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What attracted you to People, Places & Things? Why did you want to direct this play?
It was, in fact, Marianna Bassham who pointed me toward this particular play! She saw the original National Theatre (London) production when it toured to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2017, and felt that it might be a project I would be interested in. I trust Marianna’s instincts completely, so I got a copy of the script and dove in.
I was totally knocked out. This is a world that makes so much sense to me — theatrically, emotionally, psychologically, conceptually. Addiction runs in my family. My maternal grandfather lost everything to alcohol — his job, his family, and his life. And I am a recovering alcoholic myself; thankfully, I haven’t had a drink since 1995! So I have a personal, physiological connection to the central theme of the play.
The play is heightened, almost surreal at times, yet weirdly realistic; the play is intensely imagistic yet truly human and approachable. And of course, the project is inherently meta-theatrical, beginning, as it does, in the midst of the climactic scene from one of my most favorite classic plays! I approached Paul Daigneault (perhaps this might be better described as “manically begged”) and he was intrigued, and began looking into obtaining the rights. So we have been working to mount this show — a premiere in New England of a play not yet seen by many audiences here in the States — for four years! It’s a thrill to see that initial spark finally come to its fruition. The Boston theatre community is hungry — and ready — for this kind of bold theatrical experience.
Briefly, in your own words, what story does this play tell?
People, Places, and Things follows Emma, a talented but troubled stage actor with a serious addiction to drugs and alcohol, through the process of detox and rehabilitation, relapse and recovery. That journey is one of painful lessons in self-discovery, ultimately toward empathy, forgiveness, and human connection. But it isn’t easy, it isn’t pretty, and it isn’t perfect. But through the darkness and despair, there is both humor and hope. As Winston Churchill once said: “If you’re going through Hell, keep going.”
What do you see as the biggest challenge in taking this play from page to stage?
Duncan Macmillian is a masterful contemporary playwright — smart, funny, irreverent, deep, and audacious. He takes us places that we don’t expect to go. The very conceit and structure of the opening of the play forces one to find bold and innovative solutions for staging. Dramatic worlds literally break apart and reinvent themselves in surprising ways. Macmillan celebrates the inherently theatrical. He acknowledges simultaneously the flimsy artifice and profound truth at the heart of the theatre, and, indeed, of life!
I’m a huge proponent of the idea that all plays are poetry. Both the stage directions and the dialogue are a kind of magical linguistic code to be deciphered and interpreted. There are infinite possibilities and opportunities in the alchemical process of translating the words on the page into a living, breathing, shared human experience. Theatre uses the materials of space and time, human bodies and emotion, shapes and material, light and sound, to explore and actualize that poetry.
Macmillan’s writing is both highly specific and endlessly evocative. For example, some of my favorite stage directions use blunt but stunning language that suggests how a production might manifest Emma’s internal experience of the highs of addiction and the agony of withdrawal:
The EXIT sign seems to have grown impossibly large…
The Doctor’s voice sounds increasingly like it’s underwater…
Chaotic sounds, like a thousand television channels playing simultaneously, all rising in pitch…
The room is losing detail somehow, the walls are moving further away or dissolving into a pixelated fuzz…
And that’s just in one scene! Macmillan provides a rich, textured, highly detailed universe for the performers and creative team to both embody and explode. It’s a fascinating playground for actors, designers, and the director!
What is the main difference in directing an ensemble piece like People, Places & Things as compared to directing a more traditional narrative play?
The actors all play multiple roles, and their unique presence, physicality, movement, and expressivity are the core of the storytelling. I was looking for an ensemble of performers who would want to imagine, invent, and really play together! “Everyone in the pool!” as I like to say.
We take a leap, with courage and exhilaration, into the deep end of uncharted waters. We build a new world together, through experimentation, risk-taking, and shared vision and intention. That requires tremendous faith and trust. We buoy one another. I needed artists who are generous: willing to bring their full, complex, multi-faceted identities to the work. I needed artists who are committed to relationship: intuitively open and responsive to others. I needed artists who love process: celebrating the journey as much as the destination. Fortunately, that is exactly the cast I got! Amazing!
What is the world of this play? And how are you and your designers planning to put it on stage?
Well, as I always say, all plays take place in the present. And all plays take place in the theatre. So we start there. Much of the action of this play takes place in the rehabilitation hospital that Emma checks into. But even that landscape is constantly shifting, evolving, reconfiguring itself — responding to the sensations and experiences of its inhabitants. And that central world is book-ended by very different locations, spatially and conceptually. So we needed to be imaginative about how we evolved from place to place, idea to idea. I think we have found some fun and surprising ways to bring it to life.
Several of the designers on this project are people with whom you work frequently. How is that helpful to your process?
It’s a thrill to be working with so many artists with whom I have enjoyed a longstanding creative practice. Over time, you develop a kind of creative shorthand — a shared aesthetic sensibility that helps move the process forward quickly and allows one to take things even further each time. So returning to the design process with Jeff Adelberg, David Wilson, Gail Astrid Buckley, and Adam Stone feels like coming home. We have indeed made so much work together, in various configurations, and we speak much the same visual and theatrical language.
That said, it’s been eye-opening and exhilarating to work with Jeffrey Petersen, a scenic designer whose work I have admired but with whom I have never worked. That provides a kind of blank slate that is refreshing and challenging. It keeps the overall process from getting stale, and forces the entire team to reevaluate our assumptions and find new ways of seeing and making!
Playwright Duncan Macmillan draws some connections in this play between theatre and addiction. How do you see those parallels?
I love Duncan Macmillan’s provocative central premise: that the “fiction-making” that we do in drama is uncomfortably akin to the “fiction-making” that addicts are forced to do in real life, when they deny their addiction, hide their struggles from family and friends, and cover their tracks at work or in therapy.
It’s both challenging and enlightening. Where does the truth really lie in a world where we re-invent ourselves and our entire world regularly, as we do in the theatre? What is the difference between “telling stories” — a celebratory activity central to all human culture, art, and history — and the potentially destructive and destabilizing activity of “telling lies” — or insisting upon a false narrative? Where do we locate our individual identity in a contemporary culture that is constantly shifting, all the while demanding that we document and advertise our lives through the distorting lens of social media? What are the constants? What is subject to change? What is true, and what is illusion? Whose word should we take? Whom can we trust?
Emma, an actor, refers to several recognizable plays and characters throughout the script of People, Places, and Things. She quotes the unforgettably doomed Blanche Dubois from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Fascinatingly, I have seen Marianna play Blanche in a potent production of that play, which adds another layer of meaning and connection to the meta-theatrical onion we are peeling. Emma also ultimately finds truth, hope and redemption in the unlikely words of a commercial advertisement, the words of which she has branded into her memory:
We look at the world with wonder.
Why bring the past into the present?
We stand resolutely in the present, arms wide, looking toward the future.
I am now. You are now. We are now.
What a thing it is to be alive.