Casting Requirements: 3 women, 3 men Ella: American, white. An rheumatoid, bedridden woman. She is deformed and wooden, her fingers trapped in claws. Prematurely aged. Agnes: Liberian immigrant, 30s, Ella’s home care worker. Tough and funny. Roza: Bulgarian immigrant, 40s-50s, speaks Bulgarian, Ella’s home care worker. Silent except when addressing birds. Shipkov: Bulgarian immigrant, 40s-50s, Roza’s husband, drives a subway train. Former ringmaster. Happy: Indian, 20s, recently immigrated con artist, training as subway driver. Unrelentingly happy. Busker: Plays an instrument on the subway platform, is all other voices/voiceovers, moves freely through time and space
DEVELOPMENT HISTORY: Commissioned by Mixed Blood Theatre, Minneapolis, MN Agnes Under the Big Top was developed through a consortium led by The Lark Play Development Center (New York City) and includes Rhodopi International Theatre Lab (Smolyan, Bulgaria), Interact Theatre (Philadelphia), and Mixed Blood Theatre Company (Minneapolis), and The Playwrights' Center (Minneapolis) Agnes Under the Big Top was selected as a NEA Distinguished New Play Development Project as part of the NEA New Play Development Program, hosted by Arena Stage. Featured in the New Play Festival at Arena Stage, January 2011
DRAMATURG: Liz Engelman
EARLY PRODUCTION HISTORY: National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere
2011/2012 Mixed Blood Theatre, MN Long Wharf Theatre, CT Borderlands Theater, AZ AWARDS: Hartford Courant Top 10 Shows in Connecticut
"Agnes Under the Big Top" by Aditi Brennan Kapil at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II, New Haven. Kapil's new play weaves a gentle spell in this rich, multi-cultural crazy quilt. The tough and tender play walked a tightrope with its metaphoric writing and fractured narration and its fine acting and graceful direction by Eric Ting resulted in a work that was something close to an existential prayer. -Frank Rizzo, Hartford Courant, Top 10 Shows of 2011
"...this lovely, brooding play bodes well for the future of the theater." -Sylviane Gold, NY Times
"...a tough and tender play ... that is as graceful and evocative as trapeze artists flying through air with the greatest of ease." -Frank Rizzo, Variety
"Lives intersect while others hover in parallel, but Kapil has created a masterly matrix for what are essentially first-person short stories told by the five main characters... this lyrical, bittersweet play is a spirit-soaring experience." -Susan Hood, Hartford Courant
Trailer for Long Wharf Theatre Production of "Love Person":
Development work at Rhodopi International Theater Laboratory, Smolyan, Bulgaria. Peter K. Karapetkov directing:
BLOG SERIES on the "AGNES UNDER THE BIG TOP" Development Journey
Posted in the Arena Stage, Distinguished New Play Development Program Blog
(January 28, 2009)
Playwright at Work: Aditi Kapil and "Agnes Under the Big Top"
I'm in mid-rewrite, and it's a little painful. In December when we all first met at the Lark I had a whole play. It needed a lot of work, but it had a beginning, middle and end, some moments of magic... Then I took an axe to it and now, with my Playwrights' Center (Minneapolis) workshop starting in 2 days, I have a killer beginning and that's it. It's a good thing, it really is, 'Agnes' is growing in all the right ways, it's just hard to have had something fully functional a month ago, and to have less now.
-It's quality not quantity. -Can't make a really good play without breaking a few other plays along the way. -If you feel deeply that this rewrite is right, then it is (and really, could anyone ever disprove that statement?).
My dramaturg Liz Engelman is my rudder when I'm in too deep for perspective, so even though I know this rewrite is right, I asked her. "It's better, right?" She emphatically agreed that it was, and I got the feeling she'd been waiting for this rewrite for a while. That tends to be the case, that she knows something needs fixing well before I'm ready to fix it, but you can't do the big rewrites until they feel right. Fortunately Liz is a master at speaking her piece, and then biding her time.
And nerves aside, this is a really great place to be. This draft is a huge step closer to understanding the play, I have another 2 days to shape and work, and then I have 4 days with actors, a ridiculously smart director (Michael Bigelow-Dixon), and Liz.
The perfect circumstances for work to happen.
The plan is to complete this draft and once again have a beginning middle and end. Which will make me feel like I nailed it for a good month of euphoria, before I come back and discover I have to break it again.
So we're right on schedule.
(March 5, 2009)
After the Workshop: Aditi Kapil on "Agnes Under the Big Top"
I’ve come to terms with something significant, ‘Agnes Under the Big Top’ is an ensemble piece, not a ‘one character’s journey through the underground’ kind of piece. It’s liberating, I can now stop trying to force feed the primary story arc to poor Agnes, who never wanted it in the first place, and consequently never did much of anything with it. As an ensemble player, however, she’s killer.
