ROUNDABOUT BLOG

Kingdom Come

 

Jenny Rachel Weiner

Jenny Rachel Weiner

Ted Sod: Please give us some background information on yourself: Where were you born? Where were you educated? When did you decide to become a playwright and why?

Jenny Rachel Weiner: I was born in Boston, MA but was raised in South Florida. The part of Florida I grew up in was filled with Jewish grandparents (including my own) who migrated south from New York, and because of this I always felt like a New Yorker in my soul. When I moved to NYC to attend the Fordham University/Primary Stages MFA in Playwriting program in 2012, I felt like I was truly returning home. Before that, I lived in Chicago, where I spent my time devising documentary theatre, teaching, and writing; before that, I studied at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa focusing on mask work, clowning, and site-specific theatre; before that, I attended Boston University, where I received my BFA in Theatre Arts. My parents actually met at BU, so beginning my artistic path there must have been destined from the beginning. I also became a playwright at Boston University. I began there as an actor and, as an eighteen-year-old, was steadfast and determined to remain one. During my sophomore year in a class called Theatre Ensemble, led by the inimitable Lydia R. Diamond, I wrote and performed a monologue from the perspective of a window that had shattered my childhood home, a product of Hurricane Wilma that, in 2005, wreaked havoc on Florida. After that class, Lydia pulled me aside. She looked me straight in the eye, and she said, “I don’t know if you know this, Jenny, but you’re a writer. You may not be able to see it yet, you may not be able to acknowledge it now, but I want you to know that you are a writer.” Lydia saw something in me that day, and although it did take me a couple of years to allow that path to unfold, I think that was the day that the beast was unleashed.

TS: What inspired you to write Kingdom Come? What do you feel the play is about? Does the play have personal resonance for you, and if so, how?

JRW: I wrote the first draft of Kingdom Come in a three day bootcamp at Primary Stages led by the brilliant Cusi Cram. She came to the room with leading questions, exercises to get our creative juices flowing, and in-depth opportunities to allow the inmost recesses of our imaginations and curiosities to be lured to the surface, giving us access to laden ideas and questions we had about the world, ourselves, and the people we dream about. I walked into that boot camp convinced I had nothing to say and nothing to write about. Once Cusi started asking us questions about the world of our play, the people who live inside of it, and what their greatest wishes, longings, and fears were, I tapped into the stories of Samantha, Layne, Delores, Dom, and Suz. I saw Carson City, Nevada clearly in my mind, I saw Samantha trapped in her body, Layne trapped in her mind, and the two of them finding genuine connection in each other. In my work, I am always aiming at finding the two-sided coin of humor and pain that live in our deepest truths, and this story became a vehicle for me to explore modern day loneliness, the ways in which we hide in order to be seen, and how social media has created a platform for us to curate the image in which we wish to be received. At the time, I had been going on endless Internet dates, constantly disappointed, as a stranger could never realistically come close to the perfect person in my mind. I witnessed firsthand the power of our imagination, of our greatest longing, and of the complicated, nuanced, and detailed projections we place onto other people. My best friend was also “catfished” the week before, which was simultaneously hysterically funny, deeply embarrassing, and painfully sad. This is a combo platter for me in terms of what kinds of stories inspire me to write.

TS:  What kind of research did you have to do in order to write it? What was the most challenging part of writing your play?

JRW: Once I did the first fast and dirty draft in the bootcamp, which has interestingly enough remained the spine of the play, I did actual research on the path, realities, and inevitabilities of life as a person who weighs 600 lbs, I went down the rabbit hole of others who had been “catfished,” and I spent some quality time on visitcarsoncity.com. I also listened to a lot of Billy Joel as I wrote the play, and one day just kept the TV on while I worked to get a sense of the daytime TV line-up. The most challenging part of writing this play has been trusting in my instincts that I know these characters intimately enough to let them fly. I think that’s the hardest part of writing any play for me: doing the research, laying the groundwork, setting myself up for success (enough sleep, water, light, and a great playlist) and then trusting in myself enough to be the vessel for the story to come through. That kind of trust comes with age and experience, and the more I write the more I feel myself tapping into the well of stories I desperately need to tell, allowing them to flow through me freely. The sneaky little roadblocks of fear and doubt like to rear their heads every once in a while, but I’ve learned to just let them hang out with me and show them that everything’s cool and thanks for their concern!

