Icarus

Well, we kicked off 2023 with the opening of Icarus Livingstone Falls Into the Sea produced by Acme Theatre Company in my hometown. It’s one of the most complicated plays I’ve written, and this company run by teenagers created a beautiful, lyrical production.

Icarus Livingstone is a coming-of-age story built out of the myths of Icarus, Theseus, and the Minotaur. It’s a queer love story as well, a comedy at times, a drama about parent-child relationships. In the five years since I built the current labyrinth of story, this is the first production.

(Photos from Acme)

Over the year I’ve returned to this story many, many times, because every time I’ve played with these myths, I’ve found something most people overlook. Once upon a time, I wrote a monologue from Icarus’s mother’s POV, and then another short piece with many voices as a flock of seagulls; a friend then built a series of gorgeous masks that I then turned into a play, starting a habit of design-driven work that I still use. In both of these, I was interested in the people on the periphery of the story. And yet, as I built this world, I could see a bigger one behind it. Over the centuries, artists (especially painters) focused on the moment of the fall – it’s a tragedy, it’s a punishment for the father’s hubris or about Icarus not listening to adults – but I wasn’t interested in these readings. I was interested in creating a story behind the story.

Then, fall of 2018, I had a large high school crew who joined me in making this play. Many young people are on their own journeys through a labyrinth of identities and wrestling with family expectations and the like, and I think this crew brought something magical into a story built from those themes.

We imagine Icarus and the Minotaur (“Tor”) as childhood more-than-friends. They also know Theseus, who would later kill the Minotaur. And things get… complicated. As the director Emily in her program note put it, “the boys struggle to live past the endings that their fathers dreaded and grow into the hopes that their mothers imagined.”

I had a reading with ACME the summer after the show. And someone in that cast connected with the script, and has advocated for it ever since. And thanks to the advocacy, they produced it. As a playwright and educator, I have a boring life punctuated by strange and special experiences. Writing plays (and representing/marketing myself) means that I spend so much time looking at words on the page or screen, deleting these, and putting different words on the page. Then you get moments like this, when something you love and put time and energy into, something that seems like everyone else overlooks, connects with some kid or kids who then advocate for it, who wish it into production.

They don’t make awards for what I do, but man, we do get some cool things instead.

****

Other news:

The Odyssey will be getting another update soon. I will re-reimagine the text for a different kind of theatre and audience. More info soon.

The current draft is posted here. This one will continue to be available.

I have focused on showcasing that it fits cafetoriums and alternative spaces, but I think what’s actually more interesting to me is how making it about Odysseus’s growth as a character fundamentally changes the text. After reluctantly killing the suitors at the instructions of Athena, Odysseus is about to be attacked by their upset parents, and he chooses instead to defy the Gods, picking exile over more slaughter.

Advertisement

The Odyssey: Update

I’ll soon be updating NPX with the post-show draft of The Odyssey. We closed our show just over a week ago, and now I’m whittling away at the revision.

Some background: as you may know, I write my plays-for-young-actors with and for my students. I use devising, improv, and what I call kinesthetic dramaturgy to develop the plays before directing the first production over the course of a semester, then I make the play available for licensing.

I knew I wanted to write an adaptation. After Dolcevita, I needed a slightly less intense process; adaptation is easier and takes a fraction of the energy to market. While adaptation does conjure existential angst when we work through our personal relationship with the original IP (I drained a beer or two as I lamented reproducing a story about a man who could be so monstrous), and everyone who knows it will have an opinion they will ABSOLUTELY TELL YOU, the crucial task of converting blank pages to word pages is oh-so-much-simpler than making something from scratch.

It became clear that my actors needed something broad and slapstick and loud, and when we ‘auditioned’ different texts, The Odyssey fit the bill. It was simply the best platform for my energetic crew, who would throw themselves around the stage like they were on boat on a rough sea or explode an imaginary eye without a moment’s hesitation. They needed space to be, well, clowns. And a story so ancient could hold up to our remodel.

When I read the truly phenomenal translation by Dr. Emily Wilson, I was struck by a few opportunities as well as challenges.

That The Odyssey doesn’t follow an Aristotelian structure, nor does it slot easily into the hero’s journey genre surprised me. I figured Odysseus would be called to action and then be set on a journey; instead, we’re near the end of his journey when the story starts, and most of what we know as his epic odyssey consists of stories told at banquets. His son Telemachus gets a call-to-GTFO from a goddess, but his journey isn’t overwhelmingly adventurous.

I thought about the Greek amphitheater, of course, from where we draw so many western traditions. A chorus of Homers was necessary, and given my eleven actors would need to play dozens of named characters, this sets up a flexible world. What intrigued me more was that so much of the metanarrative is told at banquets by a Homer-like storyteller.

I thought about how so much educational theatre makes its home in cafetoriums.

What if, what if I wrote a play that wasn’t at war with a cafetorium, but embraced the place of both meal and theatre? What if, instead of regarding these mixed-use spaces as lackadaisical attempts at efficiency, we viewed them as throwbacks to an ancient tradition of ritual, of breaking bread mixed with storytelling and entertainment?

So the play is a series of banquets. While it can be produced in any theatre, it fits in cafeterias, auditoriums, banquet halls, cafes, outdoor found spaces, or pretty much anywhere else that the audience can be seated at tables.

The play is a comedy until it has to stop being a comedy. After Odysseus starts to lose his men, the play shifts in tone.