The other big realization from the 4 days of work last month at the Playwrights’ Center is that the fairy tale that suffused the story had become superfluous. This was a hard one to accept, I fought to make it work, the fairy tale was the epiphany that allowed me to write the first draft last summer, it’s in the title! But on the final day I was out of tricks, and the only thing left to try was to mercilessly cut it out and see what remained. That evening we introduced “Agnes Under the Big Top, a fairy tale” in a public reading, only there was no fairy tale. The bigger news is that it was better for it. No one missed it, not even me. That’s not to say that its surgical excision didn’t leave a whole bunch of gaping holes behind, it did, but I’m figuring out what belongs there. It may even be that some other form of the fairy tale returns, but in its all-encompassing form it’s gone.
I enjoyed Kirk Lynn’s list of favorite cut lines, so I’m contributing a few of my own. (I also considered adopting some of Kirk’s discards in the karmic hope that mine too might find a new home in another play. I still might try that, fully attributing the source of course.) Here’s my shortlist: -A tiny drop of sap ran down her bark. -What the hell kind of song is that to sing in the subway, are you trying to make people jump? -That’s what they invented freezers for. By which I mean to suggest that you put the ice cream in the freezer. -Agnes Was Here (scrawled on a dirty subway train)
(APRIL 28, 2009)
Inside the Playwright: Aditi Kapil prepping a reading
Photo: Cirkus Arena, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2005- the circus visit that inspired the character of Shipkov... the blurry animals on the right are ostriches
This evening I'm meeting with designers to brainstorm around the world of the play, the reading is tomorrow. But at the moment I'm sitting in InterAct's upstairs offices, contemplating my circus metaphor, which is in crisis. The theater cat is staring at me. It's hot. Maybe just compared to Minneapolis. I've been looking at circus posters, and stumbled across Yeats' "The Circus Animals' Desertion", there's something there, particularly in the last stanza.
III. A mound of refuse, or the sweepings of the street, Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, Old iron, old bones, old rags, the raving slut Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Feels like he's talking to me, to my process as well as possibly the play. My brain is resisting right now, but maybe the metaphor lies more in the circus as a whole than in what goes on inside it. Maybe the finale is not the end of the act, but the act of departing the circus, or the circus departing you. I don't know if that works. Need to shake everything off and read the play again.
(May 7, 2009)
Playwright & Dramaturg co-blog about the Design Meeting: "Agnes Under the Big Top"
"On the Platform" & "Big Top vs Subway"
sketches by Jorge Cousineau
The following people were present at the design meeting at InterAct Theatre, Philadelphia on April 26: Aditi Brennan Kapil (playwright), Liz Engelman (dramaturg), Jorge Cousineau (scenic/lights/sound designer), Matt Saunders (scenic designer/performer), Becky Wright (literary manager, InterAct), Peter Karapetkov (co-artistic director, Rhodope International Theater Laboratory)
Liz- We’re at signpost #3 of our journey. (Have turg, will travel.) After our first reading at the Lark where the whole team got together to kick off the event, become further introduced to the play, and to dream up the process of development, and after signpost #2’s exploration of the text and storytelling at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, we’ve arrived in Philly for the next stage of the journey: The world of the play. And what a unique stage it is. Rarely do playwrights and dramaturgs get to talk to designers about the world of the play even before the play is finished, fully realized, or in rehearsal. As a dramaturg, I can say this: designers are the best dramaturgs there are. Their ability to talk about the play metaphorically, symbolically, structurally, physically is a true gift, and, we found after three and a half hours of conversation with them, a gift that keeps on giving.
Aditi- Bless you, Becky, for bringing in the beer in hour 3!
Liz- Ditto! It’s funny how you can’t cover up a play’s questions. With each draft, some get answered, others make themselves clear. Aditi and I had several questions we were exploring with this draft, ones that Aditi had begun to address. And funny how Matt and Jorge’s reactions zeroed right in on them- who is the Busker exactly, and how literal is the circus: is it a metaphor, a style choice, or….?
Aditi- Loved the conversation, particularly loved how we honed in on the fluid world of the play. Ultimately the characters all live in the same world, they just inhabit it differently, have access to different parts of it, etc. But the idea that the design can reflect the thematic content of the play is exciting. Something that’s really sticking with me is the idea of action design, creating a set made up only of the set pieces and props that are absolutely necessary for each scene and, as Matt said, letting them live simultaneously on the stage all smashed together.
Some ideas we generated for what these pieces might be: a subway train frame a bed a window a pole telephones a chair a newspaper a grocery bag an exit sign
Overlapping worlds… that’s exciting…
Liz- As we talked, Matt and Jorge scribbled. How rewarding to get to see some insta-sets, to see the playworld realized on paper, a groundplan, a blueprint, a launch pad for the story. Having something tangible to then match our ideas to was extremely enlightening. Ideas, pieces have found themselves into the ways that we are looking at the play as Aditi moves towards signpost #4…..next stop Bulgaria.