Jenny Rachel Weiner

Jenny Rachel Weiner

TS: Can you give us a sense of your process as a writer? How do you go about working on a play once you have an idea?  Was there a formal development process for this play?

JRW: My process as a writer shifts and morphs all the time, but the constant for me is letting an idea, characters, and a world incubate for a while before I actually sit down to write. This seems to contradict how I wrote Kingdom Come, but I think that story was actually present in me all along, I just wasn’t cognizant of it until I was prompted. Usually, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, with characters, with a question that’s been scratching at my heart. I’ll have a basic idea of what the play might be, I write that down, and then I let it have its way with me. I’ll spend months dreaming of the people in this world, I’ll find myself engaging in conversations and activities that take me closer to these themes (usually this is subconscious and I only realize after the fact), and I’ll jot down notes that feel pertinent or relevant to the questions I’m asking. Sometimes I read books that are connected to the topic. Sometimes I’ll go down an Internet rabbit hole of personal forums and user generated discussions to see how those are manifesting. Sometimes I just go deeper in my own psyche to investigate why I am so fascinated by this story. Once I feel like I’ve incubated enough, I’ll usually set myself up in a bootcamp or intensive, since I’ve found I get my best work done in a pressure cooker. Once I get a first draft done in that setting, then I spend months rewriting, tinkering, and continuing to explore, but this time moving forward from the play itself.

TS: Many of our Roundabout Underground audience members are millennials and have grown up with the digital age. What is it about this generation that intrigues you?  

JRW: My interest is two-fold: I have always been interested in liminal spaces, in the moments between the moments, and that’s where the connection between Layne and Samantha lives—in the spaces between the reality of their lives, where they get to be their best selves, their most excited, brave, emotional, inspired, and loving selves, without fear of rejection or consequence. I am also interested in the millennial generation (of which I am a part) and our relationship to perceived connection vs. actual connection. So much of our connection is falsely presented and superficially touched on because so much of our time is behind the privacy of a screen. I think the back half of our generation had the opportunity to lay the foundation for genuine connection because we didn’t have cell phones or email as kids, so during our formative years we were forced to interact in real life. I do, however, think that in the digital world we live in now, we are just as subjected to the beauty and benefits of a hyper-connected online world as well as the disconnection it can create. It’s in our makeup as human beings to want to connect to other people, and though we get the initial benefits online, that kind of interaction is lacking a fundamental depth. Currently in my work, and specifically in this play, I am exploring the relationship between our desire for connection and our fear of vulnerability.

Stephanie Styles and Carmen M. Herlihy (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Stephanie Styles and Carmen M. Herlihy (Photo by Joan Marcus)

TS: Do you sense there will be any major revisions during the rehearsal process? What precipitates revisions when you rewrite?

JRW: I am always startled by significant revisions in a rehearsal process because while they are inevitable, they usually take me by surprise. Going into rehearsal I feel confident about where the play is, but there is always more to learn, to tighten, to make clear, to unpack, especially once you get actors, designers, and a director in the room. Once I begin rehearsals, “the play is the thing,” as a wise man once said, and everything I do is in service of the thing we are making. Therefore, I cannot know what the rewrites will look like until I am faced with this ever-growing, ever-learning, ever-loving piece we are all making together. In my opinion, it’s the most beautiful part of the process: to trust in the play and in my collaborators, and to believe that the right changes will be made if I just listen and pay attention to what the play needs.

TS: Can you describe what you look for in a director? In casting actors for this particular play?

