Friday, May 20, 2011

Joyce Van Dyke offers insights on 'Deported/ a dream play,' featured in tomorrow's Warm-Up Laps

BPT Alum, former Huntington Fellow, and award-winning playwright, Joyce Van Dyke, continues to develop her epic play, Deported / a dream play. Don't miss the free reading tomorrow featured in the Boston Theatre Marathon's Warm-Up Laps.

Anna Pattison: In an interview with artsake in 2009, you discussed how Deported / a dream play emerged from family history, improvisational workshops with actors, and collaboration with Judy Braha as director. I'm curious if you've continued to develop new plays using this more collaborative process, or does each of your plays call for its own artistic process? And if so, what other processes have you found beneficial in bringing a new play to life?

Joyce Van Dyke: The process of making this play was completely novel for me. I'd always been a very private writer. But this time I began working with a director (Judy Braha) and a company of actors with the idea of creating a play about Armenian genocide stories. When we all started meeting together there was nothing written down, nothing even conceived in terms of story, characters or style. The hope or dream or gamble was that the play would grow -- somehow! -- out of this collaboration, out of improvising, playing, talking and learning about the genocide. I had no way of knowing what might come of it or if it would develop into a play at all. When I look back now it feels scary but at the time it was exciting and gratifying to work that way. I think I embarked on this process in order to be able to write this particular play. I could count on being sustained by the company, and not have to be alone in my room with this subject.
After one improv I remember telling them that as the writer, I felt like I had to jump out of a burning building, and they were all my life net. But the time did come, unavoidably, when I had to go into that room by myself. I'm sure I'll try this process or something like it with another play because I loved it, although right now I'm writing a new play on my own. But I know I want to find new ways to collaborate in play-making -- it feels right, it feels true to what you're aiming for as a playwright, to be myriad-minded. Another kind of collaboration outside the theatre is involving other people in the development process through research and interviews, which is something I always do. I always interview people who know about issues, people, situations, places or professions in the play I'm working on. I've never been able to follow the "write about what you know" advice. I want to write about what I don't know. I've interviewed fashion models, bookers, geologists, photographers, oil company employees, mediators, politicians, historians, and interviewers. I love entering their worlds, and it becomes a platform for the play.

AP: As a playwright, I am particularly fascinated to hear about the stages of life -- or in some cases, new lives all together -- that a play undergoes. Deported/ a dream play was developed as part of the Huntington Playwriting Fellows program. It will now be presented as part of the Warm-Up Laps on Saturday, and will receive a full production in the forthcoming season here at BPT. How has the play evolved since you've last heard it? And what will you be looking for when you hear it read this week?

JV: The play will be produced next spring at the Modern Theatre in a coproduction between BPT and Suffolk University which owns the Modern. I am thrilled that it is going to debut there and with BPT's and Suffolk's backing. And I feel honored that Judy and the same actors who have been with this project from the beginning and who have made so many creative contributions to the play are going to give life to that production. We're still together! Deported has had several readings over the past few years and also a student workshop production as part of the BU School of Theater's New Play Initiative. All these outings were extremely valuable to the development and revision of the script. The play is epical (over 20 characters, a time-span of over 100 years), and it was very sprawly in earlier incarnations. By now it's much leaner, shorter, tighter, deeper. (I love British playwright Pam Gems' saying that what she's aiming for in her writing is "a smaller tip to the iceberg.") Also, I think and fondly hope that it's funnier. The play is not a grim genocidal spectacle, it has humor and lyrical aspects to it -- in many ways it's about life and love beyond the genocide. This Warm-Up Laps reading will be the first time I've had the chance to hear the newest revision in front of an audience. It was a major revision and I'll be listening for a lot of things: is the rhythm of the piece working? is the story getting told? can you hear/feel the harmonics, the overtones, between one part of the play and another? is this bit too long? what can I cut? -- all those questions that the audience can answer for you without saying a word.

AP: I admire your courage in writing about your own family story with respect to the Armenian Genocide in 1915. While "genocide" may describe what happened, the pain and truth are unspeakable. As a playwright whose principle tool is words, how do you find your way into the "unspeakable," especially when the "unspeakable" is your own birthright?

JV: There are a lot of visual elements in the play that touch on what is unsayable. But this is a great question, and an ongoing struggle. There is a compulsion to face the story. And there's a compulsion to avoid it. I avoided it most of my life, but it was always there. Paradoxically I had at times an enormous sense of happiness while I was writing this play which I attribute to a sense of release, freedom. That was completely unexpected. But writing the play was also an act of discovery of the enormous resistance I had to writing it. I thought when I'd finally screwed up my courage to immerse in this subject that it had required an act of will, and that was now behind me. But no. The decision, the act of will, was as nothing to the unsuspected power of denial in me. There I was writing about genocide denial and recognition as if I myself were in the camp of the recognizers. But day after day, every morning when I went back to work and reread what I'd written the day before I could see denial written all over it. I could see I was avoiding really looking at it even in the very moment when I was bending all my energy to look at it. The eye closes. The mind recoils. It's impossible to do otherwise. And I began to understand that I had to accept and forgive my own denials. I was writing about people who denied genocide, who were unable to face it, whether they were victims or perpetrators or witnesses, and I was one of them. This struggle is very much what the play deals with. The play is about being unable to speak, unable to tell, unable to make a story out of what happened and yet overwhelmingly compelled to tell the story and have it be heard by the world.