Aditi- Peter K. called me the other day, he came to the design meeting looking for elements to include in our ‘underground exploration’ in Bulgaria this summer and is loving the idea of the pole, which I think is pretty great too- what a flexible theatrical device! I’ve also added a bunch of Emir Kusturitsa movies to my netflix queue per Jorge’s suggestion.
Liz- The day after our discussion, we heard the latest draft read, and had a great conversation afterwards with the wonderful Philadelphia cast that was assembled for the afternoon. It made me want to go right into rehearsal, and to continue these conversations that we had with the designers. How great that feels – to want to dive right in, but then being reminded that we still have several more signposts along the way. How grateful we are for this gift of time.
(May 12, 2009)
Dramaturgs on Design, Part 2: "Agnes Under the Big Top" in Philly
posted by Becky Wright,InterAct’s Literary Director and Dramaturg comments on the Philadelphia design meeting for "Agnes Under the Big Top" by Aditi Kapil
It’s always a treat to be in a room full of smart people asking good questions. On Sunday night, after dinner at InterAct’s favorite restaurant Rangoon (Burmese food), when Aditi, Liz, Peter and I got together with designers Matt Saunders and Jorge Cousineau, there was the added pleasure of having the whole agenda for the evening be nothing but that. We sat on the set of Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes on InterAct’s mainstage, with the pre-show light cue on us, casting the shadows of long windows across our faces, and brainstormed for three hours.
Here are some of the big questions that came up in the conversation: is the circus a metaphor, or is the whole play a circus? Since all of the different settings in the play are not going to be literally represented, what kind of space is the set? What is its place-ness? And what does that say about the text? Which, if any, of the characters look right at the audience, and when? In what way are the birds present? Where is the bed and where is the train? And there were questions about characters, too, their relationships and how those want to be embodied and reflected in the physical world of the play. I have witnessed Matt and Jorge ask good questions in numerous processes, both at InterAct and with other companies around town (including Whit MacLaughlin and New Paradise Laboratories), but because in this process the “deadline” of production is so far away that it feels virtually non-existent, we were free to really pursue these lines of thought and experiment with different potential answers. Aditi is enormously game in her willingness to interrogate her own script, entertaining the biggest and seemingly smallest questions with rigor and genuine curiosity. Matt and Jorge did some brainstorming in the form of sketches. To have the opportunity to look at these images and ask, “What does this picture tell us about the play? Is that what we want the play to be telling us?”—and to do so with the knowledge that there are months and whole other workshops on the other side of this conversation—was, again, such a unique pleasure. After all, even on a new play, how often do you get to have a production meeting without the looming pressure of a directly impending production?
Even though both designers regretted somewhat that they didn’t get to hear the play before they talked about how it should look, it actually (for me, anyway) felt very rich to go into Monday’s reading with all of the questions from the night before fresh in mind. I’ve now heard three readings of Agnes in three very different drafts. The conversation with the designers helped me know what to listen for this time, and shaped a conversation with our killer Philly cast of actors after the reading as well. Because the questions about play’s physical world was so present for me, I found that, during the reading, I resonated in new ways to the themes of place and displacement; there is a muscularity, a rag-tag, crazy quilt quality, a travel-weariness to the characters in Agnes, both individually and as a grouping. I learned things in the Philly leg of the Agnes project about how these qualities, themes and ideas are present in the play, and how they might ask to be embodied. I can’t wait to see what happens to the piece after the underground workshops in Bulgaria.
(July 31, 2009)
Dramaturgy in Bulgaria: Agnes Under the Big Top
posted by Liz Engelman, dramaturg of Aditi Brennan Kapil's "Agnes Under the Big Top"
I’ve just returned from a weeklong dramaturgical adventure with Aditi in Bulgaria, and have been reflecting on what to focus on, blogwise, for this entry. Before I get all ‘turgical, let me begin by saying what an incredible time I had, how open and generous my hosts and collaborators were, and how grateful I am to the NEA, the Lark, TCG, and to Aditi and Peter Karapetkov for making my journey to Bulgaria possible in the first place.
I want to focus my entry on the relationship between the macro and the micro. That might sound all intellectual and pontificate-y, but it really gets at the heart of dramaturgy, and so I’m gonna go there.