JRW: I have been incredibly lucky so far in my career to have worked with generous, loving, resourceful directors, who put the needs of the play above anything else. The most important thing I look for is a person who implicitly understands and accepts the play, a person who seems to inherently recognize the truths I am looking to unpack, the questions I am striving to ask, and is perhaps also asking those questions of themselves and their own work. I am also always looking for a director who has a facility with language, tempo, and humor since my plays tow the line between what’s funny about being a person and what’s heartbreaking about it. Similarly that’s what I look for in an actor: an ability to seamlessly move between lightness and buoyancy and the deep emotional stakes of being human.

Kip Fagan, Socorro Santiago, Alex Hernandez, Carmen M. Herlihy, Crystal Finn, Stephanie Styles and Jenny Rachel Weiner (Photo by Caroline Slason)

Kip Fagan, Socorro Santiago, Alex Hernandez, Carmen M. Herlihy, Crystal Finn,
Stephanie Styles and Jenny Rachel Weiner (Photo by Caroline Slason)

TS: Who are your favorite playwrights? How are you inspired as an artist?

JRW: My favorite playwrights range from Wendy Wasserstein to Sheila Callaghan, from Tennessee Williams to Tony Kushner, from Sarah Ruhl to Chuck Mee. I am drawn to writers who ask questions of us we never tire of asking, who make me belly laugh with their perceptive portraits of families, communities, isolation, matters of the heart. I am drawn to theatricality and moments of poetry amidst very real and very grounded circumstances, because I think life is full of those, and if we blink we might miss them. I am drawn to the people I see on the street and the lives I imagine they lead. I am drawn to personal life or death stakes that take us to exciting and dangerous places (and how there is a huge amount of humor in those moments). I am drawn to stories of complicated women, of Jewish families, of the millennial pace jutting up against our pre-programmed need to slow down and experience human connection. Since accepting my fate as a writer, I have become porous to the vast moments of inspiration that happen around me every day, and I have started writing down the things I see.

TS: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to write for the theatre?

JRW: Stay open, curious, and excited about getting it wrong. Lydia R. Diamond, my first playwriting teacher, told me once that we are writing the same play over and over again until we’re not. When she first told me that, I didn’t understand what she meant because my plays were so different from each other! How could a play about a lonely woman in St. Augustine searching for her daughter in her dreams and a cave full of people who are lost and looking for a way out possibly be the same? And how can the first two plays I ever wrote, worlds away from where I am now, be cosmically linked to Kingdom Come? Your plays are extensions of you, and they live and breathe and pulse to the unique rhythm of your soul. Nobody else in the entire world has the same perspective, questions, viewpoint, and voice as you do. So, go have fun! I’m giving you permission. Don’t worry about writing the “right” play. Don’t worry about your plays being bad. As long as you stay tapped into your personal vantage point and continue to be curious about all of the questions tugging at your hem, you will succeed. You will succeed in being you.

TS: What else are you working on now?

JRW: Almost all of the things I am working on are in the incubation period, so they would kill me if I talked too much about them. There are about four plays having their way with me as we speak, and I can tell you they range from beauty pageants to Nazi Germany to the politics of theatre sleep-a-way camp. I have just begun my first year at the Lila Acheson American Playwrights Program at The Juilliard School, and will be working on three new full length plays this year. This kind of opportunity provides me not only with hard deadlines, but with an advanced level workshop setting under the brilliant mentorship of Marsha Norman and David Lindsay-Abaire . For more info, you can check out my goings-on at www.jennyrachelweiner.com.


Kingdom Come is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Kingdom Come, Roundabout Underground, Upstage


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Kingdom Come: An Actor and a Suit

Posted on: December 8th, 2016 by Roundabout

 

Puppet Kitchen Production's detailed structure of the suit

Puppet Kitchen Production's
detailed structure of the suit

Samantha’s weight is integral to her character — it has isolated her, making the thrill of online connection that much more potent — but it isn’t the plot of Kingdom Come. It’s each character’s desire to connect, to stave off loneliness, that actually drives the play forward. To that end, costume designer Tilly Grimes has been conscious of creating a suit that supports, rather than merely signifies, Samantha’s character. At the beginning of the play, when the audience steps into the Black Box and comes face to face with Samantha (she begins the show onstage), the suit is, Grimes explains, “a spectacle.” But as the audience dives into the narrative, the spectacle “fades away.”

