This weekend, as the third and final installment of the 2013-2014 season’s Play-By-Play series, Kenneth Jones’ touching drama “Alabama Story” will receive a staged reading at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ Dumke Auditorium. (Friday, April 4th at 8pm, Saturday, April 5th at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Buy tickets here or at the door.)
Ken was kind enough to answer a few questions about his play for us – enjoy reading that transcript, and don’t miss out on this wonderful staged reading this weekend!
The play is inspired by real events. How did you find out about those events?
I draw on many sources for ideas for the plays and musicals that I write. This one is the result of my passion for reading newspapers. I grew up reading papers, began my career in journalism and can’t imagine a world without the daily routine of digesting headlines.
In May 2000, I was reading the New York Times and I came across the obituary of Emily Wheelock Reed, an 89-year-old former librarian who had been put on the grill by a segregationist state senator named E.O. Eddins in 1959 Alabama. He wanted a controversial children’s picture book — The Rabbits’ Wedding, about a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit — purged from the shelves of Alabama libraries. She refused to get rid of it. He later objected to other books that were being promoted by the library. And, later still, he and others sought to legislate Reed out of her job.
Strong characters and richly contrasting conflicts rarely just fall into my lap, but that’s exactly what happened when I read this obituary. Opposites — male and female, black and white, insider and outsider, Southern and Northern, child and adult, innocence and ugliness — were immediately evident in this slice of American history, and instantly I recognized the building blocks for a play. I took notes and began research.
Here’s the link to the published obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/05/29/us/emily-w-reed-89-librarian-in-59-alabama-racial-dispute.html
What struck a chord with you, what made you feel like this was a story that deserved to be told?
The idea of something beautiful and pure being threatened (or even poisoned) by an outside unnatural force was evident to me from the beginning. Although I don’t necessarily write toward a “theme,” I did seek to deepen this idea as I charted Emily’s history over the play’s time period (it all takes place within the year 1959). The book is threatened, friendships are threatened, centuries-old traditions in Alabama are threatened. I became very interested in the question of how character is tested and revealed during times of conflict, change and transition.
Mostly, though, I saw a chance for a juicy, highly theatrical play loaded with opportunities for punchy exchanges between compelling people who have something personal at stake in that time of extraordinary social change in the Deep South.
How long have you been working on the play altogether? What has the writing or research process been up to this point?
The play was written in spurts over a period of 10 years, during a time when I was also writing two musicals and working a 9-to-5 job in arts journalism. The most focused period of writing for Alabama Story began in 2009 — the 50th anniversary of the book’s controversy. That summer, I took a research trip to Montgomery, Alabama, where the play is set. At the Alabama State Archive Building, which was home to Emily’s office in 1959, I paged through hardcopies of the segregationist newspaper that first reported about The Rabbits’ Wedding, I looked at microfilm of other local papers, I read about Montgomery residents living during segregation, I interviewed the director of the Rosa Parks Museum about African American residents’ experiences of the time, I walked through Oak Park (another setting of the play) and I wandered the streets of Montgomery — a city that was both the Cradle of the Confederacy (the first capital of the Confederacy) and the Cradle of Civil Rights (Rosa Parks and the famous bus boycott).
In addition to being thrilling, startling, witty, and sometimes even downright funny, Deathtrap is as meta as metatheatre gets.
Take a look at this painting by American “pop” artist Roy Lichtenstein:
Have you heard this one?
A rabbi, a priest, and an imam go into a bar and order a drink. “What is this,” asks the bartender, “a joke?”
So, what does the word “this” refer to in each of these two examples? The answer to that question is, essentially, the definition of the “meta” in “metatheatre.”
Bogged down by writer’s block, playwright Sidney Bruhl looks for his next big idea. A student sends him a script that’s titled Deathtrap and has the potential to be the next biggest hit in town. With that, Sidney begins to scheme, and work his way through the play we are watching—which is also, we are reminded, called Deathtrap. The plot points in the play become the plot points in the play… And we are soon watching metatheatre at its finest.
“Metatheatre is an attempt by certain plays to challenge theatre’s claim that it is a mirror for reality. By calling attention to the strangeness, artificiality, illusoriness, or arbitrariness — in short, the theatricality — of the life we live, it marks those frames and boundaries that conventional dramatic realism would hide.”
