The Theatre Made in Paradise presented by FringeNYC 2016!
An Interview with Jonathon Ward
Indie Theater Now asked Jonathon Ward a few questions about his play The Theatre Made in Paradise.
What real person/event is the subject of this play, and why did you select this?
The subject of my play is the cultural clash of European, African and Wampanoag peoples at the end of the Elizabethan era as they meet for the first time in the Western Hemisphere. The characters in my play - an actor whose character is based on Nathan Field of the Globe Theatre, a woman who is married to the Puritan, an indentured servant who is from Africa, and a Wampanoag couple who live on Cape Cod by the Mashpee River - are pursued by a Puritan, who believes they are heathens and witches. Why did I choose this era? Because the European, African, and Wampanoag people then faced the same questions we do today: What stories do we tell about our lives? How do we find a way to tell stories with one language? How can theatre help us to reach that more perfect place some call paradise? What is that place and how do we get there? Indie theatre is the movement that has always enabled theatre artists to discover new stories and new ways to tell them as it makes innovative theatre in new communities. I want to take audiences on the journey theatre pioneers have been on since Elizabethan times.
What’s the playwright’s obligation as a reporter of fact? How do you figure out what’s actually “true” (or can you even do that)? Can stretching/shaping the facts ever be justified?
Facts are based on the material existence of people or things which justify our belief in the truth of them. However the further we go back in time or the farther we are away from the actual event, the less likely there is anything to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the facts are true. Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which uses parts of an actual sailor’s narrative of being shipwrecked on Bermuda, depicts the native Caliban in a way many Europeans first saw indigent people - evil heathens who had magical powers that had to be taken away from them. We know that the native people in what became America weren’t that. However in Shakespeare’s fiction, which he based on facts, Prospero exploits the natives and then sails off to Milan at the end of The Tempest. Shakespeare had no need to deal with the clash of cultures that ensued with the end of the Elizabethan era. Part of my responsibility as a playwright is take up the story where past artists left off and so in my play I create an historical romance from many different facts of the Elizabethan era. For example, we know that Nathan Field was an actor at the Globe, the son of preacher, a theatre person all his life, and a womanizer. He died in 1619 when the play takes place. But could he have “borrowed” gold from an aristocrat, faked his death, and escaped to the New World disguised as a Pilgrim to start his own theatre after Shakespeare and Burbage died? If I was an historian, it would be hard for me to do write that. But as a playwright, I want to deal with people struggling with the cultural clash which resonates through history to today. By using selected historic facts I can connect us to the history that might have been, which is my justification for stretching the truth. I believe that we repeat history because we simply believe it to be what we learned it to be, but if we believe it can be different, it will be so. The magic of theatre proves this facgt in The Tempest and in The Theatre Made in Paradise.
What kinds of research did you do in the creation of this play? What sources did you consult – books, movies, memoirs, websites, etc.?
I do a tremendous amount of research, which really never stops, even after the play is presented to the public. The collective grey matter – the “cloud” which our heads are all a part of – constantly contribute to a greater knowledge of what makes the play truly playable. However, before the presentation of the play to the public, I read and see all that I can about the subject. My original inspiration was the book Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt. But then the exploration into Puritan and Wampanoag culture and life, and the life of Africans kidnapped from their home kept going deeper and kept building on research that I’d done for other plays. I do much of the research on the internet. In addition, to exploring the subject through media, I visited actual places such as the Plimouth Plantation and the Wampanoag village in Massachusetts. I also talk with people and bounce ideas off them to see what entrances and entertains them, and I think about how I would be if I were someone in a different time and place. In other words, I search myself as I research the history that I am connecting to.
Did your feelings about this topic change as you created this play? If so, in what way? What did you learn about yourself in this process?
I had many different changes in feeling about the play. The women characters made a huge difference, when I expanded the play from a one-act to a full length. I can be a little obtuse in writing about women. It takes me a little while to understand what they want! Ha! But actresses who have read or workshopped the female roles in the play have been so helpful. Working with director Danielle Skraastad has further brought out the dynamic female spirit of the play that drives it forward. Also over the course of developing the play, knowing Mark Wing-Davey, who is head of the NYU Graduate Acting Program and an Englishman and actor, deepened my sense of how Americans have lost the English theatrical sense and created something new. These are just two ways that my feelings have changed through the process of developing the play. There are many, many more. Developing a play changes you forever or the journey is not worthwhile.
Is there a particular playwriting school/style/genre that you particularly subscribe to? If you had to describe the style of this play in just a few words, what would you say?
My interest in playwriting comes from my desire to depict ideas in action. I’m an idealist – not polemically but humanistically. We, humans, have brains that get filled with ideas over the course of our lives. We get them from our history, our family, our education, our religion, our nation, our commercials, etc. We put those ideas into action everyday throughout our lives and they shape our relationships with others. So the genre and styles that I use are determined by the ideas of the characters and events that I am depicting. In The Theatre Made in Paradise, some people’s heads are filled with Shakespeare, some with the Bible, some with Wampanoag divinity. How they pray, how they dance, how they express themselves are determined by the ideas that they put into action. So the style of the play is eclectic – part comedy, part farce, part historical romance, part tragedy, part history. It uses classical Elizabethan theatrical style to do the tempest, for example, but also contemporary indie theatre low budget story telling techniques.
posted July 31, 2016