must earn it.
So. We are about to venture through a world of wonderful, dizzying complexity, but on the other side this simplicity will still be there: This story is about family confronting the horrifying move between life and death. It must be told with honesty and humor. And it must have fight. We do those simple tasks and we will tell this story well.
Here is how we begin.
Clov received the call. Hamm, the only man to ever be his father, was sick. It was time to say goodbye. So Clov went. If there had been anyone else there, they had since left. It was just Hamm, in his old chair in an empty black room. His end had come. Or, it would come, any second. Then it didn’t. Second upon second. Grain upon grain. The impossible heap.
Hamm isn’t ready. To end. Fear rages inside him, feeding him the fuel to continue. He’s still working on his life story. He has not come to the conclusion. There is still a world that would go on living without him. And Hamm won’t have that. Clov is back, as if he had never left. Clov has a duty to Hamm and that will fill the day. This pleases Hamm. Enough to continue.
Clov doesn’t know how long it has been anymore. Time has ceased to do anything but give pain. It feels like forever and that is enough. The room has grown into a collection of Hamm’s needs. More than anything, though, Hamm needs to die. Clov has amassed the tools to facilitate this end. A moving chair. A dog. Windows to an dying outside world. Nagg. Nell. These help Hamm along with his story. The empty room has become Hamm’s world, as devised by Clov, for the old endgame lost of old.
On this day, it is time. Finally. Necessarily. Hopefully. Clov can sense it. A forever of false hope has led to this undeniable certainty. He thinks. He calls for witnesses. He readies the scene. He invites them in. It begins.
A Dream Play
by August Strindberg, version by Caryl Churchill
Performed at Hal and Martha Hyer Wallis Theater in 2014. Produced by Northwestern University.
What is a dream? In his notes for our play, Strindberg says it is a place where “everything can happen, everything is possible and probable. Time and place do not exist; the imagination spins, weaving new patterns on a flimsy basis of reality: a mixture of memories, experiences, free associations, absurdities and improvisations.” He was fascinated by them, but had not yet read the theories of Freud and this was before Jung had begun his quest. What he was attempting to do was simply put on the stage what he lived with his eyes closed.
Dreams have long fascinated and inspired. Albert Einstein reported that his entire career was based on a dream in which he was sledding down a mountainside at the speed of light.Abraham Lincoln was a student of the unconscious and recalled a dream to his wife just days before he was killed. In it the president of the United States had been assassinated. Dreams are where Mary Shelley first saw Dr. Frankenstein and his monster and where Keith Richards first heard the riff to ‘Satisfaction.’
So, is it actually more than just our synapses reorganizing and regurgitating? Native American’s believed a dream had the power to help or hinder your path in life, so they wove dream catchers to catch the bad and let the good slip through. Jung warned that the world is becoming more and more artificial and therefore we are becoming more removed from healthy instincts, nature and truth. He believed listening to dreams could reestablish the equilibrium. I believe that there is indeed a conversation between our waking mind and our dream world. I believe that our unconscious attempts to speak to our conscious through dreams about the matters we are not able or willing to face while we are awake. And I believe the more successful this conversation is, the more successful one can be in life.
Our dreamer, the Writer, is at a tipping point. He has been toiling in the theatre, wrestling with his purpose in this world and gradually shutting out everyone who has ever cared for him. He’s beginning to believe that his destiny is martyrdom for his art. He’s beginning to believe he must mire himself in the muck to understand, to create and to communicate. He’s about to turn his back forever. His unconscious is desperate to prevent this. They have been putting on dream after dream, but he hasn’t been listening. He’s shut them out too and now, more than ever, they need him to listen. They need to create a piercing, searing, unavoidable and memorable dream that shakes him to his very core. If they do not, the chasm in their communication will never be bridged again. If this happens, the Writer will turn his back on the world and his chance at happiness, health and truth will die.
Dreams have been given credit for scientific discoveries, foretelling tragedy, classic literature and rock n’ roll. Our story is a dream with a chance to save a life. Our play, then, is an opportunity to ask our audience this: What is a dream and are you listening?
by William Shakespeare
Intervention by Aaron Snook
Performed by six actors in promenade in Fisk Hall at Northwestern University.
First Day Address
I fell in love with Shakespeare’s language when I was eighteen-years old. I hadn’t found the theatre yet. I hadn’t even been to the theatre yet. I can’t remember why I decided to take the class, but there I was with the Complete Works on my dorm bed and an assignment to read Hamlet. I had heard of it, sure, but didn’t have the first clue what it was about. I was staring at the page and I couldn’t make any sense out of it, so I started reading the words aloud. Suddenly, it became alive and the words began to trip off my tingling tongue. I didn’t know what many of the lines meant, but they made sense anyway. I was hooked. It was magical. Then, for an easy A, I took an intro to performance class. My first monologue was Hamlet’s that starts, “Seems, madam? I know not seems.” When my name was called, I went up to the front and began to recite it. I don’t remember what the direction was that I was given, but I do remember the result. Emotion filled me out of nowhere. I was an extremely introverted kid with a thick set of armor welded to prevent any vulnerability. And yet, here I was, filled with rage for my imaginary mother. I lost myself in the words. They unlocked a truth inside me that I wasn’t even aware of and never knew I had access to. It was magical. The next year, I landed the first role of my life: Sir Toby in Twelfth Night. I got to say these amazing lines on stage and when I did, I felt the audience respond. Not only did I understand the story, I was able to tell it to hundreds of strangers so that they could understand it too. I experienced theatrical communion for the first time and I give all the credit to Shakespeare. It was magical.