Some examples of metafiction from the movies: Adaptation The Princess Bride Disney’s Bedtime Stories (with Adam Sandler) Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead Fight Club Monty Python and the Holy Grail The Muppet Movie Television: Seinfeld – a narrative arc where Jerry pitches a show about a comedian (called “Jerry”) to a network The Michael J. Fox show Hannah Montana Arrested Development Community Buffy the Vampire Slayer (remember Buffy vs. Dracula?)
In the opening sequence of that film, the title character (i.e. “Jerk”) is found outside a Broadway theatre with some of his hobo compatriots. The show that was playing at that Broadway theatre? The longest-running comedy-thriller in Broadway history, and PTC’s next production: Deathtrap.
It’s interesting that Deathtrap showed up in a good-old-fashioned comedy. I don’t think most people realize just how funny Deathtrap is – it’s a thriller surrounding the finer points of murder, sure, but also, the phrase “die laughing” comes to mind. (In fact, TIME Magazine said of the show, “If you care to assassinate yourself with laughter, try Deathtrap.”)
Whether the use of Deathtrap in a Steve Martin classic was a comment on the serious nature of “Jerk’s” tragic predicament in a comedic setting, we’ll leave up to the critics. But it got me to wondering what else was going on the year that Deathtrap premiered on Broadway. (To clarify, it was, of course, still running by the time The Jerk was released in December 1979. And it ran for quite some time after that.)
Here’s a little taste, courtesy of Deathtrap’s dramaturgy team of Elizabeth Ferguson and Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell:
- Susan B. Anthony dollar is minted in commemoration of Women’s Suffrage
- Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Mascone were murdered in their offices by former associate Dan White, who was disgruntled about their support for the Briggs Initiative and Gay Rights.
- The Year of Three Popes: Pope Paul IV dies of illness. Pope John Paul I is elected and dies a month later in his sleep. Pope John Paul II succeeds him.
- First crossing of the Atlantic by hot air balloon
- Serial killers Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) are arrested.
- The Camp David Accords culminated in Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin being jointly awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize in 1978. The Accords were the result of 14 months of diplomatic efforts by Egypt, Israel, and the United States that began after Jimmy Carter became President in 1977. Efforts initially focused on a comprehensive resolution of disputes between Israel and the Arab countries, gradually evolved into a search for a bilateral agreement between Israel and Egypt.
- Cult leader Jim Jones moves his cult from San Francisco to Jonestown, Guyana, and orders mass suicide of over 900 followers via Kool-Aid spiked with cyanide.
- The U.S. dollar plunges to an all-time low
- Worldwide unemployment rises
- Gold reaches what was then an all-time high of $200.00 per ounce (as of this writing, gold is worth $1362.40 per ounce)
- Taito‘s Space Invaders was the first blockbuster arcade video game. Its success marked the beginning of the golden age of arcade video games. Video game arcades sprang up in shopping malls, and small “corner arcades” appeared in restaurants, grocery stores, bars and movie theaters all over the United States, Japan and other countries over the next couple of decades.
- Public tests of the first cellular phone system began in Chicago, with more than 2,000 trial customers and mobile phone sets. The system, constructed by AT&T and Bell Labs, included a group of small, low-powered transmission towers, each covering an area a few miles in radius. That test was followed by a 1981 trial in the Washington-Baltimore area by Motorola and the American Radio Telephone Service.
- TVs were in 98% of American homes
- Louise Joy Brown was born in July, 1978, the first successful birth resulting from in vitro fertilization (or, the first “test tube baby”).
- The USSR detonates its first “neutron bomb.”
Deathtrap opens Friday, March 28 and plays Mondays through Saturdays until April 12th.
Deathtrap by Ira Levin holds the record for the longest-running “comedy-thriller” on Broadway. The comedy in the show is brilliant – matched only by the psychological tension in this superb thriller. Associate Dramaturg, Elizabeth Ferguson, tells us a little bit about the thriller genre.
What makes a good thriller? Is it the unexpected reversals? The high stakes? The conniving villain or the clever hero? The thriller is a genre that relies on the superbly constructed balance of pacing and suspense designed to keep us on the edge of our seats. Often mistaken for mystery, which typically involves solving a crime that has already occurred, the thriller discovers the mystery as it unfolds, sometimes even two steps ahead. The tension is derived from dangerous possibilities which evoke anxious anticipation. In a psychological thriller, the focus is on the inner psyche of the characters who play intricate mind-games and weave complex manipulations. While the formula for a great thriller is elusive, and, in fact, varies quite a bit depending upon the content, we certainly know a good one when we see it.