Creating a suit that can fade away is a feat of engineering and artistry, the result of much research, testing, trial, and error. Once actor Carmen M. Herlihy was cast in the role of Samantha, Grimes and director Kip Fagan discussed how best to create a suit that would look organic on her 5’2” frame — especially in the intimate 62-seat space of the Underground. Grimes and Herlihy had worked together on a previous show; using photos from that production’s costume fittings, Grimes began the rendering process. She drew on top of the photographs, sketching out where she could build on Herlihy’s own shape in a believable way, “scaling up” Herlihy’s own body rather than simply putting weight on top of it.

Original sketch of the suit

Original sketch of the suit

To figure out how exactly to scale up, Grimes and Fagan did visual research and watched many episodes of “My 600-Pound Life,” a TLC network show that follows real people preparing for gastric bypass surgery. In watching the show, Grimes was struck by the many ways that different people hold weight; some store fat in their bellies, others in their legs or thighs. Grimes and Fagan narrowed their focus down to a single woman who shared Herlihy’s small frame and began to model the suit off of her example. At each step, they had to consider not just whether Samantha could look a certain way (i.e., whether a 5’2” woman could weigh 600 pounds), but whether an audience would believe her appearance onstage. At the full 600 pounds described by the script, Herlihy’s head would be dwarfed by the rest of her body. With the budget constraints and up-close-and-personal space of the Underground, a face prosthetic wasn’t an option. Plus, Fagan and Grimes didn’t want to cover every inch of Herlihy’s skin; they wanted the audience to see her own face, her own neck, her own hands.

Ultimately, the suit’s representative weight is between to 490-510 pounds; a more manageable scale on Herlihy’s small frame. To show the team what the character would look like onstage, Grimes drew a 360-degree rendering of Samantha’s body, unclothed. She was conscious to include asymmetry, considering Herlihy’s own dominant side and how that would affect muscle growth and fat distribution on Samantha. Once Fagan and playwright Jenny Rachel Weiner signed off on the look, Grimes got to work on constructing the suit itself.

Suit construction

Suit construction

The first step was the underlying structure of the suit. Grimes brought New York-based Puppet Kitchen Productions onboard to help architect the scaffolding of the suit. The first layer of the suit, a bodysuit, is like a second skin. On top of that is a layer of articulated foam with a poly filling (like what you’d find in a support pillow). That articulated foam keeps the shape of the suit but must be able to condense when Samantha sits and collapse when she stands, with the plaster-like effect of real body fat. To help achieve this movement, the foam is covered in muscle-shaped areas that are filled with tiny (one millimeter in width) polyurethane balls. The pockets of balls (which Grimes affectionately calls “wobble bags”) move with Samantha and give the appearance of cellulite. The bags are placed along muscle lines to help define where fat actually sits on a body: along the lower part of the stomach, along hips, below arms, etc. The entire suit (which is actually four separate parts: a t-shirt-like top, a pair of leggings, and two arms) is covered in another layer of spandex. And it’s all washable – to accommodate 12-16 weeks of wear and tear through rehearsals and performance, the suit has been built for easy (or as easy as possible) maintenance. Though it’s machine-washable, it will likely be cleaned through submersion in a bathtub; it’s too large to wash in a regular machine. Over time, the poly beads will settle, so the suit will need to be massaged and refilled throughout the run to keep its original dimensions.