Oddly enough, with my passion for Shakespere, I had never turned the page to Pericles. Recently, though, one thing led to another and this play called to me as a curiosity. I wasn’t even an act in and I felt the magic happening all over again. This mysterious narrator, Gower, was leading me down the rabbit hole and my imagination began to scream in delight. The words were creating entire worlds, vicious storms, a beautiful princess, a magician and even pirates. In the center of it all was Pericles. I instantly related to his young, blind love in Antioch, his melancholy songwriting, and his need to leave his comfortable home. This was my eighteen-year old self—the same guy that fell in love with all of this to begin with. Then tragedy strikes and doesn’t let up. His howling to the storm when he thinks he is losing Thaisa filled me with the same thunder that “Seems madam?” once did. Pericles is tested repeatedly, but he turns inward and holds true. Finally, in his muted mourning, when he slowly discovers his lost daughter, Marina, my world stopped. I’m the first guy to be cynical about happy endings tied in neat little bows. This play is different, though. It earns its happily ever after and I found myself craving it. Why was this, though? For me, it became as simple as looking to the storyteller.
Gower takes me on this harrowing journey and makes Pericles my avatar. He pulls the strings and I go along. I begin young, in love with the world and ready to find a Queen for my kingdom. Yet, soon, I feel the disgust in Antioch and the melancholy of exile. I’m beaten by the sea, but land in Pentapolis where I find true love in Thaisa and exalt in my invitation home to Tyre. Yet the storm strikes again and I rage at the sea and mourn the loss of my wife, while I desperately seek a haven in Tarsus for my child. Gower then winds the hands of time forward with a promise of reunion that is dashed into despair with the loss of Marina. It is all too much. It seems as though Gower has conspired with the world to beat me down at every turn. So, I become quiet and try to reason it out. I’ve led the virtuous life. I’ve done everything that has been asked of me. Will the sorrow ever end? And then. Then a miracle slowly unfolds. The dead become living, the sorrow becomes joy and I am rewarded with a life far beyond my wildest dreams. Finally, I look to Gower, who says of my journey:
Although assailed with fortune fierce and keen,
Virtue preserved from fell destruction’s blast,
Led on by heaven, and crowned with joy at last.
This is the moral of my journey and why he has brought me from there to here, knocking me about along the way: to know that, while my life may at times be painful and full of sorrow, if I hold what is true close to my heart and live with patience at my side, joy will be waiting for me in the end. Gower is the embodiment of fickle fate and he is urging me to bridge this story to my life. With a wink, he gives me his best wishes with his final words:
So, on your patience evermore attending,
New joy wait on you! Here our play is ending.
This isn’t a new story. The world has always had fairy tales of tormenting journeys that end up with happily ever after. They were and are needed. But to have the opportunity to tell one in the language of Shakespeare is truly unique. This is why I believe Pericles transcends the Once Upon a Time. It is a magical story and it is told magically. This is what we get to play with and this is what we get to give to our audience. So, to you I say: New joy wait on you! Our play is beginning.
SCRIPT AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST
world premiere by Ronan Marra
Performed in 2012 at Signal Ensemble Theatre in Chicago, Illinois.
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The Ballad of Romeo and Juliet (In Development)
By William Shakespeare
Intervention by Aaron Snook
This script was originally developed at Northwestern University. It was subsequently work-shopped at Oregon Shakespeare Festival under the banner of the OSF Midnight Project with the dramaturgical help of Isabel Smith-Bernstein. It has not seen a full production.
Scenic Design by Lauren Nigri
Costume Design by Caitlin DesSoye
Lighting Design by Jessica Krometis
A NOTE FROM THE INTERVENTIONIST:
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. As best you can, forget everything you know about Romeo and Juliet. Toss out the romanticized Zeffirelli, the electrified Luhrmann, and any other personal experiences you may have had with this play. Instead think of America, who’s bloody, war torn history is as old as its age. Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. Think of a time where brother fought against brother and neighbor fought against neighbor. It was an age of hatred and war. The battles were gruesome, intimate affairs of savagery. It created wounds that still break open today. Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
And then, the war was over. But the hatred remained. In the southern states in the late 1800’s just below the Mason Dixon line, the blood of the North and South mixed together in the soil of family farms. The post-war confusion created a tinderbox of hate--the continuance of their parents’ rage. The generation that fought passed along their boiling blood to their children and loyalty shifted from country to family. Cocooned in Appalachia, away from government and law, these families turned primal. The battles that the war began continued in the streets. God was praised and proven through the venomous serpents their holy men handled. And the music of the banjo and fiddle permeated through the smoky, sticky, moss-covered woods that make up the Blue Ridge Mountains. Welcome to Verona, North Carolina.