As Aditi has previously mentioned, the main focus of our time in Bulgaria was to look at the scenes that took place between the Bulgarian characters, spoken in Bulgarian, and to glean from them new possibilities, and to learn what worked, what didn’t, what was spot on, extraneous, etc. As we watched, as the actors explored, as Peter as director invented and reinvented, I was struck by the challenge of relating part to whole, scenework to entire play. The time and attention placed on, and liberty taken, with these few scenes, in ways that the stricter rehearsal process in the US does not usually allow for, demonstrated how focused attention on one scene can unlock questions that resonate throughout the entire play. Focusing on specifics forced us to ask questions of the general, the overall.
As a dramaturg, of course, I’m always asking questions (you know the joke, as a dramaturg you don’t say, “Your play sucks” ; rather, you ask, “why does your play suck?). Here, however, intense and explosive exploration of a single scene prodded me in new ways to look at and question the specific story of the scene itself and ask how it related to the larger story of the whole play, looking back at what came before it, and looking ahead to see what it might trigger that might not exist already inside of the play. Of course, again, as a dramaturg, this is what I do all the time; however, when a scene is explored with close relation to text, then at the expense of text, then realigned to existing text, then refashioned due to the exploration, then re-imagined again, one becomes more closely connected to the scene’s core than often we get the chance to. While for the playwright, this comes at some emotional and psychological cost (“What just happened to what I wrote?! Oh, I see, they are still exploring…”), as a dramaturg, watching the way these actors and Peter worked beneath the text, on top of it, and also alongside it, yielded interesting clues about the rest of the play. Interestingly, I learned less about the scene itself, the micro, and more about the rest of the play, the macro.
Enough turg talk; all this is to say that removing myself from the habitual way of working here at home allowed me to see with new eyes in clearer focus what I do at home; that is, to examine how we construct the building blocks of story, character, and meaning, through action, emotion, intention, rhythm, physicality…tools and tricks of the trade that the unfamiliar made refamiliar.
(November 6, 2009)
Aditi Brennan Kapil Reaches the Last Development Milestone at the Lark
A quick note on the past week at Lark before I settle down to think/blog in more depth about the past year and the various steps of the development journey.
I have to be honest and say that I arrived at Lark last week frustrated with myself, my play, and desperately needing to, by the end of the week, either fall back in love with it or ceremonially burn it. I spent the first 3 days writing like a crazy person, my actors never had the same script twice and in one instance hadn’t even read the rewrite they were handed at the top of rehearsal when I replaced it with a newer one an hour later. The first day I forgot to eat, so after that I started my writing days at a diner over breakfast- (Moonrock diner, eggs benedict, coffee, tall glass of orange juice, highly recommended!) Liz and I talked one morning in Bulgaria about the difficulty of writing from a place of metaphor rather than a place of action. Writing from a place of metaphor you have endless avenues and threads you can pursue, and I feel like a pursued many many many of them this year. I must have written 20 plays in trying to find the one. And, for me at least, the only truly consistent thing I had to guide me was my own instinct, god forbid it have a bad day. ‘Does that feel like it belongs in the play’? ‘Does that feel like the play I want to write?’ Perfectly good material got chucked on the say-so of my instinct. Perfectly bad material stuck around for a really long time for the same reason. And the upshot was that after a year of ‘feeling’, I couldn’t see straight. So much material had come and gone, the play had been re-arranged so many times as I tried new entry points, new protagonists, new structures, that I honestly didn’t know if there was anything there.
The greatest gift of the week at Lark, aside from dedicated time to just work with no distractions (this is a big deal for a playwright with a largish family), was the gift of collaborators who actively loved the play and could help me rediscover the reasons I set out to write it in the first place. You break something apart too many times, it gets hard to see how it can ever fit together again. Part of me wishes that all that breaking apart hadn’t been necessary, it would be nice to believe that the work could have sprung fully formed from my mind, in fact I’d still like to experience that some day so I’m not taking it out of the realm of possibility completely, but this particular play could not have found itself without being broken every which way first. It has too many layers, too many ideas, too many lives running through it or something, I don’t know, but I couldn’t think them all at once. And looking back, every single detour, however idiotic (there were some stupid ones) grew it in some way. So, the good new is, after 3 days of brand new scripts, I sat at the end of rehearsal thinking that all the material was there, it just didn’t flow the way it was supposed to. Liz, and my lovely director Eric Ting, looked at me and said ‘so, what do you need?’
-I need you to help me rearrange the script, because I can’t see straight. Literally, rearrange it
We started at the table, then ended up on the floor, some scenes got split into halves and moved, others just relocated, I pretty just much sat back and watched them work from their instinct, because the issues now were structural, and not subject to my inspiration, and a director and dramaturg can do mad work on structure. We got stuck in the middle, so we skipped through to the end- great end, great beginning, stuck in the middle. I looked at the wad of paper I had in my hand for the middle, and I said ‘this is the rewrite’- the middle section needed its very own rewrite so it could take its place in the whole. Scary truth? It’s kind of easy to do the work when you know exactly what the job is. Makes you wonder what we’re doing the rest of the time, muddling around in the unknown. I rearranged the script over dinner, putting aside my ‘rewrite’ for morning at the diner. Had some beers at Valhalla (also highly recommended). Slept. Finished the draft the next morning. When we read it that afternoon I tweaked. More importantly, I liked it. I still liked it the next day. I know why I’m writing this play again. I know where it’s headed, and how it’s getting there. And the rest is deepening, discovering, little epiphanies. Watch, now I probably jinxed myself.