Ira Levin is one of the acknowledged masters of the thriller, writing his award-winning first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, in 1953 at the age of only twenty-two. The book was quickly made into a film starring Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, and Virginia Leith. In his fifty-year career as a playwright and novelist Levin wrote several hits, many of which were later turned into films, including the chilling Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and The Stepford Wives. Levin’s biggest Broadway smash, Deathtrap, which won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Play in 1980, ran for four years and was made into a film in 1982, starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve.
According to James N. Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Thriller, “a thriller is a story of a hero who has a mission to foil evil. Not just a hero—a clever hero. Not just a mission—an ‘impossible’ mission. An ‘impossible’ mission that will put our hero in terrible trouble.” In Deathtrap, Levin gleefully toys with this notion—our clever hero is certainly in terrible trouble and has an impossible mission. But “evil” is in the eye of the beholder.
Deathtrap runs March 28- April 12. Buy tickets here.
For each show in our season, PTC offers an opportunity to youth in schools throughout the valley to see professional theatre at an affordable price. There is always a talkback with the cast and those students who choose to stay afterward.
Attending: Marcella Pereda, Ashley Wickett, Mia Bagley, Zoe Heiden, Brigham Inkley, Rebecca Watson, Colleen Baum, Tobin Atkinson, Marza Warsinske, Christopher DuVal, John Ahlin, David Manis, Miles David Romney, Terrell Donnell Sledge, Terence Goodman, Bryce Edward Peterson, T. Ryder Smith
Mediating: Karen Azenberg (or, KA, for this blog entry’s purposes)
KA: (Answering a question about the period choice for the piece, which the director has described as “Arthurian” for this show)
For this particular production, the director, Matt August, was looking for something whimsical but not necessarily historically accurate. That way, you know, someone couldn’t come back later and say, “I don’t think they actually had unicorns in that time period…” There’s a lot of stuff going on here, actually, it’s not really restrained to a time period – there’s even some Japanese anime, so it’s a lot of fun. We had our costume designer, Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, we had here for almost two months – which is a really long time for us.
Student Question: I notice that there are many returning actors from this season or past seasons. How do you like being back in Salt Lake?
All out-of-town cast: We love it!
Terrell Donnell Sledge: Salt Lake has great food!
Rebecca Watson: You know, it really says a lot about this theatre and about the city that actors in New York want to come work here at the Pioneer. I run into actors all the time who are like, “Oh, the Pioneer! I loved working there” or “I really want to work there.” It has a lovely reputation, you guys can be really proud of that.
KA: (pointing at Rebecca) Do you guys recognize her?
Audience: She’s the dead body! The mustache! Something’s Afoot!
KA: (pointing at David Manis) How about him?
Audience: A Few Good Men!
He was the judge! And Clybourne Park!! Oh yeah, Clybourne Park, too!
KA: Terrell’s been here too, how long ago was it?
Terrell: Two years ago, I think?
Audience: Find and Sign! Oh yeah, he was in Find and Sign!
These kids really know their stuff.
Question: We recently did a production of, ahem, “The Scottish Play…”
KA: Thank you.
The title Much Ado About Nothing could easily sum up Shakespeare’s tragic-comedy all by itself. However, in late 16th century England, audiences would have also recognized a pun in the title: “Noting” was a word used to mean spying, watching, or eavesdropping. Without this double meaning, the title still works: there was much hubbub over Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship by their friends—that turned out to be entirely made up, and therefore actually nothing. There was also the matter of Claudio reacting so dramatically on his and Hero’s wedding day; his accusations of betrayal and adultery were based on a prank his “friends” played on him—so, again, nothing. And then there’s Hero’s and Leonato’s reaction to the horrific acts of that day—without any spoilers, let’s just say that a huge plot point actually turned out to be nothing.
However, when you add the pun of “noting” to the title—members of Shakespeare’s audience would have pronounced “nothing” and “noting” similarly—then there is another layer of meaning to the play. All of these instances of “Much Ado” being made over “Nothing” involve eavesdropping, watching or spying. Beatrice and Benedick are duped when they “note” their friends’ private conversations (which, of course, weren’t actually private at all but meant for the pair to overhear); Claudio is deceived by “noting” a prank put on by the villainous Don John and his henchman Borachio; and the tragic element of the play is put to rest when the clownish constable Dogberry and his rag-tag team of watchmen overhear Borachio confessing the duplicitous act.
