Friday, August 08, 2014

tolkien-lewis new play project | interview with TheTolkienist

Seven days left on the Indiegogo campaign (consider kicking in a few bob?), which helps cover costs involved in writing and developing my new play about the friendship between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. When I was first gearing up to get back to researching and writing, a German "Tolkienist" discovered the Facebook page I've created to keep people up to date on the project, contacted me and asked for an interview. Here's what I sent him.

So, what is this all about?

Late in 2011 I was talking to my wife about a New Yorker article about JRR Tolkien that amused me. "He was friends with CS Lewis, wasn't he?"  So I filled in some things about the Inklings, all that. "But toward the end, things cooled off, I'm afraid." So she asked me about that, and mentioned Joy Davidman, and the fact that marrying a divorcee didn't sit well with Tolkien's Catholic faith, which led to Tolkien's role in Lewis coming to faith years earlier, and perhaps Tolkien's disappointment that Lewis only got part way to where he needed to be (Rome), a mistrust of Lewis's Irish Protestant roots ("Ulsterior motives") and the Irish troubles that lay behind that, and the differening response of Tolkien and Lewis to each other's fantasy writing, and Charles Williams, and…  By the time one thing led to another to another, my wife said "That would make a great play!"  And she was right.  I hope.

I am, just to let you know, a Tolkien afficionado who does know a bit about Lewis as well (founded the German Tolkien Society, co-founder of RingCon and a Tolkienist blogger).

Indeed!  Since you contacted me, I've enjoyed your Tolkienist tweets, and poking around your online posts and links to other items. Well met, good sir!  Sincere thanks for your interest in this project.

And I think that much of both writers' material is much better suited for a stage/ theatre adaptation than anything else.

I'm thrilled to hear you say that!  I do love film, but the stage is my first love, and I think there are things that happen in live theatre that the movies just can't do. The living, breathing actors are right there in the same room as the audience, and if the performances are radically truthful, the overwhelming sense of reality, of witnessing actual human encounters, is so powerful.  Especially with so human (and nuanced) as story as this one.  Also, the movies hand us everything, but the stage requires so much more active engagement by the audience. We have to imagine what special effects can't provide, and - provided we play along - we become co-creators of the experience in our own mind, and the story works in us so much more powerfully, and memorably.

I have read through your indiegogo campaign which sounds perfectly wonderful - that is why I am contacting you.

The Indiegogo campaign is coming along nicely. I believe we're something like 80% of the way toward our initial goal, which will see me through creation of a couple drafts of the script this summer.  I'm pleased that the campaign has gotten as far as it has, given that I've not been able to do any real work on promoting it yet.  But I'll be digging in on that over the next few days, because there's real hope to raise further funds to support the ongoing development of the script over the next year or two. It is wisely said, "Plays are not written, they're re-written," and while this summer's work will take the script a long way - maybe even far enough to know whether it can be produced in 2015/2016 - there will be plenty more development to follow in order to get the play ready for production. To make it the best script it can be, prior to actually seeing it in rehearsals and in front of an audience.

Given the success of the Indiegogo campaign to date, we'll soon be adding stretch goals, to help underwrite the further development of the script, taking it from a solid second or third draft this summer to a production draft, ready to go into full scale rehearsals in the fall of 2015.

A little bit about this first phase, how far I expect it will take me, and the writing process involved.

After immersing myself in the world of the play - research, imagining possible scenes, sketching out structure - I like to write a quick first draft, holding that inner critic completely at bay.  I make myself think of it, in Anne Lamott's words, as a "shitty first draft" - to keep myself from bogging down in the desire to polish, to get things perfect on the first time through.  Whenever that uninvited critic chimes in "That's pretty shitty," during the initial writing, I just say to him "I know - it's supposed to be!"  That shuts him up.