(January 13, 2011)
'Agnes Under the Big Top': the Hybrid #NewPlay Process
For starters let me say something about the weather. The first day of the Playwrights’ Center workshop for ‘Agnes…’ was preceded by the biggest blizzard since the great Halloween Blizzard of ’91. Somehow all of our out-of-towners made it in to Minneapolis- Eric Ting (director), Liz Engelman (dramaturg), and actors Ankit Dogra and Nick Demeris. Also big shout out to Minneapolis actors Sha Cage, Nat Fuller, Linda Kelsey, and Virginia Burke, and the entire Mixed Blood production staff, who miraculously made it through the snow drifts to the Playwrights’ Center pretty much on time. My car got stuck on a sheet of ice for 45 minutes and then I crawled through traffic for over an hour, making me nearly 2 hours late to what was supposed to our pre-workshop meeting to get our minds organized as Playwright/Director/Dramaturg, so that really didn’t happen. Instead we embarked on this peculiar hybrid workshop experience, Mixed Blood’s actors, Long Wharf’s Director, Mixed Blood’s director focusing on playwriting, with virtually no advance conversation.
So this interesting hybrid process that we created to continue collaboratively as we move toward the two separate productions was great for me. It was maybe a little confusing for the actors whose eyes would at times wander from Eric to me and back, trying to figure out who was directing this party. Possibly even more brain-splitting for Katharine Horowitz, our fearless sound designer, who is designing sound for the Mixed Blood production, and will also be incorporating sound into the reading directed by Eric at Arena. But again, for me, it was excellent! The stripped down simplicity of the sound design for the Arena reading will be a great foundation for adding and expanding to the Mixed Blood production. I had people I trust in a room, working, giving me space to hide in the lobby with Liz and the script when I needed to. Taking a moment to thank the universe for the generosity and flexibility and willingness of so many artists!
Spent much of the workshop time rewriting and feeding new scenes to the cast as they got to them. On the whole huge progress, but there’s this one particularly fascinating scene, fascinating in that it’s not done yet. What’s interesting is that I feel like I nailed the emotional need of the actress to fill out her arc and have some kind of culminative, humanizing moment. But the content is wrong. Actress loved it, Director and Dramaturg both kind of twisted in their seats looking uncertain. And if that isn’t clear feedback, I don’t know what is. I can do it better. I know what it needs to accomplish emotionally, now it just needs to be of the language of the play. It’s a placeholder, it’s fine, it’s on the work list.
Set design is coming together, my spare moments were spent in the lobby obsessing about sight lines with Andrea. Production saved our sanity by end of week, we had hit the limitations of physics and were blissfully rescued by the promise of seating platforms. Our final sharing of the play in its current draft was attended by the design team and a few Playwrights’ Center folks, and we followed it up with a production meeting to try to get the most value out of it. It was good, I’m ready to commit to the structure of the play, though maybe not all the content, but you can have a decent production meeting around that. I’m pretty sure I’m being the hardest on Katharine because to me the sound in this play falls closer to character work than design work. Which is a peculiar thing to ask of a sound designer, to be directed as an actor would be, I know a lot of what I’m pushing feels counter-intuitive to her at the moment, but she’s game, and we have plenty of history upon which to base mutual trust and speaking our minds, we’ll get there…
Acting note: our style travels from minimalist to almost baroque. I don’t know how to express on the page the simplicity of emotion and extended silences at the top of the play. I try to leave a lot of blank space on the paper, but it doesn’t come close. Conversely, I can’t fully communicate on the page the rich cacophony I want for other scenes, there’s only so much I can overlap dialogue visually on the page. For the Mumbai scene we finally got Ankit and Nick playing at the level I wanted by giving them permission to climb all over each other’s lines, wrestle for the phone, ad lib non-verbally in English and in Hindi, when it’s working it’s fantastic and fun! When it’s not, every word is precious and irritating. To me. This is obviously my lens.