I made a number of other changes, of course, beyond the tonal shift and folding elements together to reduce 400+ pages to a slim 100. Odysseus has a character arc and is more active as a protagonist, for example. But much of the structure hews closer to the original, and when we deviate, it’s often pointed out in the text.

Below are some pictures from our show. My actors performed fantastically, and for a tiny budget, check out how spectacular our set was.

Quick Updates

NEXT UP!

The New Play is also the oldest story: The Odyssey

After two weeks of playing around with different texts and old stories, we’ve decided that the next play will be a slightly immersive adaptation of The Odyssey. I am specifically creating it to be produced in those cafetoriums / gymnatoriums and black box and outdoor spaces. I’ll give a more detailed reason as to why in the future.

There are some spectacular re-imaginings of The Odyssey out there. Nicelle Davis’s Circe is a particularly brilliant collection of poems that focuses on the neglected figure, and I have no doubt that there are versions told from Penelope’s POV. I am more interested in figuring out how to tell the original story in a modern theatrical idiom. My actors have this clownish, campy energy, and they’re attracted to the big fight scenes, and you can feel how that element from The Odyssey is one reason it’s been around so long. We’re going to see how to make this thing our own.

Summer Updates

I just returned from the Spark Festival at Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth, which was full of lovely people and great new plays and a staff full of wizards. A friend compared it to summer camp for theatre. Some of the folks there I knew, some I didn’t but still found connections. Theatre is a small town, and that’s one reason I love it. After two summers of pandemic break, being back in that small town felt like home.

LAST HUMAN PERSON ON EARTH

Filmmaker Ryan Hoskins adapted my short play into a film now popping up at festivals. Recently, it appeared at the Dances with Films Festival and Outfest LA. I’ve known Ryan for years, and funny enough, the play drew inspiration from one of his short films. We’re now in the early stages of collaborating on a feature length film.

TWELVE HUNTSMEN

It’s published. And while Stage Partners most does things digitally, I did get a stack of printed versions. And I know there are performances in the works.

DOLCEVITA or…

I still can’t believe we pulled it off, y’all.

Update about an UPdate

I escaped those dark woods I’d previously mentioned, and wrote the artsy middle school play.

It was all-consuming. It’s bonkers. A tragicomic circus carnival of a play.

I had a magical team. Nearly all of my middle school collaborators had worked on multiple plays with me, and I wanted to make something that would match their skills. Hence a challenge: How do you make a play with the weight of a play for mature audiences but for 6-8th graders?

I’ll be posting about the process, which began as a sort of game of theatrical telephone with the designers. We invented theatre games and took creative risks. And that presented another struggle how do you include, honor, and add to these theatrical experiments? “Kill your darlings!” is an old phrase, but these weren’t always mine to kill

I’ll also post about the play itself, which I wanted to feel like a novel – or four.

All this will take me some time.

Twelve Huntsmen – published!

Stage Partners has now published THE TWELVE HUNTSMEN!

Seven years ago, Acme Theatre commissioned me to write a play based on fairy tales and food. Why fairy tales? We wanted to remodel old stories to fit with the living community. Why food? Food is complicated, often a cultural signifier – and more.

(Also, Acme Theatre is based in my hometown, which is surrounded by ag fields. My grandparents were farmworkers so I am conscious I wouldn’t exist without those fields, which I think about when I’m in California. While this idea is entirely invisible in The Twelve Huntsmen, it was a frequent topic of conversation with Emily, the AD who commissioned me.)

But, okay, fairy tales. The very nature of fairy tales is that they are told from generation to generation, so it’s ground that many, many have tread (trod?). What is my take on these?

And, I wanted to make something that would be an experience for the actors and the audience. I wanted something that would be memorable, that would be different. That would challenge them.

And then, as I read hundreds of Grimms’ stories, I found The Twelve Huntsmen. A princess gets eleven women to dress as men so she can get closer to the prince. Proto-feminist. Drag. Woodsy. It’s everything I want in a fairy tale.

Look, y’all. It’s a lightweight story, which is probably why so few have done anything with it. It reads almost like it’s the summary of a longer story that someone misplaced. This is why it’s not as well-known, I think, as Hansel and Gretel or Snow White.

Twelve women. What a random number, I thought. And the commission, it’s to transform many stories into a play… what if each woman has a story?

Okay, I love that. What makes this different from something Mary Zimmerman has written?

Well, what if every night is different? What if the stories are random? What if not every story is told every night?

I wanted to make a play that would be as challenging to produce as a musical, that would need an incredible stage manager to pull off, that needed improv and innovation, that people would see multiple times and get something different every night, and that could only ever be a play.

And thus, The Twelve Huntsmen. A play that can be done hundreds of thousands of ways.

And now Stage Partners has published it.

One thing that I like about Stage Partners is that they provide free perusals of scripts online. I don’t knock any particular business model (well, except for that one publisher that wanted all of my non-LGBTQ+ work) ’cause we all gotta eat, but I do believe that it’s in everyone’s interest to provide perusal scripts from free. The reason that Big Idea Theatre commissioned me to write an adaptation of The Jungle Book was because they couldn’t find a decent adaptation from other publishers, and it must have been obnoxious for them to spend a significant amount of their budget buying the lazy versions out there. Beyond that, consider this: for many schools, the educational theatre budget is pretty small, and if they don’t have money to spend on play scripts, they are going to save money and rely on plays the teacher has seen or plays that are low risk – i.e. well-known playwrights. If you can read the script, you’re not relying on the brand of the publisher or the brand of the playwright or the cute cover – you’re able to decide if you want to produce the play based on the script itself.

And I want people to read The Twelve Huntsmen.