Then I bring together a bunch of actors to sit around a big table and read the play aloud.  I may ask them for their primary responses - "My mind drifted here," "I didn't like CS Lewis very much - especially his relationship to Mrs Moore," "I was confused about why Tolkien got so upset with Jack about blah blah blah" - that sort of thing.  But not suggestions, or critiques: that's for later in the process.  But mostly I'm calling the actors together just to hear the play, rather than just read it on the page: a script is, after all, a score for performance rather than a self-contained literary document, and I need to hear how it's coming alive in the room, whether the interactions between characters seem true and energized, all that.  Then I spend a few hours with my dramaturg - meaning, essentially, a playwriting coach, I suppose? - who gives me much more detailed observations about what she hears, particularly with regard to structure.  What is leading to what, is there a continuous sense of choice / action / consequence, are various events set up effectively and do the events bring changes, and in turn cause further actions to be taken?  All that kind of stuff.

All that usually primes the pump for immediate revisions, which I tear into within a day or two - from simple grammar and voicing adjustments and straightforward edits, to ideas of different ways certain scenes can play out. Often I'll have seen new scenes that are possible, often as "connective tissue" between a couple existing events.  Sometimes a scene needs to be rewritten from scratch, or reworked to emphasize something different, or precipitate different consequences.

And then there are often Bigger Questions / issues that take some pondering before I can tackle them in rewrites.  So after an initial flurry of revisions to that first draft, I may take a few days or a week or two to rearrange my brain and find a new way through.  A bit more writing, then I'll call in actors and my dramaturg for another reading of whatever I've got at that point. Conversation, meeting with dramaturg, and whatever revisions are readily at hand - and that's how far we'll likely take it this summer.  At which point I'll likely have Even Bigger Questions, that can't be solved quickly and need weeks and months for my unconscious to solve, or further research, or various stabs at different possible solutions.  Other characters that need to be added.  Existing characters who need to be significantly changed. Structural changes.  All that.

What about yourself?

Though I'm a Canadian, and did some theatre training here, I took my Masters of Fine Arts (Acting) at the California Institute Of The Arts. When I graduated in 1984, I came back to Vancouver to start a theatre company to create work I was really interested in (Pacific Theatre). Because we couldn't find just the right script for our first production, I was pressed into service as a playwright, and found I liked it. I've written about a dozen full length plays and adaptations, which have had over fifty productions around North America. One that might interest your readers is A Bright Particular Star, the story of George MacDonald's daughter, Lilia, who was an actress: GMD was, of course, a tremendous influence on Lewis. Another I'm most proud of is Refuge Of Lies, a surreal piece which played in New York about a Vancouver man accused of having been a war collaborator in Holland. I think the Tolkien play will sit somewhere between the biographical narrative of Bright Particular Star and the more adventurous theatricality of Refuge.

There's a long-time fascination with all things Inkling.  I played C.S. Lewis in Pacific Theatre's production of Shadowlands, and will play Sigmund Freud next spring in Freud's Last Session, an imagined meeting betweeen Lewis and Freud at the dawning of WW2.  I wrote a two-actor adaptation of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe (which can only be performed in Canada, for copyright reasons), and Pacific Theatre staged The Great Divorce a few years ago. But my interest goes back to my childhood, when I found the Narnia stories in various Calgary libraries and bookmobiles, one volume at a time - not even realizing there was a series, if you can imagine!  I didn't know anyone else had ever discovered them. I was pretty young.  And then in high school, when Lord Of The Rings first became a cultural tidal wave in North America (I'm really old), I remember absolutely losing myself in that world. Particularly one summer afternoon, visiting cousins at the lake, when I headed out away from shore in a canoe to escape distractions, lay down in the bottom of the boat and started to read - only to find my way back to "reality" when it became too dark to read, and I sat up and realized the canoe had drifted for hours and I had no idea where I was! 

At any rate, I'm a professional actor, playwright, director, artistic director. I live in Richmond, British Columbia - part of Greater Vancouver, an extraordinarily beautiful place to live. Two daughters, one a surfer and teacher in Pichilemu, Chile, the other about to take the bar exam to become a public defence lawyer in California.

Why this project, why now?

To be completely honest, the real answer is "Because I feel like it."  I only ever write to follow my own curiosity, explore something that fascinates me - never because something will have a market, or to say something to an audience.  Running a theatre company, enough of my life is taken up with the hard-core realities of keeping a business alive, so when I carve out opportunities to live as an artist, I make very certain to invest the time and heart into things I really care about, as free as possible from the constraints of making money or achieving anything in particular - except to create the best piece of work I can, for my own satisfaction.

That said, it does look like I happen to be tackling this at a cultural moment when there is a sudden surge of interest in Tolkien, and the Tolkien-Lewis friendship. There are two or three film projects in development which are suddenly all over the internet, one of which seems like it may be very interesting - the one about Tolkien's WW1 years. I don't think there'll be a lot of overlap between my play and the Lewis-Tolkien movie that's most been in the news lately; "Obsessive genius Tolkien is blocked, terrified of finishing The Fellowship Of The Ring, for fear of the strange, psychotic visions which torture him." And while they're onto something with the connection between Tolkien's WW1 experiences and the shadow they cast over him and his writing in the latter days of WW2, especially with his sons in active service, the tone of my play will be much more Shadowlands, much less Tomb Raider / Expendables 2.

Something else that 's interesting about the current historical moment is that playwriting feels a bit more communal, or social, or something.  Obviously the actual writing is an intensely private thing.  And, in my process at least, it's not new that the development of a script also has a strongly collaborative / relational aspect, with round table readings and workshops and all that.  But I'm finding it most enjoyable to have an ongoing conversation through the process with Tolkien-Lewis enthusiasts, and people interested in playwriting in general, on Facebook.  Indeed, the Indiegogo crowd-funding idea has pushed that even further: I'm really interested to see what it's like to be sharing progress, research notes, online conversations and even hot-off-the-presses scenes with people who become part of the campaign.

Who will be helping you, why are they perfectly suited to help you?

With the Indiegogo money I'll be able to hire Shauna Johannesen as my dramaturg. She's a playwright who's a core member of the "Working With" play development project at Pacific Theatre, and her dramatic instincts and understanding of play structure will be just what I need. A trusted outside eye to point me to things I can't see because I'm too close to the material.  And for our table readings, we'll draw on some of the really fine actors who are part of the loose-knit circle of artists who consider Pacific Theatre their artistic home. Aided and abetted by various other playwrights, Inklings enthusiasts and smart people I'll invite to various readings.

So, basically everything!

One last thought, then.  

What's great about this particular playwriting project is that, as long as I don't screw up and write a lousy script, this play will actually get produced.  I'm careful to keep my playwriting at arms length from my work for Pacific Theatre, so that I never get caught in the expectations that the work has to fulfill other agendas about ticket sales, marketability, mandate, etc - expectations that can really cripple my freedom to write what I need to write, as an independent artist.  Indeed, I'm reluctant to invest the company's money into commissioning me as a writer, since I am also the Artistic Director - not that it isn't done, and in fact it's perfectly legitimate. But Pacific Theatre has only so much play development money available, and I feel better about investing that into other playwrights. Hence the Indiegogo campaign to underwrite this one.  

But if the play turns out - as I strongly suspect it will, given the richness of the subject - I know it can see at least one fully mounted professional production, at Pacific Theatre.  And that's tremendously motivating for me as a writer - all this time will actually culminate in something real!  The story will get told to an audience.  And who knows? There's every chance it may go on to many more productions at other theatres.  

But for now, whatever comes after, it's enough that I have a stretch of time to lose myself in a story.  And such a great story it is!

Looking forward to staying in touch. Who knows - maybe the play will be onstage in Germany someday!  They'll fly me over, and you and I can share a beer.

Ron Reed,
Vancouver, Canada

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