Rewriting more in prep for yet another opportunity to hear it in DC, getting rid of that placeholder scene, bringing Agnes a few steps closer to flight…
(November 22, 2010)
'Agnes Under the Big Top': Playwright & Director Chasing Down Unclaimed #NewPlay Epiphanies
On the plane heading back to Minneapolis after 2 weeks in residence at Long Wharf Theatre! Just completed a new draft of ‘Agnes…’, so that feels fantastic. Had an intense and productive 2 weeks, being away from family is always a little surreal (love skype) but man do I get a lot of work done! So, work highlights from the last 2 weeks:
-On my first day in New Haven: I spread the script of ‘Agnes…’ across the entire floor of my apartment, and no one could tell me not to. It remained there until the morning I left, at which point it had become obsolete, and I chucked it in the recycling. Apparently- Me, the human, take up very little space; but Me, the playwright, takes up A Lot. Anyway, I sat on the floor scribbling and typing for a week’s worth of mornings, then handed a draft to Eric Ting, my director.
-Eric and I had a notes session: We missed our dramaturg, Liz Engelman, very much. But Liz was in a car somewhere in Montana, so that was that. Sans dramaturg, it took us a very long time to get to the crux of the matter. I’m only theorizing that Liz would have gotten us there faster, but it’s theory based on several years of Liz-notes. There was a problem with the draft, but how to put it into words in a way that wouldn’t mess with my head and would be productive… for that matter, how to pinpoint what exactly the problem was? We got there, after we had called an end to our meeting and started walking down the street. The words somehow came out in the right order, and the problem became clear. Does anyone else wonder how many epiphanies go unclaimed because we quit just the moment before they happened? Or maybe the end of a notes session is when you go into alpha state, like road trips, showers, and sleep. Anyway, it was a harsh epiphany, Eric was concerned for my feelings, but it was such a good epiphany! Something I could actually use! Something that took me back to a place of creating from inspiration and joy, rather than fixes and streamlining. (I realize I’m not saying what exactly it was, but there’s just no way, short of writing a novel…)
-The thing not resolved by notes session: Eric had a standing question about the role of the Busker in the play, and fantastic as the epiphany was, it didn’t actually address the Busker-question. We kept talking about it, whether it was a text question or a directorial question, talked at length about what the Busker ‘means’, but the question continued to bug. I’m probably really annoying in these conversations, I absolutely know what’s not right, but it’s completely intuitive knowledge- ‘That doesn’t feeeeel right’- but ask me to contribute something more constructive, and you get nothing. At least when I’m in playwright-mode. What I know is likely already on the page.
-We spent a lot of time in trains and subways, staring at drivers (Eric peering in on drivers in their compartments, freaking them out, all in the name of research), maps, tiles, graffiti, the structural potential of subway poles (you could make a theatrical subway train just with a configuration of poles), people-watching, listening, and encountering buskers. Then on my last day on the East Coast we rode in to NY for callbacks. Two violinists stepped onto our subway car and began to play. Eric pointed out that he felt like the music the Busker brought into the subway-world should be an escape for the characters, like the sound of the violins against the backdrop of grey noise, and that’s why having the Busker be part of the grey subway world felt like a contradiction to him. After two weeks of talking past each other about the Busker, our brains finally clicked onto the same wavelength, and I knew exactly what he was talking about.
As it turns out, it was not a textual answer, but the answer is hugely valuable as I go back and look at the text.
And as I approach the Mixed Blood designer meetings that I know are waiting for me in Minneapolis.
It also brings us one step closer to clear goals for the December workshop at Playwrights’ Center.
-Ok, lastly, I had the crazy opportunity to read, in front of an audience, “Cirkus Kalashnikov”, the 10-minute play that was the original seed for ‘Agnes Under the Big Top…” This was in the context of a brand new community engagement program that Eric is starting at Long Wharf (I’ll let Eric talk more about that later). The experience of reading ‘Cirkus Kalashnikov’, a piece that came out of such a specific moment for me, from a visceral response to stories told by my uncle and my father, and realizing how far those ideas had traveled in ‘Agnes…’ was intense. Intensely strange. My brother once accused me of ripping off his childhood memories for my art, and I do, I rip things off, and I make stuff with them, and then I no longer remember where they came from, only what they mean. But then there’s proof of what that moment actually was all those years ago, like ‘Cirkus Kalashnikov’, before you transformed it into something else. And it’s jarring to have the past address you, in your own voice, years later. And hold you accountable.