Grimes and her team will continue work on the suit throughout rehearsals, and they’re still testing a silicone treatment for Herlihy’s skin, to better integrate the suit and her own limbs. But right now, the bulk of the work has been passed on to Herlihy. The suit comes with two challenges: it’s light (only about 30 pounds), so Herlihy has to create the appearance of heaviness herself. And it’s hot. The character of Samantha is onstage for the entire play, so Herlihy will have to get used to spending long stretches of time in the suit without a break. To help with the heat, which will be amplified with stage lights, Grimes and set designer Arnulfo Maldonado have built a fan into Samantha’s onstage bed, and the suit includes pockets that can fit cooling packs. Some of Herlihy’s fittings have been two full hours – longer than the performance itself – so she already has a sense of the demands the suit will place on her body. And she’ll be rehearsing with the suit almost as soon as rehearsals begin, developing body and character as one.


Kingdom Come is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Kingdom Come, Roundabout Underground, Upstage


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Kingdom Come: Designer Statements

Posted on: December 3rd, 2016 by Roundabout

 

Set model for KINGDOM COME

Set model for Kingdom Come

ARNULFO MALDONADO—SET DESIGN
Kingdom Come to me is very much a rollercoaster of emotions — one minute you're laughing, the next you are struck by the severity of both Sam and Layne's loneliness and need to connect on an emotional level with someone, anyone. The dialogue is so fluid and natural, it grounds both of these women so vividly in their own worlds — you wholly connect with them even though you might not understand their motives at the onset of their interactions online. In designing the set, it was important for me to understand the architecture/styles of homes found in Carson City, Nevada and how the design of such houses would work with and against Sam's bedridden state. Since this woman is confined to her bed, it made sense to Kip Fagan, the director, and me to place her bed in the most communal space found in these homes, the living room (versus a bedroom). That lead me to look at hundreds of real estate listings from Carson City, and with many of these listings, the homes are not furnished — bare homes with little in them. This seemed key in terms of Sam's world: Her surroundings are purposely stark and minimal. A very large part of both Sam and Layne's worlds is found online, and it was clear that these sparse rooms would also help in creating clean canvases for their online personas to come to life.

This play has a particular pace in which transitions need to move quickly and seamlessly — a challenge, given the space and the numerous locations that Kingdom Come traverses. That said, Sam and her bed needed to feel grounded and permanent, so we decided early on to make the home be the basis for all these different locales, utilizing the various entrances/exits found in the home. The furniture of Sam's home could also then be reconfigured/rethought so as to guide the audience through the office at Layne's work, the cafe, etc. The Black Box Theatre is an intimate space, and by continuing the carpet of the home under the theatre seats, we hope to allow the play to breathe a bit more and to get that much closer to the audience. The advantage of a small space, coupled with the online world coming to life, is that it completely immerses one into the rabbit hole that is their online personas/lives.

 

TILLY GRIMES/COSTUME—DESIGN
The goal for me was to take the humanity and beauty of Jenny’s text and help lift it off the page, underlining it while still making all the characters look and feel very real in their clothes. Our first costume challenge was how to make Sam, an obese, housebound 30-something's weight feel real in the intimate space of the Roundabout Underground. After watching copious videos, and diving into the anatomical study of obesity, we were able to learn how various women “wear” their weight. We ended up modeling off of a woman named Bettie-Joe, whose 567 lbs. rested on a petite frame, and who had a comparable height to actress Carmen Herlihy. From there I started to draw a 360-degree sketch of Sam’s body as the body suit’s basis. As Sam is seated through the play, the way the suit moves presented a challenge. We brought the artists at Puppet Kitchen on board to help fabricate and finesse how the movement of the suit would shift from a seated to a standing position. We also brought makeup artist Dave Bova on board to finesse the edges of the suit so that we could blur the transition from the suit to the actress’s own skin. The insecurity of all the characters in Jenny’s play presents an interesting scale from a clothes perspective. The difference between the “peacocking” characters who parade their bodies around with “confidence” versus the quietness of those hiding in their body or clothes. I wanted to help us meet the characters of Suz, Dom,and Delores who social butterfly in with chatter and energy, while aligning Sam and Layne as the quiet centers of the world. For example, Layne and Sam are less clothing conscious. They are hiding: Sam in her weight, and Layne in her self-consciousness. Their shyness or resignation seems to want less saturated color. An invisibility. Dom, Suz, and Dolores, by contrast, all like to pay attention to how they look. They hustle and bustle in and out with confidence, implying a boldness. By using more color and graphic prints when they each arrive, they bring an energy to both Layne and Sam. This energy is echoed in Layne and Sam’s alter egos when they fantasize about who they could be. The intimacy of the Underground presents specific parameters. It was clear we had to approach both the body suit and clothes with the level of detail for film - making sure everything feels very lived in and real to honor and not crowd the rich characters Jenny has written.

 

THOM WEAVER—LIGHTING DESIGN
When I first read Kingdom Come, I found it truly surprising. There’s so much talk these days about our generational struggle with communication technology, but what’s lost in the hand-wringing is that we’re not less connected, we’re more connected than ever. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. I think this play explores the virtual world of relationships without the assumption that it’s always a bad thing. I didn’t have to do a lot of visual research for this production…I rarely do. That’s not typically my approach. A lot of my research was into the story surrounding Manti Te’o. Prior to that research, I’d never heard of “catfishing.” Looking back at the coverage of that story, I’m amazed at the tone of it -- the notion that what he did was stupid or gullible. I think what’s lost in that appraisal is that he actually loved this person, he actually felt a connection. It led me to ask this question: Perhaps the fact that the premise of the relationship was fraudulent doesn’t negate the connection itself? The technical challenge of this show is telling a big story in a tiny space. The other challenge is finding a visual language for a digital realm. It is not often we explore the physical space that our virtual lives inhabit. In working on this design, I have had to consider: what does that look and feel like?

 

 Carmen M. Herlihy and Crystal Finn (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Carmen M. Herlihy and Crystal Finn (Photo by Joan Marcus)

 

DARREL MALONEY—PROJECTION DESIGN
The projection design for Kingdom Come explores how the internet both connects and isolates, creating realities that can evaporate in a moment of doubt. When the play starts, the projections exist as two very separate and isolated images of two people’s computer screens. As the human connection grows, the images and ideas they are chatting about spread across the space and are no longer two separate ideas, but one singular image that takes us into a fantasy world. When the relationship becomes more intimate, the quality of the text we see projected subtly transforms and softens to simulate the psychological intimacy these two are developing. These glowing words on a screen become more human as the fantasy of each other begins to take shape. The animation of the words they are typing out wants to visually convey the emotional value they each put on them as they read these words, alone. The presentation of the text takes on a much more emotive quality than simply subtitling their words. When they are confronted with the reality of the relationship, the projections return to two separate and very isolated worlds, leaving them once again isolated from each other, the human connection broken.

 

DANIEL PERELSTEIN—SOUND DESIGN
The sound design of Kingdom Come has two main responsibilities. The first is to work with the scenic and lighting designs to help establish location; the second is to work with the video design to create a vivid world of the Internet. In some ways, these two responsibilities represent opposite extremes of the spectrum: one is a world of entirely literal sounds, and the other is a world of complete abstraction.

Because the scenic design for this production is a single set that needs to work for multiple locations, the sound design becomes a streamlined way of helping the audience identify each new location very quickly. The director, Kip Fagan, has created instantaneous shifts between locations, so the sound design involves a number of crisp signifiers to aid these shifts.

In Kingdom Come, the Internet is an imagined reality that the characters can escape to. The sound and video designs work together to color this space vividly and support the fantasies that they find in cyberspace. To create the world of the Internet, nothing is off-limits — musical textures, and any sounds we can imagine, become part of the palette. In this day and age, we all know the feeling of losing track of time, and losing yourself, in technology. It was important to me that sound capture this feeling and transport us, rather than being overly concerned with the specific, literal significance of any individual sound.

 


Kingdom Come is now playing at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.


Related Categories:
2016-2017 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Kingdom Come, Roundabout Underground, Upstage


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