Having the opportunity to stage a world premiere is always a gift. I’ve been lucky enough to direct workshop productions of two Pam Mandigo plays (Washed, Give Us Good), and one by TJ Young (Sperm Donor Wanted). At Silk Moth Stage, we’ve now produced two world premieres, and we’re only in our second season.
When Monica Cross sent me Wonder of Our Stage, a brilliant script about Shakespeare…and robots, I knew on first read that we had to do it. There’s something ineffably “mothy” about it—it has magic, it’s quirky, the language is powerful and crafted, and it has ample opportunities to use the audience.
I also could completely picture how it would play at Silk Moth. There were moments when I could imagine the balcony coming into play, which we hadn’t used much previously. I knew I wanted the Automaton to stand on the stump for “To be or not to be.” I had an idea that the top level of the porch could create the confinement of John Dee’s study, and that the story of the Automaton exploring the world could include them literally moving out into the yard, into the grass and the flowers and the trees.
This play just perfectly fit with what we do.
It also helped that Monica came out of the same graduate program that I did, although we were there a decade apart. I could see her thinking on the page, and understand the playing space and conventions she was responding to. By strange coincidence, the entire cast was from that grad program. This was never the plan, but it ended up being extremely fun. Between us, we spanned nearly 20 years of that program, since I started in 2004, and Cory is in his second year. I enjoyed hearing from the more recent graduates about how the program has changed over the years, and what is still the same.
The script invites actors to access both 20th/21st-Century acting techniques and 16th-Century ones in different moments. Working with actors who have access to those tools made capturing that nuance very easy. The moment when Ariel Tatum (John Dee) said in frustration, “It just…the hyperbaton of it all!” I knew we would get along famously.
Because it’s a new play and you probably haven’t seen it, here’s the synopsis:
Queen Elizabeth has a problem: She needs to get married, but she can’t marry one of her own subjects, and she doesn’t want to marry a foreign prince. So she goes to her court alchemist, John Dee, and commands that he solve this problem for her. He spends the next thirty years constructing a wooden automaton, which he convinces the queen to help him bring to life. Her majesty is furious about the idea of marrying a wooden doll. Dee hires Richard Burbage to teach the Automaton “how to be a man.” Hilarity ensues, and the Automaton quite literally invents himself as a human (and becomes Shakespeare).
The script is strewn with Easter eggs for those of us who know a bit too much about Elizabethan drama, but it’s easy to follow for people who don’t have that excessively nerdy background. It’s a funny, sweet, charming script, creatively constructed.
I loved working with each of these actors on their roles. Kara Hankard, who played the Automaton, had such a specific physical development from one scene to the next, and creating that path with them was a journey. We finally created a set of images from film and TV to draw from as they moved closer to humanity (and then I made this very limited-edition T-shirt graphic. The back says, “All the world’s a tour, and one droid, in his life, has many eras.”).
Cory Drozdowski and Robert Gotschall, as Richard and Cuthbert Burbage respectively, created a delightful brotherly dynamic. Monica commented that Robby found the heart in Cuthbert, and I saw that, too; it’s not immediately apparent in the script, but it’s there, and it rewards the actor who mines it. Cory’s take on Richard was a fascinating blend of wild child and mentor, playful and protective all at once.
As John Dee, Ariel Tatum had a challenging role to do, covering several decades of age, and a journey from delight in the new creation to full rejection of it. I was so impressed with how they mined the text for insight into how this character—who could not be more different from them—thought and functioned. Reducing Dee to a shouty, cranky, old man would be an easy choice, but Ariel gave him a journey and empathy.
Katherine Mayberry came in as a guest artist to play Queen Elizabeth. I’ve worked with her on many shows over the years, going as a guest artist to Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company, where she is the executive director. Having her come to the company I’m running was a fun reversal. I always love working with Katherine, and the energy, focus, and drive she brings into the space. One audience member commented on how she physicalized Elizabeth’s age at different points in the play, spanning ~50 years. Katherine did such a precise job of modulating her voice, center of gravity, and physical energy, that this audience member tracked it before the text mentioned the passage of time. I appreciated, as always, the way she wove multiple layers of intention and action into her scenes. She has an incredible ability to play specific intentions that are very different, maybe even opposite, right next to each other so that they shimmer from one to another. It’s what made her a brilliant Cleopatra, and I saw hints of that in her Elizabeth as well (which made it all the more delightful for me that the queen commissions Antony and Cleopatra in her last scene).
I also decided to play with Queen Elizabeth’s famous appreciation of the theater, and Katherine’s interest in the line between actor and audience (as well as create the opportunity for her to make a Regal Entrance later in the show) by having her watch the play from a throne at the back of the audience. It was kind of a challenge for her—she had to be on and in-character for an hour—but she later told us that she enjoyed watching everyone’s performances develop over the course of the run. I loved having this integration of actor and audience, so I’m glad she was game for it.
Our gorgeous costume design was by Rachel Herrick, who I have wanted to work with again for years (our last show together was Jordan’s Stormy Banks in 2015). I was thrilled when she said yes to us. Her costumes did so much to tell the story, and also were constructed with an eye toward the challenges of outdoor theater.
Audiences responded powerfully to this play. A number of people commented on how strong the performances were. One night, a bunch of people associated with American Shakespeare Center (and specifically our grad program) came. Having them in the audience was a hoot; they laughed in all the best places. Another night, we had a group from Our Community Place, who came thanks to a ticket accessibility grant from the Arts Council of the Valley. One of their clients was a long-time theater enthusiast, who sat right up front and was really involved. Another, a guy who looked like he was maybe a teenager, sat all the way in the back and seemed disengaged…until Kara’s blocking took her near him. When Kara looked in this person’s eyes and spoke directly to him, it blew his mind. I saw him talk to his neighbor excitedly, and then he moved to a closer spot where he could see better. One of my neighbors, an Old Order Mennonite man in his eighties, who literally did not know what a play was, came the first night out of curiosity, and then just kept coming. After the first performance ended, he turned to the person sitting next to him and said, “That was really good, wasn’t it?” He had no idea that that person was Monica Cross, who wrote it. I have a hard time putting to words how meaningful it is that somebody’s first play, after four score years on this earth, was this delightful romp on my porch-stage.
We also had our first reviews, which I’m very excited about. George Durfee came to see the show, and posted a piece on his movie review blog. My favorite quote: “If Cross’s play left me with anything it is that connection, collaboration, and ultimately the sweet reconciliation of being as we choose to be, truly is the Wonder of our Stage.” Dr. Peter Kirwan also reviewed the show on his site. I love how he saw what I was doing, and what Silk Moth is doing: “In the affecting performances of the five-person cast, Wonder of Our Stage made a powerful case for the very act of making theatre as the constant yearning towards becoming more human.”
Despite getting rained out both Sundays, Wonder was an unqualified success, artistically. I am beyond grateful for where Silk Moth is, at the end of its second season. I wish more people had seen it! We did have one sold-out night, thanks to the rain-outs shifting people around. Playing for a full house at Silk Moth was so fun; I wish we had that every night. But we’ll get there, and for now, I’m grateful for what it is, and what it is becoming.
If you are looking for smart, funny, quirky scripts, check out Monica’s New Play Exchange page. NPX is a great resource for reading and sharing new works.