(February 9, 2011)
'Agnes Under the Big Top': Propulsion for the #NewPlay Rolling Premieres
January in DC! Amazing conversations, amazing art, the new Arena building is gorgeous and I’m not just saying that because they host this site. My first night in DC I saw Anna Deveare Smith’s ‘Let me Down Easy’ with one of my actors and my sound designer. The next morning we met our actors, two from the Minneapolis cast, and 4 talented and generous DC actors who threw themselves completely into the play for 4 straight days. That night I saw a reading of Rajiv Joseph’s ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo’. Next morning we were back in the room with the actors, and as they found the groove of the play, I realized I was still kind of working on the play, this was my last chance to really solidify the work on the page before Eric and I split off to Mixed Blood and Long Wharf and start the process to production in two separate locations. That night I saw Mary Zimmerman’s ‘Arabian Nights’. The next morning I added new pages to the script, and that evening we had our first public reading, so I saw my own play. The whole 10 days in DC felt like immersion, in art, in thought, in work. Theater being theater and by nature impermanent, I don’t always feel like I have my finger on the pulse of the work that is happening in my field, but for this 10 days I felt like I was at least getting the start of an education. The immersion continued throughout the next weekend with Claudia Rankine’s ‘The Provenance of Beauty’, and the Rude Mechs ‘I’ve Never Been so Happy’, and Octavio Solis’ ‘The Pastures of Heaven’. I missed Lloyd Suh’s ‘Happy End of the World’ which still makes me sad, but I had a good reason-
Sunday morning, before the 2nd public reading, Eric and I sat with the script and tried to resolve the issue of propulsion (we started out calling it momentum, but then decided we really meant propulsion), something we likely couldn’t have diagnosed without this timely opportunity to feel this draft of the script in action. Bless our actors, we came in with a restructured script and a couple of hours of rehearsal to glance at the changes and anticipate any potential traffic jams, and they were game and they were wonderful. The audience on Sunday night saw a different play from the audience on Saturday night. And it was better. Eric and I kept working on the script throughout the following week, between convening and panels and truly uplifting conversations with amazing artists, and the script keeps getting better. Jack Reuler from Mixed Blood found me at breakfast one morning scribbling and slashing paragraphs. I worried I was freaking him out, but he just raised his eyebrows ‘rehearsals start in 5 days!’ Yeah, I know, thanks.
Does it never end? I mean, really? Can it always be better?? Then what are we doing?? There’s supposed to be this magical tipping point where the changes you make don’t necessarily make it better, they just make it different, and that’s when you’re supposed to take your hand out of the damn engine and stop tinkering… go write a new play that will reflect where you are now and don’t expect the old one to keep changing with you, because that way lies madness. This is obviously not some absolute truth, just what I think right now, or maybe hope, completely subject to change. As is my mood.Here’s what I know- I’m ready to test drive her for real. Even if she can still be better on the page (which I’m sure she can be, I am not at that magical tipping point yet, assuming it exists) I’m ready to find that out through trial and error, rather than theory and supposition. I’m ready for rehearsals.
I want to say something about the National New Play Network real quick- With Mixed Blood, Long Wharf, and Borderlands Theatre in Tucson all having programmed ‘Agnes…’ for the coming year prior to its first production, we just became a NNPN Rolling World Premiere, one of the cooler things that can happen to a brand new play. Not only does the title come with financial support for the theaters that program new work and provide a home for playwrights who need a life beyond a premiere to really make a play great, but it provides a geographically broad platform for the work to flourish and take that rolling world premiere momentum, hopefully transforming it into several more productions and a long life. I’m certain that my last play ‘Love Person’ would not have had the life it has without that kick-start. So just a shout out to playwrights and producers and whoever is interested to check out the work that is coming out of this organization!
And now we’re in rehearsals.
(March 22, 2011)
'Agnes Under the Big Top': Aditi Kapil ending the #newplay journey from gestation to premiere
Last Blog! For a while anyway, probably the real end to the journey is the Borderlands production next year, closing out the NNPN rolling premiere, but last blog for now.
For what it’s worth, it’s been surprisingly satisfying talking/thinking things through here every month. I had doubts. While I was actually writing the play, blogging was hard, almost impossible, to contemplate. I like talking as much as anyone, but some combination of not actually knowing what I was doing, and fear of wasting whatever spark was fueling me on a blog instead of a play, kept me in a private possessive place. But once the play was mostly written and production was imminent, this was useful, and even fun.
The last installment was about directing my own work, so this one has to be about the glories of having a director you trust and believe in deeply take your play in hand and journey with it. The Long Wharf production of ‘Agnes Under the Big Top’ is up and running, and it’s beautiful. And it’s completely different from the Mixed Blood production, and that’s beautiful. On the one hand I feel like an absentee parent, I was barely around for rehearsals, but on the other hand I’m grateful that I wasn’t there more because I doubt that Eric and the actors and designers could have explored and journeyed as freely with my all-knowing presence in the room. And it’s an amazing thing to see how much stretch the play has, that’s pretty precious.
Feb 20-23: I flew to CT for 3 days of rehearsals. I had a few script changes I wanted to pitch, a few layers that once I saw them fully realized at Mixed Blood didn’t quite gel the way I thought they would, felt like a layer cake with a spare layer. I actually think they were manifestations of the number of readings we did of the play, I started to write for the ‘reading as artform’, and in a Dickensian world where we all sit by the fire this layer is awesome, my best work, but in a fully staged world it’s too much. I got no argument from Eric, so I assume he already knew that. I also had two scenes that had been bugging me in minor ways, so I did some rewrites there. I should say that Eric and I had a deal that once we were in rehearsals he could reject any rewrites, he needed to have his process confident that I wasn’t going to pull the rug out from under him based on discoveries in another production. I think he only rejected one cut (because they’d grown attached to the text), and combined a scene rewrite with the original scene so as not to throw off the arc already created by the actress speaking the lines.
The 3 days of rehearsal that I saw were pre-tech, missing an actress due to a family emergency, and everyone was still in an exploratory place whereas I had come from a performance-ready place at Mixed Blood. I could tell things were different, but having not been part of the original table work, I couldn’t necessarily tell why, or where it was headed. I tried to stay out of it and be generally supportive. Tried and failed, when confronted with direct questions about things, I tend to answer directly, I have lots of opinions, lots. I think some of them were useful, just in taking the second-guessing out of things, and others were too much. By the time I was in the car heading to the airport I felt like I had blasted through and left a wake of disruption that they would now have to sort through without me there to follow up with anything constructive. 3 days does not participation in a process make. And how do you put in its proper place what the playwright said? I am, after all, the prime authority on what I think, there’s no arguing with me. Crap.
So I followed up with an extended text to Eric from the airport, and then an extended voice mail once I got back to Minneapolis, asking him to please take everything I said and put it in a useful context, and expressing that more than anything I needed him to take ownership of the text and pursue his own vision for it. I usually try to keep the neurotic communiqués at a minimum, but at that moment it seemed crucial to make sure that in the process of trying to do right by me, Eric didn’t lose sight of his own vision and certainty, that directorial artistry that I bought into in the first place. Here’s the thing about having the past year to work with Eric, I know he has a deep passion for the play, I know it’s meaningful to him as an artist and a son of immigrants, I know he ‘gets it’, and I’ve known for a while that he in many ways sees it manifesting in production differently than I do. But I completely trust his vision, if there was only one way to do it right that would be somehow smaller than I hope the play is. I had this idea when I started writing it that I wanted to create something with space within its margins for really strong directorial vision and authorship. Actually, I thought I wanted room for a full-out European auteur type, but discovered that in the end I wanted more control as the playwright than that. But still, space to make the kind of visually exciting 3-dimensional theater that I admire so much, and that traditionally stems from the director as generative artist. I think that’s why I connected with Eric, as a director he’s kind of a hybrid of compassionate interpretation and high concept. So anyway, all of that is to say that if there’s a way to be useful without getting in the way in these situations, that’s what I want to be.
I didn’t check in again until it was time to get on the plane and go back for final preview/opening. Neither did he.
March 8, Final Preview: Nerves. Some. And thinking way too hard. The first 10 minutes my brain was going ‘huh. oh wow, that’s how they’re doing that? interesting. oh, look at that. I wonder how they’ll…oh,’ which is like the worst possible way to experience an evening of theater. Especially a play that asks you to get on board and just go with it. I was one of those ‘keeping it at arm’s length’ audience members. But about halfway through I could tell there was something happening, a story being told, something lovely, I just missed getting on the train from thinking too hard. How is it possible that something that I wrote, from scratch, from the core of my being, could grow into something fully realized that I would now need to be introduced to?
March 9, Opening night: I mostly nearly completely managed to turn my brain off and get on the damn train. It’s the story as I could never have conceived of it. A different voice telling it, but the same spirit, the same words. Antje, my fearless agent, the only person other than me to see both productions so far, said pretty much that. Completely different, and yet the same.
I couldn’t have written the play as 3-dimensionally as I wanted to without envisioning and imagining specifics along the way, but the downside is that I didn’t have the space in my brain to then imagine it differently. I’m deeply grateful that I was at a distance from this production, so I could allow it the space to become. I talk a lot about, and I hear people talk a lot about, trusting the artist. Often it’s about the playwright, trusting the voice of the playwright, but I would add that finding a director who you completely and utterly trust with your play, and trusting that artist, is the next step. And then the director trusting their actors and designers and crew, since they’re the ones who will ultimately be making that moment of theater happen, somewhere in the meeting ground of play, performance, and audience. It’s about what makes the work better, right? We should all surround ourselves with collaborators (shout out to Liz Engelman, you relentless dramaturg you!) who won’t let us get away with anything less than art.
Anyway, here at the penultimate step of the ‘Agnes Under the Big Top,’ from gestation to premiere(s): The play’s got give, it can stretch, I love that. And I’m very proud of it. And I’ll look at the text again in preparation for the Borderlands production. And now my mind is moving on to the next thing, and that feels really good. Thanks for the development support, the conversations, and the really novel blogging experience, Arena/NEA/NPDP! It’s been lovely.