From the title of the play and its multiple meanings, you can see the central points of the plot. You can also discern that the play is full of wit and humor. Note well the title—it is all, and nothing.
Probably the most famous line from American playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men is Colonel Nathan Jessep’s response to his cross-examination by Lt. J.G. Daniel Kaffee: “You can’t handle the truth.” Wartime atrocities have proven over and over that the truth is often tough to swallow.
The core of the conflict in this story deals with obedience to authority. Were the two marines on trial for murder acting with malicious intent, or were they simply carrying out malicious orders from a higher authority? In the 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram famously—and disconcertingly—proved that most people would knowingly hurt another person rather than disobey orders from someone in a position of authority.
Milgram began his experiments during the trial of the Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, in response to the question on everyone’s mind at the time: “Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?” And so he constructed an experiment in which participants believed that they were “teaching” other participants with the consequence of electric shocks as punishment for not learning. Those “teachers” in the experiment also believed that their pupils suffered from a heart condition, and that eventually the shocks they delivered rendered those pupils unconscious (or worse).
Although the circumstances of the experiment were constructed, and participants were not actually harming their pupils, those teachers were led to believe that the test and all its variables were real. Even once their pupils began screaming and begging for the experiment to cease because of the pain caused by the shocks, an appalling 65% of teaching participants in the Milgram experiment carried the project through to its seemingly disastrous conclusion, merely because of their belief that they were subject to obedience to the authority of the research team.
Though controversial in many ways, the results of Milgram’s experiment gave insight to atrocities around the world and throughout time periods—even as recently as the Abu Ghraib scandal in Baghdad during the Iraq War.
There’s a lot going on at PTC these days – here’s a front-of-house rundown of what you’ll see just from the lobby of our super-popular, oversold, recently extended, SparkleJollyTwinkleJingley production of Elf—The Musical:
Candy Cane Corner
PTC is partnering with local nonprofits on a Holiday Gift Drive this year. In the northeast corner of our lobby, you’ll find a sleigh filled with toys and other gifts for families served by the Candy Cane Corner.
“Candy Cane Corner was started by YWCA volunteers as a way to empower parents,” said spokesperson Amberlie Phillips. “Rather than simply giving pre-selected holiday items to families, Candy Cane Corner allows parents to ‘shop’ for themselves and their children, and therefore choose the items they most need.” All items in the store are free to those who need them. Last year, Candy Cane Corner served 548 families and over 1,300 children.
A list of items needed is available at CandyCaneCornerSLC.org. The list includes toys, clothes, small appliances and other household items. All items must be new, and must be unwrapped.
Donations can be made from now through December 23rd, when the store closes at any of three official drop-off stations:
Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre lobby, 300 S. 1400 E. Salt Lake City, UT, from Monday – Friday from 10:00 a.m. till 6:00 p.m., and from noon until 6:00 p.m. on Saturdays, or before the show for ticketholders.
The Road Home, 210 Rio Grande Street (455 West), Salt Lake City, UT, every day from 7:00 a.m to 7:00 p.m.
YWCA of Utah, 322 East 300 South, Salt Lake City, UT, Monday-Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
In the center of our lobby, you’ll find a photo stand for your little elves. Use the cutout of 6’4” Buddy and his more appropriately-sized elf companions to see your Elf Self, and then show us your photo on Facebook! It’s not a selfie – it’s an Elfie.
Preshow performances by students from the University of Utah Musical Theatre Program (MTP) take place during several of our performances. These groups perform traditional holiday classics to the Baby Grand piano accompaniment that happens prior to almost all of our performances throughout the season. The acoustics in the two-story lobby make this a real pre-show treat.
Every show, PTC’s The Loge Gallery features works by a different local artist (or groups of artists). For Elf—The Musical, local painter Mark Slusser’s works are on display for enjoyment before the show, or during intermission. Those works can be experienced on the loge (or, mezzanine) level of the lobby. The gallery is also open for non-ticketholders Monday – Friday at 10:00 a.m. and is free to see.
Who knew that there was an actual Santa “clause” surrounding the use of the celebrity’s likeness? Actor Daniel Marcus, who is cast as Santa in our upcoming production of Elf – The Musical, just found out in no uncertain terms:Dasher, Dancer, Prancer & McCormick Legal Services The Rudolph Company, LLC. North Pole, N.P. 00001-0001
to: Daniel Marcus (‘santa’) cast of “Elf” @ PTC
It has come to our attention that you intend to perform the role of SANTA in the upcoming performance of “Elf”. We must advise you that the role of Santa is to be played only by the person who shall herewith be known as ‘Santa’. Santa resides here in the North Pole and has full and sole claim to both the name and likeness of himself. If you check the contractual arrangements we have with many organizations and stores (parades, cartoons, advertisements for video games) you will see that we only license to those using Santa as the second of two names such as: ‘Marvin’ Santa, ‘Sally’ Santa etc. Do not think you can fool us btw in choosing such names as ‘Klaus Santa’. We must also advise you that you may not array yourself in all the traditional accouterments of said personage while changing the name to “Jimmy”. Only one person may wear the universally recognized red-suit attire while also going under the fully trademarked name ‘Santa’ and if you’ll pardon the informality Mr. Marcus: it ain’t you.
As an actor we appreciate your need to perform in roles and in situations other than your own and we feel there are many other possibilities for you such as Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Mr. Spock and any number of dwarves, ogres, sprites and congressmen.
We will of course allow PTC to honor your contract and in the playbill for this production you may list yourself as playing the role of ‘SANTA’ but on no condition are you to actually perform the role.
Mr. Claus himself will be arriving in Salt Lake City in time for your performances and will take over the role for all performances of “Elf”. Please advise your theatre’s marketing and publicity departments to let the public and in particular the children know that character of SANTA in your production is in fact the REAL Santa Claus. No need for fittings or rehearsal-he will provide his own costume and he’s known the lines for several centuries.
Good luck with what’s left of your career.
R. Rudolph, Esq.
by Janine Sobeck, Other Desert Cities dramaturg
In 1939, dissatisfied with the Broadway theatre scene that he had ruled for over 14 years, American playwright titan Eugene O’Neill retreated to his San Francisco home to grapple with demons of his youth. In his resulting work, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, O’Neill explores the time in his life right before he committed himself to playwriting, offering very raw accounts of the depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, and general dysfunction of his family. O’Neill told his wife that he honestly believed he had reached a state of compassionate detachment that allowed him to write about his family with “loving and forgiveness.” However, upon the play’s completion in 1942, he asked his publisher to place it in a vault and contracted an agreement that it would not be produced until 25 years after his death.
His wife skirted the contract, resulting in the play being first produced a mere three years after his death, and it was, as we know, received with great acclaim, winning the 1957 Tony Award for Best Play and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the season. O’Neill was also posthumously awarded the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. For many, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is considered O’Neill’s masterpiece, a poignant, compelling, and brilliant piece of drama.
Unless, of course, you are his mother.
That question of the artist’s right to self-exploration versus his responsibility to the living is something that Jon Robin Baitz continues to explore in his play Other Desert Cities. Baitz himself left behind a successful New York playwriting career (his play A Fair Country was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1996) to move to Hollywood and pursue his television show Brothers and Sisters. After only one season, and amidst extremely nasty disputes with studio executives, Baitz returned to New York and secluded himself in his Sag Harbor cottage. After spending a year “in silence,” a year that Baitz says was full of bitterness, rage, and depression, he started to write, channeling his confusion, anger, and frustration over life events into the play that would become Other Desert Cities.
Through his character Brooke, Baitz finally felt he could fully explore the questions that had plagued him while working in Hollywood – questions about staying true to yourself as an artist, the cost of that truth, and the delicate balance between truth and diplomacy. As Silda says, “telling the truth is a very expensive hobby,” and yet as Baitz, O’Neill, and many other artists have found, the potential expense has not eradicated the need to explore events, moments, and even secrets of life in order to understand themselves.
However, while understanding that need, Baitz does not ignore the very real emotions and repercussions of those whose events, moments, and secrets get revealed in the process. O’Neill repeatedly told his wife that he had to write this story in order to “forgive his family and himself,” and Baitz, through Brooke, opines that this sort of self-exploration is “something that makes me possible.” Yet the question of how it affects the lives of those the author exposes – and whether the clarity received by the author is worth the potential devastation of others – remains open and valid.
While Baitz does not provide any easy answers, he does invite you to join the Wyeth family in this exploration of the balance between artistic self-exploration and familial loyalty. As he, O’Neill, and other artists have discovered, there is much to be revealed along the journey.
 Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo. New York: Applause Theater Books, 2002.
 Sessums, Kevin. “Broadway’s Comeback Kid.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 02 Nov. 2011. Web. 09 Oct. 2013