MEET THE PLAYWRIGHT
One of the great things about working on a new play is that often the playwright is involved in the process. Riverside Theatre's winter play LUCKY ME by Robert Caisley (1/30 - 2/22) is a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, which means that through NNPN a few theatres get one of the first shots at producing this new script.
Q: What was your original inspiration for Lucky Me?
A: I usually can point to something very specific that is the initial trigger for a play. With my play Front which is about life in London during the Blitz, the inspiration came from the stories my grandmother told me when I would visit her as a child. She was a terrific storyteller, and kept us spellbound with her many anecdotes of life in England before and during the war. I held onto the memory of that experience for years until I was ready to write that play. My last play Happy, came out of my obsession to see if I could write a play in which the central protagonist is possessed of a tragic flaw that is something we usually regard as a positive attribute – their own natural joie de vivre. But with Lucky Me I just sat down one day and started writing this play that took place in an apartment. I didn’t know it was going to be an apartment until I wrote “a two-bedroom apartment.” The lights came up on the stage and these two characters entered – one was on crutches, the other was helping them back from the E.R. That’s all I knew about them at that point, but I was interested to learn how the one on crutches had sustained the injury – which turned out to be a “Dancer’s Fracture,” a fracture of the 5th metatarsal. Who knew? And I kept discovering little bits and pieces about the people that lived in that space. I find that if I can sustain my own inquisitiveness over 15 or 20 pages, I’m usually invested enough to keep going. I used to plot everything out very carefully; make little charts and stick Post-it notes up all over the place. But now I much prefer to be surprised by what unfolds. Everything’s a mystery, which I think is a good place to find yourself in as a playwright. After all, audiences love mysteries. Even little tiny ones. So if my attention is engaged while writing the play, I can be fairly confident the audience will be too. And the audience’s interest in what’s unfolding onstage is #1. Think about it. A playwright is basically saying, “OK, what I’m going to tell you in the next two hours, I believe, is infinitely more interesting than what you would otherwise do by yourself in that same amount of time.” It’s extraordinarily arrogant, and also, a great responsibility. Because if you can’t make good on that promise, you have failed totally.
Q: Have you explored the concept or theme of luck in past plays, or is this something new that you are playing with?
A: No, I don’t think it’s something I’ve consciously wrote about before. However, I am getting more interested in writing plays that focus on a particular kind of emotional experience. The last three plays I’ve written, Happy, Lucky Me and the new play I currently working on, form, in some respects, a kind of trilogy, in that they examine a particular way of looking at the world. Happy asks questions about the way we construct our lives in the pursuit of happiness. Lucky Me essentially asks, Is there such as thing as Good Fortune and Bad Fortune controlling our lives, and how does it seem to operate so disproportionately in some people’s lives and not in others? And the new piece, which I am tentatively calling The Open Hand, is a meditation on the nature of generosity and selfishness, and how they are two sides of the same coin. What’s common among these plays is that I find myself far more interested in the thematic opposite of what I initially begin researching. The Open Hand was originally going to be about selfishness, until I realized that generosity is a more interesting an dynamic subject to explore onstage. I like to turn this upside, but it usually takes me a while to understand what it is I’m writing—in other words, I write in order to understand what I think and feel about a subject, rather than beginning with a point of view.
Q: Is there anything that surprised you about the play after seeing it onstage? If so, did it lead to script changes or future character notes? Anything that will be tried for the first time at Riverside?
A: The experience of seeing your work onstage is always a surreal one. If there are playwrights reading this, they’ll know exactly what I mean when I say, it’s like watching a play in which you have written every single word that comes out of the actors mouth, but at same time you’re surprised by almost every word that comes out of the actors mouths. There is both a strangeness and familiarity operating at exactly the same time. And the feeling doesn’t seem to go away for me; and I hope it never does. It’s wonderful. It’s why I write plays and not novels. And of course, actors bring so much to the play that casting is always one of the nerve-wracking and bizarrely satisfying experiences—like a blind date that you anticipate being really awkward and then you get utterly charmed in spite of your own misgivings.
I’ve been making lots of little changes over the past two productions, and now little adjustments for the Riverside production. I get the rehearsal reports each night, and there’s a section for script notes. So Jody and I have been on the phone, talking through changes, and trying out little things in rehearsal I didn’t have the guts to try in the last production. Rehearsal is my favorite part of the process; it’s where I learn the most about the play.
Q: There are a good number of special effects required in this show (breaking glasses, leaking roof, fizzling light bulbs, etc) and some live animals. When writing the script, did you envision how these would be handled?
A: Well, I was certainly aware that I was writing a play that some producers would shy away from because of the production demands. But I find that people that like the play, understand why these odd things are happening, and so they see them less as “special effects” and more like another character in the play. So much of the tone of the play is created by this moments—but they don’t take up very much space on the page. I did my first play when I was sixteen years old (it was O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!) and I’m forty-six now. So I’ve been involved in some way or another with an average of 4 – 6 plays a year for the past thirty years. I hope that I didn’t write anything into the script that I couldn’t imagine solving in a production if I was directing the play myself. So yes, I tend to envision how the play is going to live onstage the whole time I’m writing it. I do a lot of standing when I write—I act little bits of business out, and I talk out loud when I type. I wasn’t really conscious of this until I finished a new play and realized my kids news what it was about before anyone had read it, because they’d overheard me repeatedly chattering the dialogue as I typed and retypes scenes over and over.
Q: If Sara and Tom weren’t forced together, would they still be a good match romantically?
A: I have a friend who can always find a parking spot right in front of the restaurant we’re going to, whereas, if I’m driving, I’m lucky if I find a spot within five blocks. They say, “I’ve got good parking karma.” I was thinking about this when I started working on Lucky Me. Why does good fortune and bad fortune seem to operate so disproportionately in some people’s lives, than it does in others. So I down really see Sara and Tom as being “forced” together. I put them together in the same room, because I knew they interaction would cause them to change the circumstances I had created at the outset of the play. I think audience members view characters as “people.” And playwrights view characters as “dramatic functions.” Each character must serve a purpose in the play. It’s why I’m always thrown by audience members at talk-backs who ask me things like, “Do you think they character will remain together [after the curtain falls]” or “What’s going to happen to so-and-so.” I just don’t think it those terms. I spend most of my time thinking about the character’s backstory, and then the rest of the time typing the dialogue, but I spend no time at all thinking about what happens after I typed “The lights fade. End of play.”
Q: Is it significant that Sara doesn’t have female relationships in her life?
A: I don’t really know. I’ve found that audience members place significance on different things. I didn’t consciously omit female relationships from her life, I just wanted to begin with someone who’s been fairly reclusive for much of her adult life, and along comes this guy who keeps knocking on the door wanting to be helpful. It’s interesting: in writing classes students are always told to create conflict. It gets drummed into young writers so persistently that I think they build up a complex and assume that conflict has to be this huge and tumultuous force in the play. The plays that I like are the ones that take the seemingly inconsequential details of our lives and render them a tension-builders, which is sort of the way it works in most people’s lives. It can be equally satisfying dramatically to generate conflict in that way. I think about what David Hare calls the “telling detail” about a character. And certainly one of the telling details is that Sara lives alone with her father. ♣
Robert Caisley is Professor of Theatre and Head of Dramatic Writing at the University of Idaho. His last play HAPPY enjoyed an National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere in the 2012-13 Season, playing at Montana Repertory Theatre, New Theatre (Miami, FL), New Jersey Repertory Company, 6th Street Playhouse (Santa Rosa, CA) and continuing on to Redtwist Theatre in Chicago. The Miami Herald hailed it as “90 wild and intriguing minutes!” It was nominated in 2012 as a Finalist for both the prestigious Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center New Play Conference and the Woodward/Newman Drama Award, it won the 2013 SOTA Award for Best New Play in Northern California, was a nominee for the 2014 San Francisco Bay Area Critics Circle Award for Best Original Script, and was named by Chicago Magazine as one of the “Nine Best Comedies in Chicago Theatre” this past spring. Other plays include: KITE’S BOOK: TALES OF AN 18TH CENTURY HITMAN (6th Street Playhouse), FRONT (now published by Samuel French, Inc.) and KISSING (New Theatre, Miami.) He is currently at work on a new play commissioned by the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, TN.