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A conversation with Marcus Gardley and Nakissa Etemad

Posted: May 9, 2013 - 12:00am
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Director Aaron Davidman, left, playwright Marcus Gardley, center, and dramaturg Nakissa Etemad talk last week during rehearsal for Perseverance Theatre's production and world premiere of "the road weeps, the well runs dry."  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Director Aaron Davidman, left, playwright Marcus Gardley, center, and dramaturg Nakissa Etemad talk last week during rehearsal for Perseverance Theatre's production and world premiere of "the road weeps, the well runs dry."

“The first time I came here I felt, in a very beautiful way… like I was on a different planet. I got off the plane and I took the breath of fresh air, my lungs expanded and I saw the mountains, and I thought, ‘this feels like setting of the play.’ Because nature is immense here, you cannot live here and not respect and see and honor nature, and that’s at the core of the play. And even though the play had been selected to be here before I got here, I thought we really have picked the perfect place.” —Marcus Gardley

“the road weeps, the well runs dry” opened its world premiere run last weekend here in Juneau at Perseverance Theatre. The play, written by Marcus Gardley, combines myth, folklore, and history to tell the story of Black Seminole freedmen as they create one of the first all-black towns in the United States. Beginning before the Civil War, this epic play moves through 16 years of the town’s history. Gardley collaborated with dramaturg Nakissa Etemad on “the road weeps, the well runs dry,” and the two of them compare the relationship between playwright and dramaturg to that of a mother-to-be and a midwife. Etemad provided editorial and research support, as well as advocacy between the playwright and the rest of the artists on the project.

Last week, when Gardley and Etemad were in Juneau preparing for the opening of the show, I sat down with them to talk about the play, collaboration and working in Alaska.

AOH: Can you tell me a little about how you came to write “the road weeps, the well runs dry”?

MG: Toni Morrison is my favorite novelist, and I wanted to make an homage to her work. She writes about all-black towns so I started researching all-black towns and I came across Wewoka [Oklahoma] in an article that I read. I remember thinking, “My dad’s from Wewoka,” so I thought I should read more into it and ask him some questions. He was very standoffish about his history, the little that he knew. I started doing more research and I found a priest who did journal entries from his time in Wewoka trying to spread the message of Christianity to the Seminoles. The diary entry listed all of the names of the people that he talked to. So every character in the play is based on one of the names from this diary entry. I like to use cultural artifacts. If you think of a play as a recipe, there are different ingredients that I use that exist in the real world to make a fictionalized version of a real event. The play, in a lot of ways, is my attempt to seek out a past that I know nothing about, so I used themes and sub-plots from my own family story. When I was writing it, I was also obsessed with the idea of westerns, and [I wondered] what would it be like to have a poetic western?

AOH: How did you start working with Nakissa Etemad?

MG: I started working with Nakissa several years ago. I was a dramaturg, actually, on a series of short plays and she was directing. Her play was the one that didn’t really need me, and I just sat in and I liked the way she worked. She created a really safe place for the playwright and actors to work. I found out she was a dramaturg as well. I ended up having my play [“Every Tongue Confess”] produced at Arena Stage in D.C. and I asked her to come along as dramaturg, and we’ve been working together ever since.

AOH: And that is the play you did with Perseverance Theatre founder Molly Smith?

MG: Yes. So for us it’s really kismet to be back here. We were talking about [“the road weeps, the well runs dry”] when we were working on “Every Tongue Confess,” so everything’s come full circle.

AOH: Nakissa, as a dramaturg, where do you enter the creative process?

NE: Ideally, it’s from the ground up. Some of our most fun is riffing and brainstorming and being a sounding board. The key is to get in involved in the work, and get into the mind of the playwright. It’s really fun for me to be inside Marcus’s brain while he’s creating -- and tracking things. My father’s a rocket scientist, so I have a very analytical, logical structural brain. I often can help fine tune the timeline and get the years right -- the time period that would make it mathematically accurate. Marcus is someone who wants it to be accurate. If you’re creating a whole new world, you might as well make it real.

AOH: Marcus, what’s it like working with Nakissa?

MG: Most people assume that dramaturgs do research. The very good ones are “midwives.” They nurture the play and provide a foundation for the narrative, so the playwright can do the planting, growing, watering and the cultivating.

NE: Every dramaturg kind of has their own way. A lot of it is about personality and building relationships. I like to work with people and not just do the scholarly research. Being part of the rehearsal and talking to actors and being a sounding board for the actors. I’m interested in more than just the words and the history books. I love Marcus’s writing because [it has] poetry, spirituality, music, comedy, mythology and I can dabble in all those things.

AOH: How is a world premiere production different from any other play?

NE: I like to remember that classics all started out as new plays, so we’re building the new American classic together. The audience is a co-creator in the process of what that play is going to be. We listen to their responses, we can feel the energy in the room and it can affect moments in the play.

AOH: How is Juneau different from other places you’ve worked?

NE: This is a wonderful place for a piece of art to be created. It’s like an artistic retreat town, it feels like a safe home to start to raise your “baby” and that doesn’t happen in every town and every city. Perseverance is an incredible place to birth a play. We can experiment; we can test; we can try different things.

MG: The first time I came here I felt, in a very beautiful way… like I was on a different planet. I got off the plane and I took the breath of fresh air, my lungs expanded and I saw the mountains, and I thought, ‘this feels like setting of the play.’ Because nature is immense here, you cannot live here and not respect and see and honor nature, and that’s at the core of the play. And even though the play had been selected to be here before I got here, I thought we really have picked the perfect place. There’s a kindness here that is so genuine that doesn’t exist anywhere else I have ever been. And the stories people tell. If I hear three more stories about bears, I’m going to write a bear play. People are not interested in what you do, which is so refreshing, they’re interested in who you are and that’s part of that genuine kindness and so I hope this play can be a gift for the people who live here because they have given me a gift with their kindness.

• Amy O’Neill Houck is a writer and knitwear designer living in Juneau; she blogs at http://www.thehookandi.com.

Know and go

Marcus Gardley and Nakissa Etemad will be back in Juneau in the middle of the run of “the road weeps, the well runs dry.” Juneauties have two opportunities to meet and talk with them.

• Thursday, May 16, after the performance of “the road weeps, the well runs dry,” Nakissa Etemad and some of the cast will come back on stage to talk with the audience, get feedback and answer questions.

• Saturday, May 18 at 1 p.m. at the Downtown Public Library, Marcus Gardley and Nakissa Etemad will be talking about playwriting, dramaturgy and creative collaboration.

Tickets to “the road weeps, the well runs dry” are available through Hearthside Books, the JACC, online at perseverancetheatre.org or by calling 463-TIXS (8497). The play runs through May 26, with performances Thursdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. There is a pay-as-you-can performance tonight, May 9, at 7:30 